Mark Harris says the MPAA should take a flamethrower to its ratings system, before it screws any more filmmakers

By Mark Harris
July 30, 1999 at 04:00 AM EDT

Behind the ratings fight over ”South Park” and ”Eyes Wide Shut”

Jack Valenti is defending the MPAA movie-ratings system again. You know Jack Valenti — he?s the guy who runs the Motion Picture Association of America, the guy they make fun of on the Oscars, the guy who has lately sounded more defensive than vintage Spiro Agnew. Jack Valenti has defended the ratings system for a long time; it?s what he does. When he started, ”South Park” creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone were not yet born, there was no such thing as ordinary hair gel, let alone the kind used in ”There?s Something About Mary,” and several words that now make the difference between an R and an NC-17 had not yet been invented.

Jack Valenti defends the system thus: 1) It?s better than governmental regulation; 2) Surveys show that most parents find it no worse than ”fairly useful”; and 3) Shut up, you idiots — if you criticize the system, you?re either a Constant Whiner, a member of the cultural elite (like this former Presidential hobnobber-turned-Hollywood bigshot isn?t?), or, as he charmingly labeled both Parker and Stone in a recent interview with EW, ”hairballs.”

As to point 1): Yeah, but so what? It still stinks. As to point 2): Wow. Ringing endorsement. And as to point 3): Jack Valenti needs a very long vacation, and his ratings system needs a very big overhaul — in fact, someone should take a flamethrower to it (an R-rated concept) before it screws (an NC-17-rated concept) any more filmmakers, or effectively forces the marring of any more movies.

Critics have always loathed the MPAA?s Classification and Ratings Administration (CARA) for its caprice and hypocrisy. It swoons with Church Ladylike horror at sex, but lets violence fly by, an attitude that holds over from its birth year, 1968, when what was then called ”the Establishment” was far more hysterical about free love than about Vietnam. It hairsplits unto dementia — every filmmaker has a rueful story to tell about the number of F words that divide a PG-13 from an R, or about the precise degree of pelvic movement allowable in a relationship between a young man and an apple pie before it becomes NC-17. And CARA conducts its meetings in secret — no board member is publicly known, or answerable to anything but his or her own whim. That?s right, folks — there is a higher standard of privacy for the raters of ”Big Daddy” than for the members of the Supreme Court of the United States.

Every so often, outcry over this stupidity reaches critical mass. It happened in 1984, when complaints over violence in PG-rated movies resulted in the interposition of PG-13 between PG and R — not a bad decision at all. It happened again in 1990, when complaints about the taint of an X rating for non-pornographic movies spawned the NC-17 — a terrible decision that kept the stigma but changed the letters of the alphabet that signified it.

Now, again, on several fronts, clamor is peaking, and Valenti is shrieking. Warner Bros.? decision to digitally deface 65 seconds of Stanley Kubrick?s ”Eyes Wide Shut” by layering objects and bodies over portions of an orgy sequence has resulted in scathing letters from both the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and the New York Film Critics Circle, condemning not only the studio but the ratings system that made violating a brilliant director?s final work necessary in order to avoid (let?s call it what it really is) an X rating.

And smaller-scale movies suffer countless indignities. ”Twin Falls Idaho”, a low-key, hushed film about conjoined twins, one of whom falls in love with a young woman, recently had its trailer refused for general audiences by the board. Why? Because it showed the woman in bed with the man who loved her — and since his attached brother was also in bed, the MPAA?s ad judge decided that the scene counted as three-way sex.

Film critic Roger Ebert, writing a sharply reasoned response to Valenti?s latest screed in Daily Variety, has called for the creation of an A (as in Adult) rating, to be placed between the R and the NC-17, where it would function as what he calls an ”advanced R,” the way a PG-13 is an advanced PG. It?s a fine idea that deserves swift support not only from Valenti but from studios, which should announce their willingness to release such movies; from newspapers, which should accept advertising for them; from theater-chain owners, which should show them; and from video stores, which should stock them.

But more changes need to be made, starting with a reformation of the Star Chamber secrecy of the ratings board. These are people who attempted to ban anyone under 17 from seeing the subtle, mournful French film ”The Dream Life of Angels” because of a brief, non-explicit sex scene, but who think it?s perfectly okay for an 8-year-old to go see ”Natural Born Killers” or ”8 Millimeter” as long as his older brother is sitting next to him. Moviegoers — especially parents — should have the right to know who?s making these oh-so-helpful decisions for them. And if Jack Valenti can?t see that, then perhaps it?s time for the job to go to someone who?s interested in making the system work, not just in making it work his way.