Monday, July 25, 2005

The MPAA Rating: What It Is, What It Isn't . . . & Why It Can't Be Trusted

Well known scenario:
Teenager (say, 14/15) is at a friend's house. They want to watch a movie. Kid calls home.
Teen: "Mom, I'm at ____'s house and we want to watch CHANGING LANES."
Mom: "What's it rated?"
Teen: "R"
Mom: "No. What else is there?"
Teen: "THE NOTEBOOK"
Mom: "What's that one rated?"
Teen: "PG-13"
Mom: "Well, you're over thirteen. I guess that sounds fine."

. . . Now, I'm not saying that this is your mom, but we all know a lot of parents like this, don't we?

Let's take a look at these two movies, shall we?

CHANGING LANES is Roger Mitchell's fast-paced drama about two men (played by Ben Affleck and Samuel L. Jackson) who miss their respective critical deadlines due to a car crash. They spend the rest of the day trying to mess up the other's life in an attempt to fix their own, at the end of which they've made their own situations worse, to the point of losing everything they hold dear. However, both characters are constantly developing throughout the film and by the end of it they've both learned a bit about honesty, forgiveness, and anger management.

Why the R rating? Language. Several non-sexual uses of the "f" word to be exact (although there is some less offensive language as well).

Violence? There's a car crash, Jackson's character hits two men with a telephone receiver (resulting in a cut on the head but no one seriously injured) and a second car crash, with minor injuries, when Jackson's character vindictively removes the lug nuts from Affleck's car. Is the violence ever condoned? No; you can't take justice into your own hands; you can't play God. If you do, you just mess your own life up more than your enemy's.

Is there any sexuality? We find out that Affleck's character has had an affair with a co-worker in the past; no flash-backs or steamy dialog, just a reference recalling the fear of getting caught and comparing it to his present dilemma. We also see the two of them almost kiss, after some really brief nuzzling, but they're interrupted (and they're in public, so we know it wouldn't have turned into anything); this scene is viewed as another mistake that Affleck makes throughout the day, not as something to be condoned.

All in all, an awesome and thought provoking film about the value of honesty, sacrifice, forgiveness, and the courage to do what's right, regardless the cost. Well needed messages in today's confused world.

Now, let's have a look at our PG-13'er which Mom has just decided is O.K. for her teenager (he's over 13, right?).

THE NOTEBOOK is Nick Cassavetes' dramatization of Nicholas Sparks' book by the same title and is rated PG-13 by the MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America) for "some sexuality." An elderly woman in a nursing home, and suffering from Alzheimer's, is visited by an old man who reads to her from a "notebook". He tells the story of two teens from different sides of the tracks who fall in love over a summer vacation. It then follows them as the girl (Allie) is whisked away by her rich parents because the boy (Noah) is not deemed economically acceptable as a potential in-law. Finally, years later and just in time to save her from marrying the wrong guy, they are reunited. (WARNING: plot spoiler here) We later learn that the old man and woman are Noah and Allie. Even though she only remembers who he is for spans of about five minutes every couple months, Noah remains with her, keeping her company every single day. He reads to her their story in the hopes of helping her remember who she is, and who he is.

Touching though sappy, right? I can deal with sappy, but there's more to this apparently sweet movie than meets the eye. . . .

"Some Sexuality." What did the MPAA mean in this instance when it said "some sexuality"? Note, it didn't say "sexuality," which would hint at there being a fair bit of it, but rather "some" sexuality, implying that, although there are instances of it, it's not that pervasive and probably not that explicit, right?

Let's look at what the MPAA considers "some sexuality." Noah and Allie realize that the end of the summer is coming and that they are going to be separated. Devastated, they begin passionately kissing along the side of the house, Noah also can't seem to keep his hands to himself. They then decide to find a more private place and finish the job. After making their way to an old abandoned house and exchanging promises, they engage in some of the most steamy PG-13 foreplay I've come across. As pluggedinonline reviewer Rhonda Handlon says, and I quote:

[Noah and Allie] engage in totally nude foreplay. Calculated positioning of arms, legs and the camera, along with the low light, obscures both bodies' most"delicate" parts.
The only reason it doesn't go any further is because a friend barges in on them. Later, after Allie and Noah are re-united after years of her parents deceptively keeping them apart, they actually consummate their romance (though still unwed, I might add). Again, as Rhonda Handlon frankly notes :

a two-day love affair that, because of its fiery intensity and just-shy of explicit nudity feels like it lasts at least that long onscreen.

Noah also takes a mistress (before he and Allie find each other again, so that makes it O.K., right?) and we see her nude back from the waist up as she gets out of bed, implying that they've had sex.

Now, that's just the gritty details regarding the sexual content. Never mind the rest of the film's twisted message. The relationship between Noah and Allie consists of perpetual highschool flirting and expressing "love" by total abandonment to the sexual appetites without any true commitment. The relationship is selfish, with both just trying to get the most out of it in terms of emotional affirmation.

So, what then is the MPAA system worth? Why is it that CHANGING LANES (although its violence is minimal, its sexual content nonexistent and its messages wholesome), is rated R while THE NOTEBOOK with its "just-shy of explicit nudity" is PG-13, and with a description of "Some Sexuality" no less?

The reason is that the MPAA system is based on helping Hollywood make money, not on informing parents as to the true nature of the films their kids might be watching.

Most of the raunchiest, sexually tantalizing films offered to the general public are PG-13. Why? Because it encompasses the greatest number of viewers. Most movie-goers are highschool teens and young adults, demographically speaking. This means that, if a director wants to make some serious money, he has to appeal to that age group, AND they have to be allowed to rent or buy a ticket for his movie. A kid can't buy a ticket for an R-rated movie if he's under 17 unless he's accompanied by an adult. So, the trick is to stuff as much innuendo and flesh into a film without getting it an R-rating, while still appealing to the more mature tastes of older adults in terms of plot. That way, tickets are bought and the raging hormones of adolescents are tickled just enough to keep them coming back for more, and you still haven't lost the older end of your marketing targets.

Low, but true. It's not usually the subject that determines a film's rating, but rather a few very specific details regarding precisely what is seen or heard, and even that is constantly creeping.

For instance, you can cram in just about as much sexual activity as you want (including audio, I might add) as long as you don't show full frontal nudity (male or female). However, you CAN show a woman's breasts, ALL of them if you only do it a couple times. Regardless of what they're doing, as long as Adam and Eve have their fig leaves, a thirteen year old can buy a ticket, unattended.

Further, you can put in as much sexual innuendo and give a kid an entirely new and expanded vocabulary as long as the "f" word is used no more than one and a half times, once if used sexually.

Although R rated movies tend to have stronger language (i.e., the "f" word more than 1 and 1/2 times) and it is true that they can (and many do) contain explicit sex, the line between a PG-13 and R is not as bold as most people think. Most of the time, if you want a serious film with a subject worth gnawing at, you're going to find it in an R, not a PG-13er. In fact, many directors who want their films to be taken seriously purposely include content that will get them an R rating (such as more than 1 and 1/2 uses of the "f" word, or a little more violence). They understand that often the PG-13 is seen as a mere money maker aimed at kids and if they want adults to take them seriously it had better be R.

Now, I'm not saying that all R-rated movies are good and wholesome; I can name several right off the top of my head that aren't: American Pie (1 & 2), The English Patient, Jerry Maguire, etc. But my point is that just because it's R doesn't mean it's bad, and just because it's PG-13 doesn't make it appropriate for teens (The Notebook, Just Married, Legally Blonde, Maid In Manhattan, Two Weeks Notice, My Best Friend's Wedding, How To Lose a Guy in Ten Days, Titanic . . . and the list goes on and on). Further, in many R-rated films, you may have an explicit sex scene, but then it's done; sex isn't necessarily the theme of the movie as it usually is for a PG-13. You might have to hit the skip button, but chances are you'll only have to do it once as opposed to a PG-13 where the next piece of crass innuendo and strategically covered intimacy is just around the corner.

I'm also not saying that all PG-13's are raunchy. Some aren't and many I would recommend to older teens because of their wholesome message and tactful handling of the more sensitive aspects of life (Batman Begins, Life Is Beautiful, Lord of the Rings, Jurassic Park, I Am Sam, K-19: The Widowmaker, and several more).

What I am saying is that the rating system is pretty much irrelevant, and I'm not just talking about R and PG-13 here. Take a look at PG.

PG suggests that there may be some material that parents would object to for kids 13 and under. This usually refers to violence, imitative behavior and language, and some veiled innuendo. Let's see what the MPAA considers "probably appropriate" for a child under 13 but say, over 7 (the usual range of PG viewers):

STAR WARS: EPISODE II -- ATTACK OF THE CLONES. After Jar Jar Binks and cute little Anakin Skywalker from Episode I (not to mention all the action figures, lunch boxes, bed sets and bookbags from Episode I), you would reasonably assume that Episode II, also rated PG, would be geared towards kids, right? Teenagers Anakin and Padme roll around in the grass and end with her on top, but they're clothed, so that makes it alright, right? Padme shows some fairly hefty cleavage in the fire-lit den as Anakin obviously struggles with his hormones, but she tells him that "we mustn't do it, Anakin," so that makes it appropriate for 7 to 12 year-olds, right? Not to mention that we briefly see some scantily and provocatively dressed women as the Jedi chase someone through a night club. PG? Suitable for most seven to twelve year-olds?

SHREK: Several uses of "butt" and "ass" and numerous sexual references, including an introduction of Snow White that states that, "although she lives with seven other men, she's not easy." 7 to 12?

SPY KIDS: Little respect for parental authority and at least one instance of "Oh shi(pause)itake mushrooms," with every kid in the theatre snickering at the obvious language reference. Not to mention a fair amount of crude bathroom humor.

THE PRINCESS DIARIES: Several instances of "shut up," "freak," and "idiot," along with teen romance and kissing (we're not talking a quick peck either). Under 13 O.K.?

MY BIG FAT GREEK WEDDING: Granted, most of the people watching this were in the PG-13 targeted age range, but it still got a PG regardless of its front seat kissing montage that keeps escalating as it goes, fair amounts of provocative cleavage, subtitled mention of the male fig-leaf area, slang term for a woman's breasts, the statement that Greek women are "tigers in the bedroom," and the fact that Ian proposes to Tula IN BED after they've obviously been fooling around (at least) and he then kisses her, in a position that suggests more will happen after the scene cuts, but she has pajamas on and he's in shorts, so it O.K., right?

Unfortunately, even G (General audiences) can't always be trusted. Films often have a fair amount of bathroom humor and even sexual references, such as the scantily clad dancers in ALADDIN, or Simba and Nala rolling around (with him ending up on top) in THE LION KING; if they were people and not animals, it would be PG-13--or at least we hope--But they may as well be human since their characters act human, complete with emotions, consciences, reason and humor.

When it comes down to it, the MPAA rating system just can't be trusted to give parents a well informed notion of the appropriateness of a film for their child, period.

So what do we do? How does anyone know if a film is appropriate or not?

First, disregard the rating. Just because it's R doesn't necessarily mean it's bad and just because it's G doesn't mean it's harmless.

Secondly, look at the film's actual content to decide it's appropriateness. A really good site, although I would recommend it mostly to parents because of its frank assessment of sexual content, is screenit.com Just go down to the bottom of the opening page that asks you if you want to subscribe to a special edition of the site (which costs money) and click "No Thanks." You'll then be directed to the site itself, with all the reviews for practically every movie ever made, free. The only draw back is that, unless you're a paid subscriber, you can't get the review for new releases until they've been in the theatre a couple days.

As a final note, I would encourage viewers to look at the film's over-all message, rather than just its language, violence, or sexual content when discerning the appropriateness or value of the movie. There are many good films out there that have a bit (or a lot) of language or violence, some sexual references, or even a scene or two to skip, that all in all have very good messages and which I would recommend to older teens with the maturity to use the FF button or the common sense to not repeat every piece of vocabulary they hear. Inform yourself as to the film's specific content and use good judgement. Don't rely on the MPAA one way or the other. It's so arbitrary that it's next to useless.