Nc-17 Rating Is Rated 'Rd': Really Dumb

October 07, 1990|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

You're Phil Slyme and you're the president and chief operating officer of Sprocketscum Films Ltd., a low-end outfit operating from a warehouse off La Brea Avenue near Melrose. You specialize in that weird zone between soft and hard porn, between soft and hard violence. You're always walking the razor's edge between R and X.

Walking it? Hell, man, that's where you live! In your time, Phil, you've killed more starlets than any other producer in Hollywood . . . and in more ways. There was the jackhammer in "Road Gang From Hell" and the dentist's drill "Oral Hygienists From Hell" . . .

Anyway, you've got problems with the upcoming "Space Freaks." You hired a kid out of film school to direct it and you're already behind schedule because the snippy little monkey insisted on . . . a morning of rehearsal!

Phil, your ulcer is kicking up, you're eating Tums by the bucketful, you haven't slept in days, it's getting harder and harder to find industrial-grade Karo syrup to stand in for blood . . . and the whole world is slipping away.

You need a miracle.

You need a godsend.

You need . . . NC-17!

*

The Edsel. New Coke. Betamax. Laser disks. Uptown cigarettes.

Yes, that's the honor roll of really dumb ideas on which the Motion Picture Association of America's NC-17 must take its proud place in the pantheon of human folly.

Meant to ensure the sanctity of art, it will instead ensure the sanctity of trash. It will lead to an inevitable coarsening of the American cultural milieu; it will turn movie theaters into sinkholes.

Like oh-so-many a majestic idea, an idea offered by self-appointed do-gooders, dreamers and other worthless people, this one is poorly thought out and will almost certainly have exactly the opposite effect than is intended. It will encourage filmmakers to descend toward the pit; sex will get dirtier, violence will get more graphic. Movies won't get better.

Here's the theory of NC-17:

The MPAA's rating system geared up in the late '60s, as the baby boom reached the moviegoing age and movie subject matter turned inevitably more "adult" as it grappled with the complexities of the Vietnam War, drug culture, the upsurge in sexual liberty and so forth. As first constituted, the ratings included four categories -- G for General audiences, meaning that anybody could attend; PG for Parental Guidance (originally M for mature audiences), meaning the material contained elements that parents ought to consider before allowing their children to attend; R for Restricted, meaning that children under 17 could only attend with an adult; and X, meaning that children could not attend under any circumstances.

These were amended in 1983, when it became clear that a category was needed between PG and R, in the wake of such intensive film experiences as Steven Spielberg's "Poltergeist," for which many parents felt unwarned by the meek "PG" rating. Thus, in answer to a mounting storm of hostility, the Association came up with PG-13, which strongly warned parents that only kids over 13 should be allowed to attend.

But at the same time, the "X" rating was being undercut by the film industry's evil twin, the pornographic film industry. Since of the four (later five) categories, only the G, PG (later PG-13), and R were copyrighted, the X rating was free for appropriation for all and sundry, and the porno merchants moved quickly to make the symbol their own.

In the early days, it was possible for a film like "Midnight Cowboy" or "A Clockwork Orange" to be released as an X, and both movies, in spite of their content, drew excellent reviews and made considerable money. But by the mid-'70s, the porn industry had all but co-opted its own version of the X rating, proclaiming its films "Triple X," or "hotter than X." In so doing, it tarnished forever the mark of X.

At the same time, signatories to the National Alliance of Theater Owners code agreed not to run X-rated pictures. And many media concerns, beginning with the New York Times, decided not to advertise X-rated pictures. (The Sun does, but the ad cannot contain display material.)

Thus not only had X been hopelessly mixed with the porno industry, it also incurred a heavy financial penalty. The X had, in fact, become a weapon -- though MPAA official policy calls the categories mere classifications, devoid of judgment.

Take "RoboCop," for example. Originally rated X for extreme violence, the MPAA's decision was of such magnitude that it caused director Paul Verhoeven to recut his film, leaving only shards of the original explicitness; another film recut at MPAA insistence was Brian DePalma's "Scarface."

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