Controlling what gets in Hollywood's movies still key

June 15, 1999|By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON -- I admit it's been a while since I was last carded. I don't even need a birth certificate to get into an AARP meeting anymore.

So I have no personal gripe against the new requirement that young moviegoers show picture IDs for admission to an R-rated movie. But I do have trouble giving the movie industry a standing ovation for this lame response to the national outcry against violent entertainment.

In the wake of Columbine High School shootings, the nation has focused on media mayhem. Even the president has finally bitten -- well, nibbled -- the Hollywood hands that fed his campaign coffers. We've had more panels and debates about Hollywood than premieres. Now, with enough hype to rival the new "Star Wars," major theater owners have announced their new plan: They're actually going to enforce their old ratings code.

This is a bit like meter maids announcing they'll enforce parking laws. Isn't this what they're supposed to do?

Of course, my tepid response is due partially to my deep respect for teen-age ingenuity. I never underestimate the ability of a kid at a cineplex to buy "Midsummer Night's Dream" and sneak into "The Thirteenth Floor." In any case, the teen who is banned from "Payback" at 13 can see it on video at 14 and on cable months after that.

Violence meter

Moreover any "solution" to enforce movie ratings is only as good as the ratings. If the goal is to protect kids from constant exposure to violence, what exactly is the relationship between the G, the PG, the R and the GV (Gratuitous Violence)?

For 30 years we've accepted the movie industry's own voluntary measuring stick. Movies are rated by a rotating panel of some dozen anonymous parents who watch 400 to 500 films a year. They compute nudity, sex scenes, profanity drugs and violence.

This composite has led to some strange results. Remember back in the 1980s when "Rain Man" got an R and "Conan the Destroyer" got a PG. Today "Shakespeare in Love" and "The Matrix" have the same R. Go figure.

Rating is more or less a numbers game. For example, one expletive gets a PG, more than that gets an R. A producer who gets an unwanted R-rating can go back to the editing room, take out a couple of excess swears, a set of bare breasts and a bullet or two and come back for a PG.

The scoring system is disconnected from the criteria that researchers use to define "harmful violence." That's violence that poses three distinct threats to public health: It teaches viewers how to behave violently, it desensitizes them to the harmful consequences, and it makes them more afraid of being attacked.

As Ed Donnerstein who studied media violence at the University of California at Santa Barbara says, "It's the context, not the graphicness that's important."

It's not the "Private Ryans" that do the most damage. It's the movies in which force that goes unpunished is portrayed as justified, and shows no realistic pain or harm. Mr. Donnerstein says we shouldn't be counting bodies but asking, "Is this material saying violence is OK, you won't get punished, it's OK if you are angry?"

By focusing on ID's for the under-17 crowd and for the R-rated movies, the industry is suggesting that the PG movies are OK. But under the "harmful" criteria test, some PGs may be even worse for young children.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the age divide, the ID requirement implies that anyone over 17 is unaffected by violence. Remember the study showing how sexually violent films desensitized men to rape? That was done on college students.

Coming of age

As someone who has long resented the misuse of the term "adult movie," I'm not at all happy with any "solution" that labels violence "for adults only." The rites of passage to adulthood are now defined by card-carrying access to alcohol, tobacco and big screen mayhem. What message does that send?

This industry offer is designed to help the studios more than the kids. It's fine to control who gets into the movie theater, but it's better to change what gets into the movie. This time, let Hollywood come of age.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 6/15/99

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