According to a recent New Yorker profile, the door
to director Oliver Stone’s office is decorated with the following
legend, courtesy of the Motion Picture Association of America: "Rated
R – for extreme violence and graphic carnage, for shocking issues/09/images,
and for strong language and sexuality." Quite a mouthful and,
while I haven’t seen NBK (as the film is coming to be known)
at press time, there’s little doubt, given the adult nature of Stone’s
past work and the film’s intentionally controversial subject matter,
that the rating is warranted.
It seems less likely, though, that the NC-17 rating slapped
on another new film, Kevin Smith’s independently produced Clerks, could be justified. For those of you unfamiliar with the NC-17
rating, it’s the post-1990 successor to the X-rating, designed to
prevent anyone under the age of 17 from seeing an NC17 film. Originally,
the NC-17 rating seemed like a great idea. It was designed to overcome
the stigma that was attached to the X-rating, which had become synonymous
in the public mind with pornography.
Initially, the X-rating was a legitimate symbol for films
that featured adult content, and two of the best films of the late
’60s and early ’70s – Midnight Cowboy and Last Tango in
Paris – were released with this rating. But ironically, when
the MPAA designed the original ratings system in 1968, it neglected
to register the X- rating. That meant that while a film had to be
submitted (with a sizable fee) to the MPAA for a G, PG or
R (following 1984, PG-13) rating, all distributors were free to
advertise their films as "X-rated."
|Peckinpah directs Bill Holden in The Wild
Once the porno industry latched onto the X-rating, many legitimate
theaters refused to show X-rated films, and mainstream newspapers
began refusing to run their advertisements. With their distribution
opportunities severely limited, and with pressure building from
religious and political groups, the studios stopped producing X-rated
films, effectively censoring filmmakers who wanted to make "adult"
(as opposed to pornographic) movies.
Cut to the late ’80s: a
variety of filmmakers were pushing the envelope of what was considered
acceptable to the American public. Angel Heart, directed
by Alan Parker, was given an Xrating and Parker was forced to recut
the film in order to see it released with an R. But both Peter Greenaway
and Pedro Almodovar refused to recut their films (The Cook, the
Thief, His Wife and Her Lover and Tie Me Up! Tie me Down! respectively), and they were released intact by independent
distributors, albeit with limited advertising and distribution possibilities.
While filmmakers had long
called for a new rating to distinguish serious adult films from
pornography, the breakthrough didn’t come until 1990, when one of
the major studios got into the act.
Universal Pictures was set to distribute Henry
and June, a steamy film about the relationship between writers
Henry Miller and Anais Nin, when CARA gave the film an X rating.
The director, Philip Kaufman, who was responsible for such acclaimed
films as The Right Stuff and The Unbearable Lightness
of Being, stuck to his guns and refused to recut Henry and
June. With millions of dollars at stake, and with the opportunity
to take a public stand for artistic freedom, Universal pressured
the MPAA into creating the NC-17 rating.
The glory, however, was
short-lived. Conservative groups quickly protested that the new
rating was no different from the old one, and threatened to boycott
theaters and studios that showed or produced NC-17 films. The old
restrictions quickly fell back into place: since Henry and June, not a single mainstream film has been released with an NC-17
Some independent distributors
got around the problem by releasing controversial films with no
rating at all, but now, as the independents are lining up for affiliations
with the studios, even that strategy is in danger. Miramax, for
example, reneged on its commitment to distribute the Martin Lawrence
concert film You So Crazy after it earned an NC-17 rating.
Now owned by Disney, Miramax has become an MPAA signatory and can
no longer release a film without the organization’s stamp of approval.
Back to Natural Born
Killers and Clerks. While Clerks will reportedly
be distributed intact, NBK – despite the warning of "extreme
violence and graphic carnage . . . shocking issues/09/images, and … strong
language and sexuality" – will not. Stone reportedly had to
tone down his film in several spots, most notably in a scene in
which a knife is seen going through a person’s hand and then is
removed as Stone’s camera zooms into the open wound. While it’s
hard not to agree that such a scene is gratuitous, it’s also hard
not to agree that an artist has a right to depict the world as he
or she sees it (NBK was cowritten by Quentin Tarantino,
who wrote and directed the grisly Reservoir Dogs, which featured
a ten-minute torture scene in which a man’s ear is cut off with
The case of Clerks is even more disturbing
because its NC-17 rating is reportedly based almost entirely on
profanity. This is also the case with You So Crazy, a concert
film which consists entirely of comedian Martin Lawrence’s standup
act. It seems unlikely that any amount of foul language could be
as potentially harmful to those under 17 as the infamous ear scene
in the R-rated Reservoir Dogs, a movie that made some not-usually-squeamish
adults I know physically ill.
Simply put, the present
system is flawed, the playing field is not level, and it reeks of
the same kind of censorship that has resulted in book burnings,
blacklists and labels like the Naziimposed Degenerate Art.
As long as major theater chains refuse to show films carrying
the NC-17 rating, the rating-system remains a form of censorship
that both studios and exhibitors should be encouraged to overcome.