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The Motion Picture Association of America: Natural Born Censors?

The Motion Picture Association of America: Natural Born Censors?

Articles - Directing

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."

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.

Woody Harrelson, interviewed by Robert Downey,

Jr. in NBK, Oliver Stone’s new "satire" on


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.

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