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All Sussed Out

Scalping the MPAA

By Ben B. Chung, Crimson Staff Writer

Unless you somehow chance upon the grislier works of Pier Pasolini in the coming years, Kill Bill: Volume One will be the most violent film you ever see. The squirmy ear-carving of director Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs was but a light appetizer to Kill Bill’s sanguineous mound of beef tartar. Countless appendages are whittled off from their previous proprietors, who all too frequently remain alive long enough to writhe about, expelling their share of the hundred gallons of fake blood Tarantino supposedly utilized for in the film’s production.

The general effect is fairly comic, though Tarantino occasionally pulls the violence down from its warped Looney Tunes universe and throws it into the grime of sober realism. But regardless of tone, it’s difficult to believe that a movie so thoroughly saturated in bloodshed could waltz away with no more than an R rating. Tarantino has gotten away with murder, or, at last count, 102, once again seriously calling into question the legitimacy of the MPAA’s current rating system.

The MPAA Rating Board consists of twelve elderly coots whose only qualifications, according to the MPAA website, are “a shared parenthood experience,” “an intelligent maturity” and “the capacity to put themselves in the role of most American parents.”

Having avoided the moral-less existence of single parenthood, the members are given full reign in assigning ratings. Their responsibility is to serve American parents, so they can “decide what movies they want their children to see or not to see.”

The subjectivity of MPAA ratings has been compared by their defenders to the nutritional labels on food packaging. But the difference is clear; after all, there’s no pimply 17-year-old standing at the checkout line, declaring that you can’t buy that package of Ho-Hos because you’re three times your target body weight. Waiting in line last Monday to see the abomination that was Intolerable Cruelty, I was held up by a ticket ripper who wouldn’t let a teenager get into Lost in Translation, despite the fact that her nearby mother was insisting she could see the film.

The movie is indeed rated R for “some sexual content,” in scenes which I can’t recall amidst the extraordinarily life-affirming platonic relationship shared by the two protagonists. But the issue here was that a minimum-wage theater employee had taken the power of determining a child’s exposure to art from the hands of a parent and into his own. The Rating Board had fallen short yet again.

The R rating has been given this year to movies such as The Erotic Misadventures of the Invisible Man and MTV’s The Real Cancun, which slipped away from an NC-17 rating despite several portrayals of people actually having sex. At the other end of the spectrum are films like Lost in Translation and Raising Victor Vargas, whose mature themes are limited to the emotional evolution of the characters but are still restricted from under-17 audiences so that they can’t hear a handful of naughty words.

A different sort of failure inherent in the system is its seemingly facile manipulation. Several years ago, producer Irwin Winkler (Rocky, Goodfellas) revealed a frequently employed studio tactic. “The ratings board will say, ‘There are seven things that we don’t like about this film.’ The director might have put in four of them that he doesn’t even want, so that when he goes back to the ratings board, he says, ‘Well, look, I took out four of them.’”

A further desecration of the Rating Board is suggested by Jill Sprecher, director of last year’s acclaimed 13 Conversations About One Thing. In the DVD’s audio commentary, she states that she intentionally inserted an inappropriate word into the film so that it would garner an R rating. The implication was that independent studios often pressure their directors to avoid the PG-13 rating, which may make art-house aficionados less willing to consider films as serious work.

The endless string of MPAA faults demands structural modifications to both its ratings system and its board. To amend the former, Roger Ebert has suggested an “A” rating for films that would fall between R and NC-17. The idea would be to allow material inappropriate for minors to be presented to adult audiences without bearing the pornographic stigma of an NC-17. But if this system were instituted, the MPAA would need to make a distinction solely based on the artistry of an “A” film over that of an NC-17 film.

A classic example is Paul Verhoeven’s Showgirls, hailed by critics as one of the greatest films of the 90s, if not all time. A staggering work of emotional profundity with the occasional stripper-on-stripper dance-off, Showgirls would no doubt receive an A rating according to the Ebert system. But certain faceless detractors might argue that the film does not exhibit an ounce of artistic merit and therefore deserves an NC-17. Such responsibility would only be giving the Rating Board another system of control.

A better solution to the problem would simply be to abolish NC-17 altogether, and institute an R+ rating (an A rating would be too close to the term “adult film” for comfort). A fate similar to that of the X and NC-17 could be avoided by a complementary ad campaign featuring big players in Hollywood extolling its virtues. It could even be kickstarted by resubmitting the director’s cuts of such reputable films as Last Tango in Paris and Eyes Wide Shut, establishing the R+ as a comfortable territory for directors to explore the more sordid aspects of sex, drugs and violence in a commercially viable way.

As for the Rating Board, nothing short of total dissemination is necessary. Movie ratings, like our Presidents and our new M&M colors, should be voted upon in a democratic fashion, not by a shadowy council hand-picked by the MPAA’s Machiavellian leader Jack Valenti. All movies should be submitted before a test audience of approximately fifty adults chosen at random to speak for the interests of all social conditions, not just those of suburban soccer moms. After each screening, they would assign the movie a rating and issue an explanation for their decision. Each of these explanations would then be available for public scrutiny on the MPAA website.

With such a system in place, a more thoughtful assessment of a film’s merits could accompany any algorithm involving the number of vulgarities and eye-gougings in each movie. Harrowing situations like that of our junior Bill Murray fan could be avoided. And we could all sit back and enjoy Kill Bill: Volume Two, comforted by the knowledge that any additional groin kicks that Tarantino might have up his sleeve will only be observed by those mature enough to view pelvic violence as art.

—Crimson Arts columnist Ben Chung can be reached at

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