Thursday, February 01, 2007

This Post Is Not Yet Rated

(This short essay talks about movie ratings, and contains harsh language, spoilers, and passages that might be considered mind-bogglingly dull. Reader discretion is advised.)

Recently, I read the book Banned Films by Edward de Grazia and Roger Mewman, a moderately interesting history of film censorship in America, from the birth of the motion picture all the way to 1982, when the book was written. Although that's twenty-five years ago now, only three films have been banned in the United States since then: Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (nationwide, due to "copyright infringement"), The Last Temptation of Christ (initially banned in Savannah, Georgia but it eventually opened), and The Profit (nationwide, for libel). (I don't know if there's any reading material about film censorship in Canada, but I'm going to look around because I would definitely be interested in reading more about that.) Much of the book had to deal with obscenity laws and problems with the definition of the word "obscenity", and the different bodies that had been set up over the decades that attempted to rate and censor the movies. The book ended with a small section on the familiar MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America) ratings, something I've always been interested in: how can a group of people sit in a room and assign a rating to a movie without set, defined criteria (or at least, no publicly known set of criteria)?
The system is, of course, voluntary, in the sense that film distributors are not required to submit their films for a rating, but since many theaters will not play unrated movies, the system is sometimes referred to as de facto censorship, a sentiment echoed in the book. However, since there had been changes in the rating system since 1982, I went to the bastion of all pop culture knowledge, the untrustworthy but good-hearted Wikipedia, to fill in the gaps.

Starting in 1968, there were originally 4 ratings: G (general audiences), M (mature audiences, parental discretion), R (restricted, no-one under 16 without an adult guardian), and X (no-one under 17 admitted). The ratings went through a number of changes over the years, and now the MPAA has five ratings:
  • G: General Audiences; All Ages Admitted
  • PG: Parental Guidance Suggested; Some Material May Not Be Suitable For Children
  • PG-13: Parents Strongly Cautioned; Some Material May Be Inappropriate For Children Under 13 (a rating that was created due to what people saw as too wide a gap between PG and R, and was suggested by Steven Spielberg after public outcry after his films Gremlins and Indiana Jones & The Temple of Doom were rated PG)
  • R: Restricted; Under 17 Requires Accompanying Parent or Adult Guardian
  • NC-17: No One Under 17 Admitted (formerly No Children Under 17 Admitted)
Again, because the MPAA doesn’t give out specific criteria, it can be difficult to know exactly why a film receives a particular rating. According to Wikipedia (a phrase that pretty much nullifies anything that comes after it, but bear with me), certain guidelines can be gathered from rating decisions. For instance, if the word "fuck" is used 1-3 times in a non-sexual context (i.e., "What the fuck is this?"), the film generally receives a PG-13 rating; if the word is used in a sexual context (i.e., "Let’s fuck!"), even if it is only once, the film will likely receive an R. I would LOVE to get my hands on an MPAA manual, if one does indeed exist, because I’m sure it would be most enlightening. ("If the movie contains less than three five-second shots of male rear nudity OR refers to marijuana, it will receive a PG-13, unless one of the naked men is talking about how much fun smoking marijuana is, in which case it will receive an R.") It's widely believed that the MPAA is harsher on films with sexual content than with violent content, but that's a topic that is slightly outside the context of this little essay (althought I might get to it at a later date).

It’s generally thought that Canadian film ratings are more permissive than the MPAA ratings, so I thought I would check out what the Canadian film ratings are. However, I discovered something VERY interesting about the Canadian film ratings system: there’s no such thing. Well, technically speaking. While the home video ratings are the same nationwide, there are SEVEN different provincial rating systems in Canada! According to the Media Awareness Network: "British Columbia classifies films for Saskatchewan and the Yukon. Alberta classifies films for the Northwest Territories and Nunavut. Nova Scotia classifies films for the Maritimes system which includes New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island. Newfoundland and Labrador does not follow a film classification system." Ontario, Manitoba, and
Québec have their own ratings boards. (I know that only adds up to six; I can't figure out what the other system would be.) Despite the different review boards, the provinces (except for Québec) use essentially the same ratings (the phrasing is from the Alberta board, which I use because it's the province I live in):
  • General (G): General viewing. Suitable for viewing by all ages.
  • Parental Guidance (PG): Parental guidance is advised. Theme or content may not be suitable for all children.
  • 14A: Suitable for viewing by persons 14 years of age and older. Persons under 14 must be accompanied by an adult. May contain: violence, coarse language and/or sexually suggestive scenes.
  • 18A: Suitable for viewing by persons 18 years of age and older. Persons under 18 must be accompanied by an adult. May contain: explicit violence, frequent coarse language, sexual activity and/or horror.
  • Restricted (R): Admittance restricted to persons 18 years of age and over. Content not suitable for minors. Contains frequent use of sexual activity, brutal/graphic violence, intense horror and/or other disturbing content.
  • Adult (A): Admittance restricted to persons 18 years and older. Content not suitable for minors. Contains predominantly sexually explicit activity.
I thought it would be interesting to compare the Manitoba, Ontario, and U.S. film classifications for some movies. Imagine a sixteen-year-old kid living in some town on the Ontario/Manitoba border and within spitting distance of the Canada/U.S. border. (Pretend that these will all be released this weekend. For argument's sake.)
  • Crank: Could see it in Manitoba theaters (14A) but not in Ontario (18A) or the USA (R).
  • Halloween H20: Same as above.
  • The Ice Harvest: Could see it in Ontario theaters (14A) but not in Manitoba (18A) or the USA (R)
  • Kinsey: Same as above.
  • Snakes on a Plane: Same as above.
  • Munich: I could see it in the theaters in Canada (14A) but not the USA (R); however, upon its DVD release I couldn't rent it in Canada (it's 18A)!
So, not only does my age limit what movies I can and cannot see, but so does my geographical location. And they interact! It's interesting to see how one could manipulate the system, like some do with different drinking ages in different provinces. I mean, what makes the average sixteen-year old in Winnipeg different from one in Thunder Bay or one in Detroit?

It's not like I'm flat-out against film rating systems. I do understand the need to give parents an idea as to what a movie's content is, even if in most cases, you know what you're paying for. Nobody needs to tell a parent that maybe Alien vs. Predator contains scenes of violence and may not be appropriate for their five-year old. But sometimes, you can be rather surprised at what you see in a movie. (I remember seeing the trailers for Garden State and thought it would be really funny; while it was very good, funny is not one of the top five adjectives I would use to describe it.) However, you can bet that if I was seventeen years old, I would be pissed if I couldn't go and see The Departed, just because some group of concerned citizens felt that I was unable to handle the content until I was suitably aged. And I know many young people can get around those ratings; I saw South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut when I was too young to get in and the ticket-takers were actually checking IDs, because I simply looked old enough; they didn't even card me. I took my then-14-year-old brother to go see Fight Club, acting as his "adult guardian", because I knew that he'd see it eventually, and I'd much rather him see it with me and have a thoughtful discussion about it than for him to see it with his friends and think how cool it was. Wouldn't it be better to have parents having a little more information about what might be "objectionable" in the movie as opposed to a ratings stamp? I know that there are often small taglines at the end of the rating (i.e., "Rated PG-13 for strong language and scenes of comedic violence"), but most parents just look at the rating and leave it at that. I'd rather have a teenager of mine see a movie that was 18A for strong language and suggestive sexual content than one that was 18A for scenes of graphic violence and gore. But in my experience, most parents can't see past the label.

Which brings me to my last question: aside from parents, does anyone actually use these ratings when they rent a DVD or go out to a movie? I know I don't. I look at the movie and say, "I want to see that" or "No, I don't want to see that". I could care less if it was G or PG-13 or 18A or R. Does anyone else bother with them? Is anyone still reading?

Meh. Just something that's been on my mind.


Ryan Rogatschnigg said...

Anecdote time!

In 1999, my friend Brendan and I went to see Fight Club in the crappy old Penticton Theatre. We were at quarter to showtime the only two people in the theatre.

Naturally a few other people trickle in. Some couples and a couple other guys. Oh yeah, and a family of five with boys looking ages 7-12. Brendan raised his eyebrows at this and commented something along the lines of "oh yeah."

Of course the movie goes about it's course, nothing really too wild, but probably not what any of us expected. I suggest one of the reasons Fight Club did so poorly in theatres is because the previews truly did not give a good indication what the movie WAS. Anyways.

So of course we get to Edward Norton's nightmarish fantasies of banging Helena Bonham Carter while spending most of his time listening to Brad Pitt nail her. Now while there wasn't much in the way of real nudity or simulated sex, it was an intense scene.

BOOM. Family gets up, walks out, gone. "Well no kidding, don't bring your kids to see a movie like this."

FC was rated R in the US, probably 18a in Canada. Was it less? I'm not sure. It's a unique movie in that there is really not much gore or sexuality, but it is definitely a "mature" movie. In this case the parents of these boys, I would like to ask: Did you see the rating? Did you read the additional tag line? Did it even enter into your thinking?

The story is mostly just funny for the visual of these people leaving the theatre like somebody fired a gun, but I don't think the parents made a bad decision in removing their kids from the film. It was clearly not what they expected or some such thing...

Anyways. Personally the rating on a movie doesn't really phase me unless it's NC-17, but there aren't really that many NC-17 movies out there. There are less that I want to see. When I worked at Roger's Video, the reality was that any movie rated NC-17 was pretty much about sex sex und more sex. But even working at Rogers I didn't pay attention to the ratings unless some kid came in trying to rent Nightmare on Elm Street.

Funny thing is I remember telling some kid not to rent a video game/movie (or was I just there and this was another teller) because of language and maturity and the kid's dad no lie goes "Who the fuck cares?" right there. So the ratings go out the window if a parent doesn't consider something about a rating to be really that objectionable. Profanity is not as bad as some people make it, but by the same token, I mean really do we n eed to be teaching our kids how to curse like a sailor? Unless you ARE a sailor. If you are, full steam ahead. Although I'm quite tired of hearing teenagers talk. When fuck is every second word, kids, you aren't being daring, you're being stupid. Very, very stupid. Ah the degradation of our language and society...

I'm digressing. I don't think movie ratings are as useful as all that. They are a decent quick guide but if you have children and want to make sure they're not watching a movie that's going to be overly gory or contain sexually explicit material that a)the KIDS are not yet adults, so really they don't need to be watching it or b)it's the average fake, phony and unrealistic sexual material that is more likely to lead to the objectifation of women as sexual objects and/or mislead kids into thinking sex is the be-all, end-all of life. Sex is great but seriously the obsession we have with it in our culture is disconcerting... The lack of any real standards for how each movie is graded is a problem...

I'm going to stop writing now. Blam, Devin. Blam.

Rickey Henderson said...

Yo--Rickey digs your blog. Check out Rickey's sometime:

Otto Man said...

One of my biggest complaints about seeing movies in the theater are the packs of fucking teenagers making noise and goofing off during the film, so I actually tend to gravitate to R-rated films -- not because of what they've got in, but because of who they keep out.

True, there are plenty of families who bring little kids -- and I mean little, ages 3-5, even for 10pm starts -- but it cuts it down a bit.

Allan said...

Considering the movies I watch, they usually tend to be in the "18A/R" range anyways. But I don't go looking for movies based on ratings. A few things though:

In Junior High,the only times I was ever been refused rentals for movies was when they contained nudity. But the clerks had no trouble allowing my friends and I to rent any of the "Friday the 13th", movies or the first two "Robocop" films. As well, my friend's mom once refused to let us rent a movie because it contained nudity. But she suggested other titles for us:

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre; or

As well, I sat through "Land of the Dead" and gritted my teeth because some woman brought in about five kids (aprox ages 7-10) in to watch with her.

Fight Club was not rated R in Alberta, to my recollection.

Movie ratings now a days will list why a movie is rated PG-13 or R. On the bottom of the poster where the logo for the rating is, underneath it often lists what makes it objectionable: Drug Use, nudity, violence, horror, excessive gore, etc. That's more useful than any letter. And in the end, it all comes down to taste. But I don't think kids need to be watching R rated movies anyways. (and for the record, I was 13 before I watched my first horror film)

The Doc said...

Ro, thanks for sharing your thoughts. Although, I would just like to point out that NC-17 has gotten a really bad rap. There are some really good movies that were rated NC-17. A brief scan through the IMDB gives me the following movies that I rather enjoyed: Henry & June; The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover; The Evil Dead; Two Girls & A Guy (well, it was good until the last 5 minutes); and Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! Now I'm not denying that most of those are given the rating for sex-related scenes, but they're also really good.

Rickey, thanks so much for checking The Doc's blog. The Doc thanks you with all The Docness he can spare.

Otto, that rarely happens to me when I go see a movie, and when it does, I usually give those kids a hassle. What really upsets me is that when I tell them to shut up, they look at me as if I'm the one being rude...

Allan, again according to the IMDB and the rating of my home video copy of Fight Club, it was rated 18A. And as for sex & violence in the movies, it's been debated to death, but the more I think about it, the more I might just need to write another essay...

Megan F said...

I tend to look at content when i watch movies. I think the rating system is a bitscrewy though. I went to see Half Nelson in October (if you haven't seen it, you NEED to) with a friend. In the US it was rated R and in most places in Canada it was 18A, meaning that the general consensus was that kids under 18 shouldn't see it. However, the restrictions set out in your post don't really cover the stuff in the film. There's one sex scene, a bit of bad language, but TONS of drug use. I know that drug use is generally considered a more adult thing, but given that so many teenagers are using, and having more sex than most adults and cursing like sailors, what element of this movie is 'bad' for kids?

Scott: Kow Superfan said...

My Dad was on the Alberta Film Classification Board for a few years, so if Kow is able to perform at my wedding, I'm sure he'd love to answer any questions you may have!

Natalie said...

My uncle got mad at me because I watched Harold and Kumar with my 15yr old cousin when she came to visit me in Chicago and it was rated R. I honestly didn't even notice. Plus, she was corrupted long before coming to visit me. It's not like I got her drunk and high, just showed her the movie.

The Doc said...

Megan, I would play Devil's Advocate and say that the rating wa applied because so many kids are doing drugs and having unsafe sex. Not wanting to see it "glorified", although I doubt that Half Nelson glorifies either (I haven't seen it, but I will, I promise).

Scott, I'm sure there would be better things to talk about at your wedding than that. However, get a few gin & tonics in me and I might just do that.

Natalie, I haven't seen Harold & Kumar, but that reminds me of the time I watched The Usual Suspects with my younger brothers (probably 17 and 15 at the time) and my mom, and after 10 minutes she walked off in a huff because of all the bad language. I honestly didn't notice that they were swearing so much, because it fit the context of the movie. Plus, if she hadn't walked off then, I'm sure that she would have been mortified by the violence later on...