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in the details
january 1, 2008
A while ago we watched the movie Evan Almighty on DVD.
Evan Almighty is a sequel to the hit 2003 film, Bruce Almighty, starring Jim Carrey as a man who is given the job of being God after he complains too much about how rotten life is.
(Acting has always fascinated me. A singing daisy in a fourth grade play can turn into a star who makes more money than that guy who cured polio.)
In the current film, Steve Carell plays Evan Baxter, a newly-elected congressman who receives messages telling him to build an ark.
(My melancholy thought, sliding the gasoline-shiny DVD into the player, was that if there were a new Noah, given the loss of so many species in modern times, he could probably build a much smaller ark, maybe this time only 100 cubits.)
Anyway, it's a comedy, we figured probably with improvised scenes that could have been edited a bit more tightly, some fart jokes, a few teary moments.
So when the rating came up, I was surprised to see, under the boxed PG rating, the additional warning, "Mild rude humor and some peril."
Why is it necessary to "warn" people the movie has mild rude humor when it already has a PG rating? And what is "mild" rude humor? Isn't that kind of a contradiction in terms? How could something "rude" be "mild"?
But most of all, what intrigued me was, "some peril."
Unlike the original biblical story, the movie doesn't depict the washing away of the world. A few people, and a bunch of CGI-generated animals, board the ark, travel by water to the Capital. Do we really need to be warned the CGI ark bumps under a CGI bridge on its way?
Movies never used to be rated at all.
The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) either approved a film for release, or didn't. That didn't mean a movie couldn't be released if the MPAA didn't approve it, but it made it much harder. The unapproved film couldn't be advertised in newspapers, the medium everyone used back then, thumbing through the tall pages to the Movies section, opposite the daily crossword and Scramble features. On most weekdays the Movies section was a rather modest listing, but on Friday night the section filled the entire page, with different-sized display ads, depending on how much money the studio had put behind each movie. Major movie ads had dramatic curved titles, some critic quotes ending with exclamation points!!!, black and gray drawings of the male and female star kissing, about to kiss, or sliding together, shoes up, down a vine.
This whole idea of the movie industry voluntarily regulating what was acceptable movie fare and what was not, done in large part to preclude having the government step in and decide for them, went back to the Hays Production Code, adopted by the movie industry in 1930 in response to what some people thought were the "wild" silent movies that had been made during the Roaring Twenties.
Nearly no movie released today would be acceptable according to the rules set by the Hays Code. Yet the Hays Code was the standard movies were required to conform to, if they wanted any sort of distribution, during a crucial three decades of this new art form's development.
A lot of people are vaguely aware of the Hays Code, without realizing just how rigid and all-encompassing it was. The full text of the Code, too long to reproduce in this column, is available at Arts Reformation.
Here, below, is the introduction to the Code, as well as the full text of the Code dealing with forbidden subjects. These are the subjects that were not allowed to be shown in American movies from 1930 to the mid-1960's.
That's quite a list.
Notice how specific it is. We'll see this same specificity return, unfortunately, with the "rating reasons" discussed further below.
But for now, let's talk about the MPAA.
The real hero in the battle to free Hollywood from censorship was Jack Valenti.
Valenti became President of the MPAA in 1966. The sixties were a period of social upheaval in America, and movies were beginning to reflect that rebellion.
One of the first movies Valenti had to review was Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, directed by Mike Nichols, based on the Edward Albee play, starring, in the film adaptation, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.
The film, as it was presented to the MPAA for approval, included, in its dialog, the word "screw", and the phrase "hump the hostess." Neither had ever been allowed in a Hollywood movie before.
After a three hour meeting with MPAA's general counsel, Louis Nizer, and Jack Warner of Warner Brothers, Valenti made the decision to remove the word "screw" from the dialog, but allow use of the phrase, "hump the hostess."
Yet this whole process bothered him.
"It seemed wrong that grown men should be sitting around discussing such matters. Moreover, I was uncomfortable with the thought that this was just the beginning of an unsettling new era in film, in which we would lurch from crisis to crisis, without any suitable solution in sight."
So Valenti came up with a radical solution.
The Hays Code would be abolished, and in its place a new ratings system would be instituted.
The change took effect November 1, 1968.
The new system called for four ratings categories:
There were immediate problems with the categories.
Valenti found that most people regarded the M rating as meaning there was more "objectionable" content than the R rating. So he changed the M rating to GP, meaning General audiences, Parental guidance suggested. A year later, the GP rating was changed to PG, meaning Parental Guidance.
July 1,1984, the MPAA changed the PG rating, splitting it into two categories, PG and PG-13. "13" refers to the age of the movie goer. PG-13 movies were considered more adult than PG films.
September 27, 1990, the MPAA tinkered with the categories again.
First, they changed the "X" rating to "NC-17." This meant "no children" will be admitted to the film; you must be at least 17 years old to see the movie. This change was done because "X" historically suggested a pornographic movie, whereas there were some films that contained quite a bit of nudity or "bad language", but were not pornography. Midnight Cowboy, starring Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman, was released with an "X" rating. That seemed unfair to the movie, because it wasn't at all in the same category with Deep Throat or Debbie Does Dallas. The second change was to introduce "rating reasons."
A "rating reason" included a brief explanation as to why a film received, for example, an R rating (the rating reasons were initially applied to R films only, but were later expanded to include all films other than G-rated films.) Valenti presents the rating reasons as reasonable: "...we believed it would be useful to parents to know a little more about that film's content before they allowed their children to accompany themů," but in fact I remember he resisted the idea as long as he could. (When he was first told a particular movie should receive a rating reason of "SA," he was confused, wanting to know if SA stood for "Sex Appeal." In fact, it stood for "Substance Abuse," meaning not just heroin, but, over the years, drinking alcohol in a scene, or smoking a cigarette.)
Valenti opposed rating reasons because he felt it was an overly-fussy examination of a film's content. It should be enough to simply state a movie is rated "R", without going into all the specific reasons why a film might be conceivably objectionable to some people.
Movies, which had been freed from the heavy hand of censorship for over twenty years, from the mid-sixties to the end of the eighties, a period regarded by many as the era during which some of the greatest American films were made, were suddenly once again subject to scrutiny.
And once again, the heavy hand was applied, much as during the Hays Code, by means of specificity.
Movies weren't denied distribution this time because they contained highly-specific forbidden subjects, but they were permanently marked with objections based on highly-specific rating reasons.
"Mild rude humor and some peril" was the rating reason for Evan Almighty.
Because I thought that particular rating reason was absurd, I started looking into rating reasons for other movies.
And the absurdity grew.
The MPAA, which during Jack Valenti's early years as President gave a quick assessment of the content of a movie, based on a four-tiered rating system, which had worked fine, devolved into an institution that issued minute assessments of each film, announcing each element in a movie that might possibly be objectionable to someone, somewhere.
You might think, for example, that if the MPAA wanted to be really specific about why a movie received the rating it did for sexual or violent content, perhaps there would be a dozen different rating reasons for such films.
In fact, there are hundreds of different rating reasons for sex and violence. To the point where the sexual or violent content of a movie is ridiculously nuanced.
Let's take a look at just a small number of actual rating reasons issued by the MPAA.
Rating reasons for sex generally refer to sexual content, nudity, or language.
Let's look at "sexual content" first. Wouldn't it be enough to simply state, "This film has sexual content?" Apparently not.
Other films have sexual content to them, but the word "content" is arbitrarily dropped:
What's the difference between "sex-related humor" and ""comic sex-related material"? I don't know. I don't think the MPAA does, either.
How about nudity? Wouldn't it be enough to simply state, This film has nudity? Guess again.
Does "some brief partial nudity" even qualify as nudity?
Let's move on to language:
What does "momentary language" mean? How is that supposed to help anyone? And stating that a movie has "pervasive language including sexual lyrics"? If you don't want to see a movie with graphic language, does it really matter if the language is sung, rather than spoken?
Wouldn't you think violence is violence? Either a movie is violent or it isn't?
Well, the MPAA doesn't agree. They've come up with a stunning number of subcategories of violence. It's like the MPAA is a bad haircut guy sitting at a rain-sheltered bus stop, both hands around the throat of a brown paper bag filled with thousands of notes recording each time his next door neighbors have been impolite.
We'll start with "action":
"intense sequences of violent action" and "intense sequences of violence and action"? How many angels are on that pin?
Now let's move on to "violence" itself:
What's clear here is the MPAA board members do not communicate with each other. What is the difference between "some images of violence" and "some violent images"?
And what exactly is "actuality violence"?
Should the MPAA be in the moving rating business at all?
In this information age, it probably isn't necessary. Anyone can go online and find out what a movie is like, by reading reviews, or visiting the movie's website.
If the MPAA feels absolutely compelled to rate films, why not come up with a less dementedly-specific system?
The only thing I do like about the MPAA is the great contribution it's made to unintentional humor.
Unintentional humor is the funniest humor in the world, whether it's a bad movie, a terrible speech, a corporate statement, or an idiot's excuse.
Of all the stupid meticulous parsings the stupid MPAA has done over the years, here's my current favorite, the rating reason for Explorers - Special Home Entertainment Edition:
A brief scene involving beer?