|“The more things change, the more they remain the same,” some French wit said, but some things don’t seem to change at all. Back in ‘69, when I was young and full of revolutionary fire, Jack Valenti and the MPAA’s motion picture ratings system attracted my less-than-admiring attention. In a column written for the University of Maine’s campus newspaper, I opined that they ought to throw both the system and Valenti out. Now here I am, taking the whipping stick to the very same dog, and damned if the very same guy isn’t still holding the chain.
I’ve mellowed over the years, though (a little), and can live with the ratings system. But let’s be clear on one thing: What you see at the movies—and more importantly, what you don’t see—has a great deal to do with Monsieur Jack Valenti, who was born in the year 1646. This makes him 358 years old, which may explain why in recent photographs he looks so much like a medium-size desert reptile in a Bob Barker wig.What brought the ratings system back to the forefront of what passes for my mind these days was a preview for a film called Dawn of the Dead. I saw it at a screening of The Butterfly Effect, and it looked great. The trailer, I mean; Ashton Kutcher don’t do much for me, baby luv. The new Dawn of the Dead is rated R. That doesn’t mean it won’t be good; it does mean, however, that veteran moviegoers know exactly what they won’t see, because guys and gals like us know exactly where the border between the Land of R and the Wilderness of NC-17 lies. It takes some of the fun out of the thing, especially if you happen to remember the original Dawn, George A. Romero’s ferocious, funny, and utterly terrifying fable about the American apocalypse… what the great Joe Bob Briggs might call “Spam in a mall.”The Romero movie—originally released unrated—began, as I recall, with a squad of cops responding to some kind of weird apartment-house riot. During this, a woman runs into the arms of a man who appears to be her husband… and the guy responds by ripping her shoulder off with his teeth. The audience screams in horror, but also in utter disbelief. Something they have never before seen has been shoved directly into their faces. And although the CGI effects may be great in the remake (no one will better Tom Savini’s body appliances, I think), that is what you won’t see: anything that will make your jaw drop in disbelief.
Anything you haven’t seen before, in other words.
What I disliked most about the ratings system in 1969 and dislike most about it now (although, yes, I’m resigned to it—what’s that Elvis Costello lyric? “I used to be disgusted/And now I try to be amused”?) is the pure hypocrisy of the thing. You have to step down to the big-budget PG-13 pix to sample it in full flower, because, MPAA or no MPAA, the basic motto of the film business has never really changed: Money talks. The first two Lord of the Rings pictures do amazing business, ringing up better than $600 million (just domestically), and as a result, Peter Jackson is able to show a great deal of R-rated stuff and still get a PG-13. Stuff like severed heads being catapulted over castle walls. Stuff like Shelob the spider, the stuff of any young child’s nightmares, chasing Frodo, stinging him to death—or so it would seem—and then wrapping him in a shroud of cobwebs. Here’s a nightmare to make Freddy’s Ginsu-knife fingers look pale.
Is The Return of the King a great movie? Yes. Does it deserve the Best Picture Oscar, not only for itself but for its snubbed forebears? Yes. Is it PG-13 if it comes from another house, directed by John Carpenter and titled… mmm, let’s say Shelob the Spider? No, then it’s R. But, of course, PG-13 has always been a clever hiding place for disguised Rs from the big studios, ever since the outcry over the PG-rated Gremlins in 1984 forced the creation of the new classification—remember the gremlin in the microwave?
Public morality is a gusty wind, and it’s blown movies around the ratings categories willy-nilly ever since films like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? pushed the motion picture industry into updating the moribund Hays Production Code in 1968, a year before my angry column. I bought an old (1972) horror movie, The Possession of Joel Delaney, from a specialty house a few years ago, and watched one sequence in slack-jawed amazement. In it, a little boy is forced by the bad guy to bounce up and down on a coffee table, starkers. The nudity is full frontal. The sequence has no sexual connotation, at least not within the framework of the story, but can you imagine the outcry if such a sequence were to be found in a film released today? If such a movie were released at all, surely it would be rated NC-17, and yet The Possession of Joel Delaney was rated R. You can only shrug and say, “Some things do change.”
In spite of the hypocrisy and changing morality, I’ll no longer argue that the Rating Board should be abolished—that was yesterday’s King. I do think that ratings take some of the damn fun out of it. Some of the surprise. Except for big-budget PG-13s, that is.
In that case, watch out for flying severed heads.