Movie Ratings: Public Service or Bankable Assets



Name a movie that was released in the last 12 months, and the chances are excellent that I missed it. There are several reasons for that, but I am not a movie-hater.

When I was a kid, Dad would take the family to the Oakland Theater almost every Saturday night. The playbill typically featured two films a week, one that ran Sunday through Wednesday and the other Thursday through Saturday. A real “blockbuster” would run for a full week.

Now you probably already know I am older than dirt, but I will give you additional clues to my ancientness when I tell you that an evening at the flicks featured a newsreel, a cartoon, previews of coming attractions (trailers were something people lived in) and the feature film.

Sometimes there would be a “selected short” (like the Three Stooges or a nature film) before the feature.

Another added attraction would be a 13-part serial, where the hero was left weekly in a dangerous situation, enticing all of us back for the next exciting chapter.

There were never any advertisements flashed on the screen (unless the folks Vance Packard wrote about slipped in a few “Hidden Persuaders”).

As long as I am giving clues to my age, I will also tell you that when I was studying at Frostburg State University (the other FSU), we would attend the movies with only a dollar in hand. For that George Washington, we would be admitted to the Princess Theater, purchase a soft drink and a box of popcorn and receive ten cents change. Only Edison's kinescope was cheaper.

I mentioned earlier that I avoid most movies today. Give me a good “shoot 'em up, bang, bang” a la the vintage films of John Wayne, an installment of Star Trek, or George Lucas' upcoming Episode 3, and I'll be there. Otherwise, I'll wait for them to come out on DVD and ignore them in that format as well.

I will not pay seven or eight bucks to sit for a couple of hours while people curse at me. If the film is rated “R,” the chances are very good that it received that “Restricted, no one under 17 admitted without a parent” rating because of the bad language. Or the actors have their clothes off and are airing their differences. Or the display of blood and guts would gag a maggot off of a gut wagon. Call me a prude, but that's not entertainment.

The MPAA (the Motion Picture Association of America, not the Mississauga Pilipino Athletic Association) used to have standards that would determine a film's ratings. One “f-word” would automatically get you a PG-13. Two will usually get you an R rating, although some PG-13s sneak through with two. Three or more has always been an R. Until now.

Palm Pictures successfully appealed the MPAA's R rating of its Iraq War documentary Gunner Palace. The movie contains no gory footage, but it does have numerous instances of soldiers cursing — and in sufficient levels to have generated the R. Palm Pictures argued that a war picture should show an honest representation of, well, war.

But the producers know that R-rated movies typically make less money than PG movies, and so they clamored for the change (interestingly the largest grossing movies every year continue to be the family-friendly G rating, but the yummies up on carpet corridor seem never to catch on).

Why all the fuss you ask?

It is just one more barrier broken down. The next time a producer wants to push the envelope, he or she will drag out the tired old saw, “Well, you did it for them, you have to do it for us.”

It's not just my editorializing that suggests such a scenario. The movie trade journal, Variety, says that the “Palace” decision is “likely to create … pressure for raters to be more lenient on language in other films.”

And before you know it, the sequel for Finding Nemo will be a profanity-laced movie.

Chicken little, you say? The sky is not falling, you say?

In 1939, David O. Selznick produced a movie which had the first-ever curse word approved by the censors. It was shocking to hear Rhett Butler tell Scarlet O'Hara that he frankly did not give a damn, but the old standard was gone, and today's standards are as low as the movie crowd can make them, waiting only to reach down to the next level.

The writer of Proverbs warned against moving or changing the ancient boundaries. When the standard keepers are the ones who callously change the boundaries, there is not much hope that the old ways will be restored. If there is any hope that change will come, it will be at the ticket window.

If you enjoy be sworn at for two hours, keep going to the movies. If you believe that you can spend your time, and your money, in more edifying ways, use the power of your pocketbook, and stay home. If Hollywood produces enough box office flops because the viewing public is tired of the trash, maybe they will get the message.

(David Sisler's newspaper column, Not For Sunday Only, is in its 15th year of weekly publication. Not for Sunday only is based on news events, sports, popular songs, motion pictures and personal glimpses. The message is: the Christian faith is an everyday happening – it is not for Sunday only. The columns are thoroughly researched, and never indicate denominational bias. For reprint permission, or to subscribe to Not For Sunday Only, contact Mr. Sisler at david@mirkids.com.)

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