September 7th, 2006

Aberrational Behavior

This Blog is Not Yet Rated

I got some good news today, from a publicist for the Landmark Theaters chain. Although it's not yet on the list of theaters that will be showing the movie, she anticipates that the documentary This Film is Not Yet Rated will, in fact, be shown at the Tivoli Theater some time this fall. That's great news for me, because it's going to save me the cost of a trip to Nashville the weekend after Archon. I want to see this movie that badly. For one thing, it looks like it'll be a blast. Lest you doubt me, take a look at the Internet-only second trailer for it, which I anticipate will spawn more LiveJournal icons than anything this side of a Harry Potter movie: "What Do Ratings Mean?" But there's another reason I desperately want to see this, would be willing to spend real money to see it, and am deeply jealous of those of you in NYC and LA (not coincidentally, the two cities most powerfully affected by the MPAA) for whom it's already opened. Let me put it in its context: the history of film ratings.

By the end of the 1920s and into the early 1930s, cops, preachers, and many parents were disgusted with the rise in "juvenile delinqency" (crimes and anti-social behavior among what we now call the Lost Generation) and about whether or not recent immigrants were being properly assimilated into our superior cultural and its values. And since the liquor-running teen street criminal gangs couldn't possibly have been messed up by parental neglect or responding to the corrupt "anything to make a buck" values of a hard-core Republican pro-business economy, they concluded that it must be their exposure to violent and sexually degrading popular media that was doing it. (Sound familiar? I thought so.) They also felt powerless to do anything about it, since Hollywood film studios owned the theaters and could (and did) force midwestern "decent Christian" communities' theaters to show the same "decadent coastal city" films that they felt their kids should be protected from. (Again, sound familiar? Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose.) And Congress and the courts were threatening to get involved. So to stave off legislation, in 1930 the Hollywood film studios set up a Production Code Authority, the ancestor of today's Film Ratings Board, within the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, which was the original name for what is today called the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). Because he presumably had experience with censorship (this being back when it was illegal to send anything even vaguely objectionable through the mails), they appointed retired Postmaster General William Hayes to head the PCA, and in 1934 all the big Hollywood studios gave Hayes more authority by agreeing to a mutual pact not to release any movies without prior approval from what was already being called "the Hayes office."

To guide directors as to what he would and wouldn't approve, in broad general terms, Hayes issued the Motion Picture Production Code of 1930. You should read it, it's good stuff. What nobody had ever told me until I read it for myself was just how determined Hayes was to appear fair to everybody involved. The code dedicates more than 2/3rds of its text to justifying and defending its few simple prohibitions and strictures. To the censor-wannabes, he defends that his list is sufficient to meet their goals; to the artists, he defends that his list is the minimum necessary to prevent widespread viewing of films by minors from causing substantial harm. But in many ways, it rapidly became moot. For one thing, the Hayes office turned a (willfully?) blind eye to almost anything not actually prohibited by the checklist, caved to industry pressure on multiple occasions, and either failed to "get" or chose to ignore almost any subtle innuendos. For example, the Hayes Code flatly prohibits any on-screen depictions of homosexuality or homosexuals. In Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcoln, one of the main characters, Joel Cairo, is bluntly introduced as an obvious homosexual, and we're given to understand that his boss, the greedy and evil Spaniard Senor Guzman, employs him as bait to help rob anybody they need to rob who's only attracted to men. But to satisfy the Hayes Office, all that John Huston had to do was replace the one line of dialog that called Cairo a homosexual with a clever hint, and even though Peter Lorre played Joel Cairo as a mincing, prancing, hand-flapping queer he got away with it cold. Either the Hayes Office didn't get the joke, which is unlikely but possible (they did, after all, have a lot of movies to review), or they decided that the references to homosexuality were subtle enough that the censorious wouldn't spot them. In 1951, new management of the Production Code Authority lengthened the list of things banned from film, but they were already losing their grip. The Supreme Court had taken their control over what got showed in local theaters away from them under the anti-trust act. Theaters not long after started to show movies that were produced by non-Hollywood independent studios who weren't bound by the MPAA's rules. And the threat of official censorship went right out the window in 1952 when the Supreme Court ruled that movies were, finally and after all, entitled to First Amendment protection.

None of which made the people who actually paid for a lot of the tickets, who could still threaten to organize mass boycotts, especially happy. So in 1967, the MPAA threw out the old Hayes Code and all its amendments, and replaced it with a whole new system, which is more-or-less the one we have now. The new system was designed to be harder for the studios to cheat their way around. Gone was the old checklist, and its presumption that anything not banned by the checklist was okay. Instead, the new system was outcome-oriented. A panel was set up that would review each film's rough cut in its entirety and then decide on their own, with no guidelines other than their own tastes and consciences and sense of the public's values, whether or not this is something that most adults would want kids to be able to see. In the current version of the system, if they think that hardly anybody would object to kids seeing the movie, they approve it for General audiences - "G." If they think that nobody in their right mind would let a kid see this movie, that it's obviously disgusting and corrosive to decent upbringing, they rate it that No Child 17 or under should be allowed into the theater - "NC-17." And to allow for disagreements and gray areas, they have three intermediate steps. If most people wouldn't care if kids see it but there are a substantial number of people who would disagree, they rate it as wanting Parental Guidance ("PG"). If it's an otherwise PG movie but the violence or themes are intense enough that lots of younger kids would wake up screaming from nightmares about it, they strengthen that slightly with a Parental Guidance, suggested only for 13 and over rating ("PG-13"). And if they object to kids seeing it but know that some parents will disagree and think it's OK, they instruct subscribing movie theaters to only show the movie to Restricted ("R") audiences, those made up only of adults, but to allow adults to bring their own children with them if they insist.

What can't you say or do if you want your movie to be rated G, PG, PG-13, or R? They very deliberately didn't say. Also, to make it hard for studios to lobby the individual voters on the Film Ratings Board, and even more importantly to keep the studios from studying the individual members to try to second-guess their tastes, the membership of the Film Ratings Board is the MPAA's most closely held secret. The Film Ratings Board also keeps their own personal notes, meeting minutes, and internal correspondence deeply secret. Why? Because they know, know for a fact, that movie makers want to know exactly where the bright lines they can't cross are. They don't want that. They saw, under the Hayes Code, that a simple checklist of okay versus not-okay is something that can be "gamed" to produce movies that technically pass, but that audiences will think shouldn't have passed. They want film makers to pay attention to the intent of the guidelines, not to some narrow checklist. And when in doubt, they really want the film makers to err on the side of self-censorship. But movie making involves Big Bucks. These days, even small independent films cost tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars to make and half a million or more just to distribute to a handful of "art house" theaters. A big-budget blockbuster routinely costs hundreds of millions of dollars to make and distribute. Nobody wants to gamble on getting their money back without having any way to predict the outcome. And there have been a lot of movies reviewed by the MPAA ... enough that the studios know, pretty well, from straightforward statistical analysis, good old actuarial science, what they can and can't get away with at each rating.

But independent and foreign film makers don't have access to that kind of intense scientific study of the MPAA's ratings database. Nor do they have the money, nor the influence with the parent organization, nor the strings to pull, nor the reputation to intimidate the Film Ratings Board into giving them the benefit of the doubt. So quite a few independent film makers and foreign film makers have felt really, really deeply screwed by the MPAA. They don't understand why the MPAA decides what they do, and they see other people getting away with things that seem to them to be even more offensive than anything they put in their own films. This results in a lot of complaining - so much so that a two-man documentary production team decided to do something about it. Not content with reporting on the statistical studies of the MPAA's rulings and interviewing offended film makers, they took one more big step: the hired an honest-to-god private investigator to place the MPAA's offices under surveillance, to compile the first ever complete public list of who actually gets to decide these things, and even to go through their trash hoping to read their secret documentation on how they decide what can and can't be shown on screen, the real boundaries of on-screen Forbidden Lore. So I absolutely have to see this.