19 April 2005

This Entry Not Yet Rated

I realize that the MPAA doesn't usually need any help, but I want to rate its most-recent effort to "protect its trademark": the rating system for movies. I suppose it's sort of like protecting the right to use rubber hoses for interrogation in place of thumbscrews—both the now-replaced "code" and the rating system essentially torture the poor film and result only in unreliable information. I'm really not certain how I'd rate the effort, as I haven't had a jury consisting of a bunch of middle-aged guys who never got a date in high school review the efforts at censorship; but here are two possibilities:

I–18 (violence to sacred cows, harsh language, and adult sensibilities) The intellectually challenged are strongly cautioned. E–21 (imposition of monopoly power, rent-seeking, selective enforcement) The ethically challenged are strongly cautioned.

Since Harry Potter websites were the subject of the letters, let's take a look, shall we? The first three films were rated "PG"—notice the absence of a trademark symbol—for various combinations of "scary moments," "creature violence," and "mild language." (I wonder if "creature violence" would include a fight on the Senate floor?) What I find most disturbing here is that none of those intended epithets provides even the tiniest bit of guidance to parents seeking to determine whether their kids should be allowed to see the movie. Notice that "depictions of witchcraft" is not an element, although that has certainly been the element most commonly asserted against the books. Maybe we're supposed to just "know" that wizardry is an element because "Harry Potter" so implies? If so, then why bother with a rating system if everybody already knows?

On a slightly grimmer note, consider an old film starring the Governator and check it for bias. During the course of The Running Man (1987), we see a police/military helicopter firing on a crowd of unarmed civilians, the martial-arts-style deaths of countless (and generally faceless/nameless) people, a head blown off on screen, the impalement of the central character on spikes, one scene involving some fairly modest lingerie, and one concluding kiss… and it got a "lower", or at least "more acceptable to the kids", rating than would a film showing the purported actual effects of Viagra for twenty seconds. (No, I'm not joking: Try reading the rating standards some time.) That's why I think it's a bunch of middle-aged guys who couldn't get a date in high school. As high schoolers, they had little (or no) exposure to actual violence, and had been denied exposure to sex. They didn't understand the one, and wanted the other but couldn't get it. Guess, therefore, which gets greater opprobrium? Remember the old comedy (and stereotype) No Sex Please: We're British (1973)? I think they accused the wrong nation of prudery.

The real problem with the ratings system is that it imposes "their" version and vision of what's important to parents on all parents. Things have gotten slightly—but not a lot, and not enough—better since the MPAA started adding short sluglines to the ratings that purport to explain a little bit more about why a film got a given rating. Sometimes, though, underlying thematic material should dominate a rating far more than any flitting image on screen. That is something that Hollywood is ill-equipped—if equipped at all—to handle; and yet that is what causes the most "real" trouble here in flyover country. I alluded before to the problem with "witchcraft" in Harry Potter (conversely, if you really want to see the use of supernatural powers to alter reality, take a look at any state legislative session in a state that requires a balanced budget!). What this really points out, more than anything else, is that pervasive substantive reviews are far more helpful to parents trying to police what their children see than anything else. And that has to be an individual decision; as a parent, I tailor what my kids see to what they're ready for. That's my job, not that of some yoyos in LaLaLand. Or, for that matter, in Falls Church.

Then, too, there's the problem that the MPAA's purported "trademark" in its rating system is invalid for failure to enforce and/or abandonment; but that's an argument for another time, that just might fit in all too well with the whole fan fiction thread.