Who can guess what drives the Motion Picture Association of America’s Classification and Ratings Administration board to rate a movie the way they do?
It’s not like the group has a strong, codified standard for each rating that movies must adhere to. They don’t. Their general rule of thumb of leaving filmmakers alone to make the movies they want has lead to numerous misunderstandings about filmmakers think will constitute a specific rating and what the ratings board actually rules. Oft times, their decisions appeared to have little relationship to the actual content of the films themselves. The year 2010 was no exception, filled as it was with several incidences that left observers scratching their collective heads. Here’s a the top five controversies coming out of the MPAA last year.
Documentaries generally aren’t affected too much by whatever rating that they may receive as their audience and distribution is rather limited. But director Adam Yauch hoped that his documentary about an incomplete Nazi propaganda film A Film Unfinished would be used as a teaching aid in high schools around the country. However, that hope was dashed when the MPAA gave the film an R rating for “disturbing images of Holocaust atrocities including graphic nudity.” Yauch countered in a statement “This is too important of a historical document to ban from classrooms… I understand that the MPAA wants to protect children’s eyes from things that are too overwhelming, but they’ve really gone too far this time. It’s bullshit.” And while he might be right in calling the MPAA’s reasoning “bullshit,” it probably was not the smartest move to do so a week before going into an appeal hearing with them. The ratings board turned down Yauch’s appeal, even though he sited The Last Days, another Holocaust documentary that the board had only rated PG-13 but noted it had “disturbing images of Holocaust atrocities including graphic nudity.” I’m sure that the fact that Steven Spielberg was a producer on The Last Days had nothing to do with his film getting the lesser restrictive rating. Right?
The King’s SpeechWhile the ratings board doesn’t have too many hard and fast rules, but its most famous concerns the use of “F-bombs.” Drop one and your film can receive a rating no lower than PG-13. Drop more than one and you automatically receive an R-rating. And as director Tom Hooper found out, there is no exception for context or even if the multiple uses are confined to a profanity-free film. The scene in question comes in his film The King’s Speech, which details the relationship between England’s King George VI (Colin Firth) and speech therapist Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush) who helps him overcome an oft-times debilitating stammer. In one scene, Rush needs to help the Prince prepare for an important speech to the British people in the face of Nazi Germany’s nightly bombing raids. To do so, he has the Prince blast through a string of profanities at high speed, including a number off-bombs.” Despite an appeal and the fact that it was clustered in one (historically accurate) scene, the MPAA still gave the film an R rating. Fortunately, that hasn’t stopped it from being one the most highly acclaimed films of the year and generating some strong Academy Award buzz.
The Tillman Story
Most people know the story of Pat Tillman, the NFL player who enlisted in the Army following the attacks on 9/11 and who was subsequently killed in action in Afghanistan. What is perhaps lesser known is that Tillman was killed accidentally in an incident of “friendly fire,” not in the manner that the Pentagon informed his family and the media. The Tillman Story is a documentary that follows his family as they dig for and uncover the truth about the death of their loved one and records their outrage over the use of his and other dead soldiers’ deaths as public relations tools by the Pentagon and the Bush administration in order to drum up support for their war on terrorism. Despite a lack of explicit violence or sex, the MPAA tagged The Tillman Story with an R-rating for excessive language, language that is no harsher than what one can hear from most teenagers anyway. Harvey Weinstein, the head of the film’s distributor, The Weinstein Company, himself no stranger to appealing ratings, couldn’t get the board to budge with the argument that the film was important for young people to see. Now since the MPAA also serves as an industry lobbying organization, it undoubtedly has many ties to Washington politicians and bureaucrats. Was there some back channel pressure applied to keep the film from getting higher visibility or was the MPAA proactive and took it upon themselves to protect their Washington friends from further widespread embarrassment over the whole incident?
In addition to rating films and cozying up to Washington politicos, the MPAA also gets final authority over the content of advertising materials that the studios release. And as Kevin Smith, the producers of the Saw franchise and others over the years have discovered, you can get into hot water with the group if you don’t get their stamp of approval on anything you wish to release. But if you expect the MPAA’s rulings on advertising to have more of a logical consistency than how they’ve rated films, then you’re very much mistaken. Case in point, a proposed poster for the horror film Bereavement, which featured a young girl holding a knife. The MPAA nixed the poster citing its “depiction of a child holding a weapon.” Now this could seem a bit reasonable, except for the fact that this year also saw the release of the comic book adaptation Kick-Ass, which was also advertised in part with a poster of a young girl holding a weapon. A much bigger weapon, I might add. So why was one approved and the other not? Was the MPAA distracted by the shiny bright colors of the Kick-Ass poster? Who can say?
Perhaps the most puzzling, and certainly the most publicized, controversy coming out of the MPAA this year was the one over the rating of director Derek Cianfrance’s drama Blue Valentine. Those who had seen the movie at its Sundance premier were stunned when the ratings board handed down an NC-17 rating. Attention soon focused on a sequence where Ryan Gosling’s character performs oral sex on Michelle William’s character. Shot from the side at a slight distance, the scene featured no nudity and was as explicit as a similar scene in Darren Aronofski’s Black Swan, which only received an R rating. Ironically, the scene in Black Swan featured Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis, having the MPAA going against its traditional stance of rating a homosexual sex act harsher than its heterosexual counterpart. Perhaps it has something to do with Blue Valentine being distributed by indie house Weinstein Company while Black Swan is from Fox Searchlight, a subsidiary of MPAA sponsoring member Twentieth Century Fox. Williams offered her own thoughts on the matter, speculating that the realism of the scene versus the fantasy element of the Black Swan scene may have informed the decision.
While it is not surprising that Harvey Weinstein appealed the decision, more than a few eyebrows were raised that he was able to get the rating lowered to the less restrictive (no pun intended) R rating. This lead to the issuing of polar opposite statements from the MPAA and national, self-appointed nanny group the Parents Television Council. The MPAA stated that the appeal shows that their rating system works with filmmakers while the PTC stated that the MPAA’s system was broken because they, in the PTC’s eyes, backed down. Of course, the PTC also stated that they had never seen the film themselves, so take their opinion for what it’s worth.