Film Ratings, Distilled
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Estimated reading time of this week’s Distilled: 5 minutes and 17 seconds
Indiana Jones might be my family’s most beloved film franchise (Star Wars is a close rival). My sister once had an awesome Indiana Jones-themed birthday party that puts all other birthday parties to shame. Archeology, world travel, exaggerated hand-to-hand combat, leather jackets and fedoras…what’s not to love?
Still, the films could be a little intense for children. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom shows a man literally pulling hearts out of people. When it was first released, parents complained that the PG rating wasn’t enough.
Yet Indy is still way too tame for an R rating. So Steven Spielberg himself suggested adding a rating between PG and R to be a middle ground. The PG-13 rating was added in 1984, and it’s all thanks to Temple of Doom.
The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) film rating system has always interested me because it’s so mysterious. Every film is rated on a case-by-case basis by a board of an anonymous group of parents. The point of the system is to help parents decide what their children can watch. I feel for the MPAA, because they have to sit through some crazy stuff (remember, they watch ALL of it, not just the films that ends up in the G-R range). We can’t fault them for trying.
But the rating criteria is strangely vague. The MPAA doesn’t share why they assign certain ratings. They don’t offer descriptions beyond “thematic material” and “action sequences.” If a filmmaker wants to appeal a rating decision, the MPAA won’t even reveal which scenes need to be cut out or edited to change their rating.
Worst of all, the ratings often gloss over the actual context of the film, focusing less on the overall message of what’s going on in the film and more on specific, arbitrary hang-ups.
Language is less about the actual word than the number of times a word is used. The film won’t get dinged for using a bad word once — but use it twice and you go from PG to R faster than you can say “fuck.” The King’s Speech has one terrific scene that uses “fuck,” to illustrate how frustrated King George was, so the film got an R rating even though it might as well be G-rated. Planes Trains and Automobiles (rated R) would have been PG if not for Steve Martin's obscene(ly hilarious) car rental rant.
The MPAA also isn’t a fan of drug use, especially in movies about teens — even when those movies are valuable for teens to watch. The Breakfast Club got hit with the R rating because the characters smoke pot, which means high schoolers supposedly can’t watch a movie about…high schoolers. Boyhood, an incredible film with lessons about growing up, shows teens experimenting with pot, so it got dinged with an R rating. Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade was also rated R, in another ironic instance of barring eighth graders from watching a coming-of-age comedy about their own lives.
Violence is also inconsistent. The Matrix (rated R) got dinged for “sci-fi violence” that amounts to not much more than the kind of gun fights you’d see in a PG-13 James Bond film. Meanwhile, The Dark Knight (rated PG-13) surprised audiences when it wasn’t rated R, what with the Joker’s “pencil trick,” and other general psychopathic forms of killing people. The MPAA seems to make its decisions based on the simple guideline of whether blood is shown, which means you can have an R-rated gunshot and a PG-13-rated pencil going right through someone’s skull.
And how do you rate fear? Audiences were so thoroughly disgusted by The Exorcist that there was reportedly lots of vomiting in the theater, and people actually complained that it should have been kept out of theaters entirely with an NC-17 rating (formerly X, before X-rated films became associated with porn and the MCAA had to rebrand X to NC-17). Insidious is PG-13 because it messes with you mentally instead of relying on violence or gore, but I dare you to watch it and still tell me you think it shouldn’t be R. When is something psychologically rated R or NC-17? Does the lack of physical action make something any less scary?
Clearly, context doesn’t count for much when it comes to an MPAA rating. It’s on audiences to figure it out. So the question is: How do you balance content with context? Is the violence in a historic masterpiece like Saving Private Ryan (R) the same thing as the violence in Saw III (R)? How do you evaluate a movie based on its overall tone and storytelling instead of its content?
It’s a tricky one for both the studios and the audience. But the MPAA ratings are becoming outdated anyways, now that we have access to more contextual information about movies online. There are a ton of context-based rating systems like Common Sense Media that paint a broader picture of what a movie is really like as a whole, instead of focusing on arbitrary guidelines. For instance, Common Sense Media rates Little Miss Sunshine 13+ even though it’s an R-rated film, because they take into account the whole movie, not the brief cocaine at the beginning.
And if you really want to get into it, there are some incredibly detailed guides that specifically outline when to show your kids each of the Star Wars films (I vote for the order in which they came out).
And the MPAA guidelines are just that — guidelines — and not laws. No one can really stop you from seeing a film if you want to. My parents took me to see Pirates of the Caribbean (PG-13) when it was first released, even though I was eight, because they knew I could handle some skeletons, sword fighting and rum (also, skeletons, sword fighting and rum appear frequently in the Disneyland ride). My friends watched movies like The Hangover and Paranormal Activity at sleepovers since we couldn’t see them at the theater, and we had a blast.
Besides, what’s the worst that can happen if you see a movie you weren’t quite ready for? Everyone remembers that movie or two they probably shouldn’t have watched as a kid. But chances are, you’re glad you watched it.
Unless it was The Grudge. I kind of regret that one. Mirrors were never the same.
The New York Times: ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’ at 25: ‘The Most R-Rated G You Will Ever See’
“‘Maybe we bamboozled them with gargoyles,’ one filmmaker said.”
Hop take: Beer of the week
This week’s beer goes to New Belgium because the Mountain Time Lager was my first beer at my first Red Rocks show! Also, since we’ve been talking about movies, it would also make a great movie theater beer because it’s light, pairs well with snacks and doesn’t make you immediately have to pee.
This all begs the question: Does this mean my newsletter is now R-rated for using the word “fuck” a total of three times?
‘Til next time!