MPAA tweaks movie ratings — again — on violence quotient

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mpaa2Few elements on the American cultural scene are as mocked and as irrelevant as the ratings system of the Motion Picture Association of America.

Anyone who goes to the movies on a regular basis knows that most big films are rated PG-13 now which means they get away with murder (literally) in terms of violence and have reverted to an almost 1950s-style squeamishness when it comes to the depiction of sex.

The MPAA announced changes in the ratings regarding violent content yesterday — changes that will no doubt serve as come-ons rather than warnings when they go into effect later this year.

The Associated Press reported that “CEO Christopher Dodd announced the tweaks in Las Vegas Tuesday at the annual movie-theater convention, CinemaCon. The White House has called on the movie industry to give parents better tools to monitor violence in media since the Newtown, Conn., school shooting.”

The changes will be in the fine-print description under the rating (like the ones that are already in place in regards to sex and nudity). The new wording will include vague phrases such as “strong carnage” (impalements? decapitations?) or “war violence” (A-bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki? A bayonet in the gut?)mpaa6

The strictly voluntary (i.e. ignored) system was created out of a similar atmosphere of political panic in 1968 when the movie studios feared that more states would follow in the footsteps of Maryland (and a few other reactionary places) and start censoring the racier fare that was coming out in those days.

Hollywood was in a terrible bind because the studio heads knew they had to start creating more adult material in the mid-1960s due to stiffer competition from abroad. Pictures such as “La Dolce Vita,” “A Man and a Woman” and “The Silence” were distributed in this country by independents who didn’t belong to the MPAA and who therefore didn’t have to follow its arbitrary restrictions on content.

While most of these foreign and indie films weren’t widely distributed in the heartland, they did play in every major city in the country and their grosses, in some cases, surpassed the earnings of Hollywood fare (“La Dolce Vita” was one of the biggest U.S. box office successes of 1960.)

Before the ratings system was instituted, Hollywood pulled some fast tricks to distribute steamier fare. MGM had a little-used foreign subsidiary, Lopert Pictures, that it dusted off to distribute “Blow-Up” (above) here in 1966 after it met with resistance from the MPAA. A naughty major studio release that same year — “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” — was only approved by the MPAA after Warner Bros. agreed to special advertising that presented it as a de facto “adults only” movie.

The launch of the movie ratings system in the fall of 1968 included two adult categories — R and X — that allowed the studios to fight the foreign film invasion with strong pictures that were released within months of the MPAA labels. “Midnight Cowboy” (below) opened in the spring of 1969, “Easy Rider” was unveiled that summer, and within a year actors were using harsh obscenities in movies as varied as “MASH” and “The Owl and the Pussycat.”

The new violence fine-print on the movie ratings will allow the studios to go about their merry business while claiming in Washington that the ball is now in the parental court.

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Joe Meyers

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