Film Studies: A three-year-old can watch this?

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Most forms of public performance exist under the ordinary law. Thus, it is illegal to walk up to a man on the street and shoot him, as it is an immediate offence for a man to approach a woman and expose his private parts. At the same time, of course, any shrewd party caught up in the development of motion picture entertainment knew that such gestures were a little different in the dark at the movies. From the outset, it became clear that the great public had a ready desire to see things we generally call sex and violence. And if they could have one, then they'd ask for both. It was plainly the case that people in motion pictures could pretend to shoot each other - and the pretending was dynamic, it was life-like, it was death-like. It was a turn-on. And although at the start of the medium nudity was not allowed, still the heady romantic involvement that promised nudity was very desirable.

As films played in different parts of America, where quite different moral standards applied, the business sought some rationalisation and protection. It was afraid that local police authorities, to say nothing of bands of teachers and clergymen, might forbid certain pictures, and picket them. An organisation was formed, in 1922: the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America. It had many functions: it was there to assure the world that the hideous scandals of sex, drugs, debauchery, abandonment and murder in the young Hollywood were just the actions of a few young people out of control. So they promised control - which they would practice as public relations if they couldn't change behaviour. The MPPDA would lead to the foundation of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the largest "Aren't We Wonderful?" outfit in the world short of the US government.

The MPPDA said, look, we have a code of things you can't do in movies - such as commit a crime and go unpunished, such as say heinous words or engage in lewd conduct. It was called the Hays Code, after Will Hays who led the MPPDA (or, as it became, the MPPA). More or less, it worked. From the 1920s to the 1950s, the movies were a mass entertainment that regularly dealt in sex and violence without being shut down. It was the principle of the Code that if we police ourselves then external police forces can rest in comfort. This was the law coming to the aid of a business and hurting the art contained in the business. It was a pact that made American films happy, conservative and "clean" despite the state of the public imagination in the dark.

That Code lasted until 1966 when the old censorship was breaking down. All of a sudden there was more sex and violence, and society had to move to keep up - despite deep disapproval in many sections of the country.

The principle was then conceded for the first time that grown-ups could see certain films which should not be shown to children. A rating system came into being in the US, with these labels: G (anyone can see it); PG (parental control encouraged, but still, in practice, anyone can see it): PG-13 (that age suggested as the threshold of acceptability); R (no one under 18 can see it unless accompanied by an adult); and X (only for those over 17). The X was subsequently amended to NC-17. The system is a racket, a way of saving face and assuaging public morality while making as much money as possible by showing sex and violence to cinema audiences. And now, Kirby Dick has had the bright idea of making a polemical documentary about this system, and a satire on the film business, This Film Is Not Yet Rated.

In practice, the MPPA has viewing panels that see a film, make their suggestion and then "negotiate" with the film-makers over what can and cannot be included. To this extent, the system is rigged. An NC-17 rating is still a killer because in the sedated and religiose parts of America, an NC-17 film will not be shown, or even advertised. In other words, the provision for adult entertainment - and I don't mean pornography, I mean material and ideas only for adults - is denied by the censoriousness of certain communities. In short, an NC-17 cannot make money, and so most production contracts require the director to deliver an R-rated picture.

Dick's film is especially entertaining in showing the accommodating lengths the MPPA panel will go to get a mainstream film an R rating.

Equally, it shows that independent films - in their nature, more dangerous, more subversive and less viable - do not get the same kind of treatment. So the racket is that the ratings have ended up re-enforcing the commercial mainstream, and nothing indicates that more fully than the scandal at work every day in America whereby "families" can be together in the dark watching The Silence of the Lambs, Schindler's List or Oliver Stone's 9/11 film, World Trade Center.

I am not knocking any of those films. But would you let a three-year-old see them? And does anyone actually believe that there, in the dark, their imagination exposed to the various forms of horrific imagery in those three films (and countless others), that young kids are protected by being with a parent or a guardian? Surely we know that the movies are a fantasy that works very privately.

To take The Silence of the Lambs, I don't think anyone three years old or even 13 years old should see the film. Time and again, I have been present in American theatres when young children in front of that kind of experience were crying out in fear. And the God-fearing American public hissed at the parents and told them to shut the child up. You see, the iniquity of the R rating is the white lie that we are being careful and responsible when we allow parents to take their children to such movies while saving on the cost of babysitter.

It's a way of selling tickets, and it's all part of a system that cheats the power of the medium: quite clearly, vulnerable minds can be wounded by the movies - or trained to ignore the pain inflicted on others. And that, in turn, persuades the sedated and religiose parts of America that the rest of the country is depraved, mercenary and unprincipled.

'This Film Is Not Yet Rated' is released on Friday