Neglected, afraid, lonely kids 'R' us

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The Independent Culture

Film Studies

Film Studies

There is a storm building in America over the "R" rating. It is an instructive, not very wholesome story, and it shows what decades of compromised self-interest can lead to. The "R" rating is part of a system devised by the Motion Picture Association of America. The MPAA is not a government body, but a buffer paid for by the movie industry, and created for the purpose of avoiding any kind of government interference.

It goes back as far as 1922, when the MPPDA - the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America - was formed to fight off the threat of censorship, and even the risk of some more oppressive policing because of the personal scandals rife in Hollywood. But there was a notion about that movies were sensational, titillating and generally bad for the young, and that they were made by reckless hedonists.

What else is new? Or could be more American? Still, this country has deep-seated, punitive urges to protect itself against itself, and the picture business was artful enough to conceive of a cover. This was the MPPDA, led by Will Hays, Postmaster General under Warren Harding. Hence the Hays Code. That comic but pretty effective list of things movies could not do, say or show lasted into the 1960s and actually promoted a potent erotic suggestiveness, a climate that made Marilyn Monroe possible.

In the 1960s, old-fashioned "decency" yielded to nudity, sexual behaviour, "language" and a novel level of violence. The old code fell away like a Berlin Wall made of stripper's veil. But something was needed in its place, and the new leader of the MPAA, Jack Valenti - a Lyndon Johnson crony - devised the scheme that operates today. The MPAA screen films and rate them as follows: G - suitable for anyone; PG - some parental guidance suggested; PG-13 - guidance urged for children under 13; R - no one under 17 can see the film without adult company; and NC-17 - no one under 17 admitted.

These are not law. They are the recommendations of an advisory board that has only Valenti (now 79) above it. But the ratings mean, in practice, that anyone under 17 can see any film in America. Why? Well, because the NC-17 rating has hardly ever been used. Some states will not permit it; some media will not advertise it. As a result, it is a box-office killer - fair comment on America's attitude to genuinely adult issues. Thus, the standard director's contract requires the delivery of a movie that will receive an "R". If it doesn't, the director - no matter who - must cut away the offensive NC-17 stuff (nearly always sexual, as opposed to violent, until the ratings board passes it.

Until recently, theatres had been very lax in checking whether every child at an "R" was "with" an adult. Especially in multiplexes, a parent could buy the ticket and then send the child, alone, into the dark. There was no scrutiny at the auditorium door. And so the "R" sailed on as a dire example of having your cake and eating it: the industry could point to a face-saver, but it had a scheme dedicated to selling every possible ticket.

Suppose the "with" is enforced. Even so, that means that today in the US, children of three and four may see the Exorcist, the Scream pictures, Saving Private Ryan, and whatever extremes of suspense, violence or rape a film can reach. The "R" caters to the theatres' greed and to parents' desire to save money on a baby-sitter. And it cheerfully believes that "with" is a thorough safeguard. Yet the fact is that we are always alone in the dark - and this is especially true for children who cannot yet distinguish between reality and illusion.

I was present recently at an "R" film, What Lies Beneath, in which Michelle Pfeiffer's character comes under threat. Near me in the dark were two children, three and five I'd guess. They were crying, because they were upset. Their mother told them to hush. Being with her hadn't protected them against the large, persuasive fantasy to which they were exposed. They should not have been there.

Well, it has just emerged that most studios do take great care in preparing their "R"s these days. Indeed, they hold test screenings for crowds of kids in the 10-15 age-range, and they use their responses to determine their promotion and ads. The industry's contempt for the "R" status, and its deliberate manufacture of questionable films for that age-range is all too clear.

There is more to be said: not least that the First Amendment is crucial to America with its protection of freedom of expression. Equally, there are 10-year-olds who could see dangerous films - and others that shouldn't. "With" ought to mean talked about afterwards - and there's no way the business can be held responsible for that. But Hollywood has been exposed at its most abject, and it should not act surprised if a more conservative administration believes their attitude requires intervention.