NC-17 RATING IS RATED 'RD': REALLY DUMB

THE BALTIMORE SUN

You're Phil Slyme and you're the president and chief operating officer of Sprocketscum Films Ltd., a low-end outfit operating from a warehouse off La Brea Avenue near Melrose. You specialize in that weird zone between soft and hard porn, between soft and hard violence. You're always walking the razor's edge between R and X.

Walking it? Hell, man, that's where you live! In your time, Phil, you've killed more starlets than any other producer in Hollywood . . . and in more ways. There was the jackhammer in "Road Gang From Hell" and the dentist's drill "Oral Hygienists From Hell" . . .

Anyway, you've got problems with the upcoming "Space Freaks." You hired a kid out of film school to direct it and you're already behind schedule because the snippy little monkey insisted on . . . a morning of rehearsal!

Phil, your ulcer is kicking up, you're eating Tums by the bucketful, you haven't slept in days, it's getting harder and harder to find industrial-grade Karo syrup to stand in for blood . . . and the whole world is slipping away.

You need a miracle.

You need a godsend.

You need . . . NC-17!

*

The Edsel. New Coke. Betamax. Laser disks. Uptown cigarettes.

Yes, that's the honor roll of really dumb ideas on which the Motion Picture Association of America's NC-17 must take its proud place in the pantheon of human folly.

Meant to ensure the sanctity of art, it will instead ensure the sanctity of trash. It will lead to an inevitable coarsening of the American cultural milieu; it will turn movie theaters into sinkholes.

Like oh-so-many a majestic idea, an idea offered by self-appointed do-gooders, dreamers and other worthless people, this one is poorly thought out and will almost certainly have exactly the opposite effect than is intended. It will encourage filmmakers to descend toward the pit; sex will get dirtier, violence will get more graphic. Movies won't get better.

Here's the theory of NC-17:

The MPAA's rating system geared up in the late '60s, as the baby boom reached the moviegoing age and movie subject matter turned inevitably more "adult" as it grappled with the complexities of the Vietnam War, drug culture, the upsurge in sexual liberty and so forth. As first constituted, the ratings included four categories -- G for General audiences, meaning that anybody could attend; PG for Parental Guidance (originally M for mature audiences), meaning the material contained elements that parents ought to consider before allowing their children to attend; R for Restricted, meaning that children under 17 could only attend with an adult; and X, meaning that children could not attend under any circumstances.

These were amended in 1983, when it became clear that a category was needed between PG and R, in the wake of such intensive film experiences as Steven Spielberg's "Poltergeist," for which many parents felt unwarned by the meek "PG" rating. Thus, in answer to a mounting storm of hostility, the Association came up with PG-13, which strongly warned parents that only kids over 13 should be allowed to attend.

But at the same time, the "X" rating was being undercut by the film industry's evil twin, the pornographic film industry. Since of the four (later five) categories, only the G, PG (later PG-13), and R were copyrighted, the X rating was free for appropriation for all and sundry, and the porno merchants moved quickly to make the symbol their own.

In the early days, it was possible for a film like "Midnight Cowboy" or "A Clockwork Orange" to be released as an X, and both movies, in spite of their content, drew excellent reviews and made considerable money. But by the mid-'70s, the porn industry had all but co-opted its own version of the X rating, proclaiming its films "Triple X," or "hotter than X." In so doing, it tarnished forever the mark of X.

At the same time, signatories to the National Alliance of Theater Owners code agreed not to run X-rated pictures. And many media concerns, beginning with the New York Times, decided not to advertise X-rated pictures. (The Sun does, but the ad cannot contain display material.)

Thus not only had X been hopelessly mixed with the porno industry, it also incurred a heavy financial penalty. The X had, in fact, become a weapon -- though MPAA official policy calls the categories mere classifications, devoid of judgment.

Take "RoboCop," for example. Originally rated X for extreme violence, the MPAA's decision was of such magnitude that it caused director Paul Verhoeven to recut his film, leaving only shards of the original explicitness; another film recut at MPAA insistence was Brian DePalma's "Scarface."

But of course in the long run, it was unsatisfactory. Artists have and will always insist on the right to explore the darker areas of human evil and sexuality. Far too often and far too unfairly, a work of substantial merit ran hard against the X rating and its makers had to either compromise the work's integrity by re-editing it to MPAA standards to qualify for the R, or release the film unrated, thus cutting down on potential venues and profits and making the film virtually unmarketable, except in some art venues.

The situation more or less reached crisis point this summer when there were an unusual number of provocative "adult" works that contained problematical material, including Peter Greenaway's "The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and HerLover" (wanton violence and cannibalism) and Pedro Almodovar's "Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down!" (sadomasochistic bondage). It also gave an X rating to a mediocre science-fiction film called "Hardware," primarily for a gratuitous scene in which a closing door cuts a man in half.

As irritating as these episodes were, what they possessed in the power of outrage they lacked in the power of clout. Both were released by independent Miramax, a New York specialty firm that works the art circuit and is unable to bring much pressure to bear on the Hollywood-oriented, entertainment industry-pitched MPAA.

But at the same time, critics all over the country, including Gene, Roger and this one, were decrying the imprecision of the MPAA's system. Any movie tainted X automatically became forbidden fruit; no discrimination was made between the coarsest garbage the industry churned out and material that, while too far out on the edge for children, was nevertheless artistically relevant.

Next, a big boy was about to become involved. Universal, a part of the giant MCA complex, was just about to release Phil Kaufman's "Henry & June," an account of the passionately sexual relationship between the American writer Henry Miller, his wife June and the French writer Anais Nin, in the Paris of 1931 while Miller was writing his famous "Tropic of Cancer." Kaufman was a serious artistic director, with "The Incredible Lightness of Being" and "The Right Stuff" to his credit. The movie fairly dripped with high purpose and refinement; it also showed an awful lot of nekkid women.

Universal could not release such a prestige production with an X rating; Philip Kaufman would not recut the film, which involves a fairly steamy workup of the lesbian relationship between June and Nin, as well as a vivid evocation of the erotic milieu of Paris in the '30s as seen by the great photographer of the demimonde, Brassai.

Thus on Sept. 27, the MPAA completely reversed its long-held position that everything was hunky-dory in ratings land, and announced that it was junking its X rating and replacing it with the NC-17, meaning that No Children Under 17 would be admitted. Moreover, unlike the X-rating, the NC-17 would be trademarked, so that porn merchants couldn't rip it off and use it to merchandise their films.

This seems to be a solution. It's a problem.

The colossal blunder is as follows: The NC-17 has no meaning if it replaces the X rating; it only has meaning if it is inserted between the X and the R, if it is used to make the crucial distinction between material of artistic value unsuited for children and material of no artistic value unsuited for children. If it can't discriminate between "Henry & June" and "Hardware," it's simply not doing its job.

For while attempting to make the world safe for "art," the MPAA has in effect made it safe for smut. It has accomplished nothing less than de-stigmatizing the X. It has removed the financial stigma from the X rating; it has found a way for movies that previously could not be advertised to be advertised. It has, in effect, disarmed itself. It cannot condemn a film; it has no weapon at all. That function reverts to the people who want it least and can perform it least competently -- namely, theater owners. (Several theater chains have said they will decide whether to show NC-17 films on a case-by-case basis -- but this is clearly a chaotic, unworkable solution.) Indeed, the MPAA may have made it financially attractive to make an NC-17 film.

*

You're Phil Slyme, president and chief operating officer of Sprocket-scum films, and life is good.

"Space Freaks," the first NC-17 horror movie, did $9 million on its first run and you've sold it to video for another cool $2 mil. You were able to show people what they'd never seen before in places they'd never been.

Now the world is yours.

Think of the possibilities.

Think of killing starlets by . . . garbage disposal . . . weed-eater . . . marlinspike.

The phone rings.

"Yeah?"

It's your prop master. He's just located a warehouse full of Karo syrup. He can pick it up for a song.

"Buy it," you say.

How much, he asks.

"All of it," you say. "We're going to need it."

You're Phil Slyme, president and chief operating officer of Sprocketscum films, and you can do anything you want.

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