What's wrong with this picture?

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Well, it's summer, which can mean only one thing: It's time for my annual rant about the general state of murder, mayhem and bloodshed on screens. And that's just the cartoons.

Seasonal harbingers as dependable as white pumps and bad hair days, the Really Loud, Really Bad movies are upon us. And once again, the little ones are flocking to them in sticky, sugar-shocked droves, aided as always by a film rating system that straddles the line between flawed and meaningless.

Alert readers may recall that last year at around this time, I let fly on all those dimwitted parents who insist on taking their young kids to R-rated movies. The film in question at the time was "Summer of Sam," the kids in question looked to be well under 10.

The response was overwhelming, and consistent: Everyone who wrote in or called was against taking small kids to violent, profane and sexually explicit movies. Oddly enough, not one of the offending parents got in touch to explain their family entertainment policies.

It happened again recently. This time, the movie was "M:i2," in which Tom Cruise, choreographed by ballistic Balanchine John Woo, shoots, punches, kicks and explodes his way through almost two hours of high-velocity mayhem.

But this time, I was struck not by the number of 8-year-olds in the audience (who must have been pretty bored by all those shots of computer screens in between the fireballs), but the fact that "M:i2," the follow-up to a movie that was supposedly based on one of the most sophisticated television thrillers of the 1960s, was intended for kids.

Sure, there's a middling amount of swearing in the movie, and Tom just happens to fall into bed with Thandie Newton early in the proceedings. And sure, the film is virtually a nonstop montage of violent set pieces. But not one character shows any blood in any of these scenes, no matter how many times he gets shot. Indeed, the violence is about as realistic as a comic book, which is why the Motion Picture Association of America has rated it PG-13, deeming it safe for kids as long as their parents aren't paying too much attention (a pretty safe bet).

Contrast "M:i2" with some other recent movies that the MPAA felt it needed to protect young people from: "Liberty Heights," "The Red Violin," "Joe Gould's Secret," "The Last September," "Topsy-Turvy," "Shakespeare in Love" -- all were rated R, meaning kids under 17 would not be admitted without a parent. The reasons: crude language and sexuality. In these movies' cases, the language was brief and sexual imagery was about as graphic as can be seen on a garden-variety mud-flap.

The MPAA's hypocrisy on the subject of sex and violence isn't news. Observers have long pointed out that the ratings board -- made up of a dozen or so parents -- routinely slaps R ratings on movies that depict even the slightest whiff of sexuality, while giving a pass to pervasive and gratuitous violence. What's more, they punish movies that portray violence realistically -- movies such as "Schindler's List," "Saving Private Ryan" and "The Thin Red Line" -- and reward films that give youngsters no idea of its consequences.

The result is a generation of kids -- especially boys, who are the target audience for such testosterone-driven vehicles as "M:i2," the James Bond franchise and "Gone in 60 Seconds," which opened Friday -- who are either being asked to process frightening images way too early or tempted to imitate acts that they see as harmless.

"There are two real issues with media violence," says Joanne Cantor, professor emeritus of communications at the University of Wisconsin and the author of "Mommy, I'm Scared: How TV and Movies Frighten Children and What We Can Do to Protect Them." "One is, is it going to scare kids? The other is, is it going to make violence look like fun, and are they going to want to imitate it?"

In her research, Cantor has found that even "benign" violence such as that seen in many G-rated cartoons can give kids younger than 6 bad dreams, insomnia and anxiety-driven behaviors. But movies like "M:i2," where people are shot but never bleed, may be just as harmful to the young teen-agers watching them. "Where there are no seriously negative consequences, kids are less likely to have nightmares but more likely to imitate it," Cantor says.

A recent study by Harvard researcher Kimberly Thompson and Fumie Yokota found that even violence in G-rated animated features has increased from an average of 6 minutes per film in 1940 to an average of 9 minutes in 1999. Thompson and Yokota, like Cantor, recommended a change in the current MPAA ratings system from one that focuses on age to one that is based on content like language, sexuality and violence.

"If you take the movie 'Bambi,' if rather than 'G' it said, 'Mother deer shot and killed; orphaned fawn copes,' that's the whole story," says Cantor. "Then, if you want to know whether your child is ready for 'Bambi,' you can ask yourself, is tonight the night you want to discuss with your child what will happen when you die."

The stakes are just as high for young teen-agers as they are for toddlers. Michael Gurian, a family therapist in Spokane, Wash., and the author of "What Stories Does My Son Need?", notes that kids' brains don't fully develop until they're 16 or 17, meaning that they're unable fully to process movie imagery until that time.

"In 'M:i2' specifically I'd point out the stylized violence," he says, "which is definitely going to increase the amount of violent imagery in kids' brains and increase the possibility of violent or highly aggressive responses in normal social situations."

Although Gurian thinks he favors a combination of the current rating system with more content information added, he says, "I'd like to seem them treat violence with as much or more weight as nudity. Because nudity generally has little or no effect on a child. It's violence that has the most effect."

The call for content-based ratings -- made most recently by Sens. John McCain and Joseph Lieberman, who have introduced a bill calling for a universal rating system for movies, television, records and video games -- has not fallen on entirely deaf ears at the MPAA, whose president, Jack Valenti, invented the current rating system in 1968. Although Valenti has consistently defended the G, PG, PG-13, R and NC-17 labels as adequate "cautionary warnings" to parents, in 1990 he made the reasons for the ratings public. Last November, the MPAA announced that those reasons (which The Sun includes in its reviews) would be added to movie ads.

But Valenti changed his mind this spring when he discovered that an already complicated system for compiling movie ads would become too complex, and that the resulting advisories would be too difficult to read. Ads now refer filmgoers to the online site www.filmratings.com, where they can learn the reasons a movie received a particular rating. (Parents without computers, presumably, can just scrounge up the information somewhere else.)

Valenti defends the MPAA's ratings board, which is made up of between eight and 13 California residents, whose only qualification is that they be parents, for putting more weight on language and sexuality than on violence when doling out ratings.

"The letters and complaints I get come from all over America," Valenti says, "and the thing that drives people crazy isn't sex or violence, it's language. Then comes sex, then comes violence."

Still, it's difficult to believe that a group of parents deemed "Shakespeare in Love," with its brief scene of sexuality, worthy of an R warning and "M:i2," with its incessant, hyper-glamorized violence, worthy of a mere PG-13.

"Keep in mind that we're dealing subjectively," Valenti says in response. "It's tough to set up guidelines for violence, [because] it doesn't work. You either have guns firing and blood showing, or you don't have blood and you're not showing consequences. No matter what you do you're going to be criticized."

In defense of the MPAA, Valenti likes to quote annual polls that suggest more than 70 percent of parents finds the ratings useful.

And he reminds filmgoers that the ratings are not meant to be the final word on whether a movie is appropriate for a youngster: That final say belongs to the parent.

He's right, of course. No amount of V-chips, legislation, content-based ratings or enforcement at the theater door can replace parental judgment. The truth is that for every 12-year-old sneaking into "M:i2," there's a parent blithely buying a ticket to the movie for their 8- or 10-year old.

Valenti and the MPAA proudly state that their ratings board is made up of typical American parents. But maybe that's the problem.

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