Rating the MPAA’s inconsistent rating standards
By Catherine Fisher
There are very few things that are rated in our lives: You don’t put a PG on a course you want to take, and you don’t slap an R on the conversation you had at lunch. But when it comes to movies, censorship is everywhere.The MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America) is careful to make sure that no film with less-than-moral standards is filtered into the system with these careful ratings. Why such strict codes on content?
Film censorship in America has become a little outdated since its start in the 1930s, and in some cases has been slightly modified (NC-17 is now used as the most severe rating instead of X). Despite these minor changes, films continue to be edited to fit the particular standards set by the MPAA. Not all films have to be submitted for an MPAA rating, but when was the last time you saw a mainstream film advertised as Not Rated?
What is it that the MPAA is trying to shield the public from? For the most part, it’s obscene violence or sex. Take Sam Raimi’s cult horror film Evil Dead. When it first circulated, almost all of the U.S. distributors turned it down due to its graphic violence. If it hadn’t been picked up at the Cannes Film Festival, the film may have never surfaced in America. Apparently a horror movie based on possession by evil spirits is too immoral to be viewed by the general public.
The most famous example of this, though, is a little piece called Cannibal Holocaust. Ever hear of it? It won’t be found on local network television nor will it be circulating in theatres. It would probably be found in the back aisle of an old video rental store collecting dust in the corner.
This Italian film, made in 1980 about a rescue mission gone wrong in South America, has been deemed the most widely banned film in the world. Its shocking violence and animal killings made it forbidden in countries such as Italy, Germany and Australia.
But that’s not the interesting part—of all the countries this “obscene” film was banned, the United States wasn’t one of them. Somehow Cannibal Holocaust was fit for American viewers, but Evil Dead wasn’t. Could there be a flaw in this rating system? What did Holocaust do that Evil Dead didn’t?
Today you would think it were nearly impossible for films to be banned. With extensive violence programmed into TV viewers at such a young age, you’d think any amount of brutality would float through the rating system unscathed. But while this is true to a point, there are other topics that can land a film on the MPAA’s blacklist.
Show a limb being cut off? Fine. A brutal stabbing? Sure. But possibly exploit a trendy religion? That’s a no go. Or at least that was the case with the 2002 film The Profit, a fictitious movie about cults and con men. If you asked Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard about the film, he might have a different opinion of its plot. The Church of Scientology damned the film as a parody of the religion, and, despite the director’s insistence that the film had nothing to do with Scientology, a court order was enacted and further distribution of the film was banned in the US.
What the Church of Scientology should have understood is that, unlike the time period when Raimi’s Evil Dead came out, there is a new technological invention that makes it harder for anything to be truly “banned”: the Internet.
In 2007, a version of The Profit was put on the Internet for streaming, and it was viewed by the masses in the comfort of their own homes. The results? Some say it was overacted, others say it should have been a documentary, but all agree that a possible bad film is not a plausible reason for banning it.
With all these films that are kept a secret from the public due to whatever moral film code they supposedly break, it seems only reasonable that there are people in the country looking to show the public the truth. That’s where Movies on a Big Screen comes in.
Begun as a small Sacramento venue dedicated to showing films that didn’t get mainstream attention, it soon grew to be a popular theatre that showed all kinds of films, including a few kept out of the main theater circuit. Some of the films shown are ones that didn’t get an MPAA rating, so they couldn’t circulate in big name theater chains. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t allowed to be shown at all. The MPAA only has so much control.
But does one have to travel all the way to Sacramento to enjoy a filmmaker’s work of art separate from censorship restrictions? Hopefully not. There are many theaters that work independently of the mass chains that are not bound to MPAA laws. A film is a director’s own personal work of art. You don’t shield a painting because it depicts violence, why should films be any different?
Catherine Fisher is a freshman journalism major. Her campaign to get Spice World banned in America and parts of Canada is picking up steam. E-mail her at [email protected].