Filmmakers weren’t always gibbering idiots when it comes to ratings

by Sonny Bunch on March 6, 2012

And I have proof!

Following up on yesterday’s post, I’d like to highlight one of the many fascinating extras on the Criterion Collection iteration of David Cronenberg’s Videodrome. It is a 1982 roundtable discussion hosted by Mick Garris and featuring Cronenberg, John Landis, and John Carpenter. They talk about what makes horror movies work quite a bit, but the most interesting part, to me, was their discussion of the MPAA rating system. (The excerpts below can be found at the end of this video and the beginning of this video.)

I remember tensing up the first time the subject was broached, expecting a harangue from a trio of directors I admire about how dumb the ratings system is. First up was Landis, who, when asked if he had any thoughts on MPAA ratings, replied

Yes! Very few people realize this, but the United States is the only country in the world that does not have government-imposed censorship. We have a self-regulating board, the Motion Picture Association of America, whose job is to reflect the current mores. For instance, I made a movie called Kentucky Fried Movie, which was five years ago, they had a scene with lovemaking, where the girl was on top, and it was fairly graphic. And that got an R rating. Now, with the Moral Majority and equally despicable groups screaming, an identical scene, in American Werewolf, in a porno movie projected on a screen, was considered enough to get me an X. It was the same shot. And when I said ‘Wait a minute, it’s the same shot,’ they explained it to me—and they’re correct! They explained ‘Our job is to reflect the mores of the time,’ which means that President Reagan is president which means that violence is okay and sexuality is evil and corrupt. It’s sick.

What we see here is a director who obviously disagrees with the ratings system but understands its purpose, and, furthermore, understands that his worldview is simply not in sync with that of his countrymen. It’s a remarkably mature point of view and one that is sorely lacking in many filmmakers and studio execs today, most of whom think their job is to push societal boundaries and the audience’s job is to blindly follow and salute their “bravery.”

Next up was Carpenter, who said, regarding horror films, that “I wish they’d stick with R ratings because I think young kids shouldn’t see some, some stuff.” An acknowledgment that children shouldn’t be exposed to certain materials—and, furthermore, that the ratings board is the best way to accomplish that goal! Shocking stuff.

But the best, most nuanced thoughts came from David Cronenberg, who was able to add an international perspective to the mix and show us what real, actual censorship looks like:

Well, every picture that I’ve done has originally gotten an ‘X’ here in the States. But you have to understand that I live in Ontario, Canada, which used to be the most liberal province and now is the most restrictive. So I have to agree, or let me amplify what John [Carpenter] was saying. When I came down here to talk to the MPAA about ratings, it was still a relief compared with what happens in Ontario, which is where they take your picture. They take every print. And they cut it. And they hand it back to you and they say this is your new movie. They keep the pieces that they’ve taken out—and you go to jail for two years if they’re projected, if you put the pieces back. And that’s real censorship. So what you’ve got here, however imperfect it may be, at least you still have the option of releasing the film as an ‘X.’ And of course there are huge economic sanctions against doing that and usually you have a contractual obligation not to have a X. Nonetheless, if you really want it to be an X you can still get it shown. In Canada, you go to jail.

So I would say that what you need here is another category, something like ’14 and over’ or something, because I agree with John that I wouldn’t want—when ‘Shivers,’ which here was called ‘They Came from Within’ was first shown I drove down to Buffalo just to see it in another country, and I was really quite upset to see someone bringing a three-year-old girl into see this film. And I had a three-year-old daughter at the time and I didn’t think the kid should see the movie. And obviously left to adults and parents and parents and guardians it’s just not going to work,* and that’s one of the reasons that they’re being very tough with handing out R ratings here, is because they know that kids are going to get to see these movies, with or without parents. If you have a serious restriction against anyone who is, say, 13 or 14 and under seeing this movie at all—but above this age they can go see it themselves—and you had that as a separate category, as you have in one of the provinces in Canada, that I think would help a lot.

Emphasis mine. If you take nothing else away from this blog—not this blog post, mind you, but this entire enterprise—please let it be this: What the MPAA does Is. Not. Censorship. Period. Full Stop. Kirby Dick and the other whiners featured in This Film Is Not Yet Rated can just put a sock in it. They dilute the term when they use it to describe what happens in America—and they do an injustice to filmmakers who experience actual censorship in Iran, China, India, and elsewhere.

*My “WTF” moment in this regard came during a screening of Freddy vs. Jason, to which a mother and father had brought their five-year-old. I mean…seriously, people? You are all awful.

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