Warning: Thematic Content Within

(Ethan Gates)– I have just noticed that, once done with this post, that will be two weeks in a row that I have ranted about a film that I haven’t even seen yet. Though this week’s subject has not even been released, I am going to take this observation as a sign that I clearly still do not spend enough time watching movies.

There’s a film coming out in early December called “Shame,” the latest directorial effort by photographer-turned-director Steve McQueen (no, not THAT Steve McQueen). “Shame” stars Michael Fassbender as a 30-something New York yuppie with an uncontrollable sex addiction. So maybe it’s not going to be an ideal option for date night, but McQueen’s film has already garnered massive critical acclaim and collected no shortage of prizes at various film festivals around the world. Fox Searchlight Pictures jumped at the chance to distribute “Shame” to American theaters – with that kind of buzz, it should have been no problem to work around the film’s “scandalous” subject matter and make a pretty profit, right?

Wrong. Because that’s where the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) stepped in. You know who these guys are – they’re the ones who slap those familiar ratings (G, PG, PG-13, R, etc.) on every single release that comes through the pipeline. They’re the reason my friends and I got kicked out of a theater for trying to see “The Matrix Revolutions” back in middle school. And they’re the reason why almost nobody in America will get to see “Shame” come December, because last week they slapped the film with a dreaded NC-17 rating, making it absolutely impossible for anyone under the age of 18 to be allowed into a showing. Most American theaters refuse to even show films with an NC-17 rating; NC-17 films are essentially assumed to be pornography, and phenomenally misguided local parents would probably start boycotting their local theater for projecting such smut.

Where does one even begin when it comes to complaining about the MPAA’s ratings? How about their hypocritical and counter-productive (considering their nominal mission of protecting young children from inappropriate images) favoring of violence over sex? Films like “Shame” that depict sex with any kind of explicitness or (god forbid) honesty are immediately in danger of earning an NC-17 rating, while the “Saw” franchise merrily devised 1,001 new ways to gruesomely torture a human being with its R rating safely intact. Never mind that “Shame” at no points depicts a) bodily fluids, b) an erect penis or c) any kind of close-up of anyone’s genitals whatsoever, mid-coitus or no; two seconds of a completely nude Carey Mulligan is obviously far more scarring and dangerous to young viewers than a monster piranha devouring a man’s severed penis (“Piranha 3-D” also earned an R rating, as you could probably guess). Not to mention the sexist prejudice towards male pleasure: show a guy getting a blow job in “Election?” You get an R. Suggest a grown woman getting oral from her husband in “Blue Valentine?” (One of the most spectacularly un-sexy sex scenes of all time, by the way) You get an NC-17. Though that decision was eventually overturned in favor of an R after protests, I’m not letting the MPAA off the hook.

The MPAA intends to inform parents about the graphic content of films, but to do so without any sense of context whatsoever is grossly negligent. For instance, “Once,” possibly the sweetest, most authentic, heartfelt romance of the past decade, was dealt an R rating “for language,” I guess because the main character says “fuck” like three times while under exasperating circumstances. You know, the way people actually talk (and considering Glen Hansard’s impenetrable brogue, it just sounds like he’s saying “foock,” anyway). In what world would anyone put “Once” on the same level as, say, “The Departed,” which uses “fuck” as a substitute for every single part of speech in the English language (including prepositions)? Alternatively, “The King’s Speech” was an uplifting, inspirational historical tale that should’ve been a middle school substitute teacher staple for years to come; but, Colin Firth says “tits,” so a damning, restrictive R it is.

Then there’s the fact that MPAA’s warnings are often just plain stupid. “Juno” is rated PG-13 for “thematic elements?” What the hell does that even mean? Be careful, this movie might have themes? And I won’t even get into the PG-13 rating for the “intense depiction of very bad weather” in “Twister.”

Now, let’s get something straight here. I am NOT saying that underage viewers should rush out to illegally download “Shame” in protest of the MPAA’s restrictions (though the added “forbidden fruit” appeal means that a lot of them will). I am not saying that children should be allowed to watch whatever the heck they want – I know that I would’ve been thoroughly unprepared as an 11-year-old to see, say, “Black Swan.” The MPAA is fantastically ill-executed but well-intentioned: the basic premise of informing parents about possibly questionable content is, I believe, fair.

But with the NC-17 rating, the MPAA goes beyond informing parents to simply doing the parenting themselves, labeling some films as simply unacceptable regardless of individual circumstances. They attach a stigma to films like “Shame” for what they show, rather than what they are trying to do. Isn’t it completely missing the point to flippantly equate a film trying to address the impulses and complications behind sex addiction with porn? Truly concerned parents should look at far more detailed web sites like Kids in Mind, which lay out all possibly offensive/distressing scenes within the proper context of the whole film, without offering up a flat, inflexible rating (or, needless to say, preventing under-18 viewers from seeing the film at all). The MPAA’s practice of lumping films into these broad categories is outdated – it’s time to recognize that there is no objective right/wrong, good/bad interpretation of a film’s elements, only our individual experience with them.

Three to Think About: Great Films That Earned an X or NC-17 Rating

1. Midnight Cowboy (1969)

2. Bad Education (2004)

3. This Film Is Not Yet Rated (2005)