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The MPAA: Worse than useless

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Posted: Saturday, February 19, 2011 4:08 am

(Note: Yes, I am about a day late in posting this, but I figure better late than never. Enforcer Dan Evans is taking care of the situation, as I promised he could strike me without repercussion every time I’m late with an update. For our inaugural beating he has chosen a kidney shot, and I plan to take it like a man. We don’t play around here at Battle Royale.)

For the past 40 years, the Motion Picture Association of America has been an easy target for criticism. The MPAA is a vast and terrible entity that has taken on many different roles since its inception in 1922, but it is specifically their rating system (G, PG, PG-13, R and NC-17 -- established in 1968 but tweaked since) that has made them a household name these past many decades, and drawn the ire of rational movie-goers. The MPAA has long been noted for the often head-scratching manner in which they assign ratings, and I have periodically criticized them for their absurd, antiquated, counter-productive system. But there are two recent examples of their uselessness that, when compared side-by-side, paint a particularly disturbing portrait of pedantcy run amok.

I saw a horrible movie called “The Eagle” last week. It’s a sword-and-sandals epic, and since the studio was after an “audience-friendly” PG-13 rating, the violence was ostensibly toned down to ensure that parents would let their kids go see it (this strategy backfired, as the film only grossed about $8 million in its opening weekend). But here’s the thing: Even though the blood is kept to a minimum, “The Eagle” is still an intensely violent movie. The key scene I’m thinking of involves a child, no more than 8 years old, being executed by having his throat cut with an ax. “Technically” speaking, I suppose even such a sequence would qualify for a “kid-friendly” PG-13, as no blood is actually shown on-screen -- the scene cuts away to a reaction shot a nanosecond before the child’s blood would have doused the camera.

Now, I don’t mean to imply that “The Eagle” is inappropriate for all younger viewers. The violence, though harrowing, isn’t near the level of, say, “Spartacus: Gods of the Arena” or other similar works we’ve seen recently. Still, the fact remains that far less brutal -- though technically “bloodier” -- films have been slapped with an R rating without a second thought, simply because the MPAA consistently fails to take context or tone into account when assigning ratings. But I ask you: Knowing the actual content, what reasonable person would let their child see “The Eagle” but then turn around and consider the playful, goofy violence of, say, “The Expendables” too much for their delicate minds to handle?

Compare this situation to that of “The King’s Speech,” which is, for the most part, quite a family-friendly affair with a wealth of valuable lessons to impart on impressionable young viewers. However, it was rated R by the MPAA, which deemed it objectionable for children and teens on the basis of one scene that involves King George VI uttering profanities as a “loosening up” verbal exercise. I humbly submit to you that any parent who seriously finds such a scene to be too objectionable for their 13-year-old is a flat-out fool who is clearly too lazy and/or stupid to have a five-minute conversation with their kid and properly explain the concept of context.

And thus the youth suffers. Chain theaters have been strictly following MPAA guidelines since the Columbine massacre created a fresh “effects of media” controversy, so it’s very difficult for discriminating young movie-goers to have proper access to the films they should be seeing. So I implore you, on my hands and knees: Please, for the love of God, don’t blindly follow the MPAA rating system. Don’t entrust the quality of your child’s cinematic education to a faceless bunch of nipple-counters who are evidently incapable of stepping outside the insane confines of their “science” to properly gauge the effect of context on what is or is not appropriate for young viewers. Take a few minutes to do your own research and decide for yourself what your kids should be watching. And in a case like “The King’s Speech,” if you happen to have a kid who’s bright enough to have an interest in such a film, then hot damn, take the plunge and buy them a ticket.

(I was going to get into the effects of the rating system on film distribution -- particularly in regards to the masterful “Blue Valentine,” which the MPAA almost buried. But I think that’s a battle for another day.)