Why do films have ratings?
Not to ask a daft question, Dave, but why do films have ratings like "G" and "PG" and such? What happened before there were ratings, and what's the future of ratings, given that extremely violent movies often get lax ratings when compared to non-violent films with nudity?
A great question to think about the day after Christmas, I must say. It's interesting that there's been a film ratings board for decades, but rather than assign a specific age rating like we have now, it just used to check for "moral codes", things like "do the bad guys get their comeuppance in the end?" The film industry had an informal agreement about the kind of content that would be included in a film too: couples were never in the same bed, for example, and violence was more typically off-camera than on.
Today we've moved into a very different world in cinema, and it seems like we're more likely to see a movie where the bad guy not only gets away with it, but where the bad guy is the protagonist. A prime example from modern cinema is Gone in Sixty Seconds, where car thief Nick Cage outwits the police and is definitely the hero by the end.
Nonetheless, rather than write an essay on the evolution and changes in movies in the last fifty years (though that'd be a great essay to write: I'm quite a film aficionado and watch hundreds of films a year, from the 40s through to present day), let's look at the Motion Picture Association of America and see what it has to say about modern film ratings.
First, though, a quick detour to University of Houston, where they have a splendid film history site that includes the original film rating justification. The original ratings as introduced in 1968 were:
Contrast that with the modern, more complex rating system we have, as explained by the MPAA:
Notice the big change between that and what we have now? Yes, in 1968 the Motion Picture Association believed that it was at age sixteen that children become young adults and can make their own decisions regarding what they view. Nowadays, of course, that age has changed to seventeen. The rating of "X" has of course been dropped too, or at least it's been scrubbed to the less porn-related "NC-17" instead, since it's effectively the same rating.
Oh, and the world of political correctness has shown its ugly head too. In 1968 the Association said:
"This category includes motion pictures submitted to the Code and Rating Administration which in the opinion of the Code and Rating Administration are rated (X) because of the treatment of sex, violence, crime or profanity."
and today, well, they're terrified of offending anyone, even while having this relatively arbitrary rating system:
"NC-17 does not necessarily mean obscene or pornographic; in the oft-accepted or legal meaning of those words. The Board does not and cannot mark films with those words. These are legal terms for courts to decide. The reasons for the application of an NC-17 rating can be excessive violence, sex, aberrational behavior, drug abuse or any other elements which, when present, most parents would consider too strong and therefore off-limits for viewing by their children."
There are a couple of interesting additional paragraphs in the original film code memo too:
"Much of this nation's strength and purpose is drawn from the premise that the humblest of citizens has the freedom of his own choice. Censorship destroys this freedom of choice...In our society parents are the arbiters of family conduct. Parents have the primary responsibility to guide their children in the kinds of lives they lead, the character they build, the books they read, and the movies and other entertainment to which they are exposed."
"We believe self-restraint, self-regulation, to be in the American tradition. The results of self-discipline are always imperfect because that is the nature of all things mortal. But this Code, and its administration, will make clear that freedom of expression does not mean toleration of license."
Versus the modern: "PG-13 places larger responsibilities on parents for their children and moviegoing. The voluntary rating system is not a surrogate parent, nor should it be. It cannot, and should not, insert itself in family decisions that only parents can make. Its purpose is to give pre-screened informational warnings, so that parents can form their own judgments. PG-13 is designed to make parental decisions easier for films between PG and R."
Alright, I admit, it's pretty easy to compare the 1960's rating system with the 2006 rating system and find that things might not have changed for the better, but I have to admit when it comes to movies, I prefer a Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly movie over a Tom Cruise or Will Smith movie. It's not that I don't like modern films - there are many great ones - but I do prefer an ending where things are "righted", where bad guys are caught, where innocent people have that mythic happy ending, etc.
Your perspective, of course, will undoubtedly vary. :-)
For that matter, what do you consider some of the best movies ever made, dear reader?
For me, it's as simple as viewing my (long) five-star list on Netflix, which includes Singing in the Rain, On The Town (one of my favorite films), The Andromeda Strain, North by Northwest (really, anything by Hitchcock), Breakfast at Tiffany's, Citizen Kane (how can you not love this movie?), Lawrence of Arabia (or anything by David Lean), Ghandi and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. Films made in the last few years on my list include: Hero, Nine Queens, Good Night, And Good Luck, Monsoon Wedding, Enigma and Whale Rider.
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