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X to NC-17: The Evolution of Film’s Most Controversial Rating

X to NC-17: The Evolution of Film’s Most Controversial Rating

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Feature by: Rumsey Taylor

Posted on: 17 July 2004

It is widely speculated that The Motion Picture Association of America panel consists of twelve people: seven women, five men; comprised of at least two whites, two Latinos, two blacks and two Asian-Americans. The only requisite criterion between them is having been a parent. The group convenes, watches, and rates three films a day. Together, they amount to America’s voice of morality.

The organization was founded in 1922. As stated on their website, the aim of the MPAA is “to restore a more favorable public image for the motion picture business.” Contrarily, because of the collective assumptions and connotations pronounced by its ratings, the MPAA has crippled an industry it is meant to augment.

Jack Valenti became president of the MPAA in 1966, employing the first concrete ratings system shortly thereafter: G, PG, R, and X. Valenti, an experienced politician, quickly earned the trust of film studios and distributors. In the first years of his ongoing tenure, his ratings system was endorsed nationwide. No film could (and can) be widely exhibited and advertised without a rating.

In his self-penned mission of the MPAA, Valenti states that “entire rostrum of the rating program rests on the assumption of responsibility by parents.” And furthermore: “Ratings are meant for parents, no one else.” It may be assumed, then, that for one over the age of eighteen the ratings serve no cause.

The MPAA has supplied an unending source of criticism since its creation, and this is mostly in reference to the X rating. Few films with the X rating, since its introduction in 1966, have been legitimately adult films: that is, neither by definition nor association pornographic.

X is the film industry’s most disreputable and suggestive rating, similarly, pornography — the most uninhibited film genre. The two are concretely synonymous. For this reason, X suggests that a film contains highly explicit (if not outright pornographic) material. It is because of this collective assumption that the MPAA gathers criticism.

Though it is arguably fair, X is in some cases misrepresentative. Midnight Cowboy was released in May of 1969. The following year the film earned Oscars for direction, writing, and Best Picture. No other X-rated film in history has received similar popular acceptance.

In the late Sixties to mid-Seventies, X was understood in context as representative of an adult film. It was nearer to the end of the decade that it became caught under the current of pornography. This claim is seconded by Valenti:

The X rating over the years appeared to have taken on a surly meaning in the minds of many people, a meaning that was never intended when we created the system.

This connotation stigmatizes film for two reasons. Firstly, legitimately adult films, initially given an X upon initial submission to the MPAA, are typically edited to retain an R to dodge any semblance to pornography. And second, several theaters prohibit exhibition of X-rated films.

X evolved to NC-17 in 1990 upon the release of Henry & June, which follows the matter-of-fact sexual discourses of two females and a male. Some critics applauded its uninhibited method of addressing contemporary sexuality, and in a manner no different from R-rated films. However, open sex minus any derivative guilt threatened the MPAA. Had the film contained no-name body actors instead of the more appreciable talent of Uma Thurman, the sex-drama may have easily been offered the X rating. Because of the connotation suggested by X, NC-17 became the presupposed solution.

In its contemporary use the X rating is primarily isolated to pornography, whereas NC-17 has become the supposed antidote for films containing only pornographic or explicit elements. This change does denote that the MPAA is willing to accommodate the changing industry, though merely renaming the rating did little to eschew its pornographic connotation. NC-17 is only “fair” considering that it differentiates a film from a pornographic film. Fair or not, the label is an unwanted stigma at the box office.

The rating has provoked an unending source of controversy in the past decade; a controversy more debated than the nature of the many films on whose posters it is stamped. Despite the freedom to view any type of film upon one’s eighteenth birthday, the mere, suggestive nature of NC-17 has caused filmmakers’ visions to be compromised. In turn the MPAA has fashioned — intended or not — a closed ceiling that houses a growing medium.

NC-17 has earned Oliver Stone’s (no stranger to controversy or censorship) Natural Born Killers notoriety before its initial release. The MPAA found the film too excessive, citing its “extreme violence, “graphic carnage, ”shocking images, “strong language and sexuality.” Though no particular scene was charged, the frenzied, violent mood of the film was ground for debate. Over 150 cuts (totaling a mere three minutes of footage) were made to secure an R rating.

Stone’s message was equally displayed in the new cut. The film is decidedly violent, and, contrary to the opinions of the MPAA panel, the most controversial aspect of the film is rather the popularity and status given to the murderers. Some argue that the film mirrors the current media sensibility — a claim justly evidenced by reporters and journalists who race incessantly to publish and exploit the names of actual murderers.

The rating functions doubly in its suggestive appeal. The Evil Dead, prematurely rated X upon its release in 1982, earned the rating because of a single scene in which a woman is violently raped by a tree. Despite the film’s laughable moments of stilted horror, the rating has earned the film lasting respect as a cornerstone of the horror genre.

Since its genesis NC-17 has been both more successful and debated than X. Even so, the change did little to clear the foggy bridge between R and NC-17. Kevin Smith’s potty-mouthed Clerks, for example, was initially given the rating, though it contains no violence, sex, or nudity. An attorney was hired to petition the rating, and it was successfully changed to R. This example denotes the subjectivity of the MPAA panel.

More recent films such as The Center of the World, L.I.E., Bully, and Requiem for a Dream have been branded by the rating, mostly because of sexually explicit material or tones; none have successfully appealed it. The diversity of the films mentioned should denote the blanket tendency of NC-17; one is a romance, two involve the rites of adolescence (though they are ultimately dissimilar), one traces the mighty grip of drug addiction.

Gregor Nicholas, director of Broken English, best articulates this issue. His film was given the rating (for a scene in which “two people appeared to be actually making love”) and appealed it unsuccessfully:

To me, there is something wrong with the system which tells us that exposure to acts of violence will leave young audiences untainted while exposure to acts of love will somehow corrupt them.

Though inspired in an effort to defend the legitimate relevance of his film, Nicholas’ evaluation of this “system” is justifiably correct.

In short NC-17 represents a vast number of explicit citations. For this reason, it gathers tremendous criticism by those in the industry. The explicit nature of films with less severe ratings (as it is argued) is also a source of controversy.

Hannibal, more than any recent film to mind, illustrates the hypocrisy of the MPAA. The film was given an R without an appeal, though it contains two scenes of grisly violence. But it is seemingly viable, being that the film is pushed to justify the savage nature of the looming title character by graphically depicting such practices as a man having his head sliced open and being fed a portion of his own brain.

The major, collective gripe with NC-17 is that it illustrates a double standard. Critics argue that films with bigger budgets and bigger stars are given leeway, whereas smaller films are unfairly bullied and given fascistic restrictions.

In an effort to remedy this, Mark Lipsky (Director of Consumer Marketing at Bravo and the Independent Film Channel) crafted a petition to resurrect the A (Adult) rating. The letter argues that “the taint of an ’X’ rating clearly results in massive and arbitrary corporate censorship”; thusly, the rating amounts the prohibition of legitimate adult films. The petition was signed by nearly forty industry filmmakers and sent to Valenti.

The petition did little to convince Valenti of his “dated” and misrepresentative ratings system (it did cause him to hold summit meetings with different studios — to no apparent end). It is evident Valenti, 77, will continue to defend the legitimacy and relevance of the MPAA’s rating system.

Though this issue is seemingly relevant only to those involved in film distribution, it is pertinent, more so, to the viewing public. Films exhibited have been censored and/or endorsed (often in that order) before arriving at a theater near you; in turn, an anonymous group of parents, in southern California, have exiled the collectively viewable from the restricted, and we (as an audience) involuntarily adhere to their subjective definition of morality.

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