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Ratings reflect faulty value system

STANLEY KUBRICK'S final masterpiece, "Eyes Wide Shut," arrived at a time eerily coincident with a new wave of concern over movie content and how it should be handled. While I went to the theater in Richmond to see it last weekend, the chain's national administration was busying itself implementing a new pledge to more strictly check the ID's of people entering movies rated "R" and "NC-17." Many groups are pressuring Hollywood studios to tone down the violence level in movies, or at least to show more realistic consequences. But America's general mindset towards movie content and how it should be handled remains very difficult to understand.

America's attitude might be best expressed by an incident that immediately preceded my going to the movie. I was spending the weekend at a friend's house and his parents were watching a video as we were leaving. While my friend told them where we were going, they kept their eyes on the screen during a scene in which three people were shot by a group of guerillas in ill-fitting camouflage outfits. It was only after this that my friend's mother remarked that she'd heard that it was a terribly immoral movie. But through that she didn't bat an eye at the explicit violence flowing by on her TV. For that matter, neither did I.

But what's the difference? Is explicit sex, even in more depraved (but nonviolent) forms such as incest or adultery, in some way worse than explicit violence? Everywhere I've gone, however, I've run into people who are more worried that sex has gotten into movies than that violence has gotten into them.

The Motion Picture Association of America's ratings also reflect this whacky Puritanism. Show a man getting shot and you still have a chance of holding on to your PG rating. Show two people having sex and you can kiss that rating good-bye. But the MPAA means for the ratings to reflect the kinds of decisions most parents would make about letting their children see the movies, and conducts polls regularly to make sure that the system is retaining its efficacy. The MPAA, while part of the foolishness, is not its cause.

Nonetheless, its ratings evince a ridiculous influence from sexual puritans. Two films, "Get Real" and "Trick," neither of which show anything more explicit than your average PG-13 film, have received an R rating from the MPAA. Why? The sensual scenes in these movies primarily feature two men. Keep that in mind when you make your next movie. If two men meet and kill each other, you can still secure your PG-13 rating. If the same two men meet and kiss each other, well... you're out of luck. I guess the MPAA's polls show parents would rather their children be murderers than gay.

The same weird standards apply to language as well. Say "f***" twice in a film and a special vote is required to save it from an "R" rating. Two violent deaths and you're still in the game.

That's not to say that we should have explicit sex or sensuality in PG or G films. Children need to have a chance to be innocent. They need a time when they can deal with little problems like addition and tying their shoes, without having to worry about gunfire and sexual mores. But worrying about sexual mores isn't any worse than worrying about gunfire.

We need to change the way we view violence and sexual content in the movies. Were the MPAA to take a hard line and deal with violence in movies in the same way that they deal with sexual content, then the rapidly escalating numbers of "R" and "NC-17" movies would force a change in the content. And loosening the ratings a bit on homosexuality in movies would do much to reverse the atrocious stereotyping of gays so common in modern movies, as they could be dealt with seriously rather than in caricature.

In many ways, today's America is approaching the absurd state Robert A. Heinlein described in "Stranger in a Strange Land." Religion is becoming more commercialized, and violence more acceptable but sex is still cause for hushed voices and prudery. Somewhere along the way, our priorities have become very badly arranged. That needs to change, if we're to maintain any kind of collective mental health.

Did "Eyes Wide Shut" deserve an "R" rating? Certainly it did. It might even have deserved an NC-17 rating, despite the fact that many scenes of the masquerade were digitally altered to decrease their explicit sexuality. But it did not deserve that rating any more than the next explosion-filled killfest. And it deserved the harsh rating not for the presence of sex simpliciter, but rather for the depravity of the sex and other situations in general. We need to reassess our priorities, and our very sense of morality. Or America will become a very strange land indeed.

(Sparky Clarkson is the Opinion Editor for The Cavalier Daily.)

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