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in the details
january 1, 2008

A while ago we watched the movie Evan Almighty on DVD.

Evan Almighty is a sequel to the hit 2003 film, Bruce Almighty, starring Jim Carrey as a man who is given the job of being God after he complains too much about how rotten life is.

(Acting has always fascinated me. A singing daisy in a fourth grade play can turn into a star who makes more money than that guy who cured polio.)

In the current film, Steve Carell plays Evan Baxter, a newly-elected congressman who receives messages telling him to build an ark.

(My melancholy thought, sliding the gasoline-shiny DVD into the player, was that if there were a new Noah, given the loss of so many species in modern times, he could probably build a much smaller ark, maybe this time only 100 cubits.)

Anyway, it's a comedy, we figured probably with improvised scenes that could have been edited a bit more tightly, some fart jokes, a few teary moments.

So when the rating came up, I was surprised to see, under the boxed PG rating, the additional warning, "Mild rude humor and some peril."

Why is it necessary to "warn" people the movie has mild rude humor when it already has a PG rating? And what is "mild" rude humor? Isn't that kind of a contradiction in terms? How could something "rude" be "mild"?

But most of all, what intrigued me was, "some peril."

Unlike the original biblical story, the movie doesn't depict the washing away of the world. A few people, and a bunch of CGI-generated animals, board the ark, travel by water to the Capital. Do we really need to be warned the CGI ark bumps under a CGI bridge on its way?

Movies never used to be rated at all.

The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) either approved a film for release, or didn't. That didn't mean a movie couldn't be released if the MPAA didn't approve it, but it made it much harder. The unapproved film couldn't be advertised in newspapers, the medium everyone used back then, thumbing through the tall pages to the Movies section, opposite the daily crossword and Scramble features. On most weekdays the Movies section was a rather modest listing, but on Friday night the section filled the entire page, with different-sized display ads, depending on how much money the studio had put behind each movie. Major movie ads had dramatic curved titles, some critic quotes ending with exclamation points!!!, black and gray drawings of the male and female star kissing, about to kiss, or sliding together, shoes up, down a vine.

This whole idea of the movie industry voluntarily regulating what was acceptable movie fare and what was not, done in large part to preclude having the government step in and decide for them, went back to the Hays Production Code, adopted by the movie industry in 1930 in response to what some people thought were the "wild" silent movies that had been made during the Roaring Twenties.

Nearly no movie released today would be acceptable according to the rules set by the Hays Code. Yet the Hays Code was the standard movies were required to conform to, if they wanted any sort of distribution, during a crucial three decades of this new art form's development.

A lot of people are vaguely aware of the Hays Code, without realizing just how rigid and all-encompassing it was. The full text of the Code, too long to reproduce in this column, is available at Arts Reformation.

Here, below, is the introduction to the Code, as well as the full text of the Code dealing with forbidden subjects. These are the subjects that were not allowed to be shown in American movies from 1930 to the mid-1960's.

The Motion Picture Production Code of 1930 (Hays Code)

If motion pictures present stories that will affect lives for the better, they can become the most powerful force for the improvement of mankind

A Code to Govern the Making of Talking, Synchronized and Silent Motion Pictures. Formulated and formally adopted by The Association of Motion Picture Producers, Inc. and The Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, Inc. in March 1930.

Motion picture producers recognize the high trust and confidence which have been placed in them by the people of the world and which have made motion pictures a universal form of entertainment.

They recognize their responsibility to the public because of this trust and because entertainment and art are important influences in the life of a nation.

Hence, though regarding motion pictures primarily as entertainment without any explicit purpose of teaching or propaganda, they know that the motion picture within its own field of entertainment may be directly responsible for spiritual or moral progress, for higher types of social life, and for much correct thinking.

During the rapid transition from silent to talking pictures they have realized the necessity and the opportunity of subscribing to a Code to govern the production of talking pictures and of re-acknowledging this responsibility.

On their part, they ask from the public and from public leaders a sympathetic understanding of their purposes and problems and a spirit of cooperation that will allow them the freedom and opportunity necessary to bring the motion picture to a still higher level of wholesome entertainment for all the people.

General Principles

1. No picture shall be produced that will lower the moral standards of those who see it. Hence the sympathy of the audience should never be thrown to the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil or sin.

2. Correct standards of life, subject only to the requirements of drama and entertainment, shall be presented.

3. Law, natural or human, shall not be ridiculed, nor shall sympathy be created for its violation.

Particular Applications

I. Crimes Against the Law

These shall never be presented in such a way as to throw sympathy with the crime as against law and justice or to inspire others with a desire for imitation.

1. Murder

a. The technique of murder must be presented in a way that will not inspire imitation.
b. Brutal killings are not to be presented in detail.
c. Revenge in modern times shall not be justified.

2. Methods of Crime should not be explicitly presented.

a. Theft, robbery, safe-cracking, and dynamiting of trains, mines, buildings, etc., should not be detailed in method.
b. Arson must subject to the same safeguards.
c. The use of firearms should be restricted to the essentials.
d. Methods of smuggling should not be presented.

3. Illegal drug traffic must never be presented.

4. The use of liquor in American life, when not required by the plot or for proper characterization, will not be shown.

II. Sex

The sanctity of the institution of marriage and the home shall be upheld. Pictures shall not infer that low forms of sex relationship are the accepted or common thing.

1. Adultery, sometimes necessary plot material, must not be explicitly treated, or justified, or presented attractively.

2. Scenes of Passion

a. They should not be introduced when not essential to the plot.
b. Excessive and lustful kissing, lustful embraces, suggestive postures and gestures, are not to be shown.
c. In general passion should so be treated that these scenes do not stimulate the lower and baser element.

3. Seduction or Rape

a. They should never be more than suggested, and only when essential for the plot, and even then never shown by explicit method.
b. They are never the proper subject for comedy.

4. Sex perversion or any inference to it is forbidden.

5. White slavery shall not be treated.

6. Miscegenation (sex relationships between the white and black races) is forbidden.

7. Sex hygiene and venereal diseases are not subjects for motion pictures.

8. Scenes of actual child birth, in fact or in silhouette, are never to be presented.

9. Children's sex organs are never to be exposed.

III. Vulgarity

The treatment of low, disgusting, unpleasant, though not necessarily evil, subjects should always be subject to the dictates of good taste and a regard for the sensibilities of the audience.

IV. Obscenity

Obscenity in word, gesture, reference, song, joke, or by suggestion (even when likely to be understood only by part of the audience) is forbidden.

V. Profanity

Pointed profanity (this includes the words, God, Lord, Jesus, Christ - unless used reverently - Hell, S.O.B., damn, Gawd), or every other profane or vulgar expression however used, is forbidden.

VI. Costume

1. Complete nudity is never permitted. This includes nudity in fact or in silhouette, or any lecherous or licentious notice thereof by other characters in the picture.

2. Undressing scenes should be avoided, and never used save where essential to the plot.

3. Indecent or undue exposure is forbidden.

4. Dancing or costumes intended to permit undue exposure or indecent movements in the dance are forbidden.

VII. Dances

1. Dances suggesting or representing sexual actions or indecent passions are forbidden.

2. Dances which emphasize indecent movements are to be regarded as obscene.

VIII. Religion

1. No film or episode may throw ridicule on any religious faith.

2. Ministers of religion in their character as ministers of religion should not be used as comic characters or as villains.

3. Ceremonies of any definite religion should be carefully and respectfully handled.

IX. Locations

The treatment of bedrooms must be governed by good taste and delicacy.

X. National Feelings

1. The use of the Flag shall be consistently respectful.

2. The history, institutions, prominent people and citizenry of other nations shall be represented fairly.

XI. Titles

Salacious, indecent, or obscene titles shall not be used.

XII. Repellent Subjects

The following subjects must be treated within the careful limits of good taste:

1. Actual hangings or electrocutions as legal punishments for crime.

2. Third degree methods.

3. Brutality and possible gruesomeness.

4. Branding of people or animals.

5. Apparent cruelty to children or animals.

6. The sale of women, or a woman selling her virtue.

7. Surgical operations.

That's quite a list.

Notice how specific it is. We'll see this same specificity return, unfortunately, with the "rating reasons" discussed further below.

But for now, let's talk about the MPAA.

The real hero in the battle to free Hollywood from censorship was Jack Valenti.

Valenti became President of the MPAA in 1966. The sixties were a period of social upheaval in America, and movies were beginning to reflect that rebellion.

One of the first movies Valenti had to review was Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, directed by Mike Nichols, based on the Edward Albee play, starring, in the film adaptation, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.

The film, as it was presented to the MPAA for approval, included, in its dialog, the word "screw", and the phrase "hump the hostess." Neither had ever been allowed in a Hollywood movie before.

After a three hour meeting with MPAA's general counsel, Louis Nizer, and Jack Warner of Warner Brothers, Valenti made the decision to remove the word "screw" from the dialog, but allow use of the phrase, "hump the hostess."

Yet this whole process bothered him.

"It seemed wrong that grown men should be sitting around discussing such matters. Moreover, I was uncomfortable with the thought that this was just the beginning of an unsettling new era in film, in which we would lurch from crisis to crisis, without any suitable solution in sight."

So Valenti came up with a radical solution.

The Hays Code would be abolished, and in its place a new ratings system would be instituted.

The change took effect November 1, 1968.

The new system called for four ratings categories:

G for General Audiences (all ages were allowed to see the movie.)

M for mature audiences. Parental guidance was suggested, but all ages were allowed to see the movie.

R for Restricted. Children under 16 could watch the movie only if in the company of a parent or adult guardian (i.e., not in the company of a boyfriend who was 18.) The threshold age was later raised to 17.

X for Adult. No one under 17 was allowed to view the film, under any circumstances.

There were immediate problems with the categories.

Valenti found that most people regarded the M rating as meaning there was more "objectionable" content than the R rating. So he changed the M rating to GP, meaning General audiences, Parental guidance suggested. A year later, the GP rating was changed to PG, meaning Parental Guidance.

July 1,1984, the MPAA changed the PG rating, splitting it into two categories, PG and PG-13. "13" refers to the age of the movie goer. PG-13 movies were considered more adult than PG films.

September 27, 1990, the MPAA tinkered with the categories again.

First, they changed the "X" rating to "NC-17." This meant "no children" will be admitted to the film; you must be at least 17 years old to see the movie. This change was done because "X" historically suggested a pornographic movie, whereas there were some films that contained quite a bit of nudity or "bad language", but were not pornography. Midnight Cowboy, starring Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman, was released with an "X" rating. That seemed unfair to the movie, because it wasn't at all in the same category with Deep Throat or Debbie Does Dallas. The second change was to introduce "rating reasons."

A "rating reason" included a brief explanation as to why a film received, for example, an R rating (the rating reasons were initially applied to R films only, but were later expanded to include all films other than G-rated films.) Valenti presents the rating reasons as reasonable: "...we believed it would be useful to parents to know a little more about that film's content before they allowed their children to accompany themů," but in fact I remember he resisted the idea as long as he could. (When he was first told a particular movie should receive a rating reason of "SA," he was confused, wanting to know if SA stood for "Sex Appeal." In fact, it stood for "Substance Abuse," meaning not just heroin, but, over the years, drinking alcohol in a scene, or smoking a cigarette.)

Valenti opposed rating reasons because he felt it was an overly-fussy examination of a film's content. It should be enough to simply state a movie is rated "R", without going into all the specific reasons why a film might be conceivably objectionable to some people.

Movies, which had been freed from the heavy hand of censorship for over twenty years, from the mid-sixties to the end of the eighties, a period regarded by many as the era during which some of the greatest American films were made, were suddenly once again subject to scrutiny.

And once again, the heavy hand was applied, much as during the Hays Code, by means of specificity.

Movies weren't denied distribution this time because they contained highly-specific forbidden subjects, but they were permanently marked with objections based on highly-specific rating reasons.

"Mild rude humor and some peril" was the rating reason for Evan Almighty.

Because I thought that particular rating reason was absurd, I started looking into rating reasons for other movies.

And the absurdity grew.

The MPAA, which during Jack Valenti's early years as President gave a quick assessment of the content of a movie, based on a four-tiered rating system, which had worked fine, devolved into an institution that issued minute assessments of each film, announcing each element in a movie that might possibly be objectionable to someone, somewhere.

You might think, for example, that if the MPAA wanted to be really specific about why a movie received the rating it did for sexual or violent content, perhaps there would be a dozen different rating reasons for such films.

In fact, there are hundreds of different rating reasons for sex and violence. To the point where the sexual or violent content of a movie is ridiculously nuanced.

Let's take a look at just a small number of actual rating reasons issued by the MPAA.

SEX

Rating reasons for sex generally refer to sexual content, nudity, or language.

Let's look at "sexual content" first. Wouldn't it be enough to simply state, "This film has sexual content?" Apparently not.

"sexual content" (Sex and a Girl)
"some sexual content" (Flyboys)
"strong sexual content" (The Devil's Rejects)
"some strong sexual content" (The Departed)
"bizarre violent and sexual content" (Lost Highway)
"some aberrant sexual content" (Great American Snuff Film)
"some graphic sexual content" (Mr. Brooks)
"crude sexual content" (Jiminy Glick in Lalawood)
"sexual content including dialogue" (Hair Show)
"sexual content including frank dialogue" (Jersey Girl)
"sexuality including strong sexual dialogue" (The Red Right Hand)
"pervasive sexual content, including some graphic images and descriptions" (Kinsey)
"disturbing sexual content" (Me and You and Everyone We Know)
"disturbing violent and aberrant sexual content" (Hard Candy)

Other films have sexual content to them, but the word "content" is arbitrarily dropped:

"adult situations involving sexuality" (Melinda and Melinda)
"a brief sexual situation" (Live Free or Die Hard)
"some sexuality" (Pulp Fiction)
"some sensuality" (The Devil Wears Prada)
"sex-related humor" (Idiocracy)
"comic sex-related material" (National Lampoon's Attack of the 5 Foot 2 Inch Woman)

What's the difference between "sex-related humor" and ""comic sex-related material"? I don't know. I don't think the MPAA does, either.

How about nudity? Wouldn't it be enough to simply state, This film has nudity? Guess again.

"nudity" (Casino Royale)
"some brief partial nudity" (I, Robot)
"brief nudity" (Children of Men)
"some graphic nudity" (Babel)
"graphic nudity" (Borat)
"sexuality/nudity" (Inland Empire)

Does "some brief partial nudity" even qualify as nudity?

Let's move on to language:

"a scene of sexual dialogue" (Punch-Drunk Love)
"pervasive language including sexual lyrics" (Fade to Black)
"suggestive humor" (American Dad: Welcome to the New CIA)
"innuendo" (RV)
"momentary language" (Fat Albert)

What does "momentary language" mean? How is that supposed to help anyone? And stating that a movie has "pervasive language including sexual lyrics"? If you don't want to see a movie with graphic language, does it really matter if the language is sung, rather than spoken?

VIOLENCE

Wouldn't you think violence is violence? Either a movie is violent or it isn't?

Well, the MPAA doesn't agree. They've come up with a stunning number of subcategories of violence. It's like the MPAA is a bad haircut guy sitting at a rain-sheltered bus stop, both hands around the throat of a brown paper bag filled with thousands of notes recording each time his next door neighbors have been impolite.

We'll start with "action":

"some mild action" (Lilo & Stitch: Stitch Has a Glitch)
"adventure action" (Jules Verne's Around the World in 80 Days)
"action violence" (Secondhand Lions)
"stylized action violence" (Spider-Man 2)
"intense stylized action" (I, Robot)
"some fantasy/action violence" (The Keeper of Time)
"war action violence" (Flyboys)
"some scary action" (Scoopy Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed)
"intense sequences of violent action" (Casino Royale)
"intense sequences of violence and action" (Live Free or Die Hard)
"dangerous sports action, some violence" (Keep Your Eyes Open)
"action, peril, injuries" (Lost in the Wild)
"monster action" (Bog)
"whacky violence/action" (Inspector Gadget)
"swashbuckling action" (Shrek the Third)
"intense fire and rescue situations" (Ladder 49)

"intense sequences of violent action" and "intense sequences of violence and action"? How many angels are on that pin?

Now let's move on to "violence" itself:

"violence" (Glory Road)
"some violent content" (Fracture)
"strong violence" (Children of Men)
"strong brutal violence" (The Departed)
"sadistic violence" (The Devil's Rejects)
"violent situations" (Gunner Palace)
"some startling images of violence" (Gridiron Gang)
"frightening adventure violence" (King Kong)
"strong graphic violence" (Pulp Fiction)
"graphic violence and disturbing images" (Apocalypto)
"strong violence/grisly images" (Suicide Club)
"strong violence and some grisly images" (The Black Dahlia)
"grisly violence and gore" (Bloodsuckers)
"strong horror violence and gore, disturbing images" (Silent Hill)
"strong pervasive horror violence and gore" (Day of the Dead)
"vampire violence/gore" (Bloodstorm: Subspecies 4)
"strong sci-fi violence/gore" (Junk)
"strong bloody violence" (Mr. Brooks)
"some strong violence and gruesome images" (The Last King of Scotland)
"creature violence" (Centipede)
"intense creature violence" (Cave)
"creature violence and gore" (Tremors 4: The Legend Begins)
"sci-fi monster violence" (Godzilla vs. Gigan)
"sci-fi violence" (Alien Siege)
"frightening sequences of sci-fi violence" (War of the Worlds)
"martial arts violence" (Winners and Sinners)
"war violence" (U-571)
"strong violence and epic warfare" (Kingdom of Heaven)
"intense battle sequences" (King Arthur)
"graphic battle sequences throughout" (300)
"battle sequences and frightening moments" (Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe)
"intense depiction of wartime imprisonment" (Faith of My Fathers)
"terrorist violence" (Passenger 57)
"western violence" (Bullet for Sandoval)
"domestic violence" (John John in the Sky)
"psychopathic violence" (The Hillside Strangler)
"sports related accidents" (Faster)
"some images of violence" (Half Light)
"some violent images" (How Awful About Allan)
"actuality violence" (Schindler's List)

What's clear here is the MPAA board members do not communicate with each other. What is the difference between "some images of violence" and "some violent images"?

And what exactly is "actuality violence"?

Should the MPAA be in the moving rating business at all?

In this information age, it probably isn't necessary. Anyone can go online and find out what a movie is like, by reading reviews, or visiting the movie's website.

If the MPAA feels absolutely compelled to rate films, why not come up with a less dementedly-specific system?

LK for Little Kids
EE for Everyone Else

The only thing I do like about the MPAA is the great contribution it's made to unintentional humor.

Unintentional humor is the funniest humor in the world, whether it's a bad movie, a terrible speech, a corporate statement, or an idiot's excuse.

Of all the stupid meticulous parsings the stupid MPAA has done over the years, here's my current favorite, the rating reason for Explorers - Special Home Entertainment Edition:

"Rated PG for some mild language and action, and a brief scene involving beer."

A brief scene involving beer?

Lordy, lordy.