BY WAYNE KRAMER
When did filmmakers in this country lose the right to make R-rated films? When did the R rating become a glorified PG-13? When did it stop being okay for an R-rated film to have mature, controversial and sexual subject matter? When did the R rating become the rating that adults should feel comfortable taking their teenagers to, as if the movie in question were not designated R in the first place?
I ask these questions very sincerely and with the deepest frustration. If we are to have any kind of adult voice in American cinema, then I believe we need to carefully examine the arbitrary practices and policies of the MPAA’s ratings system, because there is no doubt in my mind that censorship is alive and well in the motion picture industry. My first encounter with the board was over the NC-17 they inflicted upon my film The Cooler for sexual content. By the way, the uncut version of the film was rated 15-and-over in pretty much every other foreign country including: the UK, France, Germany, Australia, South Africa and Finland. As frustrating as that experience was, my more recent run-in with the board confirms that there is something inherently wrong with the system.
I submitted my new film, Running Scared, to the MPAA ratings board several times, based on their “concerns” with the content, before the film finally got its R rating. To be fair and honest, my film is provocative. It features a somewhat risqué sex scene and a fair amount of mob violence. There are two visceral shootouts between mob characters. We see numerous bullet holes and at two separate moments, characters are shot in the head. I wanted the moments to feel real–I don’t want to depict the effects of a shotgun to the head as being cool and sexy. But at the same time, both shootings happen extremely quickly, the gore factor being a couple of frames apiece. Even more important than the shootings themselves, are the reactions of other characters–again, violence with consequences.
Is this R-rated material? You bet. Is it NC-17? Not in my book. Not by a long shot. The NC-17 version of that scene would be a character getting shot in the head and then the audience seeing half his face hanging off for an extended period of time. I could rattle off the names of at least 50 R-rated films over the last 20 years that have content equal to Running Scared, if not stronger.
I know dozens of filmmakers who have to go through two, three... five rounds of submissions to the rating’s board before they can receive an R-rating for the most innocuous scenes. The rating’s board is literally suggesting to filmmakers, “make a trim here and show less gore here... or less pubic hair in that scene... or one or two less sexual gyrations...” These little “trims” (trade-offs, if you ask me) suggested by the board are so arbitrary that if you were to audit the R ratings they’ve handed out over the last five years, you’d scratch your head trying to figure out why someone getting their head blown off in one film was permissible, while another filmmaker was told to tone back his or her scene. You could ask why simulated oral sex was okay in one film, and why another film was threatened with NC-17 if a similar scene wasn’t recut.
Somehow, it’s permissible for some filmmakers to get a high gore quotient past the rating’s board with the appropriate R rating–like Uma Thurman ripping out Daryl Hannah’s eyeball in Kill Bill Vol. 2, and squishing it under her foot until it is nothing more than a puddle of gelatinous goop. Or what about any of the torture and mutilation scenes in Sin City? How are those scenes not stronger than anything I have in Running Scared? I’m not sure the rating’s board itself could explain the answer to that question. Personally, I think Tarantino’s movie was appropriately rated. I just want equal play under the same rating’s “guidelines.”
We all know that the NC-17 rating is a myth, for the most part. No studio will put a film into production knowing it will end up with an NC-17 and no major studio with commercial prospects for a film will support an NC-17 rating. Since the NC-17 exists only in the MPAA’s mind, the rest of us filmmakers are left to battle it out by arguing and recutting our films to garner an R, or what is sometimes referred to as a “hard R” rating. I was always under the impression that to get an X or NC-17 rating, your film needed to be pretty damn extreme. I’m talking about penetration and/or “visible” oral-genital contact in sex scenes, or excessive stomach-churning gore. When did the MPAA start doling out the NC-17 for “tone” and suggestive moments?
Again, here’s the biting question: don’t we consider an R-rated film to be an adult film in this country? Don’t we expect Sopranos-style violence and The L Word risqué sexuality in an R-film? Aren’t we as a society mature enough and comfortable enough to see that kind of content in a film labeled for adults? Or is there no adult rating in our cinema?
And here’s another deeply frustrating question: Who does the MPAA think they’re protecting by slapping films with an NC-17 rating? Those same films are released on DVD in unrated director’s cuts in a matter of months–even more accessible to impressionable teens. Many of them are available on cable in director’s cuts within a short window of a film’s release. So what exactly is the point of forcing a filmmaker to alter his film for the theatrical release, when the director’s vision is available to view in the privacy of one’s home? What is the MPAA afraid will happen during a collective screening of an appropriately hard R-rated film? Are they concerned for our own discomfort or the discomfort of our children? Well, I’ve got news for them: the R rating wasn’t designated for the PG experience.
If the MPAA had been rating films in the '70s and '80s with the same parochial mindset that they do today, I’m willing to bet hard currency that dozens of acclaimed films–from Don’t Look Now to The Wild Bunch, Blue Velvet and even pop culture icons like Saturday Night Fever–would not have made it through the rating system unscathed. Most of them would be considered NC-17 by today’s standards. I think the time has come for the DGA to organize and raise its collective voice against the MPAA’s misappropriation of the R rating.