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A Wide Range of Perversions in Explicit Detail
by The Ultimate Dancing Machine

They’ve been doing this for a few years, but characteristically I first noticed it only a couple weeks ago. While wandering around the theatre before a showing of Punch-Drunk Love, I found myself in front of the film’s poster, which depicts a lovely silhouette of stars Emily Watson and Adam Sandler in affectionate embrace. At the bottom was a note embedded within the familiar MPAA rating logo: “strong language including a scene of sexual dialogue.”

First, I felt a brief and inexplicable twinge of disappointment: only “sexual dialogue”? one scene of it? Watson and Sandler weren’t going to get it on? But it was the odd specificity of the sentence that stood out. The last I’d checked, the MPAA customarily noted “violence” and/or “sexual situations” and more or less left it at that. Of course, I generally do not pay attention to these matters. I am old enough to feel secure that I will encounter nothing at the movies that will drive me to derangement, and often I couldn’t tell you the rating of a film I’ve just seen.

It happened again during the coming attractions. The trailer for The Grey Zone indicated an R rating for “strong Holocaust violence, nudity and language.” Since when was “Holocaust” an adjective?

Further inspection found similar examples on virtually every recent film poster. Next to the rating, I found a summary of the film’s content, put forth in breathless, often jumbled prose. Whoever writes these things—apparently more than one person, judging from the variations in style—probably goes through all sorts of agonies to fit these punchy descriptions in the brief space available:

Jackass: The Movie: “dangerous, sometimes extremely crude stunts, language and nudity.”

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets: “scary moments, some creature violence and mild language.”

Half Past Dead: “pervasive action violence, language and some sexual content.”

White Oleander: “mature thematic elements concerning dysfunctional relationships, drug content, language, sexuality and violence.”

The Ring: “thematic elements, disturbing images, language and some drug references.”

The Transporter: “violent sequences and some sensuality.”

As Pauline Kael once argued, movies so seldom qualify as art that you might as well learn to enjoy good trash. White Oleander probably wasn’t art, but it was suddenly looking like acceptable sleaze. I’d stumbled onto a secret, hidden in plain sight. Look at the fine print on a U.S. film poster and you will find a description of the money shots, if applicable. Unlike trailers, which often give away important plot points and deliberately misrepresent a movie’s content, the MPAA rating offers the meat and potatoes. True, they shy away from the really pertinent information, like “multiple decapitations” or “women dancing in underwear,” but I nonetheless found my interest in a given film rising or falling based on the all-too-explicit MPAA advisory. .

But even as the MPAA strains to distill all the naughty bits—what are “extremely crude stunts”?—it suggests questions that wouldn’t otherwise come up. Exactly what is the distinction among “sexual content” (Half Past Dead), “sexuality” (White Oleander), and “sensuality” (The Transporter)? As for the overused adjective “some”—where precisely does this fall between the poles of “pervasive” and “mild”?

I shouldn’t have been surprised, really, as this is just the latest wrinkle in the development of contemporary Puritanism, of which the MPAA has been a part from the inception of the modern ratings system in 1968. Since the abandonment of the likes of the Hays Code (a delightfully bizarre document that, among many other things, dictated that couples could not be shown in bed together unless each person kept at least one foot on the floor), we’ve been futilely trying to label films in a foolproof manner. It has traditionally been considered worthwhile to discourage undesirable elements—anyone considered a threat to Nice Middle Class Folks—from seeing things they’re not supposed to see; at the very least, we want to know what kind of movies they're watching. For a time in the late 1960s, we had the now-forgotten M (Mature) rating; we also got the infamous X., which at first was so broadly interpreted that it was applied to fairly innocuous films like Midnight Cowboy (since re-rated R). In the mid ‘80s, the controversy over the not-quite-for-children horror flick Gremlins inspired the PG-13 rating. Then, simple common sense dictated the creation of the NC-17 rating, first seen on 1990’s Henry and June, and intended for “adult” films that weren’t pornographic.

The MPAA maintains a useful website (, in which you can verify the official rating of nearly any theatrically released movie made since 1968. With their search engine I found more jewels, films featuring “sports peril” (Madison), “pervasive extreme drug use and related bizarre behavior” (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas), “intense prolonged realistically graphic sequences of war violence” (Saving Private Ryan), “erotic sexuality” (Showgirls), and my favorite, the best endorsement the MPAA ever bestowed upon a movie, “a wide range of perversions in explicit detail” (Pink Flamingos).

And there are a few oddities: the entry for the R-rated Crash cites “accident gore, some graphic language and aberrant sexual content” while the more fulsome NC-17 version simply rates “numerous explicit sex scenes.” Last Tango in Paris seems to have caused long-running controversy in the MPAA halls; currently NC-17, the film was “previously rated (X)(R)(X) in (73,81,82).” Jodorowsky’s Santa Sangre was an R back in 1990, but is now NC-17. Perhaps the original judges fast-forwarded past the scene where a woman pours acid on her husband’s genitals and he retaliates by hacking off her arms with throwing knives.

The absurdly over-detailed tag descriptions arrived somewhere in the late ‘90s, a time of widespread debate over the influence of the media on the minds of the young. It’s probably not coincidental, and I suspect the innovations were intended to appease busybody political commentators of every stripe. Society can be broadly split between people who know that antisocial behavior is caused by depictions of sex in the movies, and those who know that it’s caused by depictions of violence in the movies. In America, the people in the first group are called “Republicans,” and the second, “Democrats.” Like most groups prone to bizarre fetishes, they tend to collapse into subdivisions, fixating on increasingly narrow obsessions. After all, sex and violence runs to different varieties, each of them certain to offend some poor soul. And so the MPAA, struggling to hit the nail right on the head, dutifully warns audiences about drug use, especially “extreme” drug use; violence, including that which manages to be simultaneously “intense” and “realistically graphic”; and sexuality, particularly when “aberrant,” and above all when it is “erotic.”

It’s not new, of course. We haven’t come as far as we’d like to believe from the days when reefer madness, comic books, and Elvis’ pelvis threatened to lead society to ruination. It’s difficult to tell people that researchers have never proven a link between the movies and degenerate behavior. It’s difficult to tell them that movies are a good deal less graphic than they were in the ‘70s. It’s difficult to tell them that incidents of school violence—allegedly sparked off by our allegedly antisocial movies—have been declining for years now. It’s difficult to tell them that Japan—quiet, relatively crime-free Japan—mass-produces pornographic films so intense and misogynistic they could singe Larry Flynt’s eyebrows.

The unnecessary elaboration of “thematic elements” and so forth strikes me as more silly than harmful, but it may be a step in the wrong direction altogether. In practice, the ratings system has at times served the interests of de facto censorship. We’ve all heard that some newspapers (though none that I know) refuse ads for NC-17 films; this policy could easily be extended to R-rated films with “controversial” content, as variously interpreted by nervous editors across the land as they read between the lines of those breathlessly redundant MPAA blurbs.

It’s something to look out for. In the meantime, we can use the new if not improved MPAA ratings as a helpful guide. You have to hand it to the would-be censors among us: They always know where to find the good stuff.

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originally posted: 11/05/02 15:19:03
last updated: 01/02/04 17:28:46
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