'Respectable' NC-17 movies?

Posted: Mar 26, 2007 12:01 AM

The Hollywood trade publication Variety reports that the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), the group that makes the movie ratings, is working to "fine-tune" the ratings system. Its chairman, former Rep. Dan Glickman, "will face his biggest hurdle yet: trying to make NC-17 respectable."

In truth, the MPAA has been trying to make pornography respectable for quite some time. In 1990, the MPAA discontinued its traditional X-rating-for-adults-only system, since the "X" had become almost exclusively associated with pornographic movies. The MPAA Website puts it this way: The letter "appeared to have taken on a surly meaning in the minds of many people, something that was never intended when the system was created." So they changed the rating to NC-17 to avoid that "surly" stigma, even though the rating meant the same thing to moviegoers: no children under 17 allowed.

So why the renewed push to make NC-17 respectable? Trying to make the rating "respectable" doesn't mean the movies that deserve this rating are worthy of our respect. It means convincing newspapers and theater owners to water down their standards. Some newspapers refuse to run ads for NC-17 films, and some theater owners will not put them on their screens, although the National Association of Theater Owners (NATO) swears there's no official policy on that. Blockbuster also refuses to carry DVDs rated NC-17. In short, the movie studios see putting out an NC-17 film as commercial suicide.

Which is why the NC-17 rating is not very often employed. In the last 17 years, the major studios have released only 19 movies with an NC-17 attached. (The highest-grossing one, the 1995 stripper movie "Showgirls," was a commercial and critical flop. It was roundly denounced as trash by everyone, including former MPAA capo Jack Valenti.) It's not so much a rating as a threat. So studios staring at the possibility of this stigma regularly edit back just enough stomach-churning violence or sexual depravity to get an R. (The original versions are then often restored on DVD as an "unrated" edition.)

Last year, the dreaded rating was initially applied to several horror movies. "The Hills Have Eyes" and "Saw III" were both initially rated NC-17 for horrific gore and were edited down to secure an R.

You'd think the MPAA would be proud of this small, very small show of responsibility to warn parents (especially) about the lurid films out there.

But Glickman doesn't seem interested in pleasing parents as much as pleasing filmmakers and theater owners who want this junk in theaters and want to desensitize the public into acceptance.

At the Sundance film festival in January, he and NATO honcho John Fithian urged directors of independent films to embrace the NC-17, to bring "validity" to the rating, suggesting they would have more freedom to pursue "edgier art house fare if the system were more viable." That is, if the NC-17 rating didn't have that unfortunate stigma.

At the theater owners' ShoWest convention last week, Glickman and Fithian were pleading for the NC-17 again. Variety reported Fithian tried to "explode some myths" that theater chains won't play NC-17 movies and newspapers won't advertise them. He claimed the average NC-17 movie grossed $3.9 million, while the average unrated film brought in $1.8 million. That doesn't sound like much of an argument. When "Saw III" was edited back to an R last year, it brought in $80 million.

That still leaves the question: Would "edgier" NC-17 films deserve our respect? For example, Variety reported people were intrigued at Sundance by the movie "Teeth," a "dark comedy" about a girl who has teeth in her private parts, but movie buyers were worried by the ratings problems. Would a "respectable" NC-17 rating system grant it much wider distribution?

The New York Post reports that the forthcoming movie "Grindhouse" is also expected to draw an NC-17, at least at first, for its raw content. The Post had the inside scoop: "In one scene, a cute topless girl is roughly tied down on a table by evil female Nazi experimenters who begin draining her blood, and as she screams in agony, they brand her like livestock with a coal-hot steel swastika," the source said. "And every girl in the Nazi concentration camp is topless."

Another scene features "a grossly obese man chewing on a baby."

This potential NC-17 film has two big-name directors Hollywood loves at the helm, Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez. Would they put their prestige on the line to promote the spread of the NC-17 rating? Is this "artistic" sludge the kind of film-making that Dan Glickman is trying to suggest would make NC-17 "respectable"?