Springboarding off the much–remarked upon faux-controversies surrounding “Avatar” into a meditation upon the boundaries and limitations of the ratings system, A.O. Scott raises a point I hadn’t thought about. It’s not the R/NC-17 divide that worries most parents: “the more embattled frontier is the one between PG-13 and R.”
“It is easy,” he continues, “to scoff at that rating only if you have never received angry letters from parents or grandparents appalled by profanity.” And he’s right: it is easy to scoff now that I’m personally years away from having to deal with the whole mess. But the whole “Rated R for language” — and nothing but — deal is particularly absurd for a bunch of reasons. One is that the big studio movie that’s rated R solely for language is a real rarity: if you’re going to get the R, you’ve probably got something else going on. Otherwise, why bother potentially slicing your audience by a third?
The movies that tend to get rated R solely for language are the small indie films, the ones whose audiences tend to be so small and the lack of widespread influence so manifest you wonder why anyone would worry about their moral influence. For example: Andrew Bujalski’s “Mutual Appreciation,” a movie full of relatively clean-cut twentysomethings who — it’s true — smoke a little pot (which happened in the PG-13 “Clueless” too) and, uh…well, that’s it. Seriously, it never remotely occurred to me that this was a danger to the youth of America: like Bujalski’s first movie “Funny Ha Ha,” a PBS staple these last few years, you could show it on broadcast TV with barely any elisions.
Other candidates: “Happy-Go-Lucky,” Mike Leigh’s lovely movie of 2008. “The Puffy Chair,” the goofy road-trip movie that contains a little drunken buffoonery (not flagged for disapproval; it was a simpler time) and, frankly, doesn’t even feel all that “adult.” (Unlike those movies sometimes cited for the ever-unclear “mature thematic elements.”) “Wendy and Lucy,” for God’s sake: a poor woman homeless with her dog trying to get to Alaska and looking for her dog. And she tries to steal some produce from a grocery store (not flagged in the rating). “Bubble” (for “some” language; not sure where the boundary is). The profane but otherwise almost suspiciously abstinent teenagers of “Raising Victor Vargas.” And so on.
Now, I’m not a total idiot: I realize even within the confines of “Rated R for language,” some of them should probably stand. I’m old enough to remember when Alan Dershowitz had to appeal for an R instead of an NC-17 for “Clerks,” a movie whose litany of sexual vulgarity is, I suppose, best kept out of the hands of middle schoolers, if for no other reason than there’s nothing more tiresome than a teenager swearing extensively and repetitively.
Then again, all you need to do is tune into the TV-14 “Jersey Shore” for that. And if that particular cesspool of depravity is okay for 14 year-olds and up to watch, well…c’mon. Really, anything that could be shown uncut on TV barring some dubs shouldn’t be rated R.
[Photos: MPAA logo; “Jersey Shore,” MTV, 2009.]