casIt’s rare that I have an opportunity to say anything nice about the MPAA, the board who decides what ratings movies will get. All too often the ratings applied by the MPAA are insane, and the reasons they give for their ratings – complaining that the “tone” of a scene in The Devil’s Rejects was too grim, or that there were too many thrusts during a threeway in Where The Truth Lies – are usually ludicrous.

But what’s often worst of all is that the MPAA seems culturally and contextually tone deaf. One of the ultimate examples of this was 2002’s Whale Rider, a touching and moving New Zealand film from a few years ago. Whale Rider is exactly the kind of film kids should be seeing, filled with affirming themes and ending on a wonderful and upbeat note that empowers girls. But because of a bong in a scene – not even being smoked, just sitting there – the MPAA branded the film with a PG-13. Granted, it’s not like the ratings board nailed Whale Rider with an R, but even that PG-13 can make a difference in some families allowing their younger kids to see this wholly appropriate movie.

This past Friday I was at a press screening of the adaptation of the Broadway musical Rent, and I found myself thinking it was too bad the movie was rated R. Any aspects of the film’s quality aside, it dealt with issues and subjects that kids should be seeing dramatized, and I thought that the few instances of “fuck” in the screenplay and the drug use and sexuality on display would certainly rate the film out of the reach of 15 year olds.

I was shocked to find out that I was wrong. Rent is going out with a PG-13, and I think that’s a great and a brave move on the MPAA’s part. The film should, by all rights, be an R just because the word “fuck” is in there more than once – you get one “fuck” in a PG-13 (that, by the way, is how ridiculous the system is, that it counts instances of words to determine a rating). And then there are people doing heroin, gay couples, people with AIDS, and a song that lists – positively – every kind of perversion and corruption of modern Christian values possible.

The film originally got an R rating, and Chris Columbus claims that Sony assured him that they didn’t want him to cut anything to get a PG-13. “The MPAA gave me a list of things to cut,” he said at a press conference Saturday. “They gave me five to seven language issues, and they gave me a list of 30 picture edits they wanted me to change.”

In the end Columbus made the language changes and cut 5 frames of a needle going into an arm – “We did lose a third of a second. It was the difference between the needle going into the arm and the needle going into the arm. A second is 24 frames and we cut 5.” – but otherwise he left the picture edits alone. When he resubmitted the film he got the PG-13.

At this point it’s in the hands of the American people. Columbus expects that Sony and the MPAA will both receive complaints about the content of the film, and I wouldn’t be terribly surprised if that was the case. The film is opening on Thanksgiving weekend, traditionally a spot for family films, and none of the advertising would let the unwary know that the movie is about homos, smack addicts and AIDS victims.

“[The rating] may have drawbacks if you’re going to be taking Grandma and Little Joey to see Rent on Thanksgiving and they don’t know what to expect… but it’s OK to shake people up a little bit, I think. I think it’s important that people wake up and see this. They have the opportunity to walk out and get their money back if they have a problem with it.”

Of course we live in a world where people don’t even want to change their channel and complain to the FCC, let alone get up and leave a movie theater. Still, it’s heartening – and maybe a little surprising – to see a very middle of the road director like Columbus take this stance.

To be honest, a little controversy could go a long way for Rent. If Jerry Falwell and his lunatic fringe get up in arms, Rent suddenly isn’t just a movie – it’s a cause. Do you believe in gay rights and gay marriage? Do your duty and see Rent! Are you aware of the continuing global AIDS epidemic? Do your duty and see Rent! Do you just not like the right wing demagogues who have seized control of the political discourse in this country with their medieval morals and superstitious religion? Do your duty and see Rent! It’s a powerful marketing tool, one that the makers of Kinsey wish they had.

When I spoke to Peter Sarsgaard at the Toronto Film Festival, I asked him why Kinsey didn’t do well at the box office. “I don’t think the right came out strong enough against the movie,” he said. “For that to happen, it needs to play in cities other than New York and LA and San Francisco. If it doesn’t play in Oklahoma, where I’m from, in the bigger theaters, then the people who disagree with it don’t get a chance to see it.” Rent won’t have that problem – it’s opening wide.

Even though it’s hard not to see a cynical marketing aspect to pretty much anything a major motion picture studio does these days, Rent is a film that addresses issues that are just as relevant as when the play first hit Broadway. In fact some of them may be more relevant, as AIDS has slipped off the national radar for some reason. In fact Columbus says that the film has had a hard time getting made because some studio execs felt AIDS just wasn’t important anymore.

It’s nice to see that the MPAA has, in this case, taken the context of the film into account, but why isn’t that happening more? Why was North Country rated R when none of the elements that earned it that rating were used for salacious or titillating reasons? In the crazy world of the MPAA, North Country has the same rating as The Devil’s Rejects. And in that same crazy world, The Devil’s Rejects had to fight for the R because of its “tone.” As Rob Zombie has said, giving that film a hard time for its tone is like saying a comedy is too funny. That’s sort of the point of the whole movie.

“[The MPAA] felt the film was strong enough that ages 13 to 17 needed to see this film,” Columbus said. I think that same age group needs to see a film like North Country as well. Is the answer yet another addition to the alphabet soup of ratings nonsense? Probably not. What needs to happen is that the MPAA needs to take films in context, and to give a lesser rating to a film that – gasp – exceeds its allotment of “fucks” but has something to say. People to this day get up in arms about the use of the word “nigger” in Huckleberry Finn, but that’s part of the realism of the book, and the usage of the word is part of what makes Huck’s eventual understanding of Jim as a man so powerful. True art shouldn’t be held to the same rules as mindless entertainment.

Of course the question is: do we want the MPAA deciding what’s art? I’ll leave that part of the discussion up to you.