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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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

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.