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On movies and ratings

One of the first things I remember learning about the movies was that they were a Possible Occasion of Sin. That was in Catholic grade school, where we were advised to avoid such Occasions by carefully observing the Legion of Decency ratings printed every week in Our Sunday Visitor.

I studied the list diligently, and remember even today such Condemned titles as "Summer with Monica," which promised a season of unbridled passion. Much later, I discovered it was an Ingmar Bergman film in which Harriet Andersson was briefly seen, from behind, without the top of her swimming suit.

Movies have always carried an erotic charge in our society. They've been rated for sex (and, eventually, for violence) by a series of industry groups, most recently the Code and Ratings Administration.

They've been scrutinized by local censor boards, by church groups, by panels of parents and psychiatrists. Now even movie critics are getting into the act.

I note in a recent New York Times that the paper will print a biweekly guide called "Taking the Children," which advises on the content of movies that children might want to see. What a great many children want to see are gorefests like "Terminator 2: Judgment Day" and "Brainscan"--and they see them, too, by sneaking past the careless security and into R-rated movies at their local multiplex. But if parents want guidance about such seemingly innocent titles as "D2: The Mighty Ducks" (PG), "White Fang 2: Myth Of The White Wolf" (PG), "Naked Gun 33 1/3: The Final Insult" (PG-13), "Ace Ventura: Pet Detective" (PG-13) and "Hans Christian Andersen's Thumbelina" (G), the Times now offers it.

The paper's reviewing panel consists of their chief film critic, Janet Maslin, joined by Patricia S. McCormick, a contributing editor of Parents magazine; and Kenneth C. Davis, described as the author of "Don't Know Much About History." Among them, they have six children, ages 4 to 11.

In their first set of reviews, we learn from Davis that "White Fang 2" clocks, under the Profanity heading, "Only a 'sure as hell'." Maslin reports that "Naked Gun" includes "ten minutes worth of gags set in a sperm bank, with Anna Nicole Smith squeezed into a nurse's prepared for a likely discussion of masturbation and artificial insemination on the way home."

Ms. Maslin is an excellent critic whose reviews I read with attention and delight. Judging by her evaluation of "Naked Gun 33 1/3," I gather she is a progressive parent who is prepared to discuss most any fix that Lt. Frank Drebin gets himself into down there at the sperm bank. If she is open-minded about sexual topics, however, she reveals a Politically Correct tendency in her review of "D2: The Mighty Ducks." The Ducks' main opponent is the hockey team from Iceland. "Icelandic bullies?' Ms. Maslin asks. "The film's intense emphasis on racial harmony is marred by this one lapse..."

I cannot claim to be an expert on what is suitable for children, but it's my best guess that a lot more parents would be disturbed by those 10 minutes in the sperm clinic than by the spectre of anti-Icelandic racism. Alert as she is to such nuances, Ms. Maslin makes a slip when she advises about "Naked Gun" that "boys will find it funnier than girls do." Surely this is sexist, as I can easily demonstrate by substituting a few words to make her sentence read: "Danes will find it funnier than Icelanders do."

The problem with evaluating movies in this way is that everything depends on the evaluator. With their emphasis on sex and violence, the MPAA and similar groups assume that all parents are in substantial agreement about those two subjects. This is a narrow-minded approach, replacing an evaluation of the whole film with moral bean-counting.

The new movie "Sirens," for example, is rated R (no one under 17 admitted, etc.) largely because it contains a great deal of nudity, and a message espousing personal liberation. It is also literate, witty and (according to me) fundamentally moral. But we are never likely to read a Parents' Panel summary like this: "Recommended for those 14 and up as a healthy, positive exposure to the beauty of the human body, and a cheerful corrective to neurotic, sin-oriented attitudes about sexuality."

Nor, in evaluating movies, are we likely to find them graded on the level of their intelligence. Many movies made for children are appallingly dumb, but they're applauded for what they lack (sex and violence). In Hollywood's golden age, there were red-blooded action pictures like "Gunga Din," "The Adventures of Robin Hood" and "The Thief of Bagdad" which appealed to all audiences and insulted none. Now the hallmark of many "children's movies" is that they are unwatchable by anyone not a child. I submit the recent "Thumbelina" as an example. More challenging animated films, like the Japanese-made "My Neighbor Totoro," get sparse theatrical releases because the very concept of a family cartoon from Japan is too difficult for the theater chains to process.

As a film critic, I have argued against requests that I grade films on the basis of their possibly offensive content. The purpose of a movie is to completely envelop me in its world; to give me a vicarious experience which I can evaluate afterwards. So absorbed, I might miss one "sure as hell" or a fleeting glimpse of a breast, and then where would I be? I am frankly glad that the MPAA ratings relieve me of such a burden, although I wish their standards were not reactionary, and that they had not conspired over the years to render the NC-17 rating useless--thus depriving America of access to adult (non-pornographic) films.

I've often wondered why, along among the arts, the movies retain such an aura of sin about them. Newspapers agonize over the "objectionable content" of films. Some critics are actually required to append little italic paragraphs at the bottoms of their reviews, enumerating the sins they have counted. Yet no newspaper would think to have the book, drama, art, music or opera critic make such judgments. Grand opera contains the bloodiest, sexiest, most depraved content in the world of the arts. Incest, beheadings, nudity and pacts with the devil are routine. Yet no paper even notices, such shocking occurrences.

Most movie evaluation takes place in the spirit of in loco parentis, a Latin phrase which means "in the place of parents." But nobody can take the place of a parent. And only parents can judge the suitability of a given film for their children. That means parents should closely monitor their children's' moviegoing, and discuss problematic material with them. I know many parents who do. But film, like any other art, should have the right to be treated as a serious and valuable resource, and not be filtered through a socio-religious screen that may, or may not, reflect the values of our society.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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