Labor Day Monday, the last day of the unofficial "Summer of Raunch," Megan Reina, a 10th grader at Montgomery High School in the South Bay, saw The Blair Witch Project with 11th grader Susan MacKnight and 9th grader Macalah Vanleeuwen. All three are under 17, so how did they get into the R-rated movie? ("R" stands for "Restricted," according to the Encino-based Motion Picture Association Academy [MPAA], "under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.") Megan balks. If she discloses the secret, the theater, known for checking IDs, might block her from future films laced with "hard language or tough violence, or nudity within sensual scenes, or drug abuse" (among the MPAA reasons for an R-rating).
Did she sneak in from another movie in the multiplex?
Oh, no! she replied. After some wheedling, Megan leaned close and explained that her mom accompanied the girls into the movie and then left them. "She only stayed about five minutes," Megan said.
"You mean, instead of you slipping into the R-rated movie, it was your mom who slipped out?"
Yep, Megan nodded. Chorused the other two: "It was totally okay with our parents." A common practice, shrugged Bernard Miller, manager, even though parents pay $7.50 for such "accompanying."
According to the September 6 issue of Variety, it was a summer where movies grossed more than ever: $2.76 billion. And in an age when choice rules, parents had a Hobson's choice to make: a PG-movie ("May contain some material parents might not like for their young children"), two that were PG-13 ("Some material may be inappropriate for pre-teenagers"), or six Rs ("Parents are urged to learn more about the film before taking their young children with them"). Two-thirds of the films released this summer were rated R, substantiating the national average: 65 percent of movies were rated R last year.
Meanwhile, 17 percent of the people who go to the movies are 12 to 20, according to Phuong Huynh, a spokeswoman for the association's public relations office in Washington, D.C. "We don't track under 12," she told me when I asked, trying to figure out the total percentage of moviegoers under 17.
No matter what the exact figures are, a significant cohort of the moviegoing public can only march into one in three movies on its own recognizance. When resources dwindle, strategies evolve; if it's not children sneaking into R-movies, it will be their parents sneaking out of them.
Huynh regards the practice as an organic development. "I think in terms of the R-rating, we've always advocated that parents should go into the movie with the children."
Maintaining that the current ratings system is as viable and as valuable as ever, she cited a survey showing that 76 percent of parents with children under 13 have found it "very helpful."
But Valerie, a mother from the South Bay about to buy tickets to a PG-13 movie, wouldn't agree.
"I don't want to see Inspector Gadget!" her 9-year-old daughter was crying.
"That's the only one closer to 9:00," her 11-year-old said, mollifying his sister.
"You know," Valerie scolded her daughter, "you really could've just stayed at home if you're gonna be all whining and complaining."
"When you look at the letters," she told me, "they don't mean nothing."
Valerie, who takes her children to an R-rated movie "every once in a while," said that only the "G" rating ("Nothing that would offend parents for viewing by children") means anything. There were no G-movies at the CinemaStar that night. Had Valerie just picked a PG-movie as the next best for her kids to see?
No, she replied, not because it was the next best movie, but because it was the next movie, period.
Valerie is not the only one to discount the ratings as signifying nothing. "This is the Summer of Raunch," film critic Roger Ebert wrote in a guest column in Variety, "and Valenti and his hypocritical rating system are its authors."
Valenti originally implemented the rating system as a way for the film industry to avoid hypocrisy.
The Motion Picture Association was founded in 1922 to "stem the waves of criticism of American movies [as] rambunctious and rowdy," Valenti testified during U.S. senate committee hearings in the aftermath of the Columbine High School shootings. When he became its president in 1966, he "sniffed" in the production code of his predecessor Will Hays "the odious smell of censorship," as Valenti writes in the official fact sheet.
The Hays Production Code included a "stern, forbidding catalogue of 'Do's and Don'ts' "; for example, the code required that a scene with a man and a woman on a bed show at least one of their feet on the floor. "I determined to junk it at the first opportune moment," Valenti writes.
Having consulted with the National Association of Theater Owners, filmmakers, critics, and religious organizations, that opportune moment came in 1968: "The birth of a new voluntary film rating system of the motion picture industry.
"The initial design called for four rating categories: G for General audiences, all ages admitted; M for Mature audiences -- parental guidance suggested, but all ages admitted; R for Restricted, children under 16 would not be admitted without accompanying parent or adult guardian; X for no one under 17 admitted.
"The rating system trademarked all the category symbols, except the X." That was a mistake, for although films such as Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange became hits with the nascent X-rating (in fact, Midnight Cowboy won the Oscar for best picture in spite of -- some say because of -- its X-rating), X soon grew to mean nothing but pornography. Under Valenti's original plan, "anyone not submitting his or her film for rating could self-apply the X or any other symbol or description, except those trademarked by the rating program."
Earlier this summer, Ebert called for an adults-only rating that is not pornographic. But the Motion Picture Association tried that with the trademarked NC-17 rating ("no one 17 and under admitted"). The classic example of a film in this category is Showgirls. As Huynh of the MPAA told me, "Showgirls is definitely not pornographic." Though it does contain graphic scenes of sexual activities such as lap-dancing.
Pornographic or simply graphic, many movie theaters and some video stores now prohibit NC-17 movies, not only from being shown or sold but from being advertised. With the result, as the Los Angeles Times recently put it, "An NC-17 rating is the kiss of death at the box office. Movie studios usually contractually require directors to work with the MPAA to whittle films down to at least an R-rating."
Even Kubrick, whose Eyes Wide Shut was the last film he made before he died, digitally doctored the film's sex scenes rather than have it rated NC-17.
Doesn't this show, I asked Huynh, that there's something problematic about any adults-only rating? Huynh disagreed: "In terms of Eyes Wide Shut, Warner Brothers decided to make it R. If they had released the movie as an NC-17, it would've been fine.
"Showgirls made it," she went on. Distributed by MGM, "it was a wide release. It's a decision up to the distributor. But the thing is, a lot of movies choose not to make an NC-17."
"NO!" The reaction was deafening when I broached with Megan, Susan, and Macalah the possibility of two ratings: one for everybody and the other for adults only. "Oh no," Susan said. "I don't want to be able to go to a theater and just see a G-movie. I would be for bringing some stupid parent permission slip...instead of having a parent escort you."
All three could not think of a movie they had wanted to see in the past two years that they'd missed because of its R-rating. Parents often take their children's counsel on which movies they should be allowed to see, and if they don't... "Anywhere else I've ever gone," Susan remarked, "they won't card you. This is the only place.
"There's a lot of 16-year-olds," she went on, "who are a lot more mature than [the MPAA] think." That's why Susan, herself 16, would change the R-rating in one way at least: Lower the age for unrestricted admission to 16.