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Down with MPAA ratings

The New York Times reported yesterday that Hollywood is still trying to fix the MPAA rating system in the wake of "This Film Is Not Yet Rated," a documentary by Kirby Dick which, among other apparent scandals reveals that "lay representatives from the Roman Catholic Church and the Protestant National Council of Churches sit in on the appeals process."

Horrors! You know how those Catholics are when it comes to movies. Rent "Nuovo cinema Paradiso" and get a load of the censoring priest, who insists on screening all films before anyone else does, ringing a bell to indicate where the projectionist should cut out scenes so as not to taint the faithful.

Seriously, though, I'm truly stymied about why there is any hoopla over the ratings process at all because, like most parents, I realized long ago that the ratings offer no indication about whether you want your kid to see the movie or not.

G and PG films can be mind-numbingly insipid ("Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day") or so emotionally upsetting they'll scar you for life ("Old Yeller").

PG-13 movies may be a nauseating parade of jokes about hazing people ("Bench Warmers") or inspiring stories of derring-do ("Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire").

We have independent movie reviewers in our local, state, national and myriad religious media. There are lots of Web sites that exhaustively outline specific incidents in movies that might potentially offend (screenit.com, for example), and I routinely include links to those sites for parents of children my son invites to the movies.

There just isn't any such thing as a "one size fits all" arbiter of taste and morals when it comes to kids at the movies. The MPAA should quit pretending there is.

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This got me to remembering the old Legion of Decency, and I was surprised to find (when I googled it) that it lives on as The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops Office for Film and Broadcasting (http://www.usccb.org/movies). My mother, who took the ratings rather seriously, neverthless took me and my sister to see Gone With the Wind when we were fairly small children. At the time it was rated B ("morally objectionable in part") although now it is rated A-II ("suitable for adults and adolescents"). And they say the Church doesn't change!When I went off to college, one of the activities at the Newman Center was a discussion of the Bergman trilogy (Through a Glass Darkly/Winter Light/The Silence), and it was only after I had seen the films that I discovered that at least one of the movies (The Silence, if I remember correctly) was rated C (condemned). That was probably the last time I paid any attention to the ratings. I noticed, in checking out a list of films condemned by the Legion of Decency, that Grease was among them. It was rated PG by the MPAA. I have never seen it, so I can't tell you who's right.

The contention at the Sundance Film Festival was that the criterion, censors and process wer eall secret (as opposed to Europe) and that by establishuing transparency, the ratings might become more useful.

Ah the Legion of Decency! Our diocesan newspaper kept us current with the listings and included a list, in which little changed, of C rated films. None of them were ever shown in my hometown. Most of them had opaque titles, but I did have some idea of the one featuring Henry VIII and his wives with Charles Laughton as Henry. Then there was Pepe Le Moko, which much later I saw on television. I think the major objection was that Jean Gabin in the lead role committed suicide. There was a modified Hollywood version with Charles Boyer that escaped condemnation. Those were the days.

Yes, the raters are kept a big secret, but outing them isn't going to solve the problem with the rating system, which strikes me as meaningless overall.I don't find the new (or old) Catholic rating system much more helpful than MPAA, though I do recommend the reviews in the St. Anthony Messenger useful when selecting movies for kids.I'm just stymied about why we have to rate movies, when we seem to get by without ratings for books just fine.

A few years ago, I read what appeared to be a trustworthy history of the Legion of Decency, but I don't recall author or title. The book earned the judgment "trustworthy" because it explained (to my mind correctly) the transition of the Legion in the 1960's from a swaggering, demanding bully to a group that understood adult themes. Reviewing titles in our library system, the excellent history was probably the third of these:1) James Skinner, The Cross and the Cinema2) Gregory Black, The Catholic Crusade against the Movies3) Gregory Black, Hollywood Censured: Morality Codes, Catholics, and the Movies.

t I wonder if Jean's questions suggest we need two axes. Are the movies good, and are they decent. It seems to me that there are a lot of bad movies that are decent, and a lot of good movies that are not decent . Then, there's the whole question of decency: it seems to me, though I never lived under its system, that the Catholic framework ws defining the term with reference to whether seeing this stuff would lead you to commit a sin. That's different from scarring you for life (Old Yeller). It seems the current Hollywood system is at least as much about scarring you for life. The trouble about both goals is that they are so dependent on the person. I can't stand explicit violence -- not mainly from a moral perspective, but more from a repulsion perspective. So I haven't seen, and probably won't see, Scorcese's The Departed -- although it's supposed to be fabulous. I am still grossed out by the end of Casino.

Yes, we've all got various moral, aesthetic and visceral sensibilities. I trust the aesthetic and moral judgment of certain reviewers--plug for Richard Alleva here.But most reviewers seem to have a higher tolerance than I do viscerally. "Silence of the Lambs" was a movie I could have died happy without having seen.

Jean,I am determined to die happy without having seen any of the Lecterpics. Cannibal camp is not my thing. I prefer Fred and Ginger.

"This Film Is Not Yet Rated" is an excellent documentary, well worth seeing. It shows clearly that the rating agency is in the pocket of the big studios. The arrangement is that the MPAA targets candid sex scenes, while giving the thumbs up to the most obscene violence. Therefore, the big studios rake in bucks from teenage boys, and serious arty films get hit. Talk about a deal with the devil.

I think basic information ("sex, drugs, gore, violence, profanity," etc.) would be adequate descriptors for most folks. If more information is needed, peruse film reviews, especially those of movie critics with whom one is "in sync."