A Secluded World

Paper by Rachel Habib. Viewed on DVD.

The Hollywood Studio System was extremely influential throughout America after its creation in 1930. The Production Code was established in 1934 to maintain censorship of all films. Under the Production Code, only “correct standards of life” were permitted; this meant that no film was allowed to portray criminal exploitation, sexual exploitation or violence. A main characteristic of the Hollywood Studio System was the vertical integration system. Under vertical integration, a 7-year contract existed between production companies, actors, directors and individual producers. The production company was in charge of all operations. Aside from their control over the production, distribution and execution of a film, they also controlled cinemas and which movies they showed. Production companies became known for their specific styles; for example, MGM had a reputation of making glamorous films. Towards the end of the 1940’s and into the early 1950’s, Hollywood began to crumble. The post-war era inflicted a lot of public uproar as a result of the House of Un-American Committee (HUAC). The HUAC was an anti-communist investigation group that questioned the big film producers (popularly know as the “Hollywood 10”) about their views on communism. It was discovered that many producers were affiliated with communism and “blacklisted,” which gave them a bad reputation and eventually ended their careers. (Thomas Schatz, Charles Harpole, 283). Others were sentenced to lengthy jail time due to their refusal to respond to any of the questions posed by the HUAC. Aside from the HUAC investigations, the Supreme Court case against Paramount studios was the other major landmark in the Hollywood decline. In 1948, the case of United States v. Paramount Pictures ultimately resulted in the end of vertical integration and the decrease in the number of films produced by paramount. Following that, the estimated theater attendance dropped from 3,352 million to 1,001 by 1958. By 1967, the attendance was recorded to be at a low of 553 million (Conant, 97). As a ramification of many producers losing their jobs and the demise of vertical integration, film directors and producers began to ignore the Production Code in hope of making a successful film in a time of nonentity. Alfred Hitchcock for example, produced Psycho (1960), which was a horror film that included scenes of sex, violence and unsuitable material (i.e. showing a toilet, shower and blood). This was the first film to completely disregard the Production Code. As a consequence of the demise of the Production Code in 1966, the MPAA created the ratings system in 1968 to provide information for parents about upcoming motion pictures so that they can decide whether or not the content is appropriate for their children. In hindsight, the MPAA ratings system is extremely obscure towards filmmakers as to why their film received the given rating. In addition, the ratings system is inconsistent with their evaluations of inappropriate content. In order to receive the desired “R” rating, filmmakers are forced to cut specific scenes out of their films, such as overexposure of body parts and the excessive use of profane language. Adversely, vital messages about the reality of war, sexual orientation and human rights are being concealed which in turn, has put completely normal topics in a disgraceful light.

During the same time as the Hollywood collapse, Lyndon B. Johnson came into presidency in 1963. Jack Valenti was Johnson’s liaison and first “special assistant” (Wikipedia, “Jack Valenti”). Aside from his political career with president LBJ, Valenti was better known for his involvement with the MPAA. In 1966, Jack Valenti became the president of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). Although the Production Code was essentially non-existent by 1968, it was at that time that Valenti officially abolished the Production Code (Kam, “Movies…with Jack Valenti”). In replacement of the Production Code, Valenti created the ratings system with a couple of objectives in mind. Valenti wanted the ratings system to provide a warning system for parents so that are able to protect their children, but more specifically and more significantly, to “free the screen” (Kam, “Movies…with Jack Valenti”). Valenti was a strong advocate for the First Amendment and didn’t believe in the restrictions that the Production Code had on films. However, Valenti also believed that the directors’ rights to unlimited expression through their films directly correlated with the viewers’ rights to not watch the films (Kam, “Movies…with Jack Valenti”).

The emergence of a new management system ran parallel with the emergence of new film genres. The evolution of exploitation films began to grow as the film industry was expanding more under the new management of horizontal integration. Filmmakers were free to work with myriads of production companies for short periods of time. Exploitation films were low-budget and often short films that exploited popular trends. They were destined to be successes both for the producers and viewers. In the 1970’s, new genres such as horror, sci-fi, thriller, western, action, crime, drama and many more became popular due to their exploitative elements. One film that became a monumental mark in America’s film industry was Deep Throat (1972). At the time, sex was a taboo topic, after all it was only a decade prior that the birth control pill was released. In 1968, the government launched a scientific commission to determine if porno was harmful. (Inside Deep Throat. Dir. Fenton Baily. Perf. Harry Reems, Linda Lovelace, Gerard Damiano, David Winters, Eric Jong, Dennis Hopper, Gore Vidal, Norman Mailer, John Waters. Momentum Pictures Limited, 2005. HD-DVD.) The film is based on many sexual acts between Linda Lovelace and Harry Reems and a very weak emphasis to include a plot line. However, even after its 2nd year of release, it was still #11 on the charts. Sexual exploitation was clearly a popular genre and many filmmakers began to produce films similar to Deep Throat (1972). Uproar and commotion broke out over the new trend. Under president Nixon, the FBI launched an investigation. After 3 years of investigation, the government launched obscenity trials directed at all porno films. Over one hundred and seventeen people were charged with conspiracy and Harry Reems was sentenced to 5 years in jail for obscenity. After Jimmy Carter (D) was elected in 1977, Reem’s charges were dropped because according to Carter, “the actors activities took place before 1973 supreme court obscenity rule.” (Inside Deep Throat. Dir. Fenton Baily. Perf. Harry Reems, Linda Lovelace, Gerard Damiano, David Winters, Eric Jong, Dennis Hopper, Gore Vidal, Norman Mailer, John Waters. Momentum Pictures Limited, 2005. HD-DVD.) The aftermath of “X” ploitation films being released frightened many filmmakers, but continuation of exploitative films continued. However, the MPAA tightened up their ratings system after Deep Throat (1972) and similar films received “R” ratings. Pornography now received “X” ratings, which went straight to VCR. The curtailing of the ratings left filmmakers hesitant about what content to include in their films and the MPAA became hesitant rating films with sex, violence and crime. The MPAA became uncommunicative and withdrawn from society.

The MPAA is a company that operates under extreme secrecy. According to a documentary about the MPAA ratings system called, This Film Is Not Yet Rated directed by Kirby Dick, “out of thirty different countries rating systems, the MPAA is the only movie rating system that doesn’t disclose who their board members are.” The MPAA, located in the crowded city of Los Angeles, CA, is gated with high security. In 1988 Jack Valenti appointed Joan Graves to be the head of the MPAA. Graves tried defending the company when asked why they have such high security, “raters are kept secret to protect them from influence,” however it was reported that as part of their job, they are encouraged to discuss submitted films with studio personnel. (This Film Is Not Yet Rated. Dir. Kirby Dick. Perf. Darron Aronofsky, Maria Bello, Mary Harron, Matt Stone, Kimberly Peirce, John Waters, Kevin Smith, Atom Egoyan. IFC Films, 2006. HD-DVD.) In regard to the board members, Graves said, “the MPAA board is comprised of parents with children between the ages of five and seventeen.” However; the board of raters doesn’t accurately represent the parents of minors in America today. Although it was extremely difficult to gather any data on the MPAA raters, a private investigator was hired and the 8 board members were documented. Out of the 8 raters, 5 are men and only 3 are women. They are all between the ages of forty-five and sixty-five and out of the 7 raters who have children, only 3 of the children are under the age of seventeen. (This Film Is Not Yet Rated. Dir. Kirby Dick. Perf. Darron Aronofsky, Maria Bello, Mary Harron, Matt Stone, Kimberly Peirce, John Waters, Kevin Smith, Atom Egoyan. IFC Films, 2006. HD-DVD.) In addition to the misrepresented panel of raters, the MPAA is extremely unclear when it comes to how and why they rate films the way that they do. By having such an ambiguous relationship with filmmakers, important films are being hid from the targeted (youth) demographic.

Within the MPAA rating system, there are 5 different ratings. “G” means general audiences; all ages are admitted and the film contains no language, nudity, sex or violence. “PG” means parental guidance is suggested; sometimes brief nudity and vague depictions of violence. The important differentiations for filmmakers come when PG-13, R and NC-17 ratings are expressed. The “PG-13” means parents are strongly cautioned and some material may be inappropriate for children under 13. The guidelines are as follows: 1) Violence, nudity, sensuality, language and adult activities may be present and 2) The “f word” can be used once but can’t have a sexually derived meaning. The “R” rated films mean restricted and that children under 17 need an adult with them. The guidelines are as follow: 1) Adult themes, sexually oriented nudity, drug abuse, persistent violence, hard language and other elements may be present. In “NC-17” rated films, no one under 17 is allowed, period. “The rating simply signals that the content is appropriate for only an adult audience.” The guidelines are as follow: 1) Violence, sex, aberrational behavior, drug abuse and other elements are present (Motion Picture Association of America, “What Each Rating Means”) Mathew T. Smith, a Master of Science in Criminal Justice as Georgetown University reported that there doesn’t seem to be a correlation between what films children watch and their behavior. “A survey completed by 39 respondents with children revealed no apparent link between violent media and problematic behavior, a relationship between parents’ media influence and children’s media consumption, and a decrease in violent media viewership by parents who use MPAA ratings,” (Smith, “What Role…Children”) The difference between R and NC-17 is that under R-rated films, there is sexually orientated nudity but for a film to have an NC-17 rating, the nudity is aberrational, or not normal/usual. According to Smiths survey, seeing a film with aberrational behavior doesn’t mean a kid is going to grow up being a homosexual.

There is a fine line between R and NC-17. For raters, they don’t care if they cross it, and sometimes they even choose to if it’s content that they personally don’t feel comfortable with. In fact, on the MPAA’s own website, they quote “4 times as many films received an NC-17 for sex as opposed to violence.” (This Film Is Not Yet Rated. Dir. Kirby Dick. Perf. Darron Aronofsky, Maria Bello, Mary Harron, Matt Stone, Kimberly Peirce, John Waters, Kevin Smith, Atom Egoyan. IFC Films, 2006. HD-DVD.) A film about gender confusion and sexuality called Boys Don’t Cry (1999) is a perfect example of an educational film that was originally given an NC-17 rating for its aberrational content. The director of the film, Kimberly Peirce said that her film received an NC-17 rating because of three specific critiques: after performing oral sex on Lana, Brandon wipes her (“his”) face, Lana’s orgasm is too long and also because Brandon is raped anally. (This Film Is Not Yet Rated. Dir. Kirby Dick. Perf. Darron Aronofsky, Maria Bello, Mary Harron, Matt Stone, Kimberly Peirce, John Waters, Kevin Smith, Atom Egoyan. IFC Films, 2006. HD-DVD.) However in the end of the film, Brandon is shot in the head. Despite the violence, the MPAA focused on the aberrational sexual acts between the two women. If the film was between a biological male and a female, it would have received an R-rating. Nonetheless, Peirce edited the scenes that received critique and the film eventually received an R-rating, even though the sacrifice was cutting out some of the important material. The war film Platoon (1986) is a violent movie that has language. The movie has many killing scenes and the exposure to dead bodies and drug abuse is also shown. While some of those aspects may be hard for children thirteen years old to watch, the content falls in both the PG-13 and R categories; the reason why it received an R-rating was because of the repetitive use of language. If you can’t accurately rate reality, then doesn’t make sense to send people to war.

Both of these films send messages that kids need to grow up knowing. Heterosexual love and pleasure is not the only type that exists. The MPAA cast a bad light on the sexual scenes that reflects that society believes that female pleasure is unnatural. In reference to war, the reality is, is that people are killed and abused. Soldiers at war do not have an easy life and profane language may come as second nature to some of them because of their fear, pain and sorrow. When Jack Valenti resigned from the MPAA in 2005, he said in reference to himself “he freed the screen from all artificial barrier.” Ironically, NC-17 ratings shield the public from reality.

The ambiguous relationship between the MPAA and filmmakers is damaging to our society. Under the Hollywood Studio System, film content was limited because of the Production Code’s strict guidelines under which movies could only show “correct standards of life.” After the fall of the Production Code, it seemed like artistic freedom was finally given to filmmakers. New genres started emerging that drew audiences in and independent filmmakers were becoming very successful. It seemed as though Hollywood was making progress until the commotion in regard to pornography. Actors and filmmakers were worried for their careers. Some people were confused as to why participating in something as real as a sex film would result in jail time. Nonetheless, movies continued to be produced and rated by the MPAA. Under Jack Valenti’s beliefs, the filmmakers have as much freedom to make free-content films as the people do to choose to not see the films. The MPAA is a greedy corporation that does not work for public, despite what Valenti thinks. Films with aberrational behavior and excessive use of language and violence are not going to be box office hits. Therefore, the MPAA limits any immoral content as much as possible so that a higher profit can be made. From a different standpoint, the movies with more taboo content won’t be box office hits because society has grown to think that experimenting and acting out of the norm aren’t accepted. Although the branching of out genres has taken place, from the creation of the Production Code in 1934 to the current day ratings system created in 1968, not much has changed in America’s film industry in regard to the content. If indie filmmakers want to release a film exactly the way that they made it, it will be concealed from the public due to its content. On the flip side, Hollywood movies that fall under the G, PG and PG-13 ratings continue to become box office hits because of mass audience appeal.

Works Cited

Conant, Michael. “The Paramount Decrees Reconsidered.” Law and Contemporary Problems. Durham: Duke University School of Law, 1981. 97. Print.
Inside Deep Throat. Dir. Fenton Baily. Perf. Harry Reems, Linda Lovelace, Gerard Damiano, David Winters, Eric Jong, Dennis Hopper, Gore Vidal, Norman Mailer, John Waters. Momentum Pictures Limited, 2005. HD-DVD.
“Jack Valenti-Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.” Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. N.p., n.d. Web. 24 Nov. 2012. .
Kam, Lilly. “Movies in the Digital Age with Jack Valenti.” MIT – Massachusetts Institute of Technology. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 Nov. 2012. .
Smith, Mathew. “What Role Do Parents Play in the Media Habits and Possible Problematic Behavior of their Children.” OhioLINK ETD Center. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 Nov. 2012. .
This Film Is Not Yet Rated. Dir. Kirby Dick. Perf. Darron Aronofsky, Maria Bello, Mary Harron, Matt Stone, Kimberly Peirce, John Waters, Kevin Smith, Atom Egoyan. IFC Films, 2006. HD-DVD.
“The Postwar Era.” Boom and Bust: The American Cinema in the 1940s. Thomas Schatz. Ed. Charles Harpole. Vol. 6. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1997. [283]. History of the American Cinema 6. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 27 Nov. 2012.
“What Each Rating Means.” Motion Picture Association of America. N.p., n.d. Web. 17 Nov. 2012. .

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