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Dirty Picture?

With the release of Matthew McConaughey's NC-17 'Killer Joe,' we look at a history of the MPAA

By Frank Paiva
Special to MSN Movies

It's a hot late July night at the multiplex. What should you see?

You could pick the month's biggest movie: "The Dark Knight Rises" is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, some sensuality and language. Or you could check out the latest Ben Stiller comedy: "The Watch" is rated R for some strong sexual content including references, pervasive language and violent images.

But both of those selections are pretty tame. Why watch a film with only some sensuality? Or a film with pervasive language but only a normal amount of violent images? That doesn't sound like much fun. Don't they make movies for adults anymore? Since when did the definition of an adult movie become watching a bunch of old British people go to a hotel in India before they die? "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel" was only PG-13 for sexual content and language.

LD Entertainment has you covered. This week it releases "Killer Joe," a Texas crime thriller about a young man who hires an assassin to kill his mother. The script is by Pulitzer Prize winner Tracy Letts, and the director is "Exorcist" helmer William Friedkin. The pair previously collaborated on 2006's super-creepy "Bug." Most importantly for thrill-seekers, "Killer Joe" lives up to its name. It's rated NC-17 for graphic disturbing content involving violence and sexuality and a scene of brutality.

Bing: Learn more about the MPAA | Watch the trailer for "Killer Joe"

We have no idea why this scene of brutality doesn't fall under the umbrella of graphic disturbing content involving violence, but that's for the folks at the MPAA to decide. They've been making these kinds of judgment calls since 1922.

MPAA stands for the Motion Picture Association of America. Founded by major Hollywood studios, its goal was to self-regulate movie content for families and general societal decency. The organization created a set of guidelines toward this end called the Motion Picture Production Code. It's often called the Hays Code after MPAA president Will H. Hays.

The Hays Code is crankier than a nun with a ruler. It's full of moralizing rules about what can and can't happen in movies. The guiding principle was: "No picture shall be produced that will lower the moral standards of those who see it. Hence the sympathy of the audience should never be thrown to the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil, or sin."

From there the dozens of specific rules run the gamut. There are many constraints you would expect, like no nudity, no ridiculing religion and no foul language. But some of the restrictions are weirder. Like:

"Surgical operations must be treated within the careful limits of good taste."

"Arson should not be detailed in method."

"The treatment of bedrooms must be governed by good taste and delicacy."

If you wanted to see a distasteful root canal performed after a meticulously planned fire that forced a married couple to sleep in the same bed at a hotel, then you were out of luck.

The watershed moment for ending this kind of ridiculous censorship came in 1959. The MPAA refused to approve the classic Billy Wilder comedy "Some Like It Hot." The idea of two men dressing as women and fighting off male suitors made light of homosexuality, one of the Hays Code's biggest no-nos. They refused to approve the film.

United Artists released the movie anyway. It was a massive hit. The bold move encouraged other Hollywood studios to bypass the MPAA throughout the '60s whenever they had a controversial title. Sometimes the MPAA would bend the Hays Code and approve titles with previously objectionable content. The process simply no longer worked.

By 1968, the organization was on the verge of irrelevancy. That's when group president Jack Valenti introduced our modern ratings system. The system, with some amendments, has been in place ever since. The original ratings were:

G  General Audiences, All Ages

M  Mature Audiences, Parental Discretion Advised

R  Restricted, No One Under 16 Admitted Without Parent

X  Adults Only, No One Under 18 Admitted

The X rating signified truly adult movies. The acclaimed dramas "Midnight Cowboy," "A Clockwork Orange" and "Klute" were all originally rated X. So were gory horror flicks like "The Evil Dead," "I Spit on Your Grave" and "Cannibal Holocaust." The entire filmography of John Waters got the mark. Even animated movies like "Fritz the Cat" and "Heavy Traffic" were deemed adults-only.

The MPAA was unable to trademark a single letter. As a result, the X rating was fair game for the pornography industry. Filmmakers used the rating to signify the adult nature of their product. Some porn was labeled XX or XXX to suggest an even higher level of sexual content. The practice hurt non-pornographic movies carrying the rating. Audiences began to associate X as an exclusively sexual moniker.

The MPAA changed the X rating to the current NC-17 in 1990, but the damage was already done. In the minds of Hollywood studios, theater owners and parents groups, if a movie was NC-17, then it was pornography.

The rating became a kiss of death. Major theater chains and home video stores wouldn't stock NC-17 titles on principle. As a result, no major studio would finance them. The overwhelming majority of prospective NC-17 movies never made it past the pitch room. NC-17 was supposed to mean No One 17 and Under Admitted, but it might as well have meant No One Admitted.

It simply wasn't commercially viable to release an NC-17 movie. As a result, many directors were forced to edit their creations down to an R rating, a widespread practice that continues today. "Basic Instinct," "Pulp Fiction," "American Pie," "Clerks" and "Boogie Nights" are just a few of the dozens of popular films to originally receive an NC-17.

Complicating the matter, the MPAA is clouded in secrecy. The organization won't even reveal who actually watches the movies, for fear of corruption, and there's no set reasoning for why one movie gets an R and another gets an NC-17.

There are some historical patterns, though. The MPAA has always been more lenient toward extreme violence than extreme sex. A single F-word is permissible in a PG-13 film, as are brief glimpses of breasts, provided they aren't attached to someone having sex. Homosexual content is an automatic trigger for a high rating.

In 2006, documentary filmmaker Kirby Dick attempted to expose the members and methods of the MPAA in his terrific "This Film Is Not Yet Rated." The movie was slapped with an NC-17 rating for some graphic sexual content. Dick's appeals for an R rating eventually become a story line in the film.

Twenty-two years after its creation, NC-17 remains unpopular. The biggest NC-17 movie is still 1995's "Showgirls," so that's not really saying much. A few art-house hits like "Bad Education," "The Dreamers" and "Lust, Caution" managed a small impact. Last year's sex addiction drama "Shame" rode its Oscar buzz into almost 100 theaters before being shut out of the awards entirely.

A lot has changed about the movie business in the past few years. The retail arm of Blockbuster is on its last legs. Netflix will deliver "Showgirls" directly to your home without anyone else knowing. iTunes is happy to instantly rent you "Shame" for an economical $3.99. Movie watching, especially for the kind of smaller titles more likely to be NC-17, has become a remarkably personal activity.

Many indie films are bypassing theaters almost entirely with video-on-demand releases that consistently make money. Nowadays it's quite common for a movie to hit one or two screens in New York and Los Angeles and never play the rest of the country. Why bother to send a print to Kansas months after the fact when it can be digitally available in a matter of seconds? This kind of do-it-yourself distribution is much too enterprising for something as stodgy as an MPAA rating.

Technology has also helped concerned parents make better decisions. "Saving Private Ryan" is rated R for intense, prolonged, realistically graphic sequences of war violence, and for language. "Saw VI" is rated R for sequences of grisly bloody violence and torture and language. On paper they're basically the same. At least according to the MPAA.

Parent watchdog sites like Screen It! go into much further detail. They'll tell you that the violence in "Ryan" comes from watching brave American soldiers risk their lives for their country. They'll also tell you that "Saw VI" features a scene where two people must use butcher knives to cut off as much body weight as possible in 60 seconds. Which would you rather show to your 14-year-old son?

Pop culture has become so desensitized to sex and violence that we once again are reaching a point where the MPAA rating system is irrelevant. While this might be a good thing for directors looking to push the envelope, it's not a great thing for parents looking for appropriate entertainment options.

The best solution is for MPAA decision-makers to lift their veil of secrecy. They should have a set of transparent guidelines for assigning ratings. They should also have a website where parents can read in-depth accounts about a movie's content. Information is power.

The MPAA is supposed to be a self-regulating tool for Hollywood. It's not supposed to police the entire movie industry. The Internet has given people the license to indulge in their every wildest fantasy. The most popular book of the year is S&M erotica. The majority of songs on the radio are sexual enough that you wouldn't listen to them with your grandma. Now more than ever parents need a true ally to help them navigate their children's entertainment choices.

Given these new freedoms, audiences also need movies like "Killer Joe." They need artists like Tracy Letts and William Friedkin interpreting the new extremity of the world and putting it on-screen. These films deserve to reach a wider audience. They are for adults. They are not pornography.

Otherwise we're headed for an open marketplace where people continue to bypass the system; where pretty soon ratings won't mean much of anything at all. God help the poor parent who assumes "The Human Centipede" is a sequel to "The Very Hungry Caterpillar."

Do you have a solution to fix the MPAA? Are you excited to see "Killer Joe"? Is "Showgirls" the misunderstood masterpiece of our time? Let us know on Facebook

Frank Paiva is a playwright and actor in New York City. In addition to making regular contributions to MSN Movies, his work has appeared in The New York Times, the Seattle Weekly, the Not for Tourists guide, and on EdgeNewYork.com.

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