Unrestricted Content: A Nostalgic Look at Censorship

 

MPAA

 

Is there such thing as a restricted movie anymore? I know that there is still an MPAA that rates movies as G, PG, PG-13, R (or the seldom used NC-17) and that it has done so since 1968 when the new system abolished the dated Hays code. But what I’m less clear about is whether or not the restricted rating has any remaining clout whatsoever as far as kids under 18 are concerned. In an age when any upcoming release, deemed PG or Restricted, will become equally available to any party with remote interest just weeks after a movie’s release date, are rating systems even relevant anymore? The fact is, to which almost any movie fan born before the ‘90s can attest, the MPAA branding of a new dark (thus cool) movie used to matter. It used to matter a great deal. Today it seems like the restricted rating and all its formerly oppressive connotations, as I knew it as a 14-year-old, has vanished.

While it may seem odd that I’m so concerned with what a 14-year-old should be allowed to see – I am no parent after all – it is only because in a strange way I feel sorry for a generation that can access whatever adult intended content they want whenever they want. But why feel sorry for a generation that essentially is living my 14-year-old dream? I should really be happy for kids today who are now able to see almost any film, no matter how vile the subject matter with minimal hassle. The only problem is, how can I be happy for a generation of kids who don’t know how to be happy for themselves? It’s interesting to consider, if as a kid I was able to see whatever lurid movie I so desperately desired, what would have become of my desire?

Growing up in Canada during the ‘90s, my personal MPAA equivalent, The Ontario Review Board, was even stricter than in the States. If a movie was given an “R” rating it meant that there were to be no kids in that theater without exception. To my extreme envy, the American government did offer such an exception, rightfully championing the role of the parent as the one who should be responsible for choosing what their kids could or could not see without the oppressive hand of the government censoring content. In other words, if your parents or older siblings were cool enough, with adult supervision (someone who could presumably put all the things you’ve seen into context), you could basically see all the pivotal restricted movies. Being Canadian, you’d be lucky to have a parent willing to take you to the new darker-than-usual John Woo film while on an American vacation. In America it seemed all good, at least as long as nudity wasn’t involved. North America has always been especially squeamish with things having to do with sex and nudity, and nowhere was this more prevalent than in the confusing priorities of the MPAA. I’ll always consider Jessie Spano’s Showgirls as the quintessential NC-17-rated film. Longstanding complaints often directed at the MPAA concern its views that brutal violence is more appropriate than the female body.

Interestingly, when the Hays code was replaced in the ‘70s, the modern perspective on the subject seemed to be that the world was essentially divided into two groups: those who were over the age of 18 and those who were younger. What was appropriate for an 18 year old was far less so for someone of 17. And what was okay viewing for a 17 year old was just as well for a 10 year. If, like me, you ever found yourself wondering why kids movies of the ‘80s were so much darker and more haunting than those of today, my personal feeling is that it somehow boils down to studio attempts to appeal to such a wide age demographic simultaneously. A person undergoes more drastic changes in this 8-year time span than they usually ever will again in their lives. How do you appeal to both ends of the formative years?

For over 15 years, this over/under-18 distinction dictated what kids were exposed to but in 1984 that all came to a crashing halt with Spielberg’s first Indiana Jones sequel, The Temple of Doom. Given that Raiders of the Lost Ark was such a colossal success, Temple of Doom was one of the most anticipated movies of the sequel-heavy decade. And like the extremely frightening Raiders, it was rated PG. What nobody expected was for Spielberg to follow his widely beloved adventure with a significantly darker chapter in the archaeological saga. Everyone took their age 7+ kids to the voodoo-laden tale of ancient evil that saw Indy temporarily turn evil and hit a small boy named Short Round. A generation of kids was utterly traumatized by the horrifying images contained within. Parents felt betrayed by the seemingly friendly blockbuster that left their kids awake at night. So angry was the response that the government was forced to step in and create the PG-13 rating. I was one of those kids and yet growing up, Indy 2 was always my favorite of the trilogy. Even though the film caused so much pain and upset, I suppose I was learning that there’s an exciting quality about that which you’re most afraid. And so, like every other pre-teen around me, I grew to love subjects in movies I’d probably be better off avoiding.

Once you grow into your teenage years, with experience comes an evolving taste for content that over time, gradually surpasses the material provided by movies rated PG-13; or Ontario’s Adult Accompaniment (AA), which was essentially the same thing except Ontario drew the line at 14 years old, allowing in slightly edgier movies as a small condolence for not allowing parents the right to accompany kinds into R rated theaters. As far as kids seeing Restricted movies went, legally, a kid would have to wait until they were 18 with zero exception, despite the fact that most R rated movies released, such as the entire horror genre, are prominently geared towards 15 to 17 year-old boys. And since being a teenager is very much about discovering how truly bizarre the world is, to be disallowed to taste that forbidden fruit was unacceptable.

Given that the ratings board had so much power over my entertainment, the release of the Thursday paper could be a pretty suspenseful event. For it would not be till the day before a film’s release, and sometimes not till the release date itself, that you would find out whether it was given an AA rating , which would allow you to see the highly coveted film without stress, or an R rating which would pose an often insurmountable conflict. Whenever a trailer would come out offering an upcoming look at a movie of seemingly endless awesomeness, the looming devastation of the R was always hovering amidst the release.

Then Friday would come and sometimes – enough times to warrant this as a topic of teenage consternation – it would happen; a movie like American Psycho or Fight Club, movies with trailers suggesting mind-blowing awesomeness with suggestive hints at depravity, would get branded with the dreaded Ontario R rating. And with the R came a set of hoops that you and your accomplices would have to jump through to make the experience happen for you. Overcoming these required obstacles in order to earn that exciting light at the end of the tunnel provided kids with a sense of adventurous purpose – a deeply important mission. Because if you failed to see movies like Scream, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas or Boogie Nights in theaters, given the state of home-video in the mid-‘90s, it would be a dreadfully long turnaround before you’d be able to watch the modified full screen version on your tiny television cube. So if you really cared about movies, given that home video was light years away from today’s home theatre viewing experience, the stakes involved in attempting to catch good movies on proper big screens were astronomically high.

As a result, successfully sneaking into an R rated film – seldom an easy feat – and earning the wonderfully twisted cinematic experiences waiting at the other end of the tunnel, provided some of the most rewarding experiences of my youth. We became experts on the subject of approach. A successful sneak-in was like a true work of art and similarly to the greatest of heist movies, the more challenging the job, the better the narrative. Drive-in movie theaters were still in abundance and should you be traveling with an elder, drive-ins were the easiest gig out there. Your run-of-the-mill mall theater posed more complicated challenges like getting past the squeaky-voiced teen guarding the auditorium entrance door. Being able to outsmart the geek would require stealth, calculated timing, and actual blueprints.

Eventually the time did come when I turned 18 and suddenly overnight, an entire world of adult-intended material was immediately accessible. Not much longer after my 18th birthday, the Ontario Ratings Board would re-evaluate its rating system to address all the issues which made my teenage years a constant battle. Much like the invention of the PG-13 bridged a gap between two very distinct demographics, Ontario’s new 18a rating provided the bridge between AA and truly restricted material. And yet while I really could’ve used that bridge growing up, the excitement of my countless sneaks, for better or worse, provided some of my most action packed days.

I think most people born before the ‘90s had similar experiences with forbidden films growing up and it is my suggestion that these experiences served to put the restricted movie on a much-needed pedestal. Going beyond the sneak-in fun factor, when I think about the state of censorship today, I find myself nostalgic for a time when a new horror movie was something to look forward to, or at least consider special. So many movies are released today via so many means it’s a wonder any one title feels special anymore. I can’t speak for the youth of today – though feel free to consider this a non-pedophilic call to 14-year old boys to come forward with their feelings on the matter, if there is even a matter for them to speak of – but it’s my suspicion that an enthusiastic appetite for adult-geared material once existed that has dissolved in the modern age of fully accessible entertainment. I’m not saying that kids don’t like watching crazy shit anymore – there will always be a teenage market for crazy shit – it’s just that if there is still such thing as “Restricted” what the hell does that even mean or do?

With modern channels like HBO or Netflix providing commonplace content as gory as anything I was forbidden to see for years, has the practice of hiding things from our youth died completely? Is it even possible to conceal dark entertainment anymore? Or to put it another way, has society lightened up or given up? And what of the generation raised on exposure to any random movie at any age? Is it healthy to take violence for granted the way kids watching Game of Thrones surely must or does all this over-exposure help in the fight to differentiate fiction from reality? I couldn’t begin to speak to these questions. Perhaps I could if I were a teacher, parent or pedophile, but I am simply a preservationist fan of curiously morbid movies and the tradition of looking forward to them. I mourn for the R-rated cachet. – The Silly Serpent