Rating shock and awe at the movies

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Millions of Americans every weekend consider it a real delight to settle into the soft, popcorn-fragrant darkness of a movie theater, to bask in the silver screen’s soothing glow, to escape — for a couple of hours at least — all that turmoil outside.

A lot of that turmoil outside has to do with the movies themselves. For their entertainment, millions of other Americans prefer movie-bashing to movie-going. They believe that movies are too sexy, too violent, too coarse, or otherwise too damaging to the minds of innocents (whether adults or children).

That is nothing new, of course. When movies emerged at the turn of the last century they were considered akin to the circus or carnival, or worse, appealing to lower classes and sensibilities. The larger-than-life moving images and bold themes were feared to have a powerful negative impact on their audiences.

Censorship boards sprang up across the nation to fight the perceived menace. The courts would not extend First Amendment protection to films, proclaiming that movies were neither speech nor art but merely low-brow profiteering. In a unanimous Supreme Court decision in 1915 that found in favor of an Ohio censorship board, Justice Joseph McKenna wrote that motion pictures were “capable of evil, having the power for it, the greater because of the attractiveness and manner of exhibition.”

The constitutional limbo for movies thus created persisted for more than half a century until the Supreme Court’s grudging acceptance of First Amendment protections for movies led to the replacement of the censorship boards with the adoption of a rating system in 1968 by the Motion Picture Association of America.

Though this new classification system erased overt censorship, it was and remains a blunt instrument, not entirely satisfactory to either movie-makers or movie-goers or movie-bashers and from time to time provoking controversy.

The latest flap is over the rating process involving a Christian-themed movie, “Facing the Giants.” The movie is described by Provident Films as “an action-packed drama about a Christian high school football coach who uses his undying faith to battle the giants of fear and failure.”

“Facing the Giants” is not due in theaters until fall, but it’s already getting lots of attention because it was rated PG for “parental guidance” instead of G, suitable for general audiences. That upset the film’s producers and Christian groups, who said the higher rating was imposed because of the film’s religious content.

Members of Congress also have protested. House Majority Whip Roy Blunt, R-Mo., and fellow members, who usually criticize ratings for being too low, demanded that the MPAA explain itself. “This incident raises the disquieting possibility that the MPAA considers exposure to Christian themes more dangerous for children than exposure to gratuitous sex and violence,” Blunt wrote in a letter to MPAA Chairman Dan Glickman.

Glickman blamed the confusion on an earlier miscommunication and said the film presented discussions of pregnancy and other mature matters that “parents might want to be aware of before taking their kids to see this movie.”

Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., said she was not satisfied with the MPAA response. She, Blunt and others are concerned about “ratings creep,” described in a 2004 Harvard study as a weakening of standards on sex and violence in the movies. Blackburn called for Congress to revisit the idea of a universal rating system that could replace separate systems applying to various forms of entertainment, such as television, videos and video games.

While the idea of harmonizing standards, perhaps even making them stricter, is appealing to many people, a one-size-fits-all system could well magnify the separate systems’ subjectivity and other flaws.

A major problem for rating systems, of course, is always being a step or three behind the entertainment.

No one can predict what dimensions expressive entertainment may take on, but there’s a good chance that it will involve an amalgamation of current forms and include virtuality, interactivity and sensations such as touch, taste and smell — all untethered from the movie theater itself.

Just as the arrival of movies presented a delight to the senses and a jolt to the sensibilities, future forms of entertainment promise (or threaten) their own shock and awe.

For getting away from it all, imagine the possibilities.

For those trying to regulate with ratings, imagine the impossibilities.

Paul K. McMasters is First Amendment ombudsman at the First Amendment Center, 1101 Wilson Blvd., Arlington, Va. 22209. E-mail: pmcmasters@fac.org.

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