Certain facts regarding movie ratings are not in dispute.
Of the films that have been released with NC-17 ratings since the designation was created in 1990, the vast majority have received the adults-only rating for sex, not for violence. Receiving it for violence is not impossible, but it's very, very difficult and next to impossible if your movie has any aspirations to seriousness. Movies released with an NC-17 for violence, or without a rating at all, tend to be things like Hatchet II. Movies released with an NC-17 for sex tend to be things like the Golden Globe-nominated Lust, Caution in 2007. And making a commercial success of an NC-17 film is almost impossible — the box-office champ of the group is Showgirls, at a relatively paltry $20 million. After that, totals fall off quickly, and most make less than $5 million.
It takes about ten seconds to find examples of ratings comparisons that will make your head spin. Last year's beautiful, heartbreaking relationship drama Blue Valentine had to appeal in order to avoid an NC-17 rating. It wound up with an R — the same rating as The Human Centipede, a horror film with a premise so revolting that if you're lucky enough not to be familiar with it, I'm not going to disturb that state. Another film that received the same parental guidance signal as The Human Centipede was Once, the soft-hearted indie romance musical that received an R in 2007 for language alone.
On the ratings administration's own site, it explains that Once received an R for "language" (which mostly consists of young musicians who swear casually and often lightheartedly); The Human Centipede received an R for, among other things, "disturbing sadistic horror violence."
This is a system gone utterly, gruesomely mad.
And into this system comes the new film Shame -- an ironic title to become embroiled in this debate if ever there was one — from British writer-director Steve McQueen, who won a BAFTA Award for Most Promising Newcomer in 2009 after being nominated for Outstanding British Film for his drama Hunger, about the hunger strike of IRA member Bobby Sands. Shame stars two top-of-the-line young actors: Michael Fassbender, who was honored as Best Actor at the Venice Film Festival for this film, and Carey Mulligan, who was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar for An Education. This is not Showgirls, and it's not a super-low-profile art-house film happy to wallow in obscurity. It's an adult drama about the troubled life of a sex addict, and they want enough people to see it for it to receive fair awards consideration.
Unlike The Human Centipede, Shame has now received an NC-17 rating, and the studio behind it, Fox Searchlight, has decided not to appeal. Speaking to The Hollywood Reporter, Searchlight president Steve Gilula said, "I think NC-17 is a badge of honor, not a scarlet letter. We believe it is time for the rating to become usable in a serious manner."
In fact, it's past time.
The typical response to an NC-17 rating, largely because its stigma limits where the film can be advertised and shown, has been to edit and/or appeal the rating. Blue Valentine successfully appealed; countless others, from South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut to Basic Instinct to Boys Don't Cry have been edited.
But while those responses are entirely understandable and solve the problem for those individual films, they do not solve the underlying problem of the madness of this system, which has been pointed out over and over to no avail — perhaps most colorfully in Kirby Dick's sometimes obnoxious but entirely on-point 2006 documentary This Film Is Not Yet Rated. And the nut of the problem is this: The attitudes toward sex in films are both miscalibrated as compared to the attitudes towards violence and miscalibrated generally, as they seem to assume that teenagers are not capable of responsibly handling and understanding any film that depicts sex explicitly, no matter what the story context of that content may be.
And if the system will not fix itself, then studios and consumers have the best chance to fix the problem by changing how they choose to respond.
A film's rating, after all, is — according to the ratings authority's own explanation — only intended to give information to parents. To parents. About their children. That is its absolutely only function, and parents are the only people to whom the ratings authority believes itself to be accountable. It defines its own standards by saying it attempts to estimate the reactions of "other parents" and the ratings they would want assigned. If you are not a parent of a child under 18, you are entirely unrepresented and your interests are considered irrelevant. Thus, it has no business affecting your access to films.
The existing ratings system is not equipped to, intended to, or empowered to determine what access anyone over the age of 17 has to any film, so any time it does affect that access, it is malfunctioning due to overbreadth. That's not a filmgoer's opinion or a filmmaker's opinion; it's based on the administration's own mission statement. If film ratings that are intended solely to give information to parents are being used to determine what films are shown in multiplexes, that's an abuse of the ratings system. If they're used to determine what films can be advertised on television, that's an abuse as well. It's using ratings as they were not intended to be used.
And that overbreadth is what causes much of the angst in the first place. It seems perfectly obvious that the rating of a serious adult drama containing strong sexual content would not be appealed primarily because anyone objected to parents being informed that it wasn't suitable for children under 17, who were not the intended audience. The logical reasons to appeal it are that (1) it's grossly unfair relative to other films depicting violence, and (2) it can affect the access adults have to a film.
What Fox Searchlight may be able to accomplish with this maneuver is to remind people of what a rating is and is not. It is not, as Gilula says, a scarlet letter. It is not a badge of sin or badness. It is information for parents, and if it's only used that way, it doesn't require that a film be edited or even that a rating be appealed in most cases. There's nothing wrong, in and of itself, with parents who want to look at ratings information being told that Shame isn't appropriate for kids. It undoubtedly isn't meant for kids. Standing by the rating and then reminding people that the rating isn't any bigger of a deal than people choose to make of it could potentially make all of this much less important in the future.
It would also, incidentally, resolve the tricky business where battles over ratings are always interpreted at least in part as publicity stunts — ways to get attention for a film by making it seem titillating. There are certainly accusations today that Searchlight is putting out Shame with an NC-17 for attention, but of course, there have been accusations that other filmmakers have courted an initial NC-17 they knew they'd edit into an R simply for attention. While some of those accusations are undoubtedly true, to suggest none of these battles are ever real and no art is being genuinely compromised is to suggest directors never sincerely want their films to be seen with content that the MPAA wants to brand with an NC-17 rating. And when you're facing a system that would give an R rating to Once, interpreting all of this as so much bluster for publicity seems overly optimistic.
It's really up to studios and consumers to read the NC-17 rating as nothing more or less than what it is and to complain if the rating is abused. Ratings will continue to exist, parents will continue to be strongly warned about the swearing habits of musicians and the fact that relationship dramas sometimes contain sex scenes. But it doesn't need to bother anybody else.
And if that happens, then we may stand a better chance of seeing films released in the manner their directors intended, and that's a net win for everybody.