The Two R's

July 25, 2005
A thought by James Berardinelli

There's an example of the MPAA's unfairness and irrationality on display in theaters for everyone to see. If you believe that using the ratings is a reasonable way to determine the moral suitability of a film, this may cause you to re-think your position.

Both Murderball and The Devil's Rejects opened this past weekend. For the purposes of this article, I'll put cinematic quality aside. Instead, I'll stick to content; specifically, how the MPAA views content. Both movies were given an R-rating. Murderball is a documentary that includes some profanity (in conversations between real people) and descriptions of how quadriplegics have sex (with some non-graphic visual material that contains brief nudity). The Devil's Rejects includes graphic violence, gore, and bloodletting; torture (in sexual and non-sexual situations); full frontal nudity; frequent profanity; necrophilia; and various other perversions. Yet the MPAA saw fit to afix the same classification on both films.

Consider Murderball first. This movie should have been given a PG-13. Unfortunately, the MPAA has an inflexible (and unfathomable) one "fuck" rule. Use "fuck" or a variation of the word more than once, and it's an instant R. (I have just given this column an R-rating. Anyone under 17 who is reading, please make sure you have the permission of a parent or guardian to continue. I don't want to be accused of corrupting a minor.) Also, any depiction of sexual activity that includes nudity cannot be allowed in something rated PG-13. The context, unfortunately, doesn't mean anything to the MPAA. And when context is considered in the case of Murderball, it's not hard to make a case that the film is acceptable to be shown to teenage viewers. Granted, the content is probably too strong for pre-teens, but any high school student who wants to see a documentary about quadriplegics playing rugby should have that opportunity avialable to them. They shouldn't have to ask a parent to accomplany them to a theater or wait for the film to arrive on DVD. (Or, I might add, look on-line for a pirated version of the film.) Giving Murderball an R is an injustice.

On the other hand, the decision to award an R to The Devil's Rejects is no less baffling. If ever a movie deserved an NC-17, this is it. It's a morally repugnant movie that violates every bound of decency. The idea that kids under 17 can get in to see this boggles the mind. (Frankly, I don't know many people over 17 who would want to subject themselves to the ordeal, but that's another matter.) The content presented by Rob Zombie is not appropriate to be seen by anyone under the age of consent. That's not censorship; it's common sense. Giving The Devil's Rejects an R is a crime. (I assume, albeit without evidence, that studio politicking had a lot to do with the film avoiding an NC-17.)

It's clear to me that a system that awards Murderball and The Devil's Rejects the same ratings classification is broken beyond repair. How can parents make an informed decision about what their children are seeing if the system is so unhelpful. Yes, I know that descriptors are now available to explain why something is rated R, but those few words don't take context into account. "Nudity" is different when it's a brief glimpse excerpted from a training video for quadriplegics hoping to resume a sex life as opposed to a woman who is being tortured and humiliated.

This is not a call to arms to disband the current ratings system. Rather, it's a warning that the labels advertised by the MPAA should be investigated. Relying on that brand of alphabet soup could get you scalded.