California Literary Review

The Fourth Wall

A Film and Television Blog

Happy Birthday, NC-17!

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March 29th, 2010 at 1:37 pm

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The basics of the MPAA’s rating system (from here).

Oh, NC-17. You’re like that friend who’s always getting stupid at parties and killing everyone’s fun. And yet it’s impossible to ignore that person, and when it’s time to blow out the candles everyone shows up anyway. Cinematical notes that this year marks the 20th birthday of the NC-17 rating. Some filmmakers strive for NC-17, knowing it will give their films a modicum of notoriety if nothing else (Showgirls), and some edit their films down to R for theaters, then release the uncut or NC-17 versions for DVD. All this is of course a product of digital media; if we had no DVD (or Blu-Ray) many NC-17 films would never have seen the light of day outside of a few indie theaters.

The U.S. rating system is terminally flawed. The most common reasons for an NC-17 rating seem to be homosexual content, extreme violence or gore, or graphic depiction of straight sex (especially the types considered “taboo”). It’s notable, too, that male nudity seems to merit NC-17 ratings while even full-frontal female nudity often makes the R-rated cut. Seems pretty hypocritical and sexist, no? But that’s a discussion for another post. Wikipedia has a pretty comprehensive list of NC-17 films, some of which were reclassified long after their original releases (the always-controversial A Clockwork Orange, for instance).

Bertolucci’s The Dreamers secured an NC-17 for threesome reasons.

Confession: I worked at a large video rental chain–which is reportedly going bankrupt as I type this–for three years. The franchise that employed me was owned by a conservative Southern family, and I continually worked under the radar to get darker, weirder films onto the shelves. Sometimes it worked, though I have some good stories about my coworkers’ and customers’ tastes for my acquired unrated films (especially Todd Haynes’ Poison). Never one to be deterred by promises of violence or graphic sex, I drove an hour to see Vincent Gallo’s The Brown Bunny (this was a mistake, let me assure you). I own Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Dreamers, which I enjoy despite its flaws–mostly because it’s got lovely cinematography and provides a succinct rundown of French cinema history (though Michael Pitt doesn’t hurt my eyes either). One of my favorite documentaries, Inside Deep Throat, received a NC-17 rating though it’s not, in fact, very pornographic. Atom Egoyan’s Where the Truth Lies doesn’t deserve its NC-17 rating as far as I’m concerned. Shortbus gets grating after awhile, but it’s a fun, weird little indie. Kevin Smith has been very public about his battles with the MPAA, most recently with Zack and Miri Make a Porno, which is one of the cuter comedies in the last few years (notably, its mass market DVD is titled simply Zack and Miri, which makes me want to Sharpie in the rest of the title). The movie This Film is Not Yet Rated goes into scathing detail about the MPAA–who they are, their qualifications, and everything that goes into rating a movie. Not Yet Rated is marked “rating surrendered; previous version rated NC-17.”

Atom Egoyan’s Where the Truth Lies: also (undeservedly) NC-17 for graphic sexuality.

What are some of your favorite movies that received undue cruelty from the MPAA?

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