The only substantial questions raised by the momentary furor over the rating of Alan Parker's new film "Angel Heart" are two: Should the rating system be changed? Should it be abolished?
The second question is the more provocative. It has long been an article of faith in the motion-picture industry that voluntary self-policing was the only adequate safeguard against the imposition of government censorship at any and all levels, and against the spread of non-government restraints on filmgoing like the Legion of Decency of the Catholic Church, with its Condemned classification and its Objectionable in Part for All, which provoked the Hays Code in 1934.
The revised MPAA rating system, the so-called Valenti ratings, adopted in 1968, acknowledged that the film world had changed a lot, but that the censorship threat was still there.
The focus of anti-film feeling has shifted slightly from sex toward the ever-more-graphic violence. But censorship statutes put to the voters in California and elsewhere since 1968 have left no doubt that the hostile fears about the power of movies still run through the society.
Yet a California proposition was soundly defeated, as other measures have been, leaving some doubt as to whether the fears of unregulated sex and violence remain a majority sentiment.
An annual survey of parental attitudes toward the ratings, taken for Jack Valenti and the Motion Picture Assn. of America, continues to report that a substantial majority, roughly two-thirds of those queried, finds the system useful.
No such query has been addressed to the motion picture community itself, and it would be interesting and possibly significant if, for example, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences polled its 4,500 members on their feelings about the need to retain the ratings. The answer could be revealing, even though the academy membership is weighted on the senior and conservative side.
Would dumping the ratings invite legal censorship, open the floodgates of filth (always a popular phrase), or affect moviegoing one way or the other?
An argument against the ratings is that the films which most heavily exploit sex and violence are made outside the mainstream system anyway and never come near the ratings, which is true enough. A counter argument is that the ratings help to define the unrated fare for the audiences at which it is aimed. You take your choice and you pay your money.
The loudest cry against the present ratings is that they represent censorship. But this is dubious wordplay, since a primary intent of the 1968 ratings was to give film makers the total creative freedom they had never had under the previous system. In the days of the Hays Code and its enforcement by what came to be known as the Breen Office, there was unquestionably a priori censorship. If you were a signatory to the Hays Code, you agreed not to shoot a frame until your script had been approved, and the obligatory changes often ran to several single-spaced pages of commentaries and commands, both minute and sweeping.
In theory, and in practice, the film makers now can do anything they want at the price of an identifying rating, up to and including the hated X. The difficulty arises because the ratings do have clout, and distributors regard the X and in some instances even the R rating as unacceptable.
At that point, film makers forced to make changes, as Parker was on "Angel Heart," argue that a gun is being held to their heads. The question then becomes: Who is holding the gun? Is it the raters and the system, who have no vested interest in the film but only in attempting to be consistent in their labeling? Or is it the distributors, acknowledging that the ratings do matter because a large constituency, including some advertising outlets, rely on them?
Theologians have argued about less.
If the raters goof, as they may or may not have done in the matter of the 10 seconds excised from "Angel Heart," an appeals procedure exists that takes the matter out of the hands of the raters. Even if one argues that the ratings are a form of censorship in fact if not theory, the consequences can be avoided, as in true legal censorship they cannot.
A more compelling case can be made that the X rating must have a name change. The formula "Let X equal sin" predates the ratings system by years and decades, and it has always carried connotations of the illicitly attractive, or the attractively illicit. To paraphrase "The Hermit of Shark Tooth Shoal," "its torrid arms hold hidden charms, for the greedy, the sinful and lewd."
Valenti and the latter-day moguls of the MPAA have been extremely reluctant to tamper with the ratings as they were set up in 1968, on the grounds that they were complicated enough to begin with. Still, GP became PG (a major reversal), some age boundaries were readjusted and the PG-13 category was added.