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Time for an Adult Conversation About R's Failure

One sane suggestion emerges from Hollywood's sex-and-violence woes: Get rid of a rating that has failed to provide guidelines for parents.


The one true thing that can be said about the current fracas involving Hollywood sex and violence, its effect on society and its marketing to young people is that neither side in the dispute has exactly covered itself with glory. In an atmosphere replete with finger-pointing and recrimination, it's not surprising that the single sanest suggestion yet made has been overlooked and underappreciated.

On the one hand, hyperventilating politicians, reaching levels of high outrage at what the studios are doing to America's moral fiber, call to mind Claude Raines' disingenuous Captain Renault in "Casablanca" saying he was shocked, shocked to find that gambling, yes gambling, was taking place at Rick's. What universe do these people inhabit? How out of touch can they be with the direction American popular culture, up to and including omnipresent TV commercials and even billboards, has been taking for years, that they are discovering this trend just in time for a national election?

Not that Hollywood's defenders are looking much better. Like pro-weapons zealots who feel that stopping private citizens from buying automatic armaments by the carload is an open invitation to dictatorship and prison camps, there are those who feel that if "The Cell" and its scenes of horrific torture can't be sold to an acquiescent citizenry, the republic would be in peril and books would be burned in the streets the very next morning.

The whole question of what should and should not be shown to young people is one that can appear either simple or complex, depending on how you look at it. Yes, it's true that each generation always feels the next one is going too far, and that Elvis, ragtime and even Jimmy Cagney's gangsters were condemned in their day. Yes, it's not been proved to all scientists' satisfaction that violent images do lasting damage. Yes, increased parental involvement in what their children consume would help more than anything.

But the truth is that nothing is really gained by fleeing from reality and taking arguments to extremes. You don't have to prove that violent films directly cause mayhem to feel that constant vivid and explicit images of supercharged hostility fed to children in particular and society in general do a lot more harm than good. In the words of one newspaper letter writer, they "set a tone and a mood . . . send the message that in America, violence is the answer to almost any problem."

Also, it's important to recognize several factors that do not correlate with adult panic states of the past. For one thing, special effects technology has advanced to such a point that the most stomach-turning violence can be graphically rendered on screen with almost clinical verisimilitude. For another, TV and the computer have made popular culture more pervasive, more difficult for anyone to resist, than at any previous time. Finally, because of the amount of money at their disposal, young people are not just absorbing things intended for adults, they are setting the agenda for an entire culture. If, in previous eras, adults worried that things they liked would corrupt children, now the problem is that material adults don't even care for is being supported to a great extent by a youthful audience that seems impervious to adult influence.

In this kind of world, parents need all the help they can get in knowing and understanding exactly what both they and their children will be exposed to should they venture forth to the local megaplex. Given that parents can't always take the time to research specific films, what's needed is a system that can be trusted to accurately characterize what happens on screen.

Hark, a sonorous voice says at this point. It's the silver-tongued orator of the Potomac, Jack Valenti, head of the Motion Picture Assn. of America, who wants it known that we've got such a rating system, best one in the world; it's worked like a clock for 32 years. That logic has long worked for Valenti, but at the recent congressional hearings, Sen. John McCain was unimpressed. "It doesn't matter if the current ratings system is 32 years old or 300 years old," he said. "We still hear from parents and families . . . that there is a lack of understanding."

The truth is, even if the studios follow through on what appears to be a promise to give more prominence to the reasons for specific ratings, no one who has taken the trouble to look closely respects the system anymore. And when Valenti defends it by quoting statistics that claim 81% of parents with children younger than 13 find the ratings beneficial, he is inadvertently pointing up its biggest weakness: the R rating.

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