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'Lust, Caution' and the MPAA

Why did Ang Lee's erotic spy thriller get an NC-17 rating? The answer may be found in 'The Naked Truth.'

September 26, 2007|Jay A. Fernandez | Special to The Times

"Lust, Caution," which starts a limited release Friday, received an NC-17 rating from the Motion Picture Assn. of America last month that the film's distributor, Focus Features, and Oscar-winning director, Ang Lee, did not appeal. The film's title could be the unofficial motto of the MPAA's rating system.

A spy thriller with erotic elements set in World War II-era Shanghai, "Lust" contains enough nudity and graphic sex that the filmmakers saw no point in disputing that adults are, in fact, its target audience. But the rating severely restricts the filmmakers' ability to distribute and market the movie, which has thus far received mixed reviews on the festival circuit.

You can get a look at the original offending documents in "Lust, Caution: The Story, the Screenplay, and the Making of the Film." The book includes the screenplay written by Wang Hui Ling and Focus Chief Executive James Schamus, as well as Eileen Chang's short story, from which they adapted their script.

Various crew members -- Oscar-nominated cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, script supervisor Sherrie Liu, Oscar-nominated editor Tim Squyres -- contribute brief essays on translating challenging aspects of the screenplay into its final visual form. First assistant director Roseanna Ng's amusing little entry, "Eleven Days in Hell," details the human toll of filming three minimal-crew "love" scenes in tiny rooms.

Meanwhile, Kevin S. Sandler, assistant professor of media arts in the producing program at the University of Arizona, has written a wide-ranging analysis of the history and effect of the NC-17 rating called "The Naked Truth: Why Hollywood Doesn't Make X-Rated Movies." Sandler argues in his book that the NC-17 rating protects the industry more than it does young viewers.

Because of the resulting limitations in advertising and distribution, and the contractual requirement for most filmmakers to deliver R ratings, NC-17 movies remain rare, and the rating is almost always triggered by sex, not violence.

Sandler dissects most of the usual touchstones since the rating was invented in 1990 ("Henry & June," "Bad Lieutenant," "Showgirls"), but also analyzes the skewed deference shown major studios and heavyweights such as Steven Spielberg, who have long had greater leverage within the ratings system than independent producers when it comes to depictions of violence that garner more permissive ratings. Throughout the book, Sandler makes extensive use of the archived papers of Richard Heffner, who was chairman of the MPAA's Classification and Rating Administration from 1974 to 1994.

Given the imbalance in how the rating is applied, the implicit sexual embargo that comes with the NC-17 is just another manifestation of the infantilization of an American society that uses little cartoon blobs to pitch mood-altering drugs in television commercials. In any case, any organization that considers pubic hair and orgasms (see "The Cooler" and "Boys Don't Cry," which had to trim those visuals to achieve an R) more damaging to a teenage mind than the graphic depictions of torture (see "Hostel: Part II") should itself be, well, restricted.

Using technology to his advantage

Score another matchmaking deal for YouTube and Craigslist, the hip and unruly cousins of Hollywood's standard discovery channels. Aspiring screenwriter John Sparano has both to thank for the most recent option on his original screenplay "What You Can Do for Your Country."

Sparano has had four original screenplays optioned over the years, and he wrote and directed a short film, "Reality School," that played the L.A. Short Film Festival in 2002. Long practiced in finding creative opportunities to get his screenplays in people's hands (like inadvertently picking up a nearby producer's home wireless network on his laptop, then asking around the neighborhood for his address so he could plant a script in his mailbox), Sparano responded to a Craigslist ad for an unpaid production designer job on the Universal lot with Roberts/David Films ("Strangers With Candy").

Sparano has taken unpaid Craigslist gigs for videos and commercials before -- usually if they promised a usable credit -- and one of his short scripts was recently filmed by a director who found him through the site, but he remains justifiably cautious.

"If [Roberts/David] weren't on the lot I never would have bothered," says Sparano, who's a production shopper on projects such as "Poor Things" and F/X's "The Riches." "Because my ultimate goal with this is to meet people and push things. It turned out they were for real."

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