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NC-17's high price

By STEVE PERSALL

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 24, 2000


Cultural watchdogs at the Motion Picture Association of America are chasing their tails again. The film ratings board has provided yet another reason its system is overdue for an overhaul.

This time, the issue concerns Darren Aronofsky's scorching drama Requiem for a Dream, now showing at Tampa Theatre and Burns Court Cinema in Sarasota.

Requiem for a Dream was rated NC-17 by the MPAA, a decision Aronofsky and the distributor, Artisan Entertainment, refused to accept for artistic reasons. They also declined to trim any footage to appease the MPAA and receive an R rating.

Instead, the film has been released unrated. No one under the age of 18 is being admitted -- the same restriction on admissions an NC-17 rating would provide.

Ignoring the MPAA gives Artisan more chances to find theaters willing to show the film and more media outlets willing to advertise it. Some media and theaters have strict policies against doing business with NC-17 movies.

Films released unrated are typically so rare and low-key that advertising and exhibition policies about them are barely considered.

(Times policy is to consider the film's title and artwork before approving an ad for NC-17 or unrated films, to avoid offending readers. Representatives of Muvico Theaters and AMC Theaters said NC-17 or unrated films can be shown in their venues, if the movie in question is deemed appropriate.)

But even if theaters and ads are secured, audiences have shied away from past NC-17 films. Showgirls (1995) earned back only about half of its $45-million budget, a total that far exceeds Orgazmo (1998), Crash (1996), You So Crazy (1994), Whipped (2000) or any other NC-17 release.

Some people would point to that as proof that moviegoers don't want to see and hear graphic sex, violence, drugs and profanity in movies. Others say those films don't get a fair chance in the marketplace.

Filmmakers like Aronofsky still take chances. The price of artistic freedom is high in an industry built upon box office receipts.

The problem for edgy filmmakers has existed since 1968, when the MPAA introduced the rating system and the defunct X rating was part of the package.

X was supposed to mark the spot where serious artists could explore topics unsuitable for young viewers: Midnight Cowboy, A Clockwork Orange kinds of movies. Soon, the X rating was co-opted by pornographers describing their fare as rated "triple-X."

Therefore, X came to mean "smut" for many people, no matter what anyone said. The MPAA tried correcting that by replacing X with the NC-17 rating in 1990. Guilt by previous association with pornography remained.

Aronofsky's film isn't a porn movie, not by a long shot. Requiem for a Dream is an unsettling depiction of drug addiction and of the degrading, dangerous things some junkies do for a fix.

One of those activities -- a public sex show featuring two women, a phallic toy and a leering crowd of men -- is the main reason the MPAA ordered an NC-17 rating.

When the MPAA's decision was announced in August, Artisan CEO Amir Malin told Screen Daily:

"In this film, sexual imagery is not gratuitous and far from prominent, and the context of sex is used only in support of the story and the situations in which the characters find themselves.

"We intend to stand by (Aronofsky's) cut of the film and will not change a single frame of this important work."

Instead, Artisan sends signs noting the 18-and-older age restriction to theaters showing Requiem for a Dream, to be posted at the box office. Newspaper ads include the following line:

"Due to graphic sexual content, no one 17 and under will be admitted to view this film."

There is nothing titillating about the sex scene in question. It's a repulsive example of how low some people go in order to satisfy their drug cravings. Viewers don't see as much as Aronofsky's intense editing suggests, since the sex is rapidly intercut with what's happening to other characters.

Requiem for a Dream is a scared-straight kind of movie, and that sequence is its scariest lesson.

Other filmmakers and distributors have recently buckled to the pressures Artisan now resists. American Psycho and Black and White had NC-17 ratings until menage a trois scenes were trimmed by a few seconds. Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut was NC-17 until Warner Bros. digitally added shadowy figures to camouflage an orgy scene. Those serious films still flopped with R ratings.

Meanwhile, the MPAA offers marketable PG-13 ratings to films such as Nutty Professor 2: The Klumps that use degrading sexual themes for laughs. Box office figures for that movie indicate that audiences enjoyed watching elderly women ridiculed for sagging breasts and removing false teeth for oral sex.

The same inconsistencies in the MPAA's thinking can be found with regard to violence and profanity. Now, the Director's Guild of America wants the MPAA to create a new division of R rating, separating mature films with purpose like Men of Honor from exploitative junk like Blair Witch 2: Book of Shadows.

First things first. The MPAA must clear up the NC-17 issue before it does anything else.

Artists like Aronofsky should be able to create films solely for adults, without being stigmatized by an NC-17 rating often wrongly confused with pornography. The MPAA understands the economic odds against NC-17 films, so continuing the practice is a veiled form of censorship.

The message sneaks through: "Cut your film our way, or we'll see you on home video."

Serious, mature works like Requiem for a Dream deserve better. Put it on the screen, get it into theaters and let the audience -- the intended audience -- decide if it's art or filth.

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