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MOVIES : Off-Centerpiece : NC-17: A Commentary on Controversies Past and Future

<i> Jack Mathews is the film critic for Newsday. </i>

It’s been nearly a year since the Motion Picture Assn. of America finally relented and did away with its adults-only X rating, and we haven’t had a good controversy since. But where director Peter Greenaway appears--his “The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover” contributed greatly to last year’s long debate--there is always hope. And here he comes.

Greenaway’s “Prospero’s Books,” a visual interpretation of the stories read by the exiled Prospero in Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” will have its American premiere next weekend in the New York Film Festival and is scheduled for commercial release by Miramax Nov. 8. The movie has not been rated yet, but judging by the sampling shown to critics at Cannes last May, the ratings board members should remember to turn on the air conditioning before they go in for their screening.

That first reel of footage shown at Cannes looked like a moving tapestry of nudes--male and female--fully exposed. In the past, the raters have been able to take only so much of that before agreeing that it would turn children’s brains to applesauce.

For those of us still hoping the ratings changes last year weren’t for naught, it might be best if “Prospero’s Books” does end up with an NC-17, the adults-only designation that replaced the X. Distributors are still scared to death that they can’t market an adults-only movie in the United States, and by refusing to try, they have simply replaced the institutional censorship that existed before with an imaginary one of their own.

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Before the system was revamped, many theaters were restricted by their leases from showing an X-rated movie, which had become a synonym in the public vocabulary for pornography, and many faint-hearted newspapers and TV outlets refused advertising for them. Those concerns are no longer valid. Universal Pictures had no trouble booking or promoting Philip Kaufman’s “Henry & June,” the first and only major studio movie released with an NC-17, and though it did little business, the rating was not to blame. “Henry & June” was out there and everyone was aware of it; it just didn’t live up to all the hype.

Executives in Hollywood shrug off the suggestion that they’re afraid of the NC-17, but filmmakers say their contracts with the studios still routinely include clauses limiting them to a rating no stronger than R. What are they afraid of now? With ticket sales nearing a two-decade low, the industry should be marketing movies for every taste, yet it continues to shy away from material that would be properly limited to adults--a pretty big group.

Implicit in the old rating format was the widespread notion that only society’s perverse would be interested in seeing movies that weren’t appropriate for their kids.

In fact, there’s a movement in Ft. Worth, Tex., now to create and empower a 26-member city board to affix its own ratings to movies shown in that city. The Ft. Worth system would provide letter clues as to a film’s content, including a P for those featuring “perverse” characters. One of those meetings where they discuss the definition of perversion would make a great entry for “America’s Funniest Home Videos.”

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Whether it ends up with an R or an NC-17, Greenaway’s “Prospero’s Books” doesn’t figure to do the kind of business that would persuade the major studios to test the adults-only market, but it will be a step toward acceptance of the new rating.

If filmmakers continue to treat the NC-17 like poison, the public will come to think of it as that too. And each time a movie is cut to “broaden” its audience, the more restrictive the rating system becomes.

Trimark Pictures recently lost its appeal of the NC-17 given to Ken Russell’s “Whore,” then inexplicably made the trims necessary to get an R.

Why in the world would Trimark do that? The movie will not sell one more ticket with an R (since he made “Tommy” with the Who in 1975, Russell has not exactly been hot with teen-agers), and Russell fans who remember what happened when his 1984 “Crimes of Passion” was expurgated for an R may simply sit this one out.

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Not everyone liked Greenaway’s “The Cook,” by any means, but opponents of the old rating system had to be glad to see it.

Unlike “Scarface,” “Angel Heart” and other films that got caught up in debates over the fine lines being drawn between what’s OK for supervised kids (R) and what’s not (X), “The Cook” seemed to make the distinction clear.

It was a movie that was clearly not pornographic, yet one that most people would agree probably warranted having its commercial exhibition limited to adults. When the X was replaced with the NC-17, it appeared that we finally had a rating to accommodate that kind of film.

Perhaps, Greenaway will show the way again.

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