Just Who Are the People Who Censor Our Films?

In supporting the NC-17 rating that was introduced almost a year ago by the Classification and Ratings Administration (CARA), Jack Mathews waves the flag of freedom in the face of "scared to death" distributors who have "simply replaced institutional censorship . . . with an imaginary one of their own" (Calendar, Sept. 22). But he fails completely to raise questions about the existence of institutionalized censorship in the motion picture industry itself.

Censorship, of course, is in fundamental contradiction to the tenets of a free society. That should be the starting point of any discussion on this subject. Over the years, however, the ratings system has become so embedded in the film industry that now only its decisions are occasionally challenged and not the institution itself.

But the existence of a Board of Censors, established by corporate decree to make decisions that directly effect the public's access to art and entertainment, should give pause to every citizen in a democratic society.

Given the fact that motion pictures are unquestionably the most powerful and pervasive form of popular culture, this is not an issue of eccentric interest but is at the heart of any discussion of public versus corporate rights.

Naturally, a case can be made that society has an obligation to protect children from information and images deemed inappropriate or even harmful, although I am sure that many people would consider this a private, familial matter requiring neither governmental nor corporate intervention.

However, given the number of films released every year it is impractical for parents to personally analyze each film and judge its appropriateness for their children or indeed themselves. The MPAA through CARA has unilaterally assumed the right to perform this function.

But what is CARA? Who are the people that run this organization? Who evaluates the films and assigns a rating to them? What are the criteria used to appoint these people? What are their qualifications for the job? For how long do they serve? How much do they get paid? Who decides on the criteria used in rating films? What tips the balance and gets a picture an NC-17 rather than an R or a PG rather than a PG-13?

When CARA chairman Richard Heffner (Calendar, Sept. 9) comments in justification for the NC-17 rating for the movie "Whore" that "when a film is chock full of graphic violence, it has to be off limits to children," what is specific about the violence in this film that makes it more offensive than so many other violent pictures that squeak by and get an R?

Obviously, making these judgments is not a scientific activity and any expectation of objectivity would be absurd. It is precisely for this reason that the public in general and filmmakers in particular have a right to full disclosure on the workings of CARA and why CARA ought to be scrupulously accountable for all its activities and decisions--and why the very existence of a Board of Censors is inherently offensive in a democratic society.

There is too much at stake, morally, creatively and economically for a faceless group of privately appointed administrators to wield the kind of power that the Motion Picture Assn. of America in collaboration with the National Assn. of Theater Owners has bestowed on the Classification and Ratings Administration.

As a small first step in a long overdue public debate about the ratings system, it is time for CARA to come out of the closet.

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