I met Jack Valenti once in person and have seen him in action many times. If his name sounds familiar, he was a former aide to President Lyndon Johnson 40 years ago, and has headed the Motion Picture Association of America even since.
The world sees him for about 30-seconds at every Academy Awards telecast when he comes out in a tuxedo and says something nice about somebody else. The rest of the year he represents Hollywood in Washington.
Two things have always impressed me about Jack, in no particular order: 1) He is shorter than I am, which I find extremely thoughtful; 2) and he helped invent the movie ratings system that we use today. It’s a system that has generally held up well, primarily because almost everyone has ignored it over the decades. Still, it is more highly regarded than the TV ratings code that pops up on our screens five times a night and no one even notices, or the music industry’s ratings on unsuitable song lyrics – a code so laughably inconsequential that no one has even gotten to the point of ignoring it yet.
Critics will tell you that this has not been the best summer for really good movies so far, although you’d hardly know it by passing by the theater at Potomac Mills at 9:30 last Saturday night.
I must admit that I usually don’t pay premium prices for tickets and hang out at the local cinema on a Saturday night, as a rule. Rather, I take the cheap way out with those inconveniently timed matinee shows – which saves me $2 but means I get home too early and, thus, have to rent another movie on DVD for $4 anyway. (I was never good with numbers.)
Films often fight for certain ratings based primarily on economics. Most blockbusters shoot for a PG-13 rating because a plain old PG would make some people believe the movie is not mature enough for them (in other words, no sex, no violence, no crude language – the very hallmarks of today’s mature individual). And an R rating would restrict some of the younger teens from seeing it, at least in those movie houses that actually enforce the ratings code.
Young teens, of course, are the “life force” behind movie sales. The average young teenager in America today spends $5,000 a month on movies alone. (Well, that’s a rough estimate.)
Of course, today’s 13-year-olds are light years beyond the young teenagers of 30 years ago, when Mr. Valenti began the movie ratings system. Thirty years ago, most 13 year-olds were lucky if they could dress themselves. (Actually, 40 years ago when I was 13, we really couldn’t dress ourselves. It was a national disgrace.) Here in 2003, you really don’t want to know what 13-year-olds know, compared to what we knew at their age, do you?
But it’s not the 13-year-olds we have to worry about. It’s the 50-year-olds. And the 80-year-olds. Kids today have no problem seeing anything. They know it’s all make-believe. But place an older person who grew up in a more innocent age in front of a movie screen and you’re asking for big trouble. In fact, I’m guessing that only 1 in every 400 movies made today is suited to our sensibilities.
Between movie dialogue (exactly when did nuns start talking like defensive linemen?), and the gratuitous sex scenes (let’s hope they never remake “Cinderella”), it’s a wonder we haven’t stationed 13-year-olds in the theater lobby to explain to us what we just saw.
So I respectfully propose to Mr. Valenti (who is 81, but only looks 71) a new ratings system that would better reflect 2003, for better or for worse.
G – Extremely bloody violence with very disturbing images, highly suggestive behavior, particularly crude dialogue, and total nudity. Suitable for all ages.
PG-4 – Non-stop violence (including weapons of mass destruction), disturbing images, highly suggestive behavior, and somewhat crude dialogue. Parental guidance required for those 4 years-old and younger.
PG-55 – Childishly mild violence (no blood), semi-crude language (like “dang”), mildly suggestive behavior (such as winking), and partial nudity (i.e., Bermuda shorts). Parental guidance required for those 55 years-old and older.
PG-80 – Cartoon violence, slang language, subtle irony expressed between genders, unpatriotic dialogue, fully clothed (even in bath scenes). Parental guidance required for those 80 years old and older.
R-Rated – Slow-motion play violence, silly dialogue, juvenile behavior, clashing costumes, no discernible plot, bad ending. Restricted viewing – no one will be permitted to see this film under any circumstances. (Hey, wait. This actually applies to most movies!) This rating must be eliminated. I think even Jack Valenti would agree.
John Merli has been a Prince William County resident since 1984, and a Potomac News columnist since 1985. He has worked in the media for more than 30 years. E-mail him at: [email protected]