Mark Harris: Dump the NC-17 rating
Jack Valenti has gone to that great screening room in the sky, but his legacy persists for better and for worse in the form of the movie ratings system. Back in 1968, Valenti's ratings replaced a capricious code of self-censorship with labels designed to help parents make choices. That's still a worthy idea at least, it would be if it were applied with anything resembling sanity.
Last weekend, Eli Roth's Hostel: Part II opened. According to the raters, it contains ''sadistic scenes of torture and bloody violence, terror, nudity, sexual content, language, and some drug content.'' Kids should stop reading now, because they could have added: ''Bound man's penis and testicles visibly severed with shears and fed to dog'' and ''Nude woman suspended, bound and gagged, throat slashed as another nude woman below bathes orgasmically in her blood.'' (Oh, uh, spoiler alert, I guess.) Hostel: Part II is rated R, which means it's perfectly okay to take a 5-year-old to see it if you can't get a sitter.
The ratings system is supposed to serve the interests of parents. Help me out, moms and dads: How'd they do this time?
Having seen Hostel: Part II, I'll spare you my feelings about why can you top this? horror comedies about torture are not my idea of a fun night out (although contrary to rumor, Roth is neither untalented nor the Antichrist). I'd rather expend my indignation on the people who gave the movie a rating that, in practical terms, is no different from a G. All that an R rating mandates is that a child doesn't walk into Hostel: Part II alone, as if the presence of a grown-up ''guardian'' magically renders a movie more appropriate for grade-schoolers. Of course, the raters could have given it an NC-17, which would have kept all children out. But they looked at that nude, tortured woman and genital mutilation, and decided it didn't cross the line. For that and in the spirit of Roth's movie I say off with their heads.
The hypocrisies of the ratings system are familiar: Indies have it harder than studio films, naked men are naughtier than naked women, and almost any sex is worse than almost all violence. But the problem runs deeper. The MPAA has never decided whether its job is guidance or rule making. As a result, four ratings G, PG, PG-13, and R are merely advisory: The raters tell parents what's in a movie and let them decide whether to take their kids. But the fifth rating NC-17 carries the force of law: It's the only stage at which raters decide their judgment should overrule yours. It's a sharp distinction, and Hostel II's R rating proves that they're manifestly incompetent to make it.
Cultural conservatives in both parties are itching to step in; they're whipping up invective about that convenient demon ''Hollywood,'' and the FCC is making a pandering attempt to start overregulating TV content. But congressional intervention is, aside from being a First Amendment violation, a waste of time. I'd rather have lawmakers work harder to stop actual torture than huff and puff about the fictional kind. Besides, as conservatives are so fond of saying when it comes to issues like welfare: If you have kids, don't expect the government to raise 'em for you.
So reform is up to the industry. Some have suggested that the U.S. adopt the tiered system of age cutoffs at, say, 8, 12, and 17 that some European countries use. But that's unfeasible in an era of understaffed multiplexes and Internet ticket purchases. There's also an argument for putting more teeth in the NC-17, taking a harder line about what's unsuitable for children. But I'd give that about five minutes before every interest group in America presents its own petition of topics they want to be automatic NC-17s, and we're back to a prudish laundry list of do's and don'ts that was abandoned decades ago. (The current campaign to make cigarette use in movies an automatic R illustrates how even people with an intention as decent as curbing teen smoking can be grievously misguided in attempting to use the ratings system to legislate content.)
That leaves one solution that's both radical and sensible: Dump the NC-17 completely. Provide maximum information about movie content, create a website with plot specifics and exact age recommendations, and leave it at that. The X rating was invented at a time when hardcore-porn movie houses were springing up across America. But those theaters are gone, and kids who want access to porn are only a Google away. Today, the NC-17 protects nobody and preserves the illusion that R-rated movies like Hostel: Part II are okay for kids because if they weren't, somebody would have rated them NC-17. If Hollywood places the decision about what children should see in the hands of their parents, where it belongs, many parents will, of course, make those decisions irresponsibly. But overall, could they possibly do a worse job than the people who are now paid to do their thinking for them? On the evidence of Hostel: Part II, I doubt it.