Cover Story

Why Movie Ratings Don't Work

We look at the history of the antiquated system that created controversy for "Jason's Lyric," "Clerks," and "Midnight Cowboy"

Twenty-three-year-old director Kevin Smith is pacing the sidewalk so furiously his Birkenstocks are practically smoking. ''I bet they've already made up their minds,'' he frets. ''I bet there's nothing we could say that would make the slightest difference.'' His 23-year-old producer-partner, Scott Mosier, nods in agreement. ''They all have poker faces in there,'' he says, slumping dejectedly on the fender of their parked limo. ''They look like they're on jury duty. Not a good sign.''

What these two auteurs-enfants are brooding over is a private screening taking place just a few dozen yards away. Inside a nondescript office tower on L.A.'s Sepulveda Boulevard, a panel of judges from the Motion Picture + Association of America (MPAA) and the National Association of Theater Owners (NATO) is watching their movie, a grainy, $27,000 Slacker-esque comedy called Clerks. The film contains not one scintilla of sex, violence, or nudity — mostly it's just a pair of Gen X losers verbally riffing on subjects like lung cancer, roof hockey, and why Luke Skywalker is a war criminal. Nevertheless, the movie's saucy language and kinky subject matter (you'll never think of a ''snowball'' the same way again) are threatening to torpedo it with the dreaded NC-17 ating.

''What about Natural Born Killers? There's much more graphic stuff in that film,'' fumes Smith, who's jetted all the way out here from New Jersey just to pace outside.

''It doesn't make sense,'' adds Mosier. ''Why us? What'd we do?''

Good question — and one a lot of filmmakers have been asking. Clerks is just the latest in a string of recent ratings controversies that have left many in the movie business feeling dazed and confused — not to mention angry and abused — by what they see as the arbitrary way their films are being rated. Gripes about the Classification and Ratings Administration (CARA) -- the industry-supported entity that's been rating flicks for the past 26 years — are nothing new, of course, but now the grousing seems to be reaching critical mass. There are charges of racism, sexism, favoritism, elitism, puritanism, and philistinism — but most of all there have been increasing complaints that the current system is just plain loopy.

Let's roll some clips:

In September, CARA gave an NC-17 to the 25th-anniversary rerelease of the brutal Sam Peckinpah Western The Wild Bunch — even though the board gave virtually the same cut of the film an R rating in 1969. After Warner Bros. suggested it might ignore the new rating and release the movie with its original R, CARA suddenly decided it wasn't necessary to rerate the film after all.

This past summer, CARA threatened Color of Night with an NC-17 until a full-frontal nude shot of Bruce Willis in a sex scene was cut from the film. This month the ratings board decided to give an R rating to the ''director's cut'' video, which includes a similar shot.

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