Editor’s note: Critical Consensus is a biweekly feature in which critics from Indiewire’s Criticwire network discuss new films with Indiewire’s chief film critic, Eric Kohn. Here, we offer an analysis of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) in light of the newly released "Bully," which the Weinstein Company has decided to open this weekend unrated after the MPAA chose to give it an R for language. Stephen Farber, a film critic for The Hollywood Reporter and an expert on the MPAA, spoke about the history of the organization and what the future may hold. For more about the MPAA, check out Indiewire's list of 10 films that appealed their ratings and Matt Singer's comparison of reactions to the "Bully" situation at Criticwire.
In your 1972 book "The Movie Rating Game," you wrote that the MPAA was initially supposed to encourage a process of "self-regulation." Was there ever a point in time where that system actually worked?
I don't think it ever did. In theory, it was a good idea. I do believe that, because it was an alternative to the production code censorship system. The idea was that movies were just going to be classified in regard to their suitability for children. Presumably, nothing was going to be off-limits for filmmakers. It was just going to be an advisory system for parents and families. In theory, that was a sound idea that other countries were also trying at the time. But as soon as it start going into practice, there were a lot of problems not necessarily clear from the theory. People started getting involved in the censorship of movies again, cutting them to get a different rating, so the board got involved in censorious decisions that had been happening under the old system. Then it became more difficult to decide what would be happening with the dividing line in these categories, as "Bully" illustrates today–why is it better to have these rigid rules and if you violate them no matter the context you get the same rating? At the same time, it's problematic if you evaluate films in terms of their quality and say a better film will get a less restrictive rating, because who makes that decision?
Can you identify a point in time when the style of American cinema started to reflect the influence of the MPAA?
I don't know if I would say that quite happened. It did go through a lot of changes. At the beginning, it was the era when films were breaking new ground. In a way, it was good that there was a new classification system because movies like "Midnight Cowboy" and "Women in Love" could be made and shown as they were intended to be seen. Then there came a time when the PG-13 rating was introduced and everyone wanted to gear their ratings so they wouldn't be restricted. Everybody wanted to get that rating. I don't know if that was a good moment in time or just that the studios became more fierce in pursuing that rating. Then it changed again.
Earlier this week, you wrote about examples of earlier films that contain the word "fuck" but still received PG or PG-13 ratings. But those are all studio movies, whereas "Bully" is an independently-produced documentary. Is there anything on the scale of "Bully" that has had this problem before?
There was a similar instance, in a sense, with the documentary "Woodstock." There were similar arguments over that, although I don't think it was as controversial that it ended up getting an R rating. But it was a documentary of an event that had taken place that people under the age of 17 had attended without parents. Then they can't see the movie unless they go with their parents. Again, it was documenting an event that had taken place and just happened that there was language–people said "fuck" sometimes during the concert–and people took off their clothes. So it wasn't like this was being created for the movie, but nonetheless it got an R rating. And that was a studio film. But this also came up with other lower budget films, like the Iraq war film "Gunner Palace" a few years ago.
As with "Woodstock," the conversation around "Bully" is that the kids who should see it would not be able to see if it had an R rating. In short: Why doesn't the MPAA get it?
(laughs) Well, they really are out of touch and this is an indication that they really don't understand what's going on in this society at all. They have their justification for it, that they have to be consistent, but why? Who handed down this rule that a film could have one "fuck" but any more than that and it can't be seen by anyone under 17 without their parents? Why does that have to be gospel? Everyone knows that kids hear this language and use it. What kind of cocoon are they living in? Who are they protecting? They think they'll get complaints from parents. That has always been their justification. I don't think there's any way of proving that's the case. They're holding this archaic rule that doesn't reflect what's going on in the world today.
In that case, do you think the MPAA might have an elusive agenda? In Salon, Andrew O'Hehir suggested that the board's real issue with the movie is the actual unsettling content, the abuse of young people by their peers.
That's a good point. The MPAA may not know themselves what's going on, what their real reason is. It's possible the whole film makes them uncomfortable and feel that it's too sensitive a film for them so they project on to young people and make assumptions.
Now that the Weinstein Company is releasing the film unrated, how do you expect the MPAA will react?
It will be interesting to see what happens in this particular case, whether they're hurt by having it unrated, whether there will be theater chains unwilling to play it. We don't know yet how that will play out. If it turns out it doesn't hurt the film and does get audiences of all ages, other people will definitely consider this option more seriously. If it does seem like this is an obstacle to getting certain theatrical bookings and chains get nervous about it, then it won't have such a good effect. Then, of course, Weinstein isn't part of the MPAA so they can do it. A studio, on the other hand, is under a lot of pressure. It happened in the past when MGM released "Blow-Up" under a made-up subsidiary company. So maybe they could consider that kind of solution again. They'll have to put pressure on the appeals board.
Can we realistically speak of a post-MPAA future where each family just decides on their own whether or not their kids can see any given movie?
It is possible. If more films try this unrated route and they're able to succeed with it to some extent, it could be that the MPAA will be less relevant. That's basically what happened with the old code system and why they introduced the MPAA. The code was falling apart as more and more movies were released without the code seal. The system wasn't working and had to change. But it's an uphill battle. It will be interesting to see what happens this weekend.