Monday, August 31, 2009

Ang Lee Could Change the Game

[ NOTE: In January, I began reposting items from, after I decided to discontinue that site and wipe it clean from the internet. The following post is the final entry in my series of reposts from the old site. The original date on this item was August 30, 2007. I'm sad to report, two years after I wrote this piece, that Ang Lee and his movie did not, in fact, change the game. Read on to learn what I was hoping for back then. ]

Ang Lee's new movie, Lust, Caution, will be released this September with the controversial NC-17 rating. This could be a very, very important turn of events. Ang Lee is known around the world as a serious filmmaker. He's a frequent nominee and winner of top movie awards. (You may recall a recent critical darling featuring gay cowboys.) Assuming that Lust, Caution will be yet another bit of Oscar bait, this movie could single-handedly change the perception of the NC-17 rating.


The MPAA -- the organization responsible for rating movies in the United States -- has always kept a trademarked copyright on all their rating distinctions - G, PG, PG-13 and R. But not X. They never registered X. So the porn industry appropriated it. Needless to say, in the public's eye, X = pornography; end of story.

The major movie exhibitors began rejecting all movies rated X, regardless of whether they were pornographic or simply adult-oriented (like that one X-rated Best Picture winner featuring a gay cowboy). They wanted to assure their patrons that they were respectable, kid-friendly institutions. "Never fear," they were implying. "Your children won't be seated next to shady perverts in trench coats here."

Money talks. If you can't get your movie exhibited, then you can't make money from it. And the studios happen to be in the business of making money. If they know with absolute certainty that they can't make money on a movie, then they're not going to make it. So every studio release since the early '70s has been toned down to ensure an R rating or lower. Leave the adult stuff to Europe.

In the 1990s, the MPAA came up with the NC-17 rating. This was intended to grant more freedom to the studios. The NC-17 rating -- this time, duly trademarked by the MPAA -- was a way to distinguish adult-themed material from simple porn. Porn could continue rating itself with X-es, while mature-content studio movies could receive the MPAA's stamp of approval with the NC-17.


One simple word: Showgirls. While one or two movies were released with the NC-17 rating previous, Showgirls was the first major wide-release movie to hit theaters with an NC-17.

And that, my friends, was the beginning and the end of the story. Since Showgirls is essentially soft porn -- though it claims to be satire -- the public had no choice but to associate the new NC-17 rating with the old X rating. Before it even had a chance, the fate of the NC-17 was sealed. Showgirls tanked, the studio lost money, NC-17 was equated with X, and movies with adult themes were once again left to the experts in Europe.


"Respectable" theater chains instituted "family friendly" policies of not screening NC-17 movies.

Magazines and newspapers instituted policies of not running ads for NC-17 movies.

Television networks refuse to run ads for NC-17 movies.

Most TV networks, including HBO, refuse to air NC-17 material.

Blockbuster Entertainment and other rental chains, as well as most of the largest retailers -- including America's god, Wal-Mart -- refuse to stock NC-17 movies.

In other words, if you're a studio and you make an NC-17 movie, it WILL NOT make any money. Guaranteed. The entire purpose of the NC-17 rating has been completely undermined.


If Lust, Caution is on par with Ang Lee's best movies, then exhibitors will not be able to reject it outright. It will get a lot of press, critics will throw all their weight into it, and awards recognition will make it impossible to ignore. People will want to see it, and theater chains will be compelled to provide it to them. They will make money. The studio will make money. The steel-reinforcement around the "no NC-17 policy" of theater chains will be broken. U.S. filmmakers will actually be able to make movies for grown ups, and the NC-17 rating will fulfill its original purpose.

The thing is, Ang Lee cannot be ignored. This is the same guy who got U.S. audiences to go see a foreign-language, subtitled film en masse, proving to the studios that such movies could make more than just a handful of art-house-crowd change. Lust, Caution seems poised to do the same thing for an entire ratings classification.


It's difficult to bring up a topic like this without discussing the de facto censorship policies of the MPAA. There's an entire movie about it, as well as countless articles and interviews throughout the decades.

In their defense, the MPAA has done a lot of good. First and foremost, let's all acknowledge that if the MPAA ratings board hadn't been created, the U.S. government would be in charge of regulating movies. Can we all agree that things would be immeasurably worse if those were the circumstances? Just ask David Cronenberg how he feels about government regulation for motion pictures. The MPAA saved us from all that.

Additionally, the NC-17 rating was well-intentioned. It wasn't the MPAA's fault that Showgirls was the herald of their new rating. The real enemies in this situation are the boneheads who thought Showgirls was a great idea.

Without having seen it yet, I'm going to go out on a limb and say Lust, Caution is probably closer to what the MPAA had in mind when it created the NC-17 rating. It promises to be a good, mature story, intended for an intelligent, adult audience. The graphic violence and sex are incidental to the plot, and not there just to titillate.


Although I am looking forward to seeing some boobies. Maturely and intelligently, of course.

[ Ang Lee's latest film, the R-rated Taking Woodstock, is in theaters now. ]

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