The film too hot for the US censors

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Focusing on a ménage à trois, acclaimed indie film Passages is out in the US this week – but has already been at the centre of a controversy over its rating. Anna Bogutskaya reports.

Sachs himself has expressed disappointment over the MPA verdict, even as he has remained defiant in not cutting the film to enable the film to acquire a more commercial R rating: he told the LA Times recently that “it is a film that is very open about the place of sexual experience in our lives. And to shift that now would be to create a very different movie”. In fact, he and other key players involved in the film have decided to reject the NC-17 rating (since MPA ratings are voluntary and not enforced by law) and so the film will now be released without any rating whatsoever.

The history of the US ratings system

The MPA is a familiar villain for filmmakers and cinephiles alike. Set up in its original form in 1922, it was initially designed as a way for the film studios to self-censor instead of having to submit films for government inspection. This led to the restrictive series of rules dubbed the Hays Code, which was operational until 1968, when it got replaced by the voluntary film rating system the industry uses today. The ratings are operated by the Classification and Rating Administration (CARA), a division of MPA, which consists of a board of American parents whose task it is to “reflect the views of parents regarding the presence of profane language, sex, nudity, violence, drug use, smoking, and other subjects that may be a source of concern for parents”.

Introduced by the MPA in 1990, the NC-17 rating was designed to provide a facelift to the old X rating, which had been co-opted by the adult industry. The hope was that it would help people differentiate between pornography and “serious” films meant for adult audiences. However since the first NC-17 film, Philip Kaufman’s Henry and June, was released in the US in October 1990, few mainstream films have followed in its footsteps. “NC-17 has inherited all of the baggage that the X originally had,” says Dr Bruce Drushel, Professor in the Department of Media, Journalism and Film at Miami University and co-editor of Queer Identities/Political Realities and Ethics of Emerging Media.

An NC-17 rating has traditionally limited a film’s distribution, since many theatre owners will not book NC-17 rated films and some media outlets will not cover, or run ads for, them. And while the handing out of such an illicit-sounding rating can generate welcome publicity for a film, that has rarely translated into big box office: in fact, the only NC-17 film to ever have a wide release, Paul Verhoeven’s Showgirls, was a notorious flop that scared the industry off the rating even further. Subsequently a few foreign-language and arthouse dramas rated NC-17 have done fairly well despite their limited theatrical release: The Dreamers (2003), Lust, Caution (2007) and Blue is The Warmest Colour (2013) all took in a respectable box office.

What’s behind the decisions?

Besides the concerns around profit, for some time now, questions have been raised over who are making the decisions and why. With films that receive the harshest ratings, the most common sticking point is sex. In a study carried out by the MPA in April, 76% of surveyed parents reported their main concern to be graphic sex scenes (above scenes of sexual assault, use of hard drugs, suicide, or racially motivated violence). In 2010, Oscar-nominated US indie Blue Valentine got controversially slapped with an NC-17 for a scene where Ryan Gosling’s character performs oral sex on his wife, played by Michelle Williams, though this was subsequently overturned for an R. In Passages, the film’s most extended sex scene is between the two men, one that is explicit but not titillating, filmed in a long, uninterrupted shot. Passages is interested in the shifting balance of power when it comes to desire within a relationship, how sex is intertwined with intimacy. It is not about who’s sleeping with who, but what sex means for those characters in that precise moment of their relationship to each other.

There are no hard rules or specific guidelines that are used by CARA members to assess what makes one sex scene more inappropriate than another for different age groups. But the MPA has long been accused of judging queer films harsher than their straight equivalents. Sachs in his response to the news in the LA Times suggested that it was the victim of a “select group of people who have a certain bent, which seems anti-gay, anti-progress, anti-sex – a lot of things which I’m not”. Drushel says that “if you look at films recommended for adolescents, there is a distinction in how CARA recommends films for straight adolescents versus queer adolescents”. For instance, he points out American Pie (1999), which featured a teenage boy masturbating into the titular pie and copious (mostly female) nudity, was rated R, while But I’m A Cheerleader (2000), which had no nudity and a female masturbation scene (sans pie), was given the NC-17 rating. However an MPA spokesperson tells BBC Culture that “the MPA’s Classification and Rating Administration rates movies based on their content – what happens on screen and how it is depicted. The sexual orientation of a character or characters is not considered as part of the rating process.”

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