Ratings, Rankings, & Rantings

January 25, 2010

Complaints about the movie ratings system as overseen by the MPAA have a long tradition, both from those who think the ratings board is too strict and those who think it’s not strict enough. What these two sides do agree on is that the poor assignation of moving ratings is destroying the fiber of American culture, a polemical kind of stance that has been so often repeated that both sides are tuned out now. But in a recent article New York Times film critic A. O. Scott, prompted by the hulabaloo over scenes of smoking in Avatar, takes a more level-headed and more novel approach to the issue (“This Article Is Not Yet Rated”).

The typical arguments are present (The prudishness about sex, drugs, and swearing seems very unadult…Why isn’t there the same level of concern regarding violence…). These kinds of arguments fall along the line of “What’s wrong with showing ‘real’ life with all of its grime up on the screen?” The more novel take I cite seems to have been developed from some ideas Scott was pushing around in an earlier ArtsBeat blog post that is more specifically about smoking on film (“Movies and Vices: Made for Each Other”), part of a line of reasoning that I found a bit more compelling and better expressed.

What I gleaned as one of the core argument from each piece is that the greatness of cinema is in the beauty of the image, the beauty of storytelling, and the creation of a dreamworld of sorts that we access through viewing and are able to keep segmented into its proper place as fantasy and not real life. The other half of this argument is that there isn’t really much evidence that people are compelled to imitate the acts they see on screen, which is one of the big arguments for ratings and censorship. There’s some nice paradoxical reasoning here: You can’t say that moving images dig into the mind and inspire people to do ill, but moving images dig into the mind and inspire people.

So how can this claim be valid? Is it just self-serving, preaching to the choir argument that the prudes are wrong about the power of cinema but the cool kids are right about the power of cinema?

I would say that there is a difference here that is based in temporality. The Negative Effects side assumes immediate inspiration: Someone will see something and copy it. The Positive Effects side is about a long-term inspiration, one that’s associated more with the nebulous concepts of art and culture. The results of this kind of inspiration cannot be easily measured or defined in a cause and effect manner, and therefore are more difficult to make a claim for against the immediate.

Relating this more closely to the audiovisual archiving field, the outlines of this argument can be related to the argument of why it so important to save materials that do not necessarily seem culturally relevant now. In the here and now, one type of content – one inspiration – is defined by what seems important…now. Preserving all materials in spite of their immediate importance instead takes into consideration the long-term growth and persistence of culture, of an organization, or a society.

What is happening now is our culture, and we cannot exist outside of it, but it’s a living thing that continues to change and grow. It is our responsibility to maintain the works of the present as well as those of the past that have influenced it so that future generations will continue to be nurtured by culture and continue to nurture it themselves.

— Joshua Ranger