“I shall not today attempt further to define [hard-core pornography], and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it.” ~ Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart
“How about we go see the new Mad Max movie,” I suggested to my almost-twenty son, Ben.
It hit a nerve.
“I haven’t even seen the first Mad Max movies,” he threw back. “All because of your obsession with the bishops and their stupid ratings!” It’s a fair charge. Ever since Ben was a tot, my wife and I have maintained a household ban on any movie rated “O” (Morally Offensive) by the Catholic bishops or their representatives. “You knew the age-old battle was going to spark once you mentioned it this morning,” Ben emailed me later. “This is mostly for argument’s sake these days, but I still feel strongly about the issue.”
His complaints are sound and similar to those posited by many others over the years. Basically, the charge is that the ratings are often misleading and seemingly random. Consequently, so the argument goes, regardless of whether the issuing authority is the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops directly or, since 2011, the USCCB’s Catholic News Service, the rating service itself has little value or applicability.
Take Mad Max, for example. After Ben got past his grousing, he did join me in seeing “Fury Road” last weekend—it was a wild ride. Although Tom Hardy has replaced Mel Gibson as Max, director George Miller has bridged his post-apocalyptic franchise’s 35-year hiatus with a powerful fourth installment. There’s a convoluted tale of redemption involved and some decent character development, but all of that is really just an excuse for a relentless two-hour shoot-em-up joyride—plot, schmlot! Oh, and for those paying attention, there’s a healthy dose of feminism stirred into the mix, along with a subtle gloss on class warfare and subsidiarity.
Did I mention wild ride? Whoo-hoo! Pass the popcorn!
“Fury Road” certainly lives up to its MPAA “R” (Restricted) rating, dishing out “intense sequences of violence” and “disturbing images” with abandon. Even before the release, the trailer alone would’ve clued you in to its eventual classification. Moreover, it was also a safe bet that “Fury Road” was destined to receive an “O” (Morally Offensive) rating from the Catholic News Service, in keeping with the same rating bestowed on the original “Mad Max” film as well as its acclaimed sequel, “Road Warrior”—hence my son’s cinematic deprivations and resentment.
But—surprise!—no “O” for “Mad Max: Fury Road!” Instead, it copped a measly “L” rating from the CNS—“L” as in “Limited” appropriateness, “films whose problematic content many adults would find troubling.” That well may be the case with “Fury Road,” but it certainly was no worse than the original two “O”-rated Mad Max films—both of which I’d seen as a teenager well before I’d become a Catholic or even heard of Catholic bishops and their ratings.
Here’s a similar example of problematic rating: “District 9” (2009, R). It, too, is an action-packed sci-fi flick brimming with intense violence and coarse language. I watched it recently at Ben’s behest, and I can understand why CNS had been all set to plant an “O” on it—but they didn’t. According to the review, the morally offensive content in “District 9” is offset by enough positives to warrant a comparatively lenient “L” label:
For all its grittiness, this tale of physical and moral metamorphosis offers an incisive study of the need for universal solidarity and a portrait of marital love that at least some adult viewers may find valuable.
So … it’s kinda’ morally offensive? And the moral outrage is adequately balanced by pro-marriage imagery? And that makes it … OK for me to watch? Maybe? “How can you make the bishops’ rating system your ultimatum,” my son recently challenged me, “when they flip-flop on every other review?”
Good question. Here’s my answer.
For good or for ill, I’ve settled on using the USCCB’s “O” rating as a primary filter. That is, I depend on it as a winnowing device that automatically eliminates from consideration an entire subset of movies as far as our family is concerned. In that sense, it’s not that much different than routinely bypassing MPAA “NC-17” (or “X”-rated) films as not even worth discussing.
Is this an abandonment of responsibility? Am I relinquishing my paternal duties to nameless flunkies at the USCCB? Naah. It’s simply a matter of convenience—I’m just saving time.
I’ve got seven children of varying ages—Ben, my collegiate son, down to a third-grade daughter. I’m gone a good chunk of the week teaching nursing full-time, which includes the shift-work associated with hospital clinicals. Nancy, my wife, manages the home while also serving as a CCD coordinator at our parish. So we’re busy (who isn’t?), and we don’t have a lot of time to devote to previewing every lousy movie our kids want to watch—nor are we particularly interested in doing so. Life is way too short to spend even a fraction of it reviewing and analyzing and judging all the (let’s be honest) schlock pouring out of Hollywood these days. I’ve got to trust somebody’s judgment for most of it, and a rating service promoted by our bishops (albeit through a national bureaucracy of dubious authority) at least aspires to reflect solid Catholic values.
Yet, I’m under no illusion that an “O” rating necessarily means that a given film is truly “morally objectionable.” I’m willing to give the CNS raters the benefit of the doubt when it comes to their “O” rating, but, as I’ve argued elsewhere, I think the USCCB/CNS ratings frequently miss the mark. Nevertheless, I’m comfortable relying on those ratings to make my job of sorting through available movie options a little easier by reducing the numbers involved: Anything rated “O” is off the table—next? And I don’t lose a lot of sleep over whether I might be depriving my kids of a mis-rated film that is really worth watching. “Too bad,” is my usual response to their pleas to reconsider the ban. “Go read a book.”
That being said, there are plenty of “O”-rated movies I remember from my youth that I’d like my older kids to see someday. So, in honor of my eldest son’s liberation from our onerous media restrictions, here’s a handful of “O”-rated movies that I’m now encouraging him to seek out and enjoy—somewhere else. For fun and contrast, I’m including descriptions of comparable, roughly contemporaneous films that, for some unknown reason, did not incur the dreaded “O.”
- “Magic Christian” (1969, PG, O). Based on Terry Southern’s terrifically dark novel of the same name, this Monty-Pythonesque film manages to desecrate just about every sacred cow imaginable, and then some. Starring Ringo Starr as a bum and Peter Sellers as the richest man in the world, “Magic Christian” is particularly vicious in its satirical pokes at garden variety greed, but there’s plenty of venom in there for lust and pride as well. The “O” rating, according to CNS, relates to the film’s “purple patches of homosexual innuendo, nudity and off-color language.” Contrast: “Being There” (1979, PG). This satirical morality play also stars Peter Sellers, but this time as a Forrest Gump-like blank slate upon whom others project their own versions of reality. I would’ve thought that the Shirley MacLaine masturbation scene alone would’ve earned this film an “O”—or at least an “A-IV,” the equivalent to an “L.” Nope. It got away with a mere “A-III,” the rating equivalent to a slap on the wrist.
- “Trouble in Mind” (1986, R, O). It’s updated film noir set in Seattle (“Rain City,”) and the overcast skies are a constant metaphorical backdrop for the heavy mood oppressing all the characters and their tumultuous intersections. There’s love and betrayal, crime and punishment, and Divine appearing as the underworld’s mastermind pulling the strings. Depressing, sure, but certainly thought provoking. Contrast: “Priest” (1994, R). Whereas “Trouble in Mind” earned its “O” rating for “excessive violence and sex scenes,” there are “depictions of homosexual acts” in “Priest,” not to mention a story line revolving around failed celibate vows and a confession of incest. CNS rating? “A-IV,” Adults.
- “Vanishing Point” (1971, PG/R, O). Really? “Vanishing Point?” It’s about a Vietnam vet (Barry Newman) hyped on uppers who attempts to deliver a supercharged car from Denver to San Francisco—about 1,000 miles—in a single night. That’s … pretty much it. Granted, I probably saw a heavily edited TV version as a teenager, so I can’t recall the “gratuitous nudity” that the USCCB movie raters objected to. But based on the IMDb Parents Guide, it sounds relatively tame by today’s standards. Contrast: “Little Big Man” (1970, PG/PG-13). This movie, on the other hand, is far from tame in the prurient department, despite its low-key “A-III” rating from the USCCB. Starring Dustin Hoffman in the title role, “Little Big Man” is an entertaining take on the Old West with a hefty bite of social and religious criticism. However, “a strong sense of sexual tension/sex is one of the key components of the movie” according to the IMDb—although no outright nudity, I’ll grant you that.
Interestingly, the MPAA originally gave “PG” ratings to both these films, but years later adjusted them upwards—to an “R” for “Vanishing Point,” and a “PG-13” for “Little Big Man.” Why? Who knows? The point is, if the MPAA can go back and change ratings, why can’t the bishops? Surely, some of those older “O” movies can be reconsidered by today’s standards and their albatross-like, anachronistic ratings can be adjusted. And, in the other direction, it shouldn’t take a national hue and cry to upgrade movie ratings to more restrictive levels when necessary—as it apparently was with regards to the hugely controversial “Brokeback Mountain” in 2005.
Anyway, the CNS movie rating service is not the only tool I rely on for gauging the appropriateness of films for my family, but it’s an important one, and I hope the bishops keep it going. Yes, it has problems, no doubt. Rather than jettisoning it, though, the bishops ought to give it an overhaul and improve it. Parents are under the gun these days in terms of managing media intake in their homes and families, and it makes sense that our shepherds would lend us a hand by sorting through some of the muck that shows up on local screens and giving us their seasoned pastoral input.
One last request: We still don’t know what the CNS oracles think about the Oscar-winning Best Film of 2010, “The Hurt Locker” (R). C’mon, guys, it’s been over five years. Is it morally offensive or not?
Or do I have to make up my own mind on that one? Hmmm….