Friday, April 8, 2016
AFOS Blog Rewind: Pitchfork.tv, "A Brief History of PG-13"
Even though it's been nearly a year since the demise of Pitchfork Media's smartly written film discussion site The Dissolve, the now-defunct site's animated short about PG-13's negative effect on the quality of American movies continues to resonate. From May 8, 2015, here's a repost of my discussion of "A Brief History of PG-13."
The Pitchfork.tv webseries Frames takes musicians' NSFW anecdotes and reinterprets them in animated form. For example, Detroit rapper Danny Brown's tales of his days as a drug dealer were transformed by Frames into the Hanna-Barbera cartoon I always dreamed of. All that was missing from Frames' Danny Brown episode was Don Messick voicing a Philly blunt that talks and greets Danny Brown with "What up doe?" Now Frames director Mack Williams has taken "The ongoing failure of the PG-13 rating," an excellent 2014 article Chris Klimek wrote for Pitchfork's sister site The Dissolve, and given it the animated treatment for Pitchfork.tv as well. In only two minutes full of genuinely funny sight gags by Williams and the animators at the Brooklyn studio Pig Apple (my favorite sight gag has to be the MPAA disrupting the duo from Once), "A Brief History of PG-13" amusingly elucidates how much the MPAA rating system is bullshit.
As narrator Radam Pooman says in "A Brief History of PG-13," the MPAA created PG-13 in 1984 as a response to the outcry from parents over the violence or intense moments in blockbusters Steven Spielberg either produced or directed. The subversive dark comedy Gremlins, which Spielberg produced and Joe Dante directed, and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (and to a lesser extent, the Spielberg-produced, credited-solely-to-Tobe-Hooper-but-Spielberg-actually-did-a-shitload-of-the-directing-too original version of Poltergeist in 1982) were too graphic and harrowing as PG films. But they also weren't R enough--or rather, as Bullhorn pronounces it in the ad campaign for the original Black Dynamite, R-uh enough--to be stamped with R-uh. In fact, Temple of Doom's posters and ads got stamped with a box that said, "This film may be too intense for younger children." The Dissolve article points out that Spielberg himself approached the MPAA with an idea for a rating between PG and R-uh. So PG-13 was born, crawling out of the MPAA's slimy sac like Stripe in Gremlins, but while Stripe caused small-town mayhem, PG-13 has done something far worse in the years since its inception.
"It makes movies more generic and less adventurous," wrote Andrew Whalen in a 2014 iDigitalTimes article that, just like the Dissolve piece and the Pitchfork.tv animated short, decries the damage PG-13 has done to American filmmaking and the overall brokenness of the rating system. "It was meant to provide more flexibility to filmmakers, not less. It failed because it soon became clear that the PG-13 rating hit the sweet spot for putting butts in seats: not too mature that a family can't attend together, edgy enough that teens don't look down their noses at it."
When film critics like Matt Zoller Seitz complain about a certain sameness in present-day, live-action superhero movies and their lack of inventive filmmaking or even human personality (the fact that the animated superhero movies The Incredibles, Big Hero 6 and Batman: Mask of the Phantasm have more personality in their filmmaking than most of their live-action counterparts is proof that animation is where the superhero genre works best), PG-13 is mostly to blame for those things. In trying to conform to a PG-13, the directors of these movies have ended up stifling their own creativity (or maybe they never had it to begin with). Does anybody ever wonder why Paul Verhoeven, at one time the king of hard R, returned to the Netherlands? It has to be because a film like his hard-R original version of RoboCop--the kind of subversive and offbeat superhero movie the likes of Seitz must be longing to see more of these days--couldn't get made today by a major Hollywood studio. Those studios are too busy chasing PG-13s. In fact, that's exactly what happened to RoboCop when Elite Squad director José Padilha rebooted the former Orion Pictures franchise last year for Sony. It spawned a bland-as-fuck PG-13 remake. When Gremlins gets remade too, that version's bound to get a PG-13 as well, but I wouldn't be surprised if it turns out to be blander than the PG-rated Dante version.
Speaking of which, PG-13 has also led to strange contradictions. As "A Brief History of PG-13" points out, affection between gay characters in Love Is Strange and F-bombs in Once landed those inoffensive and non-violent indies an R. Meanwhile, the exploding head in the 1989 Bond flick Licence to Kill--an example of graphic violence neither "A Brief History of PG-13" nor the Dissolve essay mentions, as well as the most gruesome moment in the Bond franchise, before Daniel Craig's nads came into contact with a carpet beater in Casino Royale--merited only a PG-13. And what did Casino Royale also receive, in spite of that brutal torture scene, the gore and the 22-person body count? Yep: a PG-13.
"A Brief History of PG-13" is such a good animated short that I'd like to see Williams do more animated tie-ins with The Dissolve. The site's discussions of Midnight Run with Adam Scott and Running Scared with Paul Scheer are crying out for the animated treatment, as is Noel Murray's essay "Why great comics don't always make great movies." If there's one thing that's missing from "A Brief History of PG-13," it's an idea for a solution that's better than PG-13. But what would that idea be? /Film's David Chen was onto something when he implied that the MPAA should be dismantled.
"We're heading towards an age when we don't need a mommy-like organization to dictate what our delicate sensibilities can and can't be exposed to," wrote Chen in 2010. "I deeply hope that the MPAA's irrelevance is imminent."