IN pirate movies, X marks the spot of the buried treasure. But for most other movies, X marks the kiss of death. Under the movie-rating system used by the Motion Picture Association of America, X has been the designation of movies with ``adult themes.'' But the rating, which the MPAA failed to copyright, was seized upon by distributors of hard-core pornography as a marketing gimmick.
Mainstream filmmakers have complained that, as a result of this piracy, they have been inhibited from making artistically serious films that included graphic sex or violence, lest movies be branded with the commercially fatal X. They say their artistic integrity has been compromised.
In response, the MPAA has changed its rating system. The X rating has been replaced with a new rating of NC-17, meaning - as before - that children under 17 won't be admitted. The trade association has copyrighted the designation, so it can't be appropriated by the porn industry.
This seems a useful change. It wouldn't bother us if filmmakers eschewed altogether making movies that include explicit sex, nauseating violence, or gutter language. For years, great film artists made serious movies while leaving some things to the imagination. Still, it's possible for artists, if that's their milieu, to treat ``adult themes'' without pandering to people's basest instincts or exploiting women and children, as pornographers do. Such artists shouldn't be unfairly grouped with the smut peddlers.
A better innovation is the MPAA's decision to provide theater owners and movie critics with short explanations for R ratings. There's a lot more money for the film industry in R movies than NC-17 movies, and producers will continue to concentrate on that market segment. The explanations will help parents make better-informed decisions about their children's movie viewing.
At least, we hope so. No rating system does any good unless adults conscientiously use the ratings to guide their children in the development of values.