Movie ratings system jolted by 'Indiana Jones'

Almost all the nationally influential critics think ''Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom'' is a terrific movie. Of 13 reviewers tracked by Variety, the entertainment newspaper, 12 liked it and 1 was ''inconclusive.''

Some others who disliked the movie - including me - were more put off by its racist and sexist attitudes than by its comic-book violence.

But it's the violence that has raised a big flap among parents, who wish the summer's must-see movie didn't include shots of a man being deprived of his heart and th n dunked into molten lava, among other nasty effects.

Ironically, the director of the picture, Steven Spielberg, seems to be on their side. In a widely reported remark, he told an interviewer he would hold his hand over the eyes of a 10-year-old rather than allow the child to watch this scene.

So why did he include it? Because he clearly intended ''Indiana Jones'' as a movie for teen-agers and up, not for younger audiences. (And probably not for most parents, who often seem more unsettled than youngsters by cartoonlike excesses.)

The scene points up a major failing of the current rating system: Its PG category treats everyone under 17 the same, as if kids of 8 and 15 needed the same kind and degree of protection.

This isn't the first time Spielberg has sparked such a controversy. A similar fuss greeted ''Raiders of the Lost Ark,'' which he directed, and ''Poltergeist, '' which he produced. But the studios are taking this year's uproar seriously. There is more talk than ever about a fifth rating category, and the Motion Picture Association of America (which administers the system) may adopt it if president Jack Valenti decides to go along - a big if, since his opposition to change is legendary, and poll results have indicated that many filmgoers are happy with the existing setup.

The new label - PG-13 - would restrict viewers of 12 or younger just as an R rating restricts those under 17. They would not be allowed to see a PG-13 film unless accompanied by a parent or adult guardian.

Could theaters enforce this? And would they? Parents have often complained about lax policing under the R tag, and the PG-13 might cut even more deeply into ticket sales. Theater managers and personnel might turn a blind eye to cheating, especially with blockbusters like ''Indiana Jones'' and Spielberg's other current hit, ''Gremlins.''

Nor would the PG-13 address the biggest rating conundrum: the fact that different audiences have widely varying standards on what's offensive. The new rating still wouldn't signal whether a movie was restricted because of sex, language, or violence. A parent still wouldn't know if the PG-13 was bestowed for 20 mild expletives or two major ones; for marines storming a beach in World War II or a gratuitous murder; for simple nudity or smarmy innuendo. Indeed, some parents feel there's no such thing as a ''minor'' expletive or ''simple'' nudity, and would demand an R tag where others felt PG-13 was just right.

It's a tough problem. One often-heard solution is to add more letters to the ratings - ''L'' for language, ''S'' for sex, and so on. But even this information would be sketchy, and details about the kind of language or tone of violence would still be missing. The rating system must provide touchy information without becoming offensive itself; it must warn without explicitly repeating what it's warning of. There's no perfect way to do this.

The PG-13 tag is a step in the right direction, if theaters enforce it. At least it would end the false consistency of pretending that everyone under 17 (the cutoff age for R movies) is equally vulnerable to tough or explicit screen fare.

But the real answer to protection problems is for parents to take the PG initials at their face value - to read reviews, check with friends and neighbors , phone theaters with specific questions, and generally provide the ''parental guidance'' that's needed. Movies and mores are both too complex to be summed up in a few letters. If parents shouldered more of the guidance burden themselves, they could expect less from - and be better served by - the shorthand of the rating system.

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