THE issue here is not just ``G,'' ``PG,'' ``PG-13,'' ``R,'' and the dreaded ``X'' when it comes to movies. The real look-them-in-the-eye, all-American, bottom-line issue is the care and feeding of kids and why so many of them are seeing so many violent movies. The answer will not come in a New York courtroom, where two movie producers are suing the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) for declaring their movies to be X-rated instead of R-rated.
An important case, yes, because it could change the 22-year-old movie rating code. But in essence the issue in the court is a money issue, not a kid issue.
Why? X-rated movies have trouble being booked in the best theaters, where the largest audiences gather. Major producers of mature movies always want an ``R'' instead of the dreaded ``X,'' which has become synonymous with pornography. Now, instead of ``R,'' many producers want the code changed to include an ``A'' rating for ``adults only,'' with no one under 17 admitted.
A three-part nutshell answer to why so many kids can see violent movies is: First, they are seeing such movies because fewer and fewer adults are there to say, ``No.'' Second, just about any pre-teen or teenager can walk into a video store and rent an R-rated film and take it home to a VCR. Third, and most importantly, theater owners are under no legal mandate to stop youngsters from buying tickets to R-rated films.
``If I were to enforce the `R' rating,'' said the manager of a multitheater complex in Los Angeles who did not want to be identified, ``I would lose half my audience. Besides, kids can see any movie they want on video; so why not let them see it here first?''
To be sure, the level of graphic violence in many movies has increased over the 22 years of the movie code, as violence in society has increased. Just about any mature or R-rated movie these days has more explicitness than before in language, sex, and violence.
But when the code was established to help parents decide what movies their kids should see, it spoke even more deeply to a canon in US society: All young children should be nurtured by the good in mankind, not the violent, salacious, or gruesome. When they reach 18, society has concluded, they are part of the adult world.
In essence, the code spoke to a sense of community, a sort of engaging idea that one kid is all kids. Jackie Koury sees it this way.
As a working mother with two kids, Mrs. Koury likes to go to movies now and then. One night a few weeks ago in a theater near Denver, she saw a 10- or 11-year-old youngster sitting near her. The movie on the screen was ``Sex, Lies and Videotape,'' a serious, well-regarded and sexually explicit movie, but not a movie for kids. ``I sat there and thought what is this kid doing here?'' said Koury. She went to the manager, and after some discussion the youngster was escorted out.
``Why bother with the rating if it won't be enforced?'' she said angrily. Since then, after local and national media interviewed her, she has been deluged with letters and phone calls of support from around the country calling for enforcement of the rating system, including requests for legislation.
``Why do we let young kids watch sex and violence,'' she asks, ``and then turn around and tell them to lead a good life? What is the purpose of this? We might as well give them a can of beer and toss the keys to the car to them.''
A CYNIC might answer that ``the purpose of this'' is money. Enough studies exist which trace the negative impact of violent films and TV on young people (see yesterday's article on this page) to raise serious questions about whether we've passed society's tolerance level for violent entertainment. But big-budget, violent movies like ``Total Recall,'' ``Die Hard 2,'' or ``Dick Tracy,'' are deliberately made for young audiences and heavily promoted as ``action'' movies. In the first 31 days in theaters, ``Total Recall'' had earned $91 million.
``Kids go to see these films because they know what's in them,'' said Dr. Roderic Gorney, director of the Psychosocial Adaptation and the Future program at the University of California at Los Angeles. Dr. Gorney has conducted studies on the impact of violent TV programs on people. ``A rating system, it seems to me,'' he says, ``is a bit of etiquette on the part of the producers - a sort of minuet they go through, which everybody knows is spurious.''
But Dr. Gorney, other research scientists, movie producers, and directors are opposed to any system which would inflict censorship on artistic expression. ``I don't want [a director] to be curtailed in his business,'' says Gorney, ``not because I'm concerned about his profit, but because I am concerned that ... a society which denies freedoms of this kind is a society which is shortly going to deny others.''
Paul Verhoeven, the director of ``Total Recall,'' agrees. ``Censorship is dictatorial,'' he says, ``because it means people are so stupid they can't make up their own minds. Everybody has the right to choose or print whatever he wants. Everybody else has the right not to read it or look at it.''
Verhoeven and Gorney favor adding an ``A'' to the code for ``adults-only'' films. Renny Harlin, director of ``Die Hard 2'' and ``Ford Fairlane,'' would leave the ``X'' rating for ``the kind of movies they sell in porno stores'' and add the ``A'' to designate ``a group of movies that can be very artistic but more erotic or violent than what this society now thinks is appropriate.''
No matter what the outcome of the debate or the court decision in New York, the issue of enforcement remains. While doing research for these articles, I went to a total of five movie theaters in Hollywood and Boston. While I waited in line to buy tickets to R-rated movies, none of the youngsters in front or behind me was asked for identification to verify their ages.
Barbara Dixon, a spokesperson for the MPAA, said that MPAA ``is an equal partner with the National Association of Theater Owners in the rating code, but that it is a voluntary system.''
MPAA becomes involved in enforcement only if a theater changes a rating, for instance, from R to PG. ``This happens occasionally,'' she said.
Mary Ann Grasso, the executive director of the National Association of Theater Owners, had no comment when asked what her organization does to assure enforcement of the rating.
``I'm not so sure the rating system needs strengthening,'' said Joe Russo, a horror-film producer and director. ``It needs enforcement. If theater owners are letting kids in who are under 17, then they should be put out of business the way bars are put out of business if they don't operate within the law. Kids should be kept out of the theaters.
It's tough on parents, too, but that's the world we live in. It's tough to do anything today.''