This column is rated 'L' for language

What's up with the peculiar language of movies?

"The language of film is universal." At one of my local cinemas, I know that when I hear that little motto – repeated in enough different languages for a United Nations conference – we've come to the end of the caravan of trailers for coming attractions and to the beginning of the feature film.

Film as a medium does provide windows into other cultures. But movies have some peculiar language of their own. In fact, the way they talk about language itself is a little peculiar. I'm thinking of those little tag lines that explain a film's rating by the Motion Picture Association of America, the people who have been cranking out the G's and R's and all since 1968.

The new flick "The Hoax," for instance, about Clifford Irving's attempt to scam McGraw-Hill with a faked autobiography of Howard Hughes, has been rated "R" – restricted to those 17 or older attending without parent or guardian – "for language." For language? Don't all movies have language?

No, what's meant here is profanity, vulgarisms, and the like. But to say so would take too much space. So "language" becomes shorthand for "foul language," and we have another case of "bad" meanings driving the "good" meanings out. Language wouldn't be an issue if it weren't "bad." We're unlikely to see a movie rated "R for language – sparkling wordplay."

In addition to "language," the other term that gets knocked around in the jargon of movieland is "adult," as in "adult situations" used as shorthand for all kinds of, well, you know. In real life, "adult situations" are often things like having to wrestle with your tax form or getting stuck in traffic on the way to the airport or having to deal with something dumb or awful the kids have done. I don't want adulthood to get a bad name. I'm enough of an idealist to imagine a world in which "adult entertainment" means things like Jane Austen novels or Mozart symphonies.

Another kind of language figures into my moviegoing decisions: the capsule summary that's used to describe a film as it works its way into distributors' catalogs, newspaper and other film listings, and cinema newsletters. Those blurbs that one reads may or may not bear any relation to the trailers that one sees before the main film starts.

I saw the trailer for "Venus," the flick about Peter O'Toole falling for a damsel 50 years younger. But I didn't connect it with the film I'd seen blurbed in the weekly newsletter I get from a local cinema. OK, so part of the problem was that I completely read over the title of the movie – my bad. But another part of it was that the blurb didn't mention Peter O'Toole – their bad.

The newsletter blurb, summarizing the plot with a reference to "a pair of veteran actors," made it all sound earnest and, well, a trifle dull: "Jessie, who had arrived with an enormous chip on her shoulders, slowly learns from Maurice the value of respect – for herself as well as others." Critics seemed to be seeing a somewhat different movie, in which, as one wrote, "Maurice ... takes a partly avuncular, partly lecherous interest in the grandniece of one of his pals."

This doesn't directly contradict the bit about "the value of respect," but it does suggest a more complicated situation. But then I heard some film critics on the radio handicapping the Oscars a day or two before the big night earlier this year. They mentioned a movie about "two aging actors" – language that somehow rang a bell from the newsletter blurb – and commented, "Maybe this is the year for Peter O'Toole, often nominated, but never a winner."

That movie in the newsletter had Peter O'Toole in it?! Why didn't it say that?

This was so surprising to me that there could have been some momentary language. But instead I was just speechless.

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