Jack Valenti was not interviewed for this article because I'm not speaking to him. The peppery president of the Motion Picture Association of America no longer sounds like a man who loves the movies--if indeed he ever did--but rather like a man who loves only the movie ratings system he helped foist on America three decades ago.
And a man who loves the studio bosses who pay his enormous salary.
The MPAA--which lobbies for Big Hollywood, Colossal Hollywood, Stupendous Hollywood--also assigns the G, PG, PG-13, R and NC-17 ratings that are supposed to advise parents on the content of films their children might see. But the already infamous case of Stanley Kubrick's last film, "Eyes Wide Shut," and the way the MPAA handled it, have inspired one of the loudest and most sustained storms of protest from the filmmaking community since the cockeyed, trouble-prone system was imposed.
In apparently every country but the United States, "Eyes Wide Shut" includes shots of nudity and what the MPAA refers to, with deep dread, as "coital motion" between two adults. This occurs during a bizarre orgy scene that takes place at a country estate. For the domestic version now in theaters, 65 seconds have been digitally reconstituted so that clothed bodies obscure the audience's view and the nude bodies are thus concealed.
"Eyes Wide Shut" in America is "Eyes Wide Cut."
Sources at Warner Bros., which released the film, insist that Kubrick approved the changes before his death in March. A practical man, he was warned during production that the MPAA would slap an NC-17 rating on the film if it were submitted with the orgy as Kubrick shot it. Kubrick knew, as does everyone in the movie business, that an NC-17, successor to the old stigmatic X rating, is the official commercial kiss of death.
No one under 17 is supposed to be admitted to films thus rated, whether accompanied by a parent or not, and many newspapers refuse advertising for NC-17 films, thereby helping to keep their release a secret (The Washington Post has made exceptions on a case-by-case basis) and dooming them at the box office. Kubrick was an artist, a genius, a perfectionist--in a league with directors like Alfred Hitchcock, Federico Fellini and Martin Scorsese--but like them he worked in the world of commercial filmmaking and knew that a film hardly anybody sees isn't worth the considerable trouble it takes to make it.
Valenti has denied it tirelessly and disingenuously, but the MPAA ratings are censorship. The threat of an NC-17 has forced innumerable filmmakers back to the editing room to cut out scenes Valenti and his board of anonymous film raters don't like. They also censor some films at the script stage, cautioning filmmakers to go easy in spots that might prove troublesome later.
If the authors of books were subjected to similar censorship, every writer in America would be screaming bloody murder. Not every movie is a work of art (nor is every book or painting), but the motion picture is an art form. Surely that much has been established by now. The producers of mechanical junk like "Wild Wild West" are not hampered by the ratings system, but serious filmmakers who tackle challenging themes are.
What's surprising in this latest skirmish is how vindictive, reckless and nasty Valenti has been in reacting to criticism. When young filmmakers Matt Stone and Trey Parker ("South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut") complained about the injustices of the system, Valenti snapped that he wished he could re-rate their R movie NC-17 (what, as punishment for defying His Lordship?) and childishly referred to them as "hairballs."
When Roger Ebert, perhaps the most influential film critic in America, wrote a column denouncing the absurd bowdlerization of "Eyes Wide Shut," and when 35 members of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association also denounced it, Valenti trashed them as "so-called intellectual critics" and dismissed their objections as piffle.
Such "Constant Whiners," Valenti wrote in an ill-advised column for Daily Variety, "talk to each other, write for each other, opine with each other and view with lacerating contempt the rubes who live Out There, west of Manhattan and east of the San Andreas Fault. The CW's think that everyone ought to view an orgy as a diurnal event, observing such goings-on with a 'been there, done that' casual yawn."
What on earth is going on in Wacky Jack's brain?! This is how Valenti responds to those who criticize his precious system and who, in their criticisms, have said nothing personally disparaging about Valenti himself? Maybe it is time to say something personal and disparaging about Valenti himself, since he sounds like a man who has gone round the bend.
He's behaving like Yosemite Sam, the pint-size, half-mad buckaroo in the Bugs Bunny cartoons who responded to every imagined affront with a hail of bullets and blasts of bombast.
In other public remarks, Yosemite Jack has indicated that he considers serious filmmakers his enemies, too. They don't pay his salary, after all. He talks about filmmakers as if they were brats and tots who are not to be left to their own devices. He speaks of them in paranoid terms as sneaks and saboteurs who are always looking for ways to subvert his idiotic ratings system. Just because Valenti may not have a creative bone in his body doesn't mean he should trash those who do.
With "Eyes Wide Shut" as the focus, critics of Valenti's ratings have revived old complaints about many weaknesses of the operation. Chronically, almost pathologically, the movie-raters go easy on violence and tough on sex, leading some filmmakers to observe that certain body parts can be sliced, diced and otherwise butchered in an R-rated movie, but not fondled. Valenti has always insisted on keeping the identity of his panel of raters a secret, saying only that it's a bunch of parents from the L.A. area, apparently people with no credentials to serve other than the desire to dictate to the rest of the country.
Anyone who is willing to act as a censor ought to be disqualified from doing so.
If we don't know who these raters are, how do we even know they exist? Maybe it's just Valenti and fellow MPAA executives. Whoever these movie raters are, they have committed one foolish blunder after another.
The system even started on a bad note, with Valenti personally supervising the censorship of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?," the 1966 Mike Nichols film of the landmark Edward Albee play. Early in the film, audiences were supposed to hear Elizabeth Taylor screaming "Screw you!" in front of startled guests at her front door. The line was changed to "God damn you," thus making it worse--turning a mere vulgarity into profanity. Valenti's hubris is such that he would censor D.H. Lawrence, Vladimir Nabokov or William Shakespeare if he felt it was in the studios' interest to do so.
From its start, the system has also been notoriously kinder and gentler to big-studio films than to independent productions, terrorizing young filmmakers with threats of an NC-17 rating if they don't cut this out, cut that out, trim this and trim that. Valenti has proudly boasted that the MPAA ratings have helped ward off censorship, but the media establishment in this country has become a kind of second government itself, especially as smaller companies become parts of giant global conglomerates.
Ebert wrote that Valenti's "broken-down" system has become "an embarrassment to the filmmaking community and serious lovers of film" and infringes on "the right of adult moviegoers in America to see films as their directors prefer them to be seen."
Peter Bart, the widely admired editor of Daily Variety, joined in the chorus of criticism, irked by Valenti's stunningly intemperate tirades. "Candidly, some of your arguments even rubbed me the wrong way, Jack," Bart wrote in an open memo to Valenti, "and that doesn't happen often between us.
"What it all boils down to is this: No matter how you rationalize it, the ratings system today is little more than a political artifice. . . . For three decades now, the so-called 'code' has prevented the yahoos from the Bible Belt from setting up their own local censorship boards to impose their Neanderthal value systems. . . . You claim other benefits from the system as well, Jack, but . . . as the system stands today, I think it's downright harmful to the filmmaking process."
Serious filmmakers are now wondering whether maybe they have less to fear from the "yahoos from the Bible Belt" than from the MPAA and its ghostly, anonymous in-house censors. The system has been denounced before, probably too many times to count, but this time the consensus seems much broader and the calls for reform may carry more clout.
It certainly seems odd and even tragic that a country founded on freedom of speech continues to suffer under a movie-censoring system befitting a totalitarian state. Valenti has become the serious moviemakers', and moviegoers', Public Enemy No. 1.
He used to run around saying his favorite film was the rather uncinematic movie version of the play "A Man for All Seasons." Obviously Valenti identifies with the film's man-of-principle hero, Sir Thomas More. But these days, he's behaving more like its nut-case villain, Henry VIII. Perhaps it's time to say of the MPAA: "Off with its head."