Let me get this straight.

Film critics are upset with Jack Valenti, president of the Motion Picture Association of America, and the system that rates films G, PG, PG-13, R and NC-17, depending on language, violence and/or sexual content. The problem: Sixty-five seconds of changes edited into the Tom Cruise-Nicole Kidman film "Eyes Wide Shut," to persuade the MPAA board to give director Stanley Kubrick's final film an R rating.

Frankly, I'd avoided the sex-themed drama, turned off by so-so reviews and the desperate flacking by its stars--particularly Kidman, whose recent allergy to clothes-wearing is starting to make Demi Moore seem modest. After earning $22 million on its opening weekend, the movie was summarily rejected by audiences.

Kubrick apparently approved the edits before his death in March. But even a minute's alteration to a film by such a master could be harmful. So I saw "Eyes."

And I was as shocked as any art-loving film critic.

The changes--consisting of a few digitized, clothed figures that partly obscure shots of naked, rutting strangers at an oddly decorous orgy--barred viewers from seeing "art" they could view in any soft-porn video. This is a big deal? Even Kubrick couldn't have elevated the scenes to significance.

More shocking was that Kubrick ended his brilliant career with a movie that--how to say this artfully?--reeks.

Critics argue that people in other countries get to see the entire orgy unobscured. They say Kubrick knew "Eyes" might be rated NC-17 by the MPAA and, feeling under attack, authorized the edits only to avoid that kiss-of-death rating. Artists, they insist, shouldn't feel restricted!

To which I say: C'mon! As a writer for a newspaper available to young and old, my words are restricted by a "ratings board" known as my editors. As a concerned parent of three sons, 17, 14 and 3, I feel attacked in ways that Kubrick, 73 at his death, could never imagine. Valenti unwisely responded to critical barbs by leaping to counterattack, calling the critics "ill-humored."

But the overly feisty ratings board co-creator also said this: For all the griping about ratings, Valenti mused, he hadn't heard parents complain.

He won't. Parents may not be artists, but we need protecting, too. We're overwhelmed by the irresponsible sex, graphic violence and endless obscenities that flow like so much sewage over every entertainment outlet. MPAA ratings are among the few remaining thumbs stuck in a seeping, filth-filled dam. That certain critics now want an "A" rating for "adult," which would avoid the porn scent they say emanates from NC-17, doesn't bother me.

What rankles is that so many critics care so much more about art than the human beings it affects. I guess that's not their job.

It's mine. So I'll admit the ratings system is flawed: Violence infests way too much PG-13 and even PG fare; the MPAA board's decisions are arbitrary. But the notion that the MPAA ratings system is appreciated only by "Bible belt yahoos," as one critic put it, is false. Parents in every Zip code want ratings, because movies rule.

Know what happens when you combine the human mind's effortless consumption of visual images with the raw power of sound-enhanced pictures flashed across 2,000-square-foot multiplex screens, not to mention 19-inch TV tubes?

Pre-millennial America happens. It's a place where watching easily swallowed moving tableaux has replaced reading--a skill requiring some work and patience--especially among the young. Since visual fare is built for speed (even the longest movie is just three hours), it often substitutes upside-the-head action, sex and violence for the time-consuming context and nuance that saturate real life. And many kids swallow it whole.

Those who find movie ratings unfair because books have no such constraints ignore that even small children--who can't read proficiently or at all--can see and process brutal and graphically sexual movie images.

Anyone who says such images explain young people's every sexual or violent act is a fool. Anyone who says such images don't contribute greatly to them is a bigger one.

This isn't just an issue for parents. We all share the same planet. Recent events suggest the garbage that affects vulnerable kids could brutally impact any of us.

I love movies. A former critic, I raised sons who adore them, too. Having watched their responses to them, I understand movies' power enough to respect and even fear it. Enough to suggest that any overhaul of the ratings system should strengthen, not weaken, its protections.

In truth, parents are artists,too--molding and sculpting the adults who will one day run your world. When critics worry half as much about the young works of art watching the screen as the images flashing upon it, I'll really be shocked.