Movie ratings useful, but can be arbitrary

Published: Friday, Aug. 17 2012 4:41 p.m. MDT

"Profanity and the foulest of vulgar gutter language bombard the ears of all who listen. Reportedly, in one R-rated movie, the most common, vulgar four-letter word was spoken 256 times!"

— Elder Joe J. Christensen, "Rearing Children in a Polluted Environment," October, 1993

Elder Joe J. Christensen didn't tell you which movie had that many bad words, but I can.

Why? Because I'm the guy who counted them. The foul-mouthed flick in question was "GoodFellas," and at least two-thirds of those "most common, vulgar four-letter word(s)" came out of Joe Pesci's mouth.

That wasn't the record, though. Back in 1993, that dubious distinction belonged to Quentin Tarantino's execrable "Reservoir Dogs," which managed to squeeze 273 utterances of the R-rated expletive into just over an hour and a half.

For those of you keeping score at home, that's precisely 2.76 verbal bombs per minute.

I am the wellspring of such profane knowledge because for two years, I was a contributing editor for the now-defunct Entertainment Research Report, a newsletter out of Florida that called itself the "unbiased content reviewer" of modern cinema. My job was to sit through all the sludge that Hollywood had to offer and count all the swear words, as well as catalogue and clinically describe acts of violence, property damage and naughty bits. Essentially, I sacrificed my spirituality so you didn't have to, and in return I got $20 per movie, plus parking expenses.

It really wasn't a bad gig for a starving college student, and not all the movies were filthy. Most of them were just formulaic and boring. "Reservoir Dogs" was painful, sure, but so was "Casper The Friendly Ghost," which, to my recollection, didn't use that R-rated word even once. Mind you, it could have used that expression once and still been rated PG-13 — unless, of course, the word was used in a sexual context rather than an exclamation, in the which case it would trigger an immediate R rating, even if the rest of the film were entirely innocuous.

Thus Alan Alda's sweet family comedy "Betsy's Wedding" got branded with an R for a single crude, unnecessary throwaway joke, whereas Burt Reynolds' "kiddie" comedy "Cop and a Half" got away with a PG rating — not even PG-13 — because it used vulgarities that the MPAA arbitrarily determined are less offensive.

In addition, none of the "Cop and a Half" censors had a problem with a running gag that involved a disrespectful preadolescent repeatedly elbowing adults in the crotch for laughs. There was almost as much violence in the so-called children's film than in any Tarantino movie, except none of the violence shed any blood or had real world consequences, which, in my view, isn't really a marvelous message to be sharing with our young people.

It was then that I discovered just how contradictory and silly the movie ratings system can be.

Don't get me wrong. Ratings are useful, but they're hardly foolproof, and they make no allowances for context. They ought to be a factor in what films are appropriate for date night and family outings, but they shouldn't be the only factor.

For instance, if you were to determine whether or not you were going to read the Book of Genesis based on an "unbiased" laundry list of its potentially offensive material, then I recommend you skip "naked-and-not-ashamed" chapter 2, "blood-crieth-from-the-ground" chapter 4, chapters 6, 12, 14, 16-19, and pretty much anything involving Lot's daughters, or Joseph's eleven brothers — Judah especially. Also beware of repeated use of an unfortunately crude term for donkeys.

Oh, and don't get the audio book if Joe Pesci is reading it.

Jim Bennett is a recovering actor, theater producer and politico, and he writes about pop culture and politics at his blog, stallioncornell.com.

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