Editor's note: Members of many religious denominations are concerned about the movie-rating system and the guidance it offers in determining what movies they and their children should watch. Kieth Merrill is an Oscar-winning filmmaker and the writer/director of the LDS Church production "Legacy," among many other productions. His Imax film "Amazon" is currently nominated for an Academy Award. He is also a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and writes from that perspective on the rating system.There seems to be a widespread perception among Latter-day Saints that the church's policy on films begins and ends with: "Don't go to R-rated movies." Despite admonitions from the general pulpit to use discernment in the selection of all films, videos and television programming, this singular advice has taken deep root.
The result is an attachment to the shifting secular standard of the Motion Picture Association of America's rating system that was unintended.In 1986, then-church President Ezra Taft Benson said: "We counsel you, young men . . . don't see R-rated movies or vulgar videos or participate in any entertainment that is immoral, suggestive or pornographic."
Other LDS general authorities gave similar counsel following the establishment of the MPAA's rating system in November 1968. Still, President Benson's pointed exhortation, "don't see R-rated movies," had the effect of elevating the admonition to the status of official church policy, if not doctrine.
By implication, parents, teachers and church members inadvertently adopted the rating system of the MPAA as consistent with the standard of the church, or at least a reliable guideline for their entertainment choices.
Fingering R-rated films as culprits unintentionally granted PG and PG-13 films a kind of tacit approval, especially among teenagers. But that is not what was said. It is not what was intended. It is simply what happened, and it is a connection I believe should be broken.
The PG-13 rating had been around less than two years when President Benson issued his trenchant advice. The "vulgar videos" he denounced are often rated PG-13.
A recent case in point: "In & Out" is a popular and enormously successful PG-13 film. It has gained renewed fame with an Academy Award-nominated performance. Entertainment Magazine's cover feature called it: "In & Out-rageous - How the Surprise Smash - and its shocking kiss - is turning Gay into Gold."
Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation has officially endorsed the film, praising its "important message about job discrimination." But of course, the real victory for GLADD media director Chastity Bono was that two men kiss in broad daylight and the camera "didn't cut away."
People who mistakenly tethered themselves to the secular morality of the MPAA and felt safe seeing "In & Out" - or allowed their children to go because PG-13 is on the acceptable side of the barbed R-rated barrier - were blindsided by this film.
It starts with good humor and an optimistic promise of positive resolution -"redeeming social value" I think it's called - but turns sour. The most accurate review of the film I've read comes from Movieguide presented by Ted Baehr. They called it "Sneak Attack."
"Strong homosexual worldview to promote homosexuality, rebuke homophobia and normalize a politically correct agenda. It includes obscenities, profanity, strong homosexual innuendo with graphic descriptions, sexual humor and one homosexual kiss, upper male nudity, alcohol use, smoking and lying. `In & Out' is not a movie for those who hold that sexual relations are a sacred gift from God."
Standards vary. Even within the LDS community, there is no uniform notion of appropriateness. There are some, no doubt, who think "In & Out" is charming, funny, accepting, and even enlightening. But dissected, the film is little more than 104 minutes of propaganda for the homosexual lifestyle.
The title itself, derived from a disturbing dialogue among teenage boys who explain homosexual acts using conspicuous euphemisms, is shocking when reexamined in the cold light of day.
I wondered about the thousands of young boys, some from homes without dads, struggling with sexual identity in a macho world, who sat two hours in the dark while clever writers and charismatic characters put questions - and then answers - in their fragile minds: Am I gay? I'm not gay. Are you sure you're not gay? I don't think I'm gay. Maybe you're gay. If you like to dance, you're gay. I like to dance. Maybe it is OK to be gay. It is OK to be gay. By golly, I am gay, after all! That is the sum and substance of the film.
The damage it may be doing in the lives of impressionable kids - the PG-13 gang - is sobering indeed.
"In & Out" is a striking example of the distance between Mormons and the MPAA. There are many others.
PG-13-rated "Tommy Boy" is a comedic farce created for Saturday Night Live's Chris Farley. In addition to predictable potty humor and vulgar innuendos, one scene features a principal character masturbating while watching a woman disrobe and swim nude in a motel swimming pool. "Tommy Boy" is enormously popular with teenagers and acceptable to parents who instructed their kids "no R-rated movies, you guys" as the kids headed out the door to a video-rental store.
Those same parents might wish their kids had come home with R-rated "Air Force One" or "Braveheart."
I am not advocating R-rated movies, but it is instructive to realize the vigorous action and street language that push some films into the R-rated category are arguably less damaging to the delicate fabric of teenage sensibilities than the vulgarity, permissive sexuality and immoral implications of the "safe" PG-13.
Disconnecting from the standards of the MPAA requires a second look at everything. There are, from time to time, R-rated films whose moral worth, historical significance or social importance may overpower or justify the reasons for their rating.
But that is not the point. The point is that the standards of the LDS culture, and that of various other churches, are so vastly different than the standards of the MPAA that we cannot rely with any confidence on the ratings they propose.