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Moriarty's Rumblings From The Lab #5

Well here's the latest Rumbling from the Lab, and I am absolutely delighted with how this feature is coming about. For example, this week not only does Moriarty knock around the MPAA a bit, but breaks casting information on both Hannibal and Lord of the Rings. And... wow! The idea of Ian McKellen playing that creepy doctor in MINORITY REPORT sounds great. I hope he signed on. What a busy guy! But enough from me... Onto Moriarty...

Hey, Head Geek...

"Moriarty" here.

I'd like to take a moment and thank all of you for your outpouring of kindness following my mention of the recent loss here at the Labs. The whole place is papered with condolences I've received from you, and it makes it a little hard to see the Big Board we're using to steer the Evil Master Plan To Rule The World. It's worth it, though. I have passed your words along to the other people involved, and they have helped.

Of course, that's just one of the things you've been writing me about. The other was my request last week for practical solutions about how to address the issue of the broken American ratings system. I had no idea what kind of shitstorm I was stirring up when I made that request, and you've filled my Yahoo! e-mail to capacity three times since last Tuesday. One thing is certain... your feelings on the subject are strong, and who could blame you? The current climate of fear, namecalling, and rotating blame is one of the least healthy atmospheres for filmgoing I can recall.

I've seen many changes in the ratings system over the years. I was young enough to be part of the exact group of film viewers affected by the creation of the PG-13. I remember the summers before the PG-13, like 1982, when we got POLTERGEIST, or 1981, when we got RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, or 1984, when we got INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM and GREMLINS. It was that last summer that really crossed the line, and there was no choice but to come up with a rating for films that were stronger than the average PG, but which the studios had fought down from an R rating. I don't remember the PG-13 making one little bit of difference in my viewing habits, but of course it did. It gave the studios an out when they had a film that they were pitching as a big summer movie, and they just couldn't take the financial hit of the R. It gave the MPAA and NATO something to point at so they could say, "We fixed it." I remember the angry editorials that led up to the advent of the rating. They were a lot like the ones that greeted the release of films like THE COOK, THE THIEF, HIS WIFE & HER LOVER at the tail end of the '80s. There were a number of independent films that were opting for unrated releases instead of taking the hit of an X. There were lawsuits threatened against the MPAA by filmmakers like Wayne Wang, who argued that the X he was given for LIFE IS CHEAP, TOILET PAPER IS EXPENSIVE was economic death for his film and that his art had been labelled pornography unfairly. Parents groups protested that the unrated option didn't give them the warning they needed. Once again, Valenti and his group put a Band-Aid on the problem by eliminating the X, creating the NC-17, and pronouncing everything fine. It wasn't, though. The rating never took, and theater owners whose leases prevent them from booking an X weren't allowed to book the new rating, either. I know, because I worked for a chain where we had our hands tied. We couldn't legally show those films at most of our locations.

And now there's a new uproar, and there's change in the air, and I have a sneaking suspicion that there's a new rating right around the corner. Roger Ebert and others, including Harry himself, have become advocates for a new A rating to go between the R and the NC-17. I think this rating will have to fight its own battle against being stigmatized, simply because the word "adult" is so often associated with porno. Still, one reader had a great suggestion for how to handle that part of the problem:

"The MPAA is insane, but what can you do? My only very brief thought is that if studios voluntarily re-rated old titles like ROBOCOP, SCARFACE, and NBK "A," then maybe right-wingers might not be so afraid of new product with an adults-only rating. Their protests of CRASH, SHOWGIRLS, etc, were based on instilling fear about a film no one had yet seen. If succesful library titles were re-rated for video, etc., maybe that would be a possibility. Or maybe just a big pain in the ass. I don't know. But I've always wondered how RAIN MAN and BLUE VELVET shared an MPAA rating. It's obvious there needs to be an in-between, and the NC-17 isn't cutting it."

I'll call the reader KINGPIN for reasons that should make him cringe. I think he's got a point. Why not take all the director's cuts that got slapped with an NC-17, all those versions that were too hard for the R, and get them rerated with this new A rating? This sets the tone for what audiences should expect when they see these films.

Of course, that's assuming we're going to keep the MPAA around at all. Personally, I think it's time we move on. I think what the studios have got to do is take a good look at what parts of the industry have repeatedly caused them these nightmarish public relations problems. It's always either test screenings or ratings trouble that give the studios fits these days, and we always hear that it's just the way things work. But why? If we can all agree that there's a problem, and we can all agree as to the cause of it, then why can't we agree to act?

I think it's because there's no viable alternative, and people are afraid of the effort that will have to be exerted to create that alternative. It can be done, though, and it should be. I propose that the studios all resign their memberships in the MPAA out of protest. Instead of paying their membership fees and paying the ratings board each time they have a picture rated and paying NRG to cook their numbers and bully teens into screenings, why not take those same resources and create one organization that can take over both processes in a way that gives the studios greater freedom, greater input into the process, and real feedback they can use to make films and filmgoing better?

Imagine an organization that has two main branches, both governed by a panel. On that panel would be a representative from each of the studios, someone from each of the mini-majors, and there would be seats left open for representatives of the indie community. John Pierson would be an example of someone who could hold that seat or John Sloss, perhaps.

The first branch of the organization handles all the test screenings for the films in production. The screenings aren't about numbers, but instead are used by the filmmakers to fine-tune their pictures. There's no outside party telling the studios how to spend their money, no one organization suggesting cuts to everyone's films. Instead, the studios would be giving filmmakers the room to use the process creatively, to enjoy it again. By removing Joe Farrell's evil army from the system, there's less outside buzz, and the films wouldn't be treated like product. One thing that could be added to the process would be a question asked of each preview audience member: "What would you rate this film?"

The responses to that question would be handed over to the other branch of the organization, the branch that rates movies. Jack Valenti has always claimed that the MPAA is about providing information to parents and not censoring filmmakers. No matter what his intentions, that simply is not true today. If he were truly interested in providing information, he would drop the letters already in use and move to a system that literally just labels the content of the film. Of course, that would mean losing his copywritten system, and that means less revenue for his organization, and it means that his stranglehold over the morality of American film would be broken.

So if we wouldn't use the familiar G/PG/R system, then what would we replace it with? Well, I agree with the overwhelming majority of you that a simple system that owes a nod to the way HBO and other cable services rate their own programming would be the best method. N for nudity, L for language, S for sexual content, V for violence. You could modify the letters with an E if there was extreme content. Simple, clearly understood, these letters would provide parents with specific knowledge of what the films contained, so if they don't mind violence but they can't stand nudity, they would know the difference between something like SAVING PRIVATE RYAN and SHOWGIRLS. And what about content that falls between the cracks? What about a film that really doesn't break any specific rules, but which is unnerving, unmistakably adult?

I can't help but think of Lodge Kerrigan's brilliant little film CLEAN, SHAVEN from earlier this decade. It was a film with almost no explicit material, but the tone of it rattled me deeply. It's an unflinching portrait of the world as seen through the eyes of someone who is truly mentally disturbed. In a case like that, there should be a special M rating, meaning mature subject matter, that could be applied. It should signal that there's difficult material that a child might have trouble either accepting or understanding. It wouldn't prevent a child from seeing the film, but it would serve as a flag to a parent. I saw kids who had to be dragged from the theater hysterical when we were playing MY GIRL. Confronting the death of MacCauley Culkin may have put a smile on the face of every parent who sat through 377 viewings of HOME ALONE, but it was seriously traumatic to children who viewed Culkin as their friend. The film's PG rating hardly hinted at the emotional turbulence of that scene. How were parents served there? The failings of Valenti's system come even more dramatically into focus when one considers options.

The new regulatory board I've described does something else the MPAA was designed to do, too. It keeps the government out of the film regulation business. That's something Valenti may not be able to do for much longer if he keeps fumbling the way he has in the past and recently. Despite being an experienced player in Washington, Valenti may not have the muscle to keep certain parties from turning Hollywood into a cause as we approach an election year. If the MPAA is viewed as broken beyond repair, and the industry is seen as leaving all their faith in that broken system, then we are ripe for attack. It is time for the industry to step up and take responsibility, a word I've been big on since my post-Columbine article. It's time to take the positive steps that will prove that we are dedicated to more than just money. Putting information -- real information with practical applications -- in the hands of parents can create a system where people are able to trust ratings again. They will have a purpose, and they will serve it well.

Of course, people could just go see the movies first themselves, then take their kids and actually talk to them after. But let's not dream the impossible, eh?

I've gotten a couple of pieces of e-mail this week that suggest to me that HANNIBAL is indeed on track. Ridley Scott is still the name I'm hearing as director, and David Mamet is, as I noted earlier, an apt choice for screenwriter. I'm intrigued, though, by the first casting choice I've heard. If it's true, James Woods should make an excellent Mason Verger, and there's a chance he may actually create an enduring nightmare creature that will live up to the high standards created by Harris' novels and the films based on them thus far.

I also managed this week to infiltrate the offices of one of the town's major talent agencies, where I took a long look at the casting that's going on for JAMBOREE. Oh, wait a minute... that's just the code name. I think you'd know it better by its real title -- LORD OF THE RINGS. By now, we've all debated the merits of Elijah Wood and Sean Astin as Frodo and Samwise. Personally, I like the choices. Astin's exactly what I pictured reading the scripts -- a thick guy with a big, wide open soul, kindness and heart wrapped up in an oversized, powerful body. Samwise is the trilogy's real lead, and I think Astin's got a lot of work ahead of him. It should pay off beautifully, though, especially surrounded by some of the other talent that's coming into focus. My sources revealed that Ian Holm is in final negotiations to play Bilbo, something that made me do a little dance around my own private Hobbit hole. I think he's a wonderful choice, and I smile just thinking about his address to everyone just before slipping on the Ring and vanishing. Marvelous. I'm also dying to see him in his scenes with Gandalf. I know there's been a ton of speculation about this character, and I can understand it. There's something very iconic about him. He's one of the more immediately recognizable things about the series. That's why I wasn't surprised when I learned that a firm offer is out now to Ian McKellan, this year's favorite old man. I've heard a lot of great names bandied about like Christopher Lee, Patrick McGoohan, and Tom Baker, and it's been rumored that these actors may yet find their way to Middle Earth. With McKellan, though, people forget that he's the same age as Nick Nolte, still in his early 50s. He just plays older very, very well. He will bring both Gandalf the Grey and Gandalf the White to life in different and exciting ways, and I hope he is able to juggle his schedule between LORD OF THE RINGS, X-MEN, and MINORITY REPORT, where he may play a key role. If so, he'll join Uma Thurman, Ethan Hawke, Jeffrey Comb (believe it, folks -- he's Wormtongue), Bryan Boyd, and the still-negotiating Kate Winslet, who would be a lovely Eowyn.

Just a thought on the Will Smith/Mohammad Ali biopic: if it's so important to Will to play the role, then why doesn't he take a pay cut? Why push to make $20 million on this one? Biopics never perform as big as summer event films, and even if they did everything right (an impossibility with Barry Sonnenfeld on board), they still would have a hard time breaking the mold with such an overtly political film. Why not watch how Johnny Depp does it, Will? He's dying to play Liberace for Karasziewski and Alexander. You think he's going to ask for top dollar? Nope... he'll take the cut, do it for the art, and benefit in the long run. If you want to play The Greatest, Will, start getting into character now.

I know I promised my Bill Murray piece would be this week, and I know I've dropped more clues on LOTR than actual information, but I am catching up. I'll be back to my full Evil self later this week, and I should be presenting you all of the promised stories and more. Until then...

"Moriarty" out.

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