H’wood’s new rating: ‘X’ for exasperated

SO NOW GET READY for Act II: The Enforcers. The networks and studios, having acceded to pressure from Washington’s cultural warriors, must now cope with inhouse bureaucrats charged with carrying out these mandates. Insiders already are cringing.

At a time when debate still rages over the movie ratings themselves, there will now be arguments over the language that must explicate these ratings. Hence ambiguity will be piled upon ambiguity.

New ads for “Lucky Numbers,” for example, point to “brief violence” while those for “Once in the Life” boast “strong violence.” Who’s going to ask whether the “strong” is also “brief,” or vice-versa? Both, by the way, are R pictures.

In its campaign for “Lucky Numbers,” which stars John Travolta, Paramount owns up to “sexuality,” though it’s not entirely clear what that’s supposed to connote. Is a G-rated Disney picture supposed to claim “asexuality”?

And why is it that Warner Bros.’ high-minded new film, “Pay It Forward,” a PG-13 release, has to admit to “mature thematic elements including substance abuse/recovery, some sexual situations, language and brief violence,” while the same studio’s re-release of “The Exorcist” simply advises potential viewers to consult its Web site?

FINALLY, WHEN SOME advisories refer simply to “language,” shouldn’t that impel “The Matrix,” which includes uniquely dumb New Age dialogue, to warn filmgoers about “dumb language”?

To be sure, each of the studios must now appoint “compliance” officers to work out these issues as well as file quarterly reports with the Federal Trade Commission and with Sen. John McCain’s Senate committee. Still other reports will go to Jack Valenti at the MPAA, who has promised to keep a wary eye on all this.

Mindful of pre-election pressures, hastily drawn signs also are appearing on box offices across the country warning filmgoers to have their IDs ready. That doesn’t mean anyone will scrutinize them, of course.

Companies also are scurrying to re-arrange trailers so that those carrying R ratings don’t get mixed in with kiddie fare. And all the while, the newly designated “enforcers” presumably are checking ad campaigns, scouting theaters and looking sternly compliant.

You don’t need much of an imagination to predict the near-comedic confusion. Since researchers can no longer use kids in focus groups, for example, imagine all the bored middle-aged people who’ll have to sit through teen-oriented horror pictures only to ask, “What am I doing here?”

And what will the “enforcers” do when the likeness of a teenager appears in an ad for the next “Scream” sequel? These are characters in the movie so shouldn’t they appear in the ads?

Much of the confusion in the coming weeks will stem from the ambiguity of the R rating itself, which has become more a catch-all than a rating. The majority of studio releases now earn R ratings, encompassing everything from the gentle “Almost Famous” to the arch “Exorcist.”

Valenti, the ratings auteur, has long resisted modifications despite the urgings of the Directors Guild, among others. Lately, however, there have been hints of compromise amid suggestions that the language accompanying the rating can further clarify its meaning.

THAT’S FINE IN THEORY, but I would hate to be the enforcer when it comes to ruling on this language. New ads for the comedy “Best in Show” own up to “language and sex-related material.” That doesn’t mean a damn thing to me: I want “language” in my movies and it’s been years since I’ve viewed material that wasn’t in some way “sex-related.”

Surely last week’s imbroglio involving “Toy Story 2” serves as an appropriate metaphor for Hollywood’s confusion.

For reasons no one can explain, copies of the “Toy Story 2” DVD, which Disney expects to be its all-time bestselling DVD title, turned up around the country with alien dialogue containing two “fucks.” Apparently part of a scene from another movie, “High Fidelity,” somehow found its way into the middle of the Disney movie.

I can visualize the Disney Enforcer slapping a “serious language” label on those DVDs, even as the gremlins back at the factory open a bottle of Champagne.

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