In the summer of 1984 audiences weren’t ‘fraid of no ghosts and made Ghostbusters number one at the box office. But parents were up in arms over the heart-snatching antics of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and the monster-ridden, Christmas-set Gremlins and wanted something done about it. With the blessing of behind-the-scenes perpetrator Steven Spielberg — who as the director of Temple of Doom and the executive producer of Gremlins was clearly concerned about jeopardizing his stature as a family-friendly filmmaker — the Motion Picture Association of America quickly came up with a new rating: PG-13. That is, harder than a PG, or Parental Guidance (Suggested), but not as hard as an R, or Restricted.

And the movies have been poorer for it ever since.

Our ratings system is in its 40th year. Creating one-size-fits-all designations for a country of constituents is no easy task, and it’s satisfactory — or as satisfactory as any never-wholly-satisfactory solution can be. PG-13 was the first rating instituted since 1972, when PG replaced the allegedly more lax GP and the now-obscure GP*. PG covered a multitude of sins — I’m surprised ’70s parents didn’t complain about the likes of The Towering Inferno or Spielberg’s Jaws. I suspect my own regretted taking me to Inferno, with Susan Flannery’s horrific “fire run” and other smoldering all-star atrocities; I didn’t see Jaws on cable till after we’d seen Jaws 2 in theaters, by which time I was 13. Looking back on it, I’m proud of their sensible parenting, as they knew I loved the ocean and didn’t want to scare my preteen self out of the Atlantic, however much my playground cred suffered.

But even in the shadow of Nixon and Ford, Joy of Sex-reading parents were more indulgent of us (or some of us) as we transitioned to Carter country for a term. Unfortunately, the days of wine and peanuts came to an end in Reagan’s America: the MPAA wanted to win one for the Gipper, as conservative moms and dads got riled up about sex and violence. An early skirmish was over the Spielberg-produced Poltergeist (1982), less for its supernatural scares than its nonjudgmental, even positive, portrait of pot-smoking parents. Nixon’s silent majority had again found its voice and was scolding a free-and-easy permissiveness that dared to linger on-screen.

Two summers later we had PG-13 to handle the problem children that sprang from the id of E.T.’s father, as well as the other movies that were too suggestive for parental guides. What was this new rating all about? I’ve pulled the exact wording below from the MPAA website; “take heart” as you work your way through it.

“A PG-13 rating is a sterner warning by the Rating Board to parents to determine whether their children under age 13 should view the motion picture, as some material might not be suited for them. A PG-13 motion picture may go beyond the PG rating in theme, violence, nudity, sensuality, language, adult activities or other elements, but does not reach the restricted R category. The theme of the motion picture by itself will not result in a rating greater than PG-13, although depictions of activities related to a mature theme may result in a restricted rating for the motion picture. Any drug use will initially require at least a PG-13 rating. More than brief nudity will require at least a PG-13 rating, but such nudity in a PG-13 rated motion picture generally will not be sexually oriented. There may be depictions of violence in a PG-13 movie, but generally not both realistic and extreme or persistent violence. A motion picture’s single use of one of the harsher sexually derived words, though only as an expletive, initially requires at least a PG-13 rating. More than one such expletive requires an R rating, as must even one of those words used in a sexual context. The Rating Board nevertheless may rate such a motion picture PG-13 if, based on a special vote by a two-thirds majority, the Raters feel that most American parents would believe that a PG-13 rating is appropriate because of the context or manner in which the words are used or because the use of those words in the motion picture is inconspicuous.”

That may read better on weed. It’s by far the wordiest definition of any of the five ratings in use (the others being G, applied to 2001: A Space Odyssey at the dawn of the ratings system, now too unhip for anyone to bother changing over the decades, and the disreputable, rarely used NC-17). You might think the association was just being thorough, but really, the legalese tone of it (“The theme of the motion picture by itself will not result in a rating greater than PG-13, although depictions of activities related to a mature theme may result in a restricted rating for the motion picture”) opened a Pandora’s box of not-quite-restricted loopholes.

Let’s cut through the crap (a PG word) and look at the first PG-13 movies. The very first, Garry Marshall’s coming-of-age comedy The Flamingo Kid, was intended for summer release but held back for Christmas. It was, I think, the first film I saw advertised with the PG-13 logo.

It’s a pretty good movie, with a great early-’60s soundtrack. And the new rating solved a problem that had bedeviled PG movies since at least All the President’s Men in 1976: what to do when the harshest of those “sexually derived words” — you know, “fuck” — cropped up in a PG movie. Once was okay, at least as an expletive, but any more than that was fucking pushing it, and any talk about actual fucking was an automatic fucking R. My memory’s fuzzy, but I assume a single “fuck” — and typically leering coming-of-age-in-the-’60s humor — landed The Flamingo Kid in the PG-13 hoosegow.

And that made sense. The movie was too soft for an R, unlike, say, the first R-rated movie I saw theatrically, National Lampoon’s Animal House (1978), or summer 1984’s raunchy Bachelor Party, The Hangover of its day. But “crudity creep” was just around the corner. With its “fuck,” John Hughes’s Sixteen Candles, released in May of ’84, made it under the PG-13 wire. Following the solidly-R-for-language The Breakfast Club in early ’85, Hughes (R.I.P.) returned that summer with Weird Science, a movie with an R premise (boys make woman) but a teen-safe PG-13 execution. Had there been no PG-13 to fall back on there would’ve been no movie, or at least no movie with the same amount of juvenile, gross-out gags to throw the filmmaker’s career temporarily off course.

I had misremembered Cocoon (1985) as a PG, but it too was a PG-13. Why? Was it a sexually rejuvenated Don Ameche singing “I’m in the mood for love / Simply because I’ve got one”? Steve Guttenberg getting it on with anyone, human or alien? Or was the primary theme itself, of senior hanky-panky in an E.T. scenario, enough to get it the more restrictive rating? Less than a year after it was adopted you could see how PG-13 worked, as a catch basin for lowbrow humor but also a place to put more adult films with mildly eyebrow-raising subject matter. The dumbing down of the PG category had begun.

August 10, 1984, brought us the first PG-13 movie released into theaters, the Cold War flag waver Red Dawn, which was cut from the same red, white, and blue cloth as Chuck Norris’s copycat Invasion U.S.A. (1985), the laughable miniseries Amerika (1987), Iron Eagle (1986), and a big chunk of Sylvester Stallone’s mid- to late-’80s film career. The Soviet Union couldn’t fall fast enough to clear our screens of these rabble-rousers.

But here’s where PG-13 really came into its own, as movies given the rating piled up like so many wrecked cars. More movies are rated PG-13 these days than anything else, with action and fantasy pictures the biggest beneficiaries of its more-but-not-too-much-more intention. The problem is, a PG-13 today is practically indistinguishable from an R. “Violence creep” is the single biggest negative contribution the PG-13 rating has had on movies, one that’s completely retarded film culture along with the digital-effects-for-effects’-sake boom since the early ’90s.

I sort of enjoyed the recent hit Taken, with Liam Neeson making like Charles Bronson in the ’70s. (I didn’t enjoy the director, Pierre Morel, of the immigrant-friendly thriller District B13, turning xenophobic in this Paris-set actioner, but that’s what it takes to make it in the big leagues.) The DVD has the theatrical (PG-13) cut, which, like Casino Royale and the Bourne trilogy, chafes against the rating — the violence in all these films is indeed “realistic, extreme, and persistent.” There’s been so much envelope pushing in the last quarter century that I suspect the raters, a secretive bunch who are known to be craven to the big studios, don’t really know what they’re looking for, or what they’re looking at.

In a familiar hustle, the Taken disc includes an extended (by a minute), unrated cut, which amps the mayhem to a higher, nebulous level. (“Unrated” looks more dangerous on the packaging than a plain old R.) It essentially invalidates the “wimpier” PG-13 cut, which was necessary only to capture the largest possible audience in theaters before the film moved on to the even more profitable afterlife of home video, cable, etc. It’s mildly refreshing that both cuts are on the same disc rather than the unrated one appearing somewhere down the ancillary-market food chain after you’ve already bought the PG-13 one. But I still feel like I’ve been taken, with the theatrical version — the only one you could’ve seen in theaters — reduced to the status of bait.

Meanwhile, PG has gone the way of G. It’s a largely untouchable rating, so out-of-it that movies based on toys no one at or over the age of 13 would be caught dead playing with, namely Transformers and G.I. Joe, are rated PG-13. The Spielberg-produced Transformers movies are the worst of all worlds: megamachine violence combined with smutty humor. Today’s parents, whipped into submission by the high-velocity smackdowns, don’t have the energy to complain, if they (or the theater owners) even care all that much anymore.

As for the Red Dawn trailer, I’d say it’s an artifact, a reminder of a time when we were expected to take prisoner roundups at McDonald’s and internment at high school parking-lot concentration camps seriously. But, like everything else from the ’80s, Red Dawn is being recycled, with the teenage “Wolverines” pitted in the remake against hard-line Chinese and old-school Soviet marauders. The remake’s producers vow that they’re going for an R and won’t pussy out with a PG-13. But I bet the iron boot of a distributor fearful of losing an audience of John Birchers and Palinistas ages 13-17 will crush that plan.

Indiana Jones costar Kate Capshaw was kind of scary in her brief heyday, before marrying the boss and pretty much retreating to a temple of gold. But Dreamscape, the second PG-13 movie released — on August 15, 1984 — got the rating for jump-out-of-your-seat moments like the eruption of the “snake man,” in a pre-Nightmare on Elm Street scenario. For horror fans, however, PG-13 has more often than not been a bad dream.

Horror, always discriminated against as immature, is too often driven by excess — like, for example, the so-called “torture porn” genre, which typifies the MPAA’s leniency toward the major studios that are calling the slashes. PG-13 can be a good middle ground: The Sixth Sense is a perfect fit of film content and rating. Drag Me to Hell, on the other hand, had the bite marks of violence creep, however fantastic the gypsy-curse hullabaloo was. The main problem with movie horror and movie ratings, though, is the watering down that happens in order to get the movie that profitable mainstream rating.

The well-reviewed Drag Me to Hell tried to have it both ways and failed. The movie has a high ick factor, but Universal didn’t want to risk an R rating, so the intended audience missed out, burned too often by the many letdowns of PG-13 horror. Movies like The Haunting in Connecticut, The Unborn, and The Uninvited almost invite their quick disposal — from the generic titles on down, there’s nothing in them for a fan to sink his or her teeth into. And we’re savvy to the whole bait-and-switch business, figuring that an unrated cut will circulate on DVD (and knowing that the new scenes won’t help). The best horror resists being machine-tooled for a demographic, which doesn’t stop a glut of gutlessness.

Spend too much time thinking about this and you begin to imagine that we live in a PG-13 world. Our discourse on so many issues is more about pushing buttons and redefining the edge than engaging in specifics and finding mutual ground; we’re fearful of G-rated naiveté, but perpetually shy of maturity. Like a well-intentioned but clueless parent, the MPAA is no help with our coming of age as a society. Let’s meet again in 2010 to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the NC-17 rating, which the MPAA created to bring our cinema to adulthood, but bungled just as surely as it did the movies’ developing years.

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