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Gross errors in grading zitgeist.

Gov't admonitions, uneven ratings prompt crix into weird theories

Dick jokes, it seems, are in the eye of the beholder.

When they drive a film to huge B.O. ("There's Something About Mary," "Austin Powers 2"), they're praised as inspired, subversive fun. When they help doom a pic to obscurity ("Tomcats," "Freddie Got Fingered"), they become a social menace warping our impressionable teens.

Then there are ratings. When wielded by the Farrelly Bros., potty humor rates an immediate R. With Eddie Murphy, it's PG-13.

All of these flexible standards raise the central question: Whither the gross-out? Certainly, the recent struggles of tastefully incorrect comedies -- "American Pie 2" figures to be scrutinized next when it opens Aug. 10 -- are prompting some to proclaim the genre dead, perhaps for good.

That only appears to be the case for gross-outs, as we have come to know them, in recent years. In reality, the genre is simply in a transitional phase, and new iterations will no doubt emerge when market conditions are more favorable.

Now that the Federal Trade Commission has cracked down on studios attracting young audiences to R-rated fare and theaters are checking IDs, gross is taking different guises. It either squeaks by to earn the magic PG-13 ("Nutty Professor 2," "The Animal") or surrenders to the R and hopes to make money thanks to bare-bones costs. Whatever the route, any gross-out grossing $100 million or more with an R rating will be a true rarity.

Self-styled social commentators Neil Howe and William Strauss believe they've got this whole conundrum licked, as it were. In an op-ed piece printed recently by the Los Angeles Times, they make the ludicrous claim that teenagers as a unit have rejected gross-outs on moral grounds, preferring such uplifting "hits" as "The Emperor's New Groove" and "Pearl Harbor."

Dabbling ineptly in pop culture to plug their 2000 book, "Millennials Rising: America's Next Great Generation," the authors contrast Generation X with the next wave. Aging Gen-Xers, they contend, are trying to re-create the "Porky's" their youth; hence, "Mary," "American Pie," "Scary Movie," et al.

It's easy to see that a flood of copycats -- the inevitable result of any Hollywood success -- have rendered the genre commercially questionable. So has the federal crackdown on R-rated movie marketing.

Yet Howe and Strauss insist a movement is afoot.

"Crotch-jokers beware," the authors fulminate. "This new generation is more modest than most people think."

In other words: Britney Spears in, gangsta rap out; "Spy Kids" cool, "Blair Witch 2" not.

This Panglossian theory ignores the realities of how showbiz works.

The first clue to the Virginia-based authors' total disconnect with Hollywood is their failure to mention the FTC's landmark report.

Since it landed last fall, a series of films blasted as failures by Howe and Strauss have in fact been hamstrung by a shift in marketing tactics. "Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2," "Angel Eyes," "Say It Isn't So" and "The Mexican" all suffered to varying degrees for wearing the scarlet letter R. Are any of them 100% teen? Hardly. But doubtless they would have benefited from a bit more under-17 support -- what film wouldn't?

In the wake of the FTC report, theaters now card anyone who looks underage, and studios shy away from broad TV promos and other formerly routine paths to visibility.

Oddly, the films singled out by the Times piece are either a) not successful or b) not teen movies. Sometimes, as in the cases of Disney toons "Atlantis" and "Emperor's New Groove," they fit neither category.

Among the curious exemplars of the enlightened standards of the new teen breed are "Lara Croft: Tomb Raider" and "sequels to `The Matrix.'" Leaving aside the fact that the second "Matrix" installment is not due until 2002, it seems bizarre that it and a videogame-based shoot-'em-up are being held up as some sort of chaste paragons.

It is difficult to say what is more ignorant: the authors' insistence that Spears dominates the teen scene (have they heard of Eminem or Limp Bizkit?), or their implication that the youth of today is simply above the "vulgarities" of "Austin Powers 2."

Like a rat relentlessly sniffing out the cheese, Hollywood movie marketers are simply trying to find a new way to navigate the maze. Teen business is still vital -- recant pies like "The Fast and the Furious" or "The Mummy Returns" would never have been runaway hits without it.

But far from being pimpled Puritans in training, as Howe and Strauss would have it, teens are about exploration and a ceaseless awareness of cool. That's what makes their spending habits so difficult to predict -- just ask movie tracking firm NRG.

Those elusive teen precepts are what enable plenty of Ivy League-bound high schoolers to queue up for the latest crass comedy while puffing on a cigarette and carrying a rap-blaring Walkman.

That image may haunt some conservative zealots, but it reminds us that one behavior does not preclude the other.
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Title Annotation:motion picture rating system
Comment:Gross errors in grading zitgeist.(motion picture rating system)
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jul 23, 2001
Previous Article:Life is a Cabernet, old chum.

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