Morally Offensive Favorites

Wood chipper.

If you’re like me, those two words are inextricably linked to the Coen Brothers’ 1996 film Fargo. Despite the violence and gore, it’s one of my favorite movies, for it contrasts good and evil in an intensely memorable and surprisingly nuanced way.

Plus, it’s a substantial “grown-ups” movie that I can recommend in good conscience because it has an acceptable rating from the bishops—an “A-IV” to be precise.

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Bishops? Ratings? Conscience? Let me explain.

After I became a Catholic, I discovered the U.S. Bishops’ movie rating system. Formerly the Office for Film and Broadcasting, today it is part of the Catholic News Service. Somewhat akin to the better known MPAA ratings (G, PG, PG-13, R), the bishops’ system itself has changed little over the years: A-I films are for families and general audiences; A-II, for adults and adolescents; A-III, adults only; and A-IV, also adults only, but with reservations—today, this rating has been replaced with L, “limited adult audiences only.”

Then, there is the “O” rating—“morally offensive.” No bishop, no pope, no official church document demands that Catholics avoid “O” rated films. Nevertheless, life is short, and the list of movies we can watch is long, so years ago I decided (and then, after marrying, my wife and I decided together) to skip any movie that garnered an “O” from the bishops. We can’t watch every movie anyway, and even if the bishops got it wrong from time to time—rating something “O” when an A-IV would do—the deprivation wouldn’t represent a tremendous loss. It seemed like a pretty simple system.

But, alas, not so simple.

I saw a lot of movies before I became a Catholic, and it turns out many of them had received “O” ratings. Some of them—the 1989 nihilistic Heathers for example, and various slasher films—deserved the “O”. I’d never want to see them again anyway, and I certainly wouldn’t want any of my kids to sit through them.

But other “O” films were, well, pretty good in my opinion, and a few even played minor roles in the development of my moral consciousness. But a deal is a deal, and we had committed ourselves to banning “O” films in our home—no matter how much I’d love to watch a few of them with my now grown kids.

So, it is with some awkwardness and chagrin that I present to you my list of favorite “O” rated films that I wish I could—but won’t—watch again with my teenagers:

[1] The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966): Sure it’s violent, and, sure, there isn’t much difference between the bad and the ugly on one hand, and the good (Clint Eastwood) on the other. But there is a moral framework in this spaghetti-Western universe, and its ambiguities ring true—perhaps nowhere better than when the “ugly” outlaw confronts his brother-turned-priest regarding the fate of their abandoned mother. 

Deer Hunter movie image[2] The Deer Hunter (1978): Another violent one, but one of the best Vietnam War films ever made—actually, one of the best war movies ever made, period. The progression from ordinary life to wartime madness, and then back again to “ordinary life” is devastating. The Deer Hunter graphically underscores the reality that killing and death are only one part of the tragedy of war—and not even always the most tragic part.

[3] The Road Warrior (1981): The first sequel to Mad Max (1979, another “O” film), The Road Warrior is a post-apocalyptic version of an Eastwood Western. The lone gunman in this case is Max (Mel Gibson), still reeling from the loss of his family, who comes to the rescue of a community of innocents besieged by a band of neo-savages.

Mad-Max2 TheRoadWarrior[4] Blade Runner (1982): Based on a story by Philip K. Dick, Blade Runner presents a bleak vision of our future, and, more importantly, raises significant and troubling questions about our present—namely, what it means to be human, particularly as we become increasingly dependent on technology.

So, if we’re going to stick with our no-O policy, what’s the purpose of this exercise? For one thing, I’m almost certain my kids will go ahead and watch all these films when they’re out from under our house rules, and I want them to have a record of why I always thought they were worthwhile, despite the “O” ban.

But the bigger point is this: Why are these films, and others like them, saddled with the “O” rating in the first place? Why, for instance, does Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner merit an “O”, but his equally dark and violent Alien (1979) only an A-III? And why an “O” for The Deer Hunter, and not for Apocalypse Now (1979)? The bishops don’t review the films themselves—lay movie critics, presumably following the bishops’ guidelines, actually do the reviewing—so there’s no magisterial authority involved in the ratings. But even so, it does seem like the ratings themselves are somewhat arbitrary, giving rise to doubts regarding their value and credibility.

The arbitrary nature of some of the USCCB ratings is further underscored by the tempest that accompanied the release of Brokeback Mountain in 2005. This sexually graphic film originally received an “L” rating, but it was changed to an “O” after a series of complaints were lodged with the bishops. And that raises a question: If protests can lead to a rating change, how much confidence are we to put into any given rating, or even the entire system itself?

The Hurt Locker movie imageAnd, while I’m at it, one more question: What about The Hurt Locker? It is a phenomenal film about war and warriors, and the winner of the 2009 Oscar for Best Picture and has never been rated by the USCCB. Why not?

Come to think of it, maybe it was a fortuitous oversight (or omission), at least for me. The distressing violence—and the associated, equally distressing ennui—at the heart of The Hurt Locker might have earned it a bishops’ “O” rating. In that case, I wouldn’t have taken the opportunity to view it with my teenaged son. But with no rating, I felt free to watch it with him, and it proved to be a terrific film that also provided a rich vein of reflection and conversation in the days that followed.

So, out of respect for the bishops, we’ll keep using the USCCB rating system, as imperfect as it may be, and we’ll maintain our ban on “O”-rated movies in our home. Still, I’ll be on the lookout for more oversights and omissions. Rich veins of reflection and conversation are in short supply these days.

Editor’s note: This essay first appeared May 16, 2013 on the “Clinging to Onions” blog of Richard Becker and is reprinted with permission.


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