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'Bully' rating battle leaves MPAA looking foolish

One "mother------" and two "F-bombs."

That, according to a blog in the Los Angeles Times, is what "Bully" had to lose before the Motion Picture Association of America ratings board and the Weinstein Company could end their running game of chicken so that the rating of Lee Hirsch's "Bully" could be changed from "R" to "PG-13."

Said Marie Newman, author of a book about teen bullying, to the Christian Science Monitor, "ironically, 'Bully' was bullied by the MPAA."

The end result, of course, was a good one. The acclaimed documentary film on teen bullying -- a major part of a current social movement -- can now be seen by the exact group of young people the film can most affect: those it's about, the ones who can't help but benefit the most from seeing a hard look at the consequences of how cruelly teenagers treat other teenagers.

If you're good at looking the other way, you would say that the end justifies the means. But if you're not, it's hard not to conclude that the ratings system can, at long last, be seen plain as day to be irretrievably broken.

We've had one in America since 1968, but it's hard to believe in this case that it served either the film or the audience well.

One "mother" and two "F's" don't constitute a three-bean salad, much less a hill of beans. Other uses of the F-word have been preserved in the film, in full cognizance of the amply demonstrated fact that middle schoolers on school buses and in playgrounds are, by and large, amply conversant with the more rudimentary Anglo-Saxon obscenities in our language, even in their compound forms. (We don't use them in full, generally, in this newspaper because we can convey their use without leaving them around in newspapers preteens might see.)

Obviously, there are many exceptions. In Amish country, no doubt, there are 13-year-olds who may never have heard everyday street lingo in ordinary conversation. On the other hand there are, no doubt, children on both coasts -- affluent and underclass both -- who used major four-letter Anglo Saxonisms when they were still being put in onesies at bedtime. (There is currently a delightful Facebook site for "Intelligent, Classy, Well-Educated Women Who Say F--- A Lot.")

The foolishness of all this is that the addition -- or subtraction -- of three tiny bits of rough language simply shouldn't ever have kept "Bully" from the audience -- teens without parent or adult escorts -- most likely to benefit from the film (as well as be interested in it).

An MPAA system that refuses to take into account variants in individual cases is so oversystematized that it's virtually guaranteed to malfunction.

"One law for the lion and the lamb is tyranny" was one of William Blake's "Proverbs from Hell."

A motion picture ratings system is clearly from hell when an overpugnacious brawler like Harvey Weinstein practically has to finance a border war to show one and all that our system can no longer be assumed to have either audiences or movies at heart.

I was able to interview an MPAA ratings board member some years ago who in an off moment admitted there was a "F--- rule": two uses of the word could still be sneaked into a PG-13 movie, but one more and an automatic R was slapped on the movie.

It seemed, at the time, comically absurd.

When a film shows you the language of very real teens engaged in behavior other teens so clearly need to see and think long and hard about, there is nothing the slightest bit comic about it.

Thank heaven for the audience that can now see "Bully."

How deeply unfortunate, though, is the audience -- the rest of us -- who had to watch the industrial war that had to be fought before it could be shown.

-- Jeff Simon