For almost as long as we've had movies, we've had a culture war to go along with them -- an ongoing struggle between filmmakers who want to challenge, provoke, or simply tell an honest story, and audience members/lawmakers who want to protect viewers with more delicate sensibilities. To help concerned filmgoers navigate the landscape (and improve upon the outdated Hays Code), Hollywood implemented a voluntary ratings system in the late 1960s, and for the most part, it's done its job -- although it certainly hasn't been without its detractors. The "X" designation, created as a catchall category for movies with adult content, has proven particularly problematic; despite the occasional release of "real" X-rated films (such as Midnight Cowboy, Fritz the Cat, and Last Tango in Paris), the rating quickly became shorthand for pornography.
In order to help differentiate between high art and cheap thrills, the MPAA introduced the NC-17 in 1990, and although it hasn't done anything to improve the box office prospects of films receiving the rating, it has given an alternative to filmmakers who want to create challenging and/or provocative movies for grown-ups without dealing with the "rated X" stigma. With Steve McQueen's Shame heading for limited release this weekend (and already courting controversy), we decided now would be the perfect time to pay tribute to the NC-17. Get ready for plenty of skin, violence, and broken taboos -- and bring your ID, because it's time for an adults-only Total Recall!