At some point during This Film is Not Yet Rated, you're going to find yourself asking, "Just a second, we're still talking about movies, right?"
The deeper documentarian Kirby Dick gets into the convoluted ratings system of the Motion Picture Association of America, the more it seems that somewhere along the way things got ridiculously out of proportion. Intrigued by the high level of secrecy that surrounds the ratings cabal, Dick has made This Film is Not Yet Rated to try to expose what the MPAA did not want exposed. The results are illuminating in that they are both absurdly funny and tragically offensive.
The MPAA reviews all movies before they get a rating, which theatres then use to decide how to book them. Their stated goal is to provide a guidance system for parents to understand what movies are safe to take children to. From what we see in This Film is Not Yet Rated, that goal is paramount, even superseding any need to just provide the general populace with accurate information for following their own moral compass. Jack Valenti, who ran the organization for over 30 years, is always doing it in the name of the kids. It's a tactic he likely picked up from his time in Lyndon Johnson's cabinet. Everyone likes kids, right? Who doesn't want to protect them? They're our future!
What troubles Dick, as well as all the lawyers, scholars, and filmmakers he talks to, is that there is no transparency to how the MPAA does their business. Filmmakers do not have access to any set of rules, nor are the identities of members of the ratings board ever divulged. Thus, the artistic community is beholden to a governing body who answers to no one. Their decision will have consequences for how a film is marketed and where it is shown. As one box office analyst notes, if they give your film an NC-17, it could cost you millions of dollars.
Which is one of the two main trouble spots Dick examines: if this is for the sake of protecting children, why is it so bad that movies exist with the warning that no children should ever see them? If the MPAA is going to put the kibosh on anything made for an older audience, then David Ansen from Newsweek is correct when he says that the system ends up treating the entire population as children.
From the research presented, the MPAA's biggest problem is sexuality. Most of the films slapped with NC-17 have something to do with sex. Offenses in the films examined, ranging from serious efforts of different stripes like Boys Don't Cry and The Cooler to comedies like But I'm a Cheerleader, almost always boil down to scenes of intimacy, not even just out-and-out sex. A strong case is made showing that these alleged indiscretions quite regularly involve female pleasure and same-sex coupling. Jamie Babbit, the director of But I'm a Cheerleader, notes that her movie got into trouble because two girls get involved in heavy petting while fully clothed. She was threatened with NC-17. Her film was being argued over the same year we could all see Jason Biggs' naked ass getting it on with a pastry, and American Pie only got an R.
Babbit also gives Dick a great opportunity to go into a montage of side-by-side comparisons. A scene of Natasha Lyonne touching herself over her clothes was marked for deletion in But I'm a Cheerleader, but when Dick puts it on the screen next to Kevin Spacey pleasuring himself in the shower in American Beauty, the latter is far more graphic. Dick follows this with a string of scenes from NC-17 movies next to ones from regular R movies, some of which are framed and edited almost exactly the same. It's just that in the NC-17 version, maybe it's two women rather than a woman and man. (I also wondered about race at one point, when Dick gets a hold of MPAA notes for the PG-13 Memoirs of a Geisha and the R-rated Get Rich Or Die Tryin'. His suggestion is that the Geisha scenes listed sound more salacious than how many times 50 Cent says "fuck." Is a black man cursing more threatening to the ratings board than Asian women having sex?)
The other motivating factor, of course, is money. All the studios have ties to the MPAA, and their tight hold on filmmakers has less to do with protecting the public good than the pursuit of a dollar. Increasingly fewer companies control a larger portion of the outlets of information, and this is a problematic development. This monopolization leads to the stifling of independent voices. Someone like Matt Stone (South Park, Team America) who has been before the ratings board for both independent and studio-funded pictures can speak quite convincingly about the difference in treatment. Why should an organization connected to the majors give a helping hand to someone whose work they aren't going to profit from? Similarly, it comes as no surprise that Jack Valenti, who gives Kirby Dick a great villain with all of his smarmy marketing speak, has successfully lobbied Congress for stricter copyright laws that give more control to the corporations.
Dick puts all of this information together in a slick package that is informative but easy to digest. He relies on some fun animated bumpers to keep the data fresh, but it doesn't feel like he's pandering to the audience or manipulating the facts. He's got enough great footage, most of it speaks for itself.
While sifting through the evidence of the MPAA's activities, the director runs a side investigation with private detective Becky Altringer. Together, they try to crack the MPAA open. Altringer's job is to track down the ultra-secret identities of the people on the ratings board. Beginning with stakeouts, and then doing background checks and a little old-fashioned trash digging, Altringer uncovers their names one by one. What for? Well, it both makes them accountable and shows how disingenuous the MPAA can be. Their stated policy is that their board is made up of the average parent, with children who are between elementary and high school ages. Not only are they often parents of children old enough to be living on their own, but they also tend to have tangential connections to other aspects of the film industry. How average is that?
As icing on his cake, Kirby Dick submits This Film is Not Yet Rated to the MPAA for their stamp of approval. Naturally, it gets an NC-17, and Dick goes into the rather bizarre appeals process, which ends up seeming more like a kangaroo court full of straw kangaroos than anything real. It's when Dick talks to the chairman of the ratings board and the MPAA lawyer that things seem even more out of whack. The depth of the shadows thrown over the operation seem more in tune with governmental secrets and matters of national security. Yet, any governmental board of this kind would be public and thus subject to judicial review. To hear the MPAA tell it, their ratings people are under a pressure in excess of anyone who is involved in making decisions regarding the lives of the citizenry. Watching movies and counting pelvic thrusts is dangerous and difficult work!
This Film is Not Yet Rated doesn't end up getting to the bottom of everything, so in the end, most of its theories are still theories. Even so, it makes for fascinating viewing, and it should be required for all consumers of entertainment. We should be asking how the product that does reach us makes its way to our screens, what is impeding it on its journey, and why. Kirby Dick has started the debate, let's see where we can take it. As Matt Stone points out, just because we think it works okay doesn't mean it really does. We just have no alternative system to compare it to.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with JoŽlle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent project is the comedy series Spell Checkers, again with Jones and artist Nicolas Hitori de. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.