As soon as I heard about This Film Is Not Yet Rated, I was dying to see it. I love documentaries, and I love when a film's concept is such that you immediately realize, "Oh, no one's done this yet—why didn't I think of that?" Kirby Dick's doc seeks to expose the inner-workings of the MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America) and its ratings system for films. As interesting as that mission sounds already, I was not expecting to learn quite as much as I did—it left me outraged and ready to storm the MPAA's fortress in L.A. and torch it like the Bastille.
Currently, the MPAA awards films with G, PG, PG-13, R or NC-17 (formerly X) ratings. While MPAA guru Jack Valenti (who ran the organization for nearly 40 years before handing it off to Joan Graves) disingenuously claims, via clips from various talk shows, that a good film will find its audience regardless of its rating, anyone in the film industry would agree that an NC-17 makes a film very difficult to market, exhibit or even sell on DVD, since newspapers won't advertise NC-17 films, many theatres won't show them and Blockbuster and Wal-Mart don't stock NC-17 titles. Toward the beginning of the film, we're shown a list of well-known directors who've had to fight the NC-17 ratings their films have been given. The list is long. It would seem every director you've heard of has had to edit his or her film in order to "win" an R rating.
Right away, Kirby points out that the MPAA's main fault is that it is an entirely secret organization. Aside from its prez, Joan Graves, its eight professional movie raters are anonymous. Graves has said the raters are all parents with young children, Valenti has said they serve only a few or up to seven years and their anonymity is explained as the only way to keep them safe from pressure groups. These raters are not, however, anonymous to the movie studios—the #1 pressure group out there since a studio will not release an NC-17 film and if they have bankrolled a movie to completion only to find it tagged with an NC-17, what wouldn't they do to change that judgment? One of the film's many articulate and persuasive interviewees draws a parallel to federal judges, who operate publicly despite obvious pressure from all sides. If a federal judge can decide a murder case without anonymity, why can't a panel of eight men and women decide movie ratings in the same fashion?
The film provides an answer, expertly arguing that Valenti's history in politics (dubbing him Lyndon Johnson's "man" and now the big studios' "man") made him the perfect type of person to run what can only be described as a sham organization, one whose goal it is to favor the big movie studios at the expense of indie films in such a way as to create the illusion of a self-censoring body. It's about avoiding government interference and appeasing an imaginary "average parent" out there, who might otherwise accidentally take his or her child to see a comedy and wind up witnessing, as a family, an apple pie being deflowered. Its allegiance to the studios and its inability to explain itself are so outrageous that to operate in the light of day would only invite criticism and hasten its demise.
This Film Has Not Yet Been Rated also shows that extreme violence in films leads to an R rating but almost never leads to an NC-17, a realm almost exclusively related to sexual content. This shouldn't surprise anyone with even a passing familiarity with America, and yet hearing about (and seeing—hence the film's own NC-17 rating) the sexual content that filmmakers are asked to alter after the fact, one wonders who died and made the MPAA Pope. (The producer's blog discusses his childhood love of Barbara Eden's camp-classic TV series Harper Valley P.T.A., chalking it up to "the outsiders versus uptight snobs." This Film Is Not Yet Rated could be described in the same way, as sort of a Harper Valley MPAA.)
Talking heads astutely observe that it's as if the MPAA expects the social fabric to come undone if too much sexual freedom is shown. My take is that if sex could tear society apart, perhaps violence is what keeps it together—seeing the horrors that could happen if not for our trusty government, police force and laws. This would explain why violence is tolerated and sex is restrained. The film's most potent accusation is a sidebar: In the same way that all films need the MPAA in order to receive a rating and therefore a chance to thrive, all military films need the cooperation and full approval of the Pentagon in order to receive access to necessary equipment. The side effect? Fifty years of rose-colored field glasses and feel-good military movies, and a more war-like America.
It may be true that many filmmakers are not predisposed to reining in sexuality on screen, but if the MPAA were truly concerned about protecting children from adult content—even if we were to all get on board with and accept what should and shouldn't be allowed in an R-rated vs. an NC-17-rated film—the shadow organization's kooky list is not even consistently applied. Memoirs Of A Geisha gets a PG-13 with a scene that shows a woman's moist fingers after having been inserted in a vagina to prove that sex occurred, while Boys Don't Cry gets an NC-17 for showing a woman (passing as a man) wiping moisture from her face after having given oral sex to another woman. What's the diff?
The film convincingly argues that the MPAA discriminates against sexual pleasure, particularly female sexual pleasure, and that it also has double standards for depictions of gay sex. The tame and campy But I'm A Cheerleader fought an NC-17 while the raunchy American Pie skated by on an R—with no issue. An interviewee points out that government censorship would be more desirable because its decisions are subject to review and because every major censorship decision since the ’50s has sided with artistic expression except for in the case of child pornography.
My favorite aspect of This Film Is Not Yet Rated is that it is a an unexpected mystery. Kirby hires Becky Altringer, a lesbian gumshoe who methodically unmasks not only all of the current MPAA professional movie raters (a group with mostly adult-aged offspring) but also all of the appeals-board members, including Catholic and Episcopalian clergy—an aspect of the MPAA not previously known. ("Banned in Boston" is alive and well.) Becky, 42, nondescript and with an innocent face, is able to con her way into all the knowledge that is needed to expose the MPAA's staffers. That an anti-gay bias in the ratings system has already been clearly established only makes Becky's part in this operation all the more compelling. She needs her own reality show like right now. When she helps nail one rater in a chicken joint, the rater's expression—as recklessly captured by Kirby—is priceless.
I was pissed off reading some of the stupid comments about this film at IMDB. While user ratings are stellar, some people have posted that if you're over 17, who cares what a film is rated? They truly have no concept of how motion pictures are distributed. If a film's availability is so limited, it can only make so much money. And if that happens over and over again to certain kinds of movies, those certain kinds of movies will not get made, period. Then we'll be left with only those kinds of movies that the massive movie studios fronted by this eight-member body of self-censorts finds it okay for us to see. Censorship is an overused word, but it certainly applies to what is happening over at the MPAA.
To me, the solution seems obvious—a filmmaker needs to sue over the MPAA. Sure, a petition is a good start, but there is no precedent for this body's secrecy, its methods or even its existence. It would seem a lawsuit could really shake the MPAA to its foundations, and perhaps we'll wind up with a more transparent ratings system or no system at all. So what if there were no ratings system? Parents could stand to read a goddamned review every now and again.