Perhaps the Motion Picture Association of America standards of acceptability can be summed up in its attitude toward two phrases. "Fuck you!" probably won't harm your film's PG-13 rating, meaning kids can still see it with impunity. Use "May I please fuck you?" and you're saying "Hello" to an R. The MPAA takes issue with realistic portrayals of sexuality far more often than with angry, violent or comical sentiments.
In This Film Is Not Yet Rated, director Kirby Dick exposes the secrecy, double standards and untruths surrounding the MPAA and the ratings system. Though the MPAA deserves nearly every charge Dick aims its way, This Film Is Not Yet Rated proves to be more of a lively hatchet job than a thoughtful exploration of censorship issues.
Director of such envelope-pushing documentaries as Sick: The Life & Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist, Dick focuses his attention at the anonymity of the MPAA's movie raters, although the organization's public faces maintain high profiles, such as Jack Valenti, who headed the organization for nearly three decades until retiring in 2004. Dick hires private investigator Becky Altringer to uncover the membership's identities, and the detective story undeniably draws in the viewer. The film captures both the tedium of long stakeouts near the MPAA's high-security office as well as such "jackpot" discoveries as an internal phone list clearly visible at a security guard's station.
You can question the seemliness of Altringer and Dick rooting through members' garbage in the dark of night. Dick might reply that MPAA's lack of transparency regarding its rules for judging films makes its overall secrecy more suspect. The film finds former MPAA raters who break their silence and reveal a system that requires no special training but permits favoritism, wild inequities and draconian decisions.
This Film Is Not Yet Rated relies heavily on anecdotal evidence, which plays to its strengths with such funny, passionate interviewees as John Waters, Kevin Smith and Boys Don't Cry director Kimberly Peirce. "South Park" co-creator Matt Stone reveals how the MPAA favors studio releases over independent films. His 1997 indie comedy Orgazmo received an NC-17 rating for "general" reasons, but 1999's South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut, made with Paramount, receives specific citations for content, as if to ease the editing process to achieve an R rating.
The MPAA also shows more leniency when rating heterosexual, missionary-position sex than so-called aberrational behavior. In one of the most incisive moments, Dick shows practically identical lovemaking scenes from different movies literally side-by-side, and though they're all relatively chaste, the gay ones received the NC-17s and the straight ones got the Rs. That might explain why Boys Don't Cry received the harsher rating partly for an extended close-up of Chloë Sevigny's face during orgasm -- in a gay context -- when a comparable shot of Jane Fonda in 1978's Coming Home got an R.
Valenti frequently turns up in file footage, justifying the MPAA's seemingly arbitrary rulings with a folksy sneer that the organization is just a bunch of parents trying to keep kids from seeing orgies. The film makes you wonder whether they're trying to limit the viewing choices of children or adults. An NC-17 rating spells a virtual death sentence for films, which face drastically diminished possibilities for distribution, promotion and after-market, since chains such as Wal-Mart and Blockbuster won't stock them.
One of the film's most provocative sections points out the level of violence acceptable in PG-13 movies, the better to cater to the film industry's target audience of young males, then points out that the perpetrators of school shootings such as Columbine tend to be young males. Like many of the documentary's points, the relationship between violence and ratings deserves a more thorough discussion than it receives.
Near the end, we watch the filmmakers take the ballsy steps of submitting an early version of This Film Is Not Yet Rated to the MPAA, getting slapped with NC-17, and going through the appeals process with an organization he's clearly outraged. Showing the faces of a handful of middle-aged film raters may accomplish little in the long run, but This Film Is Not Yet Rated will start some overdue arguments over how film content should be discussed and labeled. As one interviewee shrewdly observes, "People have no idea what they're not seeing."
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