REVIEW: This Film Is Not Yet Rated (Dick, 2006)

Directed by Kirby Dick, This Film Is Not Yet Rated is a documentary about the secretive, moralistic, and altogether perverse process by which the Motion Picture Association of America rates films. The film whimsically exposes and explains troubling rationale behind the ratings and how they are determined. Among the troubling features:1) The people who rate the films do so in secret. Their names are never disclosed and they sign confidentiality agreements that are purposefully so vague that they effectively gag the raters both during and after their employment with the MPAA.

2) There is no known set of guidelines the raters are supposed to follow. They are able to dictate ratings based on nothing more than their taste (more on this below).

3) The raters are intended to represent the interests of the typical American parent.

4) They professional film raters. They are paid by the MPAA. The potential for a conflict of interest will be apparent soon.

5) While there is a limit on how long the raters can serve (up to seven years) it’s a policy that’s not strictly administered.

6) The raters are selected by a single individual, meaning one person effectively has control over who is determining the ratings, which is the sort of outrageous singular influence having a ratings board (rather than single rater) is supposed to mitigate.

7) The final vote of the ratings board need not be the final word on the rating of a film. It is possible for the head of the MPAA to overrule the board, once again defeating the purpose of having a ratings board.

8) Filmmakers can appeal their MPAA rating, but they aren’t allowed to know the names of the people on the appeal board even though the appeals board is not by rule a secret group.

9) Two spots on the appeals board are reserved for representatives from the Catholic and Methodist churches.

10) During an appeal one cannot appeal to precedent set by the board. Any past ratings decision is inadmissible during an appeal.

So those are ten problems with the MPAA ratings process. Of course, no film is required to be submitted for review by the MPAA. (The porn industry obviously doesn’t submit films for review.) So why does the MPAA matter? Why even submit films for review? Couldn’t rebellious filmmakers circumvent the MPAA and release their films without ratings?

Well…not really, or at least not effectively. The MPAA is the baby of the six major film studios in Hollywood, the same film studios who release and distribute over 95% of the films in the United States (excluding pornography, obviously). To secure theatrical distribution without the backing of a major studio is so expensive as to be prohibitive, meaning that truly independent films often remain largely unseen and, therefore, cannot turn a profit. In order to make a profit films almost have to be backed by a studio with the resources to distribute the film.

In order for a film to be backed by a major studio the studio will expect a positive return on the investment. Films rated NC-17 do no make profits. The public doesn’t turn out en masse to see NC-17 films. NC-17 is the deathblow to a film.

Since studios won’t distribute NC-17 films filmmakers are under extraordinary pressure to secure an R rating. And this is where the repugnant issue of censorship comes into play.

The MPAA ratings system grew out of the Motion Pictures Producers and Distributors Association. Prior to the MPAA and its ratings system there was the MPPDA and its Hays Code. Adopted in 1930 out of fear that films would corrupt society if they depicted morally questionable actions, the Hays Code was used to censor films during the early years of the studio system. The Hays Code is why there are no lingering (or open mouth) kisses in early Hollywood films and why people exclaim “Dang gosh!” when they’re shot. It’s also why the good guys always defeat the bad guys — depicting the evil element of society in anything but the worst possible light was in direct violation of the Hays Code.

But it’s not just the history of the MPAA ratings that make censorship a valid concern. It’s that the actual practices of the MPAA resemble those of a (secretive) morality police.

As noted, no one really knows what guidelines the MPAA raters are supposed to follow. But any cursory survey of the US film market leads to implicit guidelines. For instance, PG-13 movies don’t include extensive use the word fuck. Rated R movies can include extreme amounts of violence and torture, but more than a few thrusts during intercourse can be enough to push a film to an NC-17. Violence and language are permissible, sex and nudity is not.

But it’s not just sex and nudity that can push a film to a higher rating. It’s also the type of sex and nudity that matters. Breasts can be exposed extensively in R rated movies, but name me the last R rated movie that had more than a brief shot of a penis. Asses can be in PG-13 movies, but a shot that includes a woman’s pubic hair is enough to warrant an NC-17 rating. The range and extent of nudity is extremely limited — and baffling — in R rated movies.

Much like the range and extent of sexuality. Ratings are often determined along strict sexuality lines. Homosexuality really isn’t tolerated, as are images that linger on women experiencing sexual pleasure, which makes depicting lesbian sex an extremely tricky proposition for any filmmaker.

(In fact, the whole range of female experience in popular cinema is perverse. Female masturbation — even clothed masturbation — will get a movie slapped with an NC-17 if the object of the masturbation fantasy is another woman, as was the case in But I’m A Cheerleader. Meanwhile Jason Biggs bangs a pie in American Pie and Ben Stiller ejaculates onto his earlobe in There’s Something About Marry that those films are rated R.)

OK. So when you get right down to it the MPAA sucks. What about the film?

The good: This Film Is Not Yet Rated does an admirable job exposing the flaws and inconsistencies of the bizarre and troubling practices of the MPAA. The documentary levels its criticism well and in its quieter moments provides space for thoughtful reflection. Some of the filmmakers and critics interviewed make very salient points about the issues of the MPAA ratings systems, buoyed by personal experiences fighting with the MPAA over a wide range of so-called offenses.

The best point is made by Darren Aronofsky (Require For A Dream), who points out that PG-13 movies allow for limitless killing provided there is no blood (think of any James Bond film), which sterilizes violence is a way that makes it much more likely to provoke children to adopt a desensitized stance towards violence. Only intellectually mature audiences, ones capable of entering into the fantasy of the film without losing a critical distance from the action, should be exposed to bloodless killing.

To this point I’d add that there is a similar lack of reality with sex. Let’s be honest here. Teenagers see sex and sexual imagery everywhere. But they are exposed two the two extremes of sexual experience: either the sexless sex of Hollywood films (without the pubic hair and penises, the sweat, the thrusts, the positions, all shot from the waist up) or the over-the-top fare of pornography, replete with its strong undertones (or overtones) of female subjugation. Hollywood isn’t preserving the innocence of our children by keeping sexually explicit material locked behind the doors of the NC-17 rating. They’re locking children out from the images of sex that actually resemble (healthy) sex and might positively influence their relationship to and understanding of sexual experience.

The point being: There’s a reasonable argument to be made that the MPAA has done serious harm to our society, harm at odds with its intended mission.

The Bad: The main shtick of the film is the director hiring a private investigator to expose the members of the ratings board. Ultimately they succeed and maybe their success has some larger meaning completely missed by me, but whole investigation angle served to criminalize the individuals of the board, which is like missing the forest for the trees. The people composing the ratings board aren’t the main issue. It’s the existence of the ratings board — complete with its secrecy and unknown ratings guidelines and frustrating appeals process — that’s the main problem. Kirby Dick does nothing more than reveal the identities of the board members at the end of the film. There is no apparent consequence. It’s just a plot device (and a fairly good one, to be fair).

Depending on your perspective this is either a terrible fault in the film or a minor annoyance. I’m on the side of minor annoyance.

Rating: 70

~ by Scottie Ferguson on February 13, 2008.

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