Documentary filmmaker Kirby Dick delves into that well-known but most secret organization, the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), which sets the rating standards for films shown in the good ole USA. Dick uncovers, through a hired gumshoe, just who makes the decisions as to what is offensive and what is not, polling filmmakers and film pundits in the process, in This Film Is Not Yet Rated.”
I have been a longtime opponent of former MPAA chairman Jack Valente and the stranglehold that his federal government-sanctioned board has had on the acceptability of films shown commercially in America. On the surface, the MPAA ratings board has our, the film-viewing public, interests in mind as they, the group of previously unnamed board members, decide how the theatrically released films should be rated:
G - for all audiences - is the much sought after rating for any kids’ film.
PG - some material may not be suitable for children - puts the onus on the parents to know what their kids are watching regarding content.
PG-13 - some material may not be suitable for children under age 13 - also puts the onus on the parents, but more strongly, regarding language, sexual content and drug use.
R – definitely contains some adult material; children under 17 require accompanying parent or adult guardian – the R-rating indicates strong language (repeated use of the F-word, for instance), violence, nudity, drug abuse and other elements.
NC-17 – contains excessive violence, sex, aberrational behavior and drug abuse – this rating considers the film’s content to be too strong and off limits for children under 17.
This all seems simple and straightforward enough except, according to Kirby Dick, when entering the realm of the R and NC-17 ratings. This is where the lines blur and what is considered NC-17 (formerly the X-rating) for some films only garners the more financially appealing R-rating. Dick and a whole bunch of mostly independent filmmakers state the case that the MPAA does not follow their own rules and standards, especially when rating gay-themed films. This claim is well founded when comparisons are made between rather chaste gay films, where there is no nudity or graphic sex (but still garnering the box office deadly NC-17), and heterosexual films with graphic sex and nudity (getting the more profitable R). The homophobia of the MPAA ratings board appears to dictate their decisions, not the standards they define. The hypocrisy of the MPAA is just one of the several layers of “This Film Is Not Yet Rated.”
Another key element of “This Film…” is the detective story that unfolds as helmer Dick tries to get the hitherto unknown identities of the MPAA ratings board members. He hires LA private detective Becky Altringer to ferret out the names of these people and, with stolid gumshoe work, she succeeds in breaking through the board’s carefully built cloak of secrecy and uncovers the ID’s of this clandestine elite. The anatomy of the investigation is fascinating unto itself.
Dick assembles an impressive roster of filmmakers who have had to suffer the MPAA board’s ire and lack of constructive communication. Such indie film darlings as John Waters, Mary Harron, Darren Aranofsky, Kevin Smith, Matt Stone and Atom Egoyan, among many others, tell of their dealings with the uncommunicative MPAA. They submit a film for rating and are returned the box-office killing NC-17, without explanation or advice, leaving the filmmakers to guess what needs to be trimmed to get the much more acceptable R-rating. The games the filmmakers must play – such as inserting offensive material that they know that, when removed, will gain them the sought after R – shows what these artists will do to circumvent the system.
Kirby Dick does his homework on the history of the Motion Picture Association of America, too, from its inception in 1922, the Hays Commission (named for former postmaster general Will H. Hays) and its restrictive Production Code of 1930 and Jack Valenti’s long time reign (1966 to 2004) at its helm. Dick pulls no punches on his opinions of martinet Valenti and the current secrecy maintained by the MPAA.
The capper for “This Film Is Not Yet Rated” is Kirby Dick’s efforts to get the very film we are watching a rating from the MPAA. His journey through the maze of the MPAA and its minions rounds things out neatly. Even those familiar with the machinations of the Motion Picture Association of America will find things fresh and new in what is one of the best documentaries of the year. I give it a B+.Laura:
Laura did not see this film.
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