This Film Is Not Yet Rated

This Film Is Not Yet Rated
Directed by: Kirby Dick

notyetrated1.jpgIs all entertainment suitable for all viewers? I’m sure most people would agree that the answer to this question is a resounding “no”, but regardless of whether or not you believe in any kind of censorship, the issue of regulating content for the general public is a complex one. Anyone who’s ever rented or watched a movie at a theatre is no doubt familiar with the film rating system in their particular part of the world, and has probably come to accept it. But did you ever stop to think about how ratings are decided upon, and who is responsible for such a delicate job?

Kirby Dick’s documentary This Film Is Not Yet Rated bravely takes to task the American decision making body for film ratings, both exposing and critiquing its mysterious inner workings. The MPAA’s ratings board has been under fire for years, and while it’s easy to assume that only “bleeding heart liberals” have complaints, you may be surprised to learn that there are some pretty blatant and fundamental problems with their current policies.

The main criticism stems from a desire for consistency and accountability. Currently, the board cannot and will not compare one movie with another for the purposes of a precedent, which seems a bit silly when you consider that they have only a vague definition of what each rating entails. Dick provides some great juxtapositions here of scenes from movies that seem to have received unfair judgments. For instance, Basic Instinct was rated R and features the infamous shot of Sharon Stone’s crotch versus The Cooler where they had to … ahem… trim shots of Maria Bello’s pubic hair in order to get the same rating.

The other problem with the MPAA ratings board is the fact that all of its members are secret. The MPAA claims this is to keep them from feeling pressure from outside groups, but it also unfortunately absolves them of any responsibility that they have to the public.

Non-American moviegoers wondering whether this film has any relevance to them will learn the repercussions that an NC-17 rating can have on the production of a movie. Most movies that receive such a rating get little to no distribution, and have limited marketing opportunities. In other words, the movie has a pretty small audience and as far as the general public is concerned, it might as well not even exist. This is why most filmmakers and studios play nice and try to edit their films just enough to get the R rating instead.

A large part of this documentary features talking head interviews with filmmakers who have had battles with the MPAA; people like Kevin Smith, John Waters and Matt Stone. It might have been dry, if not for the personalities of these individuals and the edgy nature of their movies. I was particularly intrigued by the interview with Michael Tucker, director of Gunner Palace. Although I didn’t much care for Gunner Palace, his film was one of the few cases where an MPAA ratings decision had been overturned after an appeal, based on his argument that “you can’t rate reality”. This really is an interesting point… should the U.S. be protecting its citizens against something that is simply a fact of life for many Americans?

notyetrated2.jpgThis Film Is Not Yet Rated is also tied together with a running story throughout the film where Kirby Dick hires a private investigator to track down the identity of the secret MPAA ratings board members. This is probably the most ingenious part of the film, not just because adds a little intrigue when the other subject matter starting to drag, but also because of what we find out. At first I didn’t understand how such an investigation would be significant, and it seemed like a shock tactic to get attention for the film, but it actually ends up feeling like a major victory when they clearly reveal the names and details of these people who make judgments on what we can and can’t watch. It turns out they are mostly just average parents, with no education in the effects of media on children; in fact, most have no training or credentials whatsoever. There is also not much diversity on the board either.

The movie culminates with a brilliant scene where Dick submits a rough cut of his movie to the MPAA themselves for classification, and of course receives the dreaded NC-17. He had already decided he wanted to release his movie unrated anyway, but he appeals the decision to discover exactly how the process works. His phone conversation with the head of the board, Joan Graves, shows how inhospitable they can be if they don’t want a film to be released. Dick keeps his argument low key, and where a brash personality like Michael Moore might have pissed off or antagonized the MPAA, he is calm and rational as he states his case. He seems to have played his hand just right.

Still, as with many documentaries like this, there are people who will question how balanced it is. I agree that it does feel one-sided in the sense that Dick himself is a filmmaker, and is invested in the issue for obvious reasons. It might have been useful to hear some opinions from the average movie-going public or average American parents, so we didn’t feel like Dick issued a call to arms strictly for the benefit of himself and his filmmaker friends.

The true value of this documentary, however, was revealed recently when the MPAA announced plans to make improvements to their rating system and address many of the same problems mentioned in the film. Among them, the ability for a filmmaker to reference scenes from other movies during an appeal, a proposed educational system for raters, along with the public record of all judgments on submitted films. I don’t think you could ask for a much better response than that.

For filmmakers, communication majors or hardcore movie fanatics, this documentary is fascinating, must-see material. Other, more casual movie watchers will probably not find it as entertaining, and may even question how important the issue is to begin with. Still, if there’s one thing this movie makes you realize it is just how powerful the MPAA really are, and how much influence they exert over the media in America. And that in itself is a pretty scary thing. — Sean