This Film Is Not Yet Rated

Kirby Dick is a gutsy documentarian who has tackled controversial issues, such as S&M relationship in “Sick” and pedophilia in “Twist of Faith.” In “This Film Is Not Yet Rated,” using the same risky approach and guerrilla style, Dick presents an inquiry of the notoriously secretive and morally dubious methods of the Ratings Board, which operates under the auspices of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA).

This incendiary attack on the Classification and Ratings Administration (CARA), whose board is an unregulated organization, played at Sundance Festival in the Premiere section in January, and is now getting theatrical release courtesy of IFC. Hopefully, the docu will provoke intelligent debate and some constructive proposals for reform.

Who are America's moral gatekeepers, endowed with the power to determine what we and our children see (or don't see), and in what version and length The Board's operations have been veiled in secrecy and anonymity, and the MPAA has refused to identify the members of its de-facto censorship group.

According to the docu, the members have no apparent qualifications other than being “average parents,” yet they have the power to prevent films from reaching certain audiences; one participant goes as far as to claim that by its very existence, CARA prevents some films from being made.

Though raising issues that have not been addressed before, ultimately, this critical yet highly entertaining docu leaves out other significant issues (see below). Moreover, “This Film” neglects the broader context of rating and doesn't propose a viable alternative to its central issue, one that will be acceptable to parents, filmmakers, educators, and administrators.

On the plus side, Dick is relentless in identifying the individuals who pass judgment on the “suitability” of America's movies for different age groups. Following the format of a thriller, he hires a female private investigator named Becky Altringer, who works with her partner Cheryl and the latter's daughter Lindsey.

This team sets up surveillance outside the MPAA's Headquarters on Ventura Boulevard in Encino, observing traffic as it comes and goes. In their efforts, they struggle to read license plates, follow the office workers to lunch dates, and are not above eavesdropping or digging into garbage cans late at night. There's an element of fun for us in observing how, when they get a glimpse of the staff roster hanging in a guard station, the names start to fall into place.

For the most part, though, Dick dwells in a lively manner on a selective survey of MPAA ratings scandals over the years, while using witty animation and anecdotes related by disenchanted filmmakers whose films have been cut (butchered) for one reason or another by the ratings board.

Most of Dick's charges are well taken. The MPAA insists on keeping its rating board members anonymous, to protect them from undue pressure and influence. Question is: Do filmmakers and moviegoers have the right to know who is rating our films

And what are the members' qualifications Valenti claims that they are “average parents, a claim that can be dismissed as “convenient myth.” Is there such a thing as average parent An aggregate of adults in the San Fernando Valley can hardly represent parents nationally. Later investigation reveals that, contrary to MPAA assertions, the children of many of these raters are not youngsters any more.

A more significant claim is that the raters receive no training and are given no standards by which to judge movies. Experts in child psychology, mass media, or social behavior are neither consulted nor allowed to be on the board.

One of the major complaints comes from the indie sector, as former October Films founder Bingham Ray says: “The system is set up to favor the studios.” “South Park” producer Matt Stone notes the differences he experienced coming before the board as an indie and then as a studio filmmaker. As a studio filmmaker, he received detailed instructions how to change an NC-17 film into manageable system for labeling movies with adult content.

“Boys Don't Cry” director Kimberly Peirce voices the familiar charge of “double standards” when it comes to sex and violence. The board is lenient toward violence, probably due to the fact that the genre appeals to young male audience, the largest, most active segment of American moviegoers. On the other hand, the Board is extremely rigid about sex in general and female climaxing in particular.

Board decisions reveal a strong middle-class, male, heterosexual bias. The board has determined that female orgasms in certain films go on “too long,” and it comes down hard on shots of female pubic hair.

Indie director Wayne Kramer, who directed “The Cooler,” and actress Maria Bello discuss how a glimpse of Bello's pubic hair in a full-frontal sex scene earned the picture an NC-17. A sex scene of Bello and Viggo Mortensen in “History of Violence” had to be trimmed to get the more desirable R.

Double standards prevail in other ways: Gay sex receives harsher treatment than straight sex. Violence, even against women, skates free of the dreaded NC-17 rating. Canadian Atom Egoyan discusses the scene that got him the same rating for “Where the Truth Lies.” Indie Mary Harron explains the MPAA had no problem with chainsaw killing in “American Psycho,” but couldn't tolerate an orgy scene.

Then, Michael Tucker, director of Iraq war documentary “Gunner Palace,” drops a bomb, “How do you rate reality” since there are numerous ways pf how to begin answering this impossible question.

Some shrewd filmmakers have devised their own way to deal with the problem. It's all relative: Matt Stone and Trey Parker deliberately created NC-17 moments in their “Team America” puppet sex scene, hoping that the rest (and most) of it would merit an R.

What makes the discourse more entertaining is the breezy pacing, clever montages, illustrative graphics, mocking cartoons that send-up the MPAA's strictures about the distance from the camera when staging coupling scenes; counting the F-word or pelvic thrusts is downright absurd.

Strangely, the board seems much more comfortable with cartoon-like presentations of sex (like the R-rated insanity of “Scary Movie,” which are watched by youngsters) than with anything that seems real or realistic. Jack Valenti, MPAA's longtime head is caught off-guard in multiple misrepresentations and gross inconsistencies in the Board's application of its standards.

Interestingly, the most startling revelations come from MPAA attorney Greg Goeckner, in a recreation of a transcribed phone conversation with Dick prior to Dick's own appearance to appeal an NC-17 on “This Film Is Not Yet Rated.” Goeckner tells Dick that he will not be told the identities of his judges, and that he will not be allowed to cite any precedents from previous films in his own defense.

All agree that the need for reform is urgent, but there's no consensus about ways and methods. It's doubtful that revealing the names of the middle-aged, middle-class parents, who comprise the ratings board, would change the structure radically, since we don't know who'll take their place. Changing them with another set of people might repeat the same mistakes.
Moreover, one could argue that disclosing the identity of the board members would make them prime targets of lobbying, pressure groups, and other modes of influence and intimidation by filmmakers, distributors, and movie-house owners.

Working as private eye, Dick does succeed in identifying all the members of the Ratings' Appeals Board. Unlike the other panel, this larger group consists mostly of exhibitors, along with some reps of the industry. Two members of the clergy, a Catholic and a Protestant, also sit in on appeals board hearings.

Dick avoids discussing the role of exhibition in preventing the NC-17 rating from existing effectively along with retailers Blockbuster and Wal-Mart and newspapers. And what about the growing market of DVD, which is how most Americans watch movies these days

Some context is necessary: The ratings system was created by MPAA president Jack Valenti in 1968 to counteract local censorship boards across the country the most notorious of which was in Dallas, whose conflicting standards interfered with the national distribution of films. The ratings system succeeded in eliminating this local censorship and in warding off federal moves toward regulating content. Yet this context is not clear in Dick's film, which is unwilling to give CARA any credit.

Say the MPAA were to perish, is it better that every state, city, and religious organization would make its own censorship decisions, which is the reason why the Production Code Administration (PCA) was established in 1934 in the first place.

I think Dick uses unfairly footage of the House Un-American Activities Committee and a brief mention of the Hollywood blacklist and the MPAA's role in that episode to further discredit the board, though today's MPAA is not the same kind of organization. What's also missing is a comparative or cross-cultural analysis of how other countries with viable national cinemas (Italy, France, Japan) handle censorship and morality problems.

There's no denying that “This Film Is Not Yet Rated” is vastly entertaining. How can it not be when its subject is such an easy target as the much-maligned MPAA, over which every citizen has his own (negative) opinion. Nonetheless, the more important questions are: Is it a fair and balanced documentary And is it really constructive in proposing an alternative to these relevant questions, or just an outright attack about a system that no loner works.