This Film Is Not Yet Rated
The Motion Picture
Association of America (MPAA) Ratings board – that shadow society that
decides whether a film should be rated G, PG, PG-13, R or NC-17 (do they
still do X, too?) – has done their perplexing thing for going on four
decades now. For as long as the ratings board has been around, there
have been questions about how they possibly come up with their decisions on
many films – where a movie might seem way too violent for its low rating or
not nearly disturbing enough for its high one. Remember the
flack about Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom having a PG rating,
which led to the creation of PG-13? Also, have you watched Midnight
Cowboy lately? How could that have ever been saddled with an X
There are a few constants
which seem to have shown themselves over the years. Apparently to the
MPAA: sex is bad, gay sex is really bad, language can be detrimental to our
kids, violence not so much so.
Documentarian Kirby Dick
has decided to delve into the contradictions, confusions and sometimes sheer
hypocrisy of the motion picture ratings board. The MPAA insists on levels of
secrecy which would do the Bush administration proud, refusing to explain
who makes the decisions about a movie's suitability for audiences, and often
why these decisions are made.
These are particularly hazy
in the realm of the difference between R and NC-17. It appears that
horrendously graphic violence is okay, but rather non-explicit sex is off
the table. In particular, according to several of the filmmakers here,
the female orgasm seems to be ratings poison. Despite the
protestations of the MPAA that the ratings will not change a movie's box
office, this is obviously not the case. NC-17 films are limited in
their advertising choices. Many movie chains will not show them.
Major retailers like Blockbuster and Walmart will not stock NC-17 films
(though Blockbuster seems to be willing to carry unrated films.)
A series of smart and funny
directors impart their headaches with the ratings board.
Peirce (Boys Don't Cry) explains that the board was okay with a scene of a character being
shot in the head, but insisted on cutting a gesture where a character wipes
her mouth after having oral sex. Atom Egoyan (Where the Truth Lies)
tells of a ratings board head giving him some editing tips. Mary
Harron (American Psycho) recalls that the board told her
that it objected to the entire tone of her film.
Actress Maria Bello gives
an impassioned speech about how horrible it was that she could see a scene
in one of the R-rated Scary Movie films where a killer stabs a woman
and pulls out her breast implant but a two-second shot of her pubic hair had
to be cut for The Cooler to avoid an NC-17. While I'm all for
Maria Bello's pubic hair and I totally agree with her point, I have to
acknowledge that that small cut probably didn't change the movie that
Still, you have to respect
and feel for the artists who are trying to make mature, artistic choices in
their work – only to be told that they are not allowed to by some nameless,
faceless bureaucracy. This is particularly touching because the
filmmakers are passionate about getting their point across, but most realize
that they are doing it at a potential serious risk to their business and
their art. "Is this suicide, doing this?" asks director John Waters.
"I don't know. Because there's only one of them. I've got to go
back to them next time."
Dick comes up with a lot of
useful info about the MPAA which will explain (or confirm) the questions of
film lovers across the United States. For example, he is able to get
information that the major studios have relationships with the MPAA which
get them looser and more detailed treatment from the association. He
shows that – flying in the face of all that America is supposed to be about
– filmmakers are not allowed to talk to their accusers or even know who
they are. Arguments about precedent or deviation are ignored.
Employees of the MPAA are
told – and intimidated – not to share any information about the inner
workings of the place. Two former workers, who did actually agree to
go on camera, acknowledge that they could sometimes be bullied into choices
or have the choices overruled. Dick also resurrects the forgotten fact
that former long-time MPAA chief Jack Valenti came to the job straight out
of a career in federal government, which explains a lot about both his
actions and his association.
Another huge chunk of the
film has Dick hiring a private investigator to help him infiltrate the MPAA
and get as much info as he can about the association and their workers. It is here,
unfortunately, that Dick and
his co-horts cross a line.
We watch Dick and private
investigators tailing people that they suspect may be on the ratings boards,
staking out their homes, collecting personal, private information about the
people, all revealed on camera. You see Dick and the PIs
going through the one ratings board member's garbage – at her home, not at
work. The fact that just by dumb luck they actually find a couple of
work papers doesn't make it seem any less invasive and unfair.
After all, really, what did
these people do to deserve this kind of treatment? Take a job where
they have to – through no choice or fault of their own – be overly
discreet? I fully agree that the board in general often doesn't do a
good job. However, since no one is actually getting into the building
and we have no way of knowing if these specific workers are part of the
problem or part of the solution, how is it fair to them to have their names,
homes and license numbers broadcast? Do they really need to have
people surreptitiously filming them from across a diner? Have their
garbage figuratively and literally strewn around for the world at large to
see? Yes, go after Jack Valenti, MPAA attorney
Greg Goeckner, Joan Graves and any other
person who is in an actual position of power and who could possibly make a
change if held to the fire. Leave the pawns alone.
There are also some
supposed-to-be shocking revelations which don't exactly shake the
foundations of the MPAA. Of course it is a little disappointing but
not all that surprising that the Catholic and Episcopalian Churches have a
representative who play a part in their decisions. I'm actually a
little more disturbed that if they do have to be there, why aren't their
Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist or even Atheist counterparts also invited?
Dick also proves that most
of the workers, if they are parents at all, have children well over the 5-17
year parameters which Mr. Valenti has always promoted as the main attribute
of the "ordinary people" who get the jobs. Again, kind of stinks, but
not all that surprising. You have to assume that at least a lot of
these people have had the jobs for a while now. What are they going to
do, turn the panel into a parental Menudo – firing everyone as their
children leave high school? Besides, frankly, as an adult, I don't
want my entertainment decisions made by people who have small children.
The long history of censorship is littered with the rules of parents who
found it easier to try to deny things to everyone than to take the time and
effort to control and teach their own kids.
The movie rights itself,
though, in the late going when Dick – who always intended for the film to
be released with no rating – actually turns in the documentary to the MPAA
for a rating. It is no huge surprise that the association unanimously
voted to give the film an NC-17 tag. However, it is entertaining and
somewhat satisfying to see the monolith of the agency trying to circle the
wagons in a frenzy of spin control when Dick appeals the judgment and tries
to hold them responsible for their decision, or at the very least make them
We never really get that
explanation, nor can we believe that Dick ever really expected to get it.
This Film Is Not Yet Rated is still important just because it finally
has shined a light on a shadowy-but-influential corner of show business.
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Posted: January 27, 2007.