This Film is Not Yet Rated

on September 01, 2006 by Mark Keizer
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The current ratings system, introduced by former MPAA president Jack Valenti in 1968, has become such an accepted part of the fabric of moviegoing that only when a major filmmaker gets slapped with an NC-17 is the practice called into question. But the entire ratings structure has always been a rickety vessel overseen by a shadowy cabal of anonymous parents operating with no set rules and no oversight, arbitrarily deciding what America should and shouldn't see based on ever-shifting criteria.

In his merciless new documentary "This Film is Not Yet Rated," director Kirby Dick sticks it to the MPAA, finding enough hypocrisy and inconsistencies to justify scrapping the system for something entirely new. Unfortunately, Dick is more interested in creatively presenting the problem than positing a solution. But his sense of outrage, even when couched in humor, is so genuine and motivating that you'll never look at a movie rating the same way again.

Dick begins with a standard charge that the MPAA is more permissive of violence than sex. Director Mary Harron remembers that when submitting "American Psycho" for a rating, the board was fine with a gruesome murder-by-chainsaw, but a sex scene drove the film into NC-17 territory. This is hardly surprising considering how many PG and PG-13 movies feature big-money action heroes mowing down dozens of bad guys with machine gun fire, whereas sensitively portrayed love stories routinely receive an R. This leads to another of Dick's major points: The studios are treated differently than the independents. "South Park" provocateur Matt Stone reveals that the board gave him specific notes as he tried to get a studio film downgraded from an NC-17 to an R, while for his earlier "Orgazmo," he was told that the board doesn't divulge the reasoning behind a given rating.

Jack Valenti was not interviewed for the film, but he does appear in vintage clips, wrapping himself in the flag of saving our children with the claim that the board is comprised of parents whose mission is helping other parents decide what's appropriate for their kids. Dick has a field day with this one, leading to some of the strongest and weakest passages of the film. He's correct that a statistically microscopic group of anonymous parents can hardly decide what's good for an entire nation of moms and dads. But Dick, assuming the "ain't I a stinker" pose of Michael Moore, stumbles by trading credibility for the entertainment value of hiring a private investigator to camp out in front of the MPAA's Encino, California, offices to unmask these mystery-shrouded raters. It's a creepy device that adds little to his argument and, in fact, makes him seem more like a teenage practical joker. True, the detective is an entertaining one: lesbian Becky Altringer, who sniffs for clues with her partner Cheryl and Cheryl's daughter Lindsey. And, also true, Altringer's search gives the film a narrative thread. And triply true, Dick discovers that some of the raters have fully grown children no longer dependent upon their parents to make movie-going choices. But viewers on the fence regarding the ratings issue might be turned off by such Dick's petty little ploy.

As was probably the plan, the first cut of "This Film Is Not Yet Rated" received an NC-17. Dick decides to appeal, which takes the whole process into "Brazil" territory. According to MPAA attorney Greg Goeckner, whose voice was recreated after numerous phone conversations with Dick, the filmmaker won't be told the identities of those judging his film and he can't cite precedents to help his cause. What's even odder is that the appeals board also includes a Catholic priest and a Protestant priest.

An argument can be persuasively made that some kind of ratings system is necessary. If video games and CDs receive ratings, there's no reason why movie shouldn't either. The alternative is to return to the pre-MPAA days, when state and local ratings boards called the shots, which would lead to complete chaos and probable censorship in religious areas. But the current set-up is inadequate to the task. That no one has taken the time to thoroughly question the system is no reason to assume it works just fine. So now that the anti-ratings crowd has found their piper, it remains to be seen how many followers can be corralled to effect a change. Featuring David Ansen, Darren Aronofsky, Maria Bello, Atom Egoyan, Kimberly Peirce, Bingham Ray, Kevin Smith, Matt Stone and John Waters. Directed by Kirby Dick. Produced by Eddie Schmidt. An IFC release. Documentary. Rated NC-17 for some graphic sexual content. Running time: 97 min

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