Does anyone have any respect for MPAA movie ratings? They’re maddeningly inconsistent and so broad as to be meaningless: A PG-13 could mean anything from graphic violence to the presence of a gay character to someone saying fuck twice. It’s no wonder that the Internet is home to so many resources offering parents more information about what they might find objectionable in the latest releases; the MPAA ratings are useless.
But no matter how pointless they might be, the ratings still wield enormous power. The difference between an R and an NC-17 or a PG-13 and an R can easily be millions upon millions of dollars—it can even prevent a movie from reaching theaters at all—so the threat of a severe rating can force filmmakers to cut their movies to meet some undefined, arbitrary standard. The process infuriates me, as it should anyone who cares about freedom of speech, and Kirby Dick’s documentary about the ratings system, This Film Is Not Yet Rated only gave me more reasons to loathe the MPAA.
It’s not a great documentary. Dick subscribes somewhat to the Michael Moore school of aggressively confrontational investigation, which can be alienating and counter-productive. He conducts thoughtful interviews with directors, film critics, first amendment experts, and media researchers, but he also spends a great deal of time tracking down the anonymous members of the shadowy ratings committee. Dick’s point about the committee’s lack of transparency is well taken, but his private investigator antics quickly become dull.
That’s a shame because, at its best, This Film reminds me of one of my favorite documentaries, The Celluloid Closet, a fascinating look at Hollywood’s portrayal of homosexuality under the restrictive Hayes code. This Film, too, examines what happens to minority viewpoints when they are constrained by a rigid majority perspective.
What’s interesting, though, is that This Film isn’t really attacking the existence of ratings but rather the way in which those ratings are applied—with no transparency or accountability or guide lines. Filmmakers, particularly independent filmmakers, are given no precise explanations for the ratings they receive—they have to guess about how they might make their films “acceptable”—and during the appeals process, they are prohibited from citing precedent in arguing their cases. That prohibition is a particular sore spot because, as Dick persuasively demonstrates, the committee tends to be more lenient toward studio movies.
The committee also favors heterosexual love scenes over homosexual love scenes—even if the level of nudity and explicitness is roughly equivalent. In one devastating sequence, Dick juxtaposes clips from different movies to show how a straight sex scene might earn an R while a perfectly comparable gay sex scene earns an NC-17. Several women filmmakers argue that even in the case of heterosexual scenes, the committee looks askance on portrayals of the woman as an active participant experiencing pleasure of her own. That point, too, is backed up with several striking examples. But because the appeals process denies filmmakers the chance to cite such inconsistencies in fighting a harsh rating, they are unable to confront the committee with its hypocrisy.
Dick uses his movie to do just that. In the completed documentary, we see him submitting a rough cut to the MPAA for a rating, only to be struck down with the inevitable NC-17. He appeals, but that, too, goes nowhere. Ultimately, Dick chose to release This Film Is Not Yet Rated without a rating—a decision that confines it to smaller independent theaters.
The whole meta extravaganza of watching This Film itself being submitted for a rating is rather silly, and it doesn’t demonstrate much of substance either. Dick strung together a bunch of clips that earned NC-17 ratings, so of course, he gets the NC-17. The charade is just a chance for Dick to grandstand, and it hurts his movie because he simply doesn’t have as much to say as the people he interviews. They are the ones, after all, who were knocked around by the MPAA when they approached it sincerely.
Director Kimberly Peirce describes her experience with Boys Don’t Cry, when the ratings committee had no problem with the brutal depiction of the murder of a transgendered young adult but balked at the scene in which Brandon goes down on his girlfriend. Matt Stone, half on the South Park creative duo, recounts how he and Trey Parker deliberately shot more footage than they wanted for their goofily lurid puppet sex scene in Team America: World Police so that they could then appease the MPAA by cutting extraneous shots and thus negotiate their way from an NC-17 to an R. Michael Tucker, one of the directors of Gunner Palace, a documentary about ordinary American soldiers fighting in Iraq, recalls his appeal against an R rating that would bar teenagers just a few years younger than the movie’s subjects from seeing the film.
Those people’s stories and their insights are what make This Film Is Not Yet Rated interesting and provocative. Clearly Dick did a good job of interviewing his subjects and convincing them to speak so candidly and thoughtfully. I just wish he’d trusted them to make the argument against the MPAA. They make a strong case on their own. Dick’s shenanigans aren’t just dull; they’re unnecessary.