This might not come as any great surprise, but I long ago stopped caring about film ratings. As a young child, my cinematic experiences were dictated by my parents’ sad clinging to the arbitrary letters accompanying films, and when I was old enough I freed myself from their ways and went, briefly, hog-wild on pretty much every kind of movie I had never been allowed to see. I soon realized, though, that a film’s rating — G, PG, PG-13, R, NC-17 — generally had little to no bearing on the quality of the film; a softer rating doesn’t make for a better movie, nor, just as importantly, does a harder rating guarantee a masterpiece. But this revelation pales next to the system’s inherent hypocrisies: Namely, that films with sex receive stricter ratings than ones that are merely violent, and that those sexual acts are further unfairly judged based on the sexual orientation of the participants. Director Kirby Dick’s latest documentary, This Film Is Not Yet Rated, takes square aim at the Motion Picture Association of America’s rating methodology, exposing the members of its secret ratings and appeals boards and taking no prisoners in its efforts to get to the bottom of the corrupt system. It’s a dazzling, energetic ride, though its intellectually stimulating examinations of film and culture are at times stymied by structural flaws and Dick’s ambition to try and cover too much territory.
The film begins with a breezy overview of the different ratings and just what’s permissible at each level, such as the amount of nudity of number of f-bombs a film can drop before crossing from PG to PG-13 to R. The cutesy sequence unfolds with quirky animation and title screens that Dick will use throughout the film, and though the film approaches its subject with humor, it soon settles down and begins to explore the ratings system in greater depth. Dick’s first major interviewee is filmmaker Kimberly Peirce, who details the hurdles she had to jump during postproduction on 1999’s Boys Don’t Cry, which originally received an NC-17 and had to be recut to make R. One of the scenes the anonymous board objected to most was star Chloe Sevigny’s lengthy orgasm, and it’s here that Peirce postulates what will become one of Dick’s many theories: Filmed female pleasure draws harsher MPAA criticism than male-oriented sex. Dick backs up his point by interviewing directors Alison Anders (Gas, Food, Lodging), Jamie Babbit (But I’m a Cheerleader), and Mary Harron (American Psycho), who confirm the board’s palpable disdain for sexual empowerment, particularly when it comes to female- or gay-themed sex. Dick uses a lot of footage from various films that have drawn an NC-17 rating, and the most effective sequence in the film is a damning split-screen that shows a comparison between straight-sex scenes that drew an R and gay-sex scenes that received the NC-17: American Pie gets away with having a kid hump a pastry, but Babbit’s Cheerleader protagonist comes under fire just for rubbing herself over her clothes. It’s the strongest argument Dick makes in the film, not least because it’s a focused complaint concerning a specific grievance that gives evidence of the ratings system’s prejudices.
From here, though, Dick branches out into a more direct attack at the board, whose members’ anonymity is another thorn in the side of many filmmakers. Dick hires private investigator Becky Altringer to look into the hidden identities of the ratings board members, and she does everything from street surveillance to digging through their trash to solve the mystery. This is all well and good, if a little creepy, and Dick cuts between the proceeding investigation and his own ongoing quest to figure out what earns a film a specific rating and why. Unfortunately, he starts to take on a few too many questions for his own good, and stumbles occasionally in an attempt to balance breadth of material with relevance to some kind of central argument or through-line. At one point he even gets into digital piracy, itself the cause of much corporate hand-wringing nowadays, but it was never made clear just how this linked back to film ratings: Most films are made by one of the six majors, which are in turn owned by larger conglomerates, which are only interested in the financial bottom line, which means … um, nudity is bad?
The film takes on all sorts of metanarrative weight (even more than a standard doc) when Dick submits his documentary about the ratings system to the MPAA to receive a rating, which means the footage we see of him handing in the tape and all the subsequently filmed phone calls weren’t in the film he turned in, but are in the one we’re watching now. Sure, it’s not a big hiccup, but it is the kind of tipped hand you don’t see much outside of reality TV, and it’s weird to watch a movie about a guy arguing about the movie we’re watching.
Altringer gets off to a slow start, but he eventually uncovers some real dirt about just how corrupt the ratings board really is, as is the appeals board, which is the group filmmakers turn to when they want to take issue with a rating. There are even a couple of clergy members on the board, a startling revelation on its own, and longtime board member and minister James Wall probably should have been coached not to let slip such disturbing nuggets as, “We do not want to make it totally free,” when speaking of the filmmaker’s ability to control a film’s content. Predictably, Dick’s film receives an NC-17, and his brush with the appeals board acts as a kind of finale, albeit an anticlimactic one; the board’s infamous silence and unwillingness to grant outsider access, while one of the inherent problems Dick is trying to remedy, leaves the film feeling a little empty, as if it’s just Dick shouting to an empty theater.
Dick’s questions are good ones, just scattered. For instance, is he upset that the NC-17 rating exists at all, or merely that the rating is a kiss of death for a film, since major theater chains and retailers won’t show or sell a film with that label? It all gets a little muddled. The documentary is a light and entertaining one for dealing with such serious topics, but it’s hard to tell if it’s meant to be a call to action or just a chance for Dick to vent his frustrations about being kept down by the man. It turns out that Dick, over at distributor IFC’s site, has all sorts of info about the film, including a petition that details his specific ideas about reforming the ratings system. Call me crazy, but that probably would have been worth mentioning in the film.
Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a low-level employee at a Hollywood industry magazine. You can visit his blog, Slowly Going Bald.Muscles and Boobies and Wieners, Oh No
Film Reviews | September 15, 2006 | Comments ()