Saturday, August 2, 2008

Reprint: This Film Is Not Yet RatedI

Lori Ingham (a very cool blogger indeed) stopped by the Bubba Ho-Tep thread to praise it and while browsing her many blogs, I came across a positive review of This Film Is Not Yet Rated, a documentary I also found interesting. So I dug up my old review from the Loaded Shelf and have reprinted it here.

Check out Lori's review on her site.


I have, in the past, been a bit of a censorship buff (which, sadly, is neither the least weird nor the least boring thing about me) so I was much intrigued by Kirby Dick's film exposé of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) This Film Is Not Yet Rated. The film, of course, is not actually rated, severely limiting it's options for box-office success—the point of the film—but given the way most people reacted when I said I had seen it, I doubt this made much of a difference. Sample true dialogue:

I just saw a film about the MPAA.”
The what?
The MPAA! The Motion Picture Association of America.”
Oh.” Blinks of non-recognition.
They rate the movies!”
They're also lobby for the studios.”
Got any dip?”

People do not seem to be fascinated by the topic. I first became aware of the ratings board through the late H.B. Halicki who griped that his film Gone In 60 Seconds (the 1974 classic, not the recent remake) had gotten an R-rating instead of a PG because he was an independent and not a big studio. (By the way, I was told this story second-hand as a young child, so it may be entirely apocryphal.) Nonetheless, indies getting a harsh rating where the board was lenient with the big studios are a fair chunk of this film's exposé.

The reason I've been fascinated with censorship in the past is precisely because it is, almost by definition, arbitrary. One use of the F-bomb gets you a “PG”, unless you use it to refer to the act, in which case it gets you an “R”, to use one of the few, semi-hard-ish rules that the basically free-wheeling MPAA uses. The excellent Gunner Palace is riddled with swear words and gets a PG-13, presumably because it's a documentary, and because the director appealed (and won).

I have to say before I get into specifics, that while I went into the film thinking ratings boards and censorship were generally stupid, I actually came out with a bit more respect for the ratings board, especially when presented with the film's idea of alternatives. This is probably a bad sign, like when I came out of Enron: The Smartest Guys In The Room thinking that the media had unfairly demonized Ken Lay. I'm sure that this wasn't the filmmaker's intention but then, I can get a little contrary if I think I'm being manipulated.

In between making various points, the film shows largely gratuitous clips of (mostly sex) scenes that got other films “NC-17” or “X” ratings. This was the most entertaining aspect of the film. Also, the film maker hires a detective to “out” the members of the ratings board, who are generally kept anonymous. This felt a little creepy.

So, what are the movie's basic points?
  1. The MPAA, a private organization, holds tremendous power that favors its members and locks indies out of theaters.
  2. The MPAA ratings process is ill-defined and mysterious. Its appeals process is even more so.
  3. The MPAA claims not to be a censorship board but, in fact, is, since an NC-17 kills a movie's box office.
  4. People should be aware of what's going on.
  5. A more sensible ratings system should be used. One that reflects a broader set of values.
Other minor premises:
  1. The government should do the rating, if there's any rating to be done.
  2. Sex should be less strongly rated than violence.
  3. The movie studios have been colluding with the US military for the past 40 years to inure the public to violence so they'll be more amenable to war.
I'm not joking about that last point, either. But let's take the first five points first: First, the MPAA is a private organization and it most certainly favors the big studios that formed it. The film's most correctly damning example comes from Kevin Smith, whose film Jersey Girl is a solid “PG-13”, or even a “PG”. There's a discussion about masturbation that pushed it into an “R” because one of the raters would be uncomfortable if her 16-year-old daughter heard about that mysterious practice. This is such a mild film and such a mild discussion—about on a par with a “Seinfeld” episode—that the “R” seems absurd. It also seems unlikely that they would've given an “R” to a major player in the same circumstance.

Second, the MPAA is mysterious, weird and, em, obtuse. This is a big deal for the filmmakers who appear in TFINYR. But honestly, what do I care? The bulk of the greatest movies ever made were made under far more restrictive rules. Do I find it weird that the MPAA sometimes seems to penalize filmmakers for showing female orgasms? I suppose. Is the point possibly undermined by having the lesbian director of the dishonest Boys Don't Cry whine about not being able to show Chloe Sevigny's orgasm as given by Hillary Swank to the degree she'd like? Probably, yes, for most people.

Also, the murky appeals process involves clergy, which seems to appall Mr. Dick. It's not clear whether they vote or not, but they probably have a “chilling” effect in some fashion. The process being already weird is made that much weirder and perhaps anachronistic, given the diminished role of the church in society.

Third, the MPAA is a censorship board. This is true, but it's not really their fault that large chains and newspapers won't play or run ads for NC-17 films. So, what it comes down to is that you can do whatever crazy thing you want in your movie, but you'll pay the price for it. And what we really have is filmmakers bitching about that price. But, it's not really clear what would happen in the absence of the NC-17. Surely the objections to the material being shown would not evaporate. Here, we clearly have a situation where (once again) people fail to realize the difference between “nobody wants to listen to me” and “I'm being censored!”

Fourth, sure, people should know. Why not. But do they care? Probably not as much as passionate filmmakers believe.

The movie disintegrates on point number five. There is no such thing as a sensible ratings system, especially in a country like the U.S. of A. In order to establish what is offensive, you have to be able to catalogue all the things that offend people. And we are too diverse. Nowhere is this made more hilariously obvious in the parade of filmmakers discussing what they would consider unsuitable for younger audiences. At this point, I began to feel sorry for the raters. The chestnut always dredged up is that sex should be more permissible than violence. (For some people it's always 1969 and we need to “make love, not war”.) Kevin Smith offers the most interesting suggestion: Hackneyed plot ideas should be given severe ratings.

Perhaps surprisingly, listening to the litany of things that the various directors themselves find offensive, you realize they're not at all against censorship: They'd actually impose more of it. They just want to pick what gets censored.

About 2/3rds of the way through, the movie swings to the far left, starting with the observation that war movies that want the Pentagon's help have to be approved by the Pentagon. (What a shock: An organiztion doesn't want to help you make them look bad!) This culminates in the idea that Hollywood is part of a grand conspiracy to make war acceptable to the general public through film. (Like I said, for some people, it's always 1969. And the guy who said that apparently hasn't seen a movie since 1969.)

Finally, the film swings back to reality, showing us Dick's own attempt to get a rating—which must, by definition be NC-17, since it's laden with scenes from other films that got them NC-17s. This was, at least more interesting than the conspiracy silliness but the documentary seemed to be dragging at this point. Only a few minutes are spent at the very end with the MPAA's lobbying efforts, which are highly destructive and against the public interest (copyright extension and the reduction of “fair use”, the DMCA, etc.). The actual substantive destructiveness of the MPAA as a lobby would have been more interesting than the trips to la-la land, and the extensive sub-plot where lesbian detectives reveal the identities of people you don't really care about.

Once again, it's weird and it's arbitrary, but that's what the “Director's Cut” is for. And that's what this film skirts, and has to skirt to be relevant at all. Box-office receipts account for an increasingly small percentage of a movie's total receipts. DVDs are constantly released in “unrated” versions, and the film itself comes on the (cultural) eve of Internet distribution, threatening to render all ratings boards and censorship irrelevant. It was kind of a gutsy move to make the movie, sure, but I somehow doubt most people are going to feel the outrage that filmmakers do when they feel like some talentless hacks have say over their work.

But the point missed, overall, is that the board ostensibly exists for the public. The real question is does the public feel served by the ratings board? Dick never asks that question, preferring instead to take the opinions of people who are, by definition, outside the mainstream.

As a documentary, I give it fair marks: it makes most of its points pretty well, though veering off occasionally. As entertainment, it's uneven. The killer, though, is relevance: It's not the '50s, the MPAA isn't the Hayes Commission, and the film treats the real, modern threat of the MPAA (as a lobbyist group) almost as an afterthought.

As a postscript, I saw this movie at the Laemmle in Encino, which is about a mile from the MPAA headquarters. So, it was pretty cool to be watching them drive around my stomping grounds for most of the movie. I also feel like I should add that as a child, I flouted movie ratings, and I still do as a parent. I guess some people actually look at these things, but I've always felt them to be silly.


  1. I really liked it! I am not a movie buff or media critic at all. I was intrigued by the discussion about how the MPAA acts to serve the big studios' interests. And I thought revealing the identities of the raters was excellent and very enjoyable. "They don't want to be pressured"? I don't think that's it. They don't want to be criticized. They have no defense.

    I do appreciate that there is some kind of ratings system. I don't want the government to do it (ridiculous!). But I certainly don't think "the Industry" should be (practically, for all purposes) rating itself! The conflict of interest is outrageous.

    There was more good discussion about technology and copyright in the deleted scenes on DVD.

    Good review! Your perspective is different than mine and I appreciated reading it.

  2. The link to Lori's review does not work.

  3. Yeah, Lori's blog seems to have disappeared. this review is from 3 years ago, which is an eternity on the web.

    As for having no defense, well, sure: What defense can there be, really? You're in kind-of-guessing/gut-reacting, can't-define-it-but-know-it-when-you-see-it territory.

    A sensible approach would be for various private groups to offer ratings based on the likely standards of various sub-groups. This already happens, actually, but not enough to replace the MPAA.

  4. As someone in the movie pointed out, we, society, ask people in positions of authority to make determinations based on value judgments. We know who they are. What is it about rating a movie that so privileges anonymity? What do they really need it for? They don't want to be criticized. What makes them so special?

    The hiding makes it look like they're ashamed of their work, but their rhetoric is full of pride in their work.

    I credit your viewpoint that some, or many, of the people criticizing the MPAA's power only want it for themselves as very reasonable and apt!

    I think there are people somewhere who are better suited to the work of rating movies and being up front about it than what we see in this movie, for whatever the movie is worth.


    A day later, I'm still clucking in outrage about the conflict of interest. Talk about anti-competitive business practices!

  5. Oh, totally.

    Can there be any doubt that if any movie deserved an NC-17, it was Saving Private Ryan?

    But remember, the MPAA was formed privately to keep the government from getting into the censorship business.

    The comic book guys did the same thing and drove Bill Gaines out of business--while publishing ripoffs of his EC comics the whole while.

    Here's one that gets me: Why are all movie tickets priced the same? They don't cost anything like the same thing to make, and they aren't comparable in terms of quality.

    Collude much?


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