This Film Is Not Yet Rated
2006: Kirby Dick
NC-17 – 97 minutes
Vault Rating: 7.5
We had sworn off documentaries. Sometime last year. And here we are with another for your consideration. Today’s feature is about the mysterious Motion Picture Association of America, a secretive board of people who are responsible for those ubiquitous ratings on all American movies.
Normally, before any Disney movie rolls, you get a title card that says “This film has been rated G by the Motion Picture Association of America.” What could be more harmless?
Today’s film examines exactly that question. To director Kirby Dick, the MPAA and its rating system are at the epicenter of film censorship in the U.S. and filmmakers everywhere fear the power the board wields in the shaping of their films. Every film released in America is submitted to the MPAA for a rating.
You know the ratings: G for general audiences, PG for parental guidance, R for restricted and NC-17 (the new X) for no children under 17. Why the ratings matter is that films that get branded with an NC-17 never reach a wider audience. They are, in effect, banished from the culture. The ratings system is simply a free speech issue.
Until now, the identities of the MPAA raters has been secret as well as the standards they employ to arrive at their ratings. Dick begins his movie with a simple quest and a guerilla attitude. He wants to know who the raters are and how they decide on a rating.
I will allow those questions to hang in the air, constant viewer, even while I tell you that the identity of certain MPAA raters will leave you shaking your head. Rated NC-17 as it is, you’re going to have a hard time finding it. WalMart does not distribute films rated NC-17 and major distributors will not sign on to get NC-17s out to theaters near you. An NC-17 rating, for all intents and purposes, means death to a film.
Dick also discovers in his film that the line between R and NC-17 has a lot to do with sex and violence … but mostly sex … and not really in the way that one might imagine.
“This Film Is Not Yet Rated” takes much time to examine this key line in the cinematic sand. Two great films that leap immediately to mind, “Eyes Wide Shut” and “Boys Don’t Cry,” were edited to avoid the NC-17 brand and found much success in wide R-rated release.
Vault arrives at a question. Why is graphic violence OK while scenes of love-making are forbidden? Are we telling our young people that sex is bad (even though everything on television revolves around it) but that torture-murdering naked women is just dandy?
It does seem almost that clear cut, especially given the pornographic depths to which the horror genre has sunk.
This phobia about sex but not violence seems quite the other way around outside our country. Vault has often noted in reviews of foreign films (“Y Tu Mama Tambien,” “Amores Perros,” “Amelie,” and just about anything by Fellini) that the French, the Italians, the Latins all deal with sexual themes in a much more grown-up way than can ever be hoped for in U.S. cinema.
But Dick notes that this censorship is far more than skin deep. Censorship has many faces and many hidden effects. Jack Valenti, who has headed the MPAA for decades, was a Washington insider who was sent to Hollywood to set up shop. Many film careers were burned at the stake by the House Committee on Un-American Activities.
Dick asks whether or not the film industry’s collusion with the government has any impact, say, as to whether or not the U.S. military is portrayed in a flattering light. Think it through. How many “Top Guns,” “Officers and a Gentleman,” Audie Murphies and John Waynes have come and gone? And what is the cumulative effect on the culture?
“It’s just a subtle form of brainwashing, I believe,” says author David L. Robb. “Fifty years of the constant drumbeat of ‘Military is good. American soldiers are heroic and valiant.’ I think it has made the American people more warlike over the last 50 years.”
These and other important issues are set delightfully in play by today’s feature … A film that the MPAA really doesn’t want you to see.
By the way, while taking in today’s feature, I happened to discover a list of at least a dozen other such films, branded NC-17 by the MPAA, that I just can’t wait to get my hands on.
At the end of the day, many would say that the ratings system is a good thing. Parents need to know at a glance what’s in a given film in order to make informed decisions. That is a clear and valid use for some kind of rating system. “This Film Is Not Yet Rated” suggests, however, that the system has gaping flaws and that it serves a number of negative purposes at the same time.
TV Notes: Vault is still just zapped by maybe the best show on the boob tube right now. It is “The Henry Rollins Show” on IFC and it features biting political commentary by the notorious lead singer of “Black Flag” fame and insightful interviews along with really great live performances by bands that you really need to hear. It’s on late at night, so you have got to TiVo that show.
Another really good thing is the AMC original series, “Mad Men.” Set in those halcyon days of ad pitch men in the 1950s, it is funny and sad and full of unexpected drama. Very well worth your while.
Also, if you want to get the real news, try “Democracy Now” which airs only one night a week on WPSX-TV. They put it on late so that nobody can really watch it, but you get more real news in Amy Goodman’s first ten minutes of her hour long show than anywhere else. Here’s to asking WPSU to run it every day right before Jim Lehrer’s very good news hour. Amy Goodman might be the best journalist left in America. Her show is a wake-up call to Americans and American journalism.