Much has been written about the capriciousness of the Motion Picture Association of America’s ratings system, the process by which one film gets a PG-13 while another gets an R, presumably to protect the innocent. But it’s one thing to read about the MPAA’s biases, and quite another to see them demonstrated up on the screen—as in Kirby Dick’s documentary This Film Is Not Yet Rated, which makes a feature-length argument against one of the most quizzical and secretive moral arbiters in the land.
Take the sequence where Dick puts a series of nearly identical sex scenes side-by-side. Notice any difference? Well, yeah: the dreaded NC-17 tag routinely gets applied to gay sex, while straight sex gets an R. It’s a point that couldn’t be made as effectively in a magazine article: you couldn’t see the niggling difference between the clips, which expose the MPAA’s arbitrary whims and its squeamishness about sexuality. An entire movie of such sequences, bolstered by clips and sharp textual analysis, would have been devastating.
Unfortunately, that’s about it for powerhouse cinematic evidence in This Film Is Not Yet Rated, which frequently loses sight of its subject in a welter of cute but cheap put-ons, from wacky animation to a jokey performance of “He’s Got The Whole World In His Hands.” Even the movie’s narrative engine is a gimmick. When Dick questions—justifiably—why the panel of “ordinary American parents” who comprise the MPAA ratings board must remain anonymous, he hires a private detective to find out who they are.
A good chunk of This Film covers the investigation, and indeed Dick discovers some damning facts—for example, how most of the panel falls outside the MPAA’s stated selection criteria.
But his dogged pursuit doesn’t really prove anything new: anyone who’s followed the board’s decisions over the years knows already that it’s too covert, and why. (Hint: it’s green, and rhymes with “honey.”) And the gimmicky stuff is a little beneath Dick, a documentarian known for the raw immediacy of movies like Chain Camera and Twist of Faith. Even given the relatively lighter subject matter, Dick’s insistent snarkiness is off-putting.
Worse, though, is that his digressions turn into diversions. This Film Is Not Yet Rated tries too hard to conflate the dubiousness of one cultural institution with a host of problems in the culture at large, from Hollywood’s history of busting unions to the number of movies that show women in peril. Particularly egregious is a long passage where a filmmaker argues that most war movies end up being pro-war, because movies that require military assistance have to be approved by the military. The point’s provocative, but the logic is loose and the observation irrelevant to the MPAA.
And frankly, there’s so much more that Dick and company could’ve discussed. If he’d wanted a real debate, Dick might’ve found someone to refute Kevin Smith’s assertion that a frank discussion of female masturbation is suitable for a PG-13 film because “all kids masturbate.” Or maybe someone could’ve suggested to Gunner Palace director Michael Tucker that even if the rough language in his movie reflects the reality of war, that reality might still warrant an R rating. Too many people in This Film complain that the ratings board is unrealistic because they keep kids away from explicit material that “they already know about.” But the argument’s self-defeating. If people are seeing this kind of material no matter how it’s rated, then what’s everyone griping about?
The only real issue the movie tackles is the application of the NC-17 rating, which effectively limits a filmmaker’s access to a wider audience because some newspapers won’t carry ads for NC-17 films, and some theater and rental chains won’t carry them. In This Film, directors Kimberly Peirce (Boys Don’t Cry) and Wayne Kramer (The Cooler) share horror stories of facing a kiss-of-death NC-17 because their films showed too much pubic hair or contained female orgasms that lasted “too long.”
It’s that kind of MPAA nitpicking that becomes increasingly ridiculous as the anecdotes pile up, since what’s being discussed here are films for adults, unlikely to interest children in the slightest. Marking them “forbidden” does their content a disservice; asking them to be cut does the artist a disservice. It says something about the MPAA’s hypocrisy—and maybe our own—that movies gets punished for dealing seriously with human sexuality, while dirty jokes routinely skate by with a PG-13.
But what’s the end result of all this, on a practical level? Regrettably, Dick ignores that the DVD market right now is saturated with “too hot for theaters” unrated editions, which do get advertised in the Sunday circulars, and are on the shelves at any Wal-Mart. The ratings board’s prudery just means another marketing hook to put more money in studio coffers. Maybe the real issue here isn’t the shortsightedness of the MPAA, but the shortsightedness of filmmakers trying to preserve a theatrical-distribution business model that’s getting dustier by the day. In that sense, this film is not yet complete.
[Note: A panel discussion featuring WSMV anchor Demetria Kalodimos, ACLU board member Bruce Barry, Tennessean columnist Beverly Keel and Scene writer Jim Ridley will follow the 3:30 p.m. show Sunday, Oct. 15.]