March 22, 2007

Movie Review: This Film Is Not Yet Rated

Posted in Movies at 9:42 pm by Calico Jack

In 1968, the Motion Picture Association of America instituted its film rating system as a way to inform Americans, especially parents, of a film’s content. Since 1934, the Production Code of America had regulated what filmmakers could and could not put into their movies. But under pressure from European directors free from such restrictions and Americans willing to push the boundaries of what was allowed, the MPAA realized that it could no longer censor movies. Instead, it decided to regulate them by giving ratings that would inform audiences of the level of adult content they might expect when seeing a film in theaters.

As culture has changed, ratings have also shifted. What used to be acceptable in a PG film is now delegated to a PG-13 level. At the same time, content that once was reserved for an R rating (especially violence) now finds a comfortable home in the appeal-to-all-demographics PG-13. On the other hand, explicit (and sometimes otherwise) sexual content has been increasingly restricted, an issue with which filmmakers have expressed frustration for many years. In 1990, the NC-17 rating was formed to give directors the freedom to create films that would not be stigmatized by the letter X.

However, the plan never quite worked out as well as it should have. Distributors were hesitant to release films with an NC-17 rating, fearing audience backlash. Subsequently, production companies were unable to provide the marketing budget needed to effectively promote their films. By the end of the 1990s, receiving an NC-17 rating often meant the kiss of death for filmmakers. They could re-edit their movies to meet the MPAA’s standard for an R film, they could take their chances with an NC-17 label and hope to gain distribution, or they could ignore the MPAA and release the film as an “unrated” version.

This rather lengthy introduction sets the stage for gonzo journalist Kirby Dick’s documentary This Film Is Not Yet Rated. Dick protests that the MPAA is thoroughly corrupt, and he provides many reasons to back up his claim: major studios receive more leeway than independent studios do; sexual content is treated far differently than violent content; MPAA raters are anonymous, with no accountability; and, most importantly, the MPAA operates under a code of strict internal secrecy, leaving no transparency in regards to its decision-making process and no accountability.

This Film Is Not Yet Rated has two parts, one much more effective than the other. Dick is at his best and most fascinating when he interviews various filmmakers talking about the struggles that they went through in dealing with the MPAA. Directors such as Matt Stone, Kevin Smith, John Waters, and Kimberly Peirce detail example after example of the MPAA’s inconsistency in giving films an NC-17 rating, even though exactly the same content had previously been shown in an R film. A situation involving a man would receive a less-stringent rating than the same type of scene involving a woman, implying a severe gender bias. Movies can depict graphic violence and barely move from a PG-13 to an R (and sometimes not at all), but show a woman topless and the film lands squarely in R territory.

Some of the filmmakers’ comments come across a bit petulantly, and the word “censorship” is thrown around far too often — after all, the MPAA only tells filmmakers its rating for a certain film, regardless of whether or not it might be much harder to obtain distribution with a restrictive rating. Occasionally, the MPAA tells filmmakers to snip a few seconds of footage here or remove a fifteen-second scene there; but many times it will not give directors guidelines as to what they would need to do in order to receive an R rating.

Along with filmmakers, Dick interviews those few past members of the MPAA who are willing to speak out about the system they were a part of. It is shocking to hear that film raters receive no training in deciding what kind of content is appropriate for a certain rating level; they are merely supposed to “represent the average American parent.” Not only are they untrained, many do not even have children under the age of eighteen, the only group to which ratings matter. But the most damning evidence against the MPAA is its extreme secrecy. Identities of movie raters are a closely guarded secret, ostensibly to keep raters from outside pressure. Even the guidelines that the MPAA has in order to judge a film have never been revealed to the public. The MPAA insists that it applies these rules fairly and equitably, yet no one even knows what those rules are.

This is where the documentary stumbles, almost fatally. Dick hires two female private investigators to sniff out the identities of the MPAA raters in a style very reminiscent of Michael Moore. Much of This Film Is Not Yet Rated is devoted to Dick’s pursuit of these anonymous raters, which includes scenes of him and the investigators stalking people as they leave the gated MPAA building, following them to restaurants and snapping photos of their license plates, and even digging through the trash outside of their home late at night in an attempt to find anything they could discover about the internal workings of the movie ratings board. With half of the film being a detective story, This Film Is Not Yet Rated veers dangerously close to running off of its own rails. The interviews and history of the ratings system are far more compelling than seeing Dick and a middle-aged woman stalking people, which leaves a rather unpleasant taste. These scenes detract from the documentary significantly, especially towards the end of the film when Dick shows a lineup of names and pictures of most of the MPAA raters. This is an unnecessary, vindictive gesture, as those raters do not shape MPAA policy at all.

Fortunately, Kirby Dick ends his documentary on a high note, as he submits his (mostly) finished documentary to the MPAA for a rating. Because Kirby shows some of the content which filmmakers had to edit in order to receive an R, This Film Is Not Yet Rated gets slapped with an NC-17. Even more ironically, when Kirby tries to question the reasons behind the decision he is stonewalled by the MPAA’s lawyers, giving further proof to the claim that the MPAA is a organization accountable to no one. He appeals his decision, but the restrictions placed on him at the appeals meeting (with ten anonymous reviewers) are outrageously fascist: he cannot point out inconsistencies in ratings by comparing previously released films to his own, and he cannot cite precedent by the MPAA. After rightly protesting those limitations, Dick is told that those are the rules: they will not be changed. These closing scenes are some of the most effective in the film, as they provide firsthand evidence that the ratings system is hopelessly broken.

Few would deny the need for a ratings system to let parents know what to expect when taking their children to a film. And even some adults uncomfortable with certain content appreciate the warnings that the MPAA provides. In order to be an effective organization, however, the MPAA needs to become transparent, openly subject to public scrutiny and review. This will help to eliminate the glaring inconsistencies that have caused much of the moviegoing public to lose faith in the ratings system.

There are two ways to fix this problem. Either create minutely detailed rules and guidelines, and stick to them when reviewing every movie; or go with a more holistic approach to reviewing films that allows for exceptions and discrepancies. But no matter which way the MPAA chooses to go about fixing their problem, the public needs to see every single step of the process. After all, the MPAA exists to serve the public and not the movie studios…right?

Coda: Variety ran an interesting article several days days ago discussing the MPAA’s realization that it needs to have a rating higher than R, which filmmakers can use without stigmatization. They can either create a “hard R” or revive the NC-17 designation. This part is especially fascinating:

Parents have been pressuring [MPAA chairman] Glickman and his cohorts at the Motion Picture Assn. of America, along with National Assn. of Theater Owners John Fithian, to find a solution to the dilemma. Naysayers claim that the R rating is too broad, encompassing everything from a few swear words or brief flashes of nudity to repeated scenes of stomach-churning mutilation and disembowelments.

The biggest complaint is that, with parental permission, children and teens are allowed to see R’s, and parents think the definition of R is too wide-ranging to guide them.

The goal is to find a category for some films that are now informally called “hard R’s” — i.e., content so graphic that no one under the age of 17 should be allowed to see it at all in theaters. The new generation of horror pics, namely, the “Saw” and “Hostel” franchises, are pushing the limits of the “hard R” category.

As a general rule, shouldn’t parents decide that children should not see R-rated films at all, or at least go see the movie themselves before deciding to bring their children along to the theater? The MPAA will never be able to take the place of parental responsibility, only aid parents in making informed decisions. But if a movie has an R rating, no matter what the reason, I think it is hard for parents to feign ignorance before taking their six-year-old to see the latest showing of 300. “But I didn’t know it was going to be that graphic!”

Give me a break.


  1. JM said,

    Did you watch the extras? There’s some good stuff there.

  2. […] months ago I pointed out the overwhelming hypocrisy in the MPAA’s ratings system, a problem only exacerbated by the […]

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