this space intentionally left blank

April 16, 2007

Filed under: movies»reviews»documentary

This Film Is Not Yet Rated

The first thing that you take away from This Film Is Not Yet Rated is a genuine distaste for Jack Valenti, the president of the Motion Picture Association of America from 1966 to 2004. The documentary's subject is the troubling mechanics and implications of the MPAA's film rating system, particularly the NC-17 rating when applied to sex and violence. Since he created and strongly advocated for the rating system, Valenti--whose swollen visage at times resembles a grandfatherly pumpkin--is featured prominently in archive footage, bookended by examples that directly undercut his words.

The second thing, oddly, is sympathy for the ratings board. The MPAA insists that its raters (all of whom, it says, are parents of children between the ages of 5 and 17) must remain anonymous to do their jobs well, a fact that galls a number of the interviewed filmmakers like Matt Stone and Kevin Smith. In response, director Kirby Dick hires a private detective to track down the raters and manages to find 11 out of twelve. These parts of the film evoke the most mixed feelings, and seem to have been the most controversial. On the one hand, it's genuinely enjoyable to watch the investigator (a middle-aged lesbian named Becky) as she tracks down the raters using a mix of surveillance and social engineering. On the other hand, it does seem like an invasion of privacy. In the end, for me at least, I think the investigative stunt proves worthwhile, because if these raters are supposed to represent "the public" we should be able to see the sample. Unlike other reviewers, I don't think Dick mocks the subjects--he simply uses them to show that they're not who the MPAA says they are: they're older, mostly White, and probably wealthy, with kids that probably long ago left home.

Not Yet Rated is on more solid ground when it discusses the inconsistencies of the ratings board, particularly when it comes to the differences between sex and violence. Put simply, the board is much more tolerant of violence than sex, and it's far more tolerant of heterosexual sex than homosexual pairings or group sex. Dick illustrates the latter by putting scenes with nearly-identical framing and action next to each other, one gay (NC-17) and one straight (R). It's not convincing on its own, but collectively the evidence shows an agency that's increasingly puritanical about the bedroom, but also increasingly permissive when it comes to violence.

The occassional stunts and gimmicks used throughout Not Yet Rated, as have become traditional in pop-culture documentaries, can be hit or miss. But one of the big hits, and the dramatic climax of the film, comes when Dick submits the documentary itself--including its reveal of rater identities--to the MPAA for a rating, receiving an NC-17 (most likely for the clips shown of sex and violence from other, similarly-rated films). Upon appeal, the draconian nature of the entire process is highlighted (and supported by testimony from other filmmakers). Dick is not allowed to refer to other films that have received ratings by way of comparison, nor is he allowed to know the identities of the members of the appeals board (which, we discover, includes two members of clergy). Repeating her performance from the first ratings board, Becky the detective hunts down the appeals board members despite the best efforts of the MPAA. The result is a checklist of distributors, cinema chain VIPs, and studio executives, confirming the industry's control of its own rating system. Needless to say, the appeal is denied, and the current version of the film is unrated.

This Film Is Not Yet Rated provides few solutions for the problem, other than to advocate for a government-run board, which could be appealed through a standard legal suit and would keep public documentation on its process. I feel that it also draws uncomfortable conclusions about the influence of the media on the populace, a debate that has raged practically since Birth of a Nation. Perhaps it's also cynical to wonder if a government board, particularly given this government, would be any better. But the questions raised by the film are nonetheless thought-provoking, and (especially given how movie ratings are often cited as an example by the gaming and other artistic industries) need to be asked.

And for that matter, as with any movie that revels in the backstage intrigues at the edges of family-friendly entertainment, it's a lot of fun to watch.

Future - Present - Past