Since 1968, the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) has been responsible for rating the content of films. Professional “raters” watch each film and vote whether it should be rated P, PG, PG-13, R, or NC-17. Kirby Dick’s This Film Is Not Yet Rated uses interviews and archival footage to examine the process. Dick, who doesn’t try to hide his critical view of the MPAA, makes several valid points about what has become a de facto censorship board. But This Film Is Not Yet Rated is undermined by the director’s lazy rhetoric, juvenile humor, and grandstanding presence in much of the footage.
When it sticks to talking heads, This Film… can be engrossing. Directors like Wayne Kramer and John Waters make strong arguments that the MPAA board is more lenient about violence than sex, and harder on independent films than studio releases. Lawyer Martin Garbus and author Jon Lewis complain about the secrecy shrouding the ratings board, and suggest that ratings might be handled better by the government. Trying to decipher the board’s opinions on sex can baffle filmmakers, although a consensus emerges that the MPAA is tough on gay sex, hip thrusts, and, oddly, talking about sex.
Kramer (The Cooler) and Kimberly Peirce (Boys Don’t Cry) offer concrete examples of the inane steps they were asked to take to salvage R ratings from NC-17 rulings. (As independent studio executive Bingham Ray and others note, NC-17 ratings can cripple films’ earning power.) When Waters asked for specific reasons why his film A Dirty Shame received an NC-17 rating, a board member admits, “To be honest, we just stopped taking notes.” But other directors can seem disingenuous, objecting when their deliberately provocative films fail to win soft ratings.
Several filmmakers complain that since the MPAA conducts its hearings in private, no one can be held accountable for decisions. To expose the identities of ratings members, Kirby Dick actually hires a private eye to stalk workers leaving the MPAA’s Los Angeles office building. Outing MPAA raters serves no useful purpose; it’s just an ill-advised stunt that takes up far too much screen time. And Dick’s trick of submitting his own film to the board in order to bait its members almost tops Morgan Spurlock for self-aggrandizing.
Far more egregious is Dick’s willful distortion of facts, especially when coupled with annoying animated graphics. The director condenses the seventy years of film censorship before MPAA ratings to two examples, both of which he gets wrong. He implies that ratings boards in other countries are more lenient than the US when the opposite is frequently true. He misrepresents the make-up of the ratings board, ignores the influence of organizations like the National Association of Theater Owners, and barely mentions issues like piracy for which the MPAA has taken troubling positions. Dick reserves his harshest criticism for Jack Valenti, who left the MPAA almost a year ago.
One point the film doesn’t address is the fact that MPAA ratings are becoming increasingly irrelevant. In unrated DVDs, which account for an ever-larger share of receipts, directors can deliberately flout MPAA guidelines with little fear of consequences. Perhaps Dick will be inspired to release a “Special Edition” of This Film Is Not Yet Rated, one without this version’s cheap shots and posturings.
Featuring: Allison Anders, David Ansen, Darren Aronofsky, Jamie Babbit, Maria Bello, Atom Egoyan, Stephen Farber, Martin Garbus, Mary Harron, Richard Heffner, Wayne Kramer, Lawrence Lessig, Jon Lewis, Kimberly Peirce, Bingham Ray, David L. Robb, Kevin Smith, Matt Stone, Michael Tucker, Mark Urman, John Waters, Dr. Theresa Webb, Becky Altringer, Cheryl Howell, Lindsey Howell, Kirby Dick.
Credits: Directed by Kirby Dick. Produced by Eddie Schmidt. Executive producers: Alison Palmer Bourke, Evan Shapiro. Directors of photography: Shana Hagan, Kirsten Johnson, Amy Vincent. Edited by Matthew Clarke. Music supervisor: Jessica Wolfson. An IFC Films presentation, in association with Netflix and BBC Films, of a Chain Camera production.
IFC Films/Color/1.85/98 Mins./Rated NC-17