In American-made films, violence is more acceptable than sex. Films depicting someone mowing down a line of men with bullets could receive a PG-13 as long as no blood is shown, but a film depicting a couple having sex in a frank and realistic way will most certainly receive an R, or depending on how graphic the depiction, an NC-17. These ratings are determined and administered by the Ratings Board of the Motion Picture Academy of America, a lobby group funded by the major film studios. The Ratings Board was created in the late 60s by Jack Valenti to stave off further government involvement in the content of films, to counter criticism and censorship and to provide filmmakers with more freedom. The idea was that you could include anything you want in your film, but the ratings would provide a guideline for parents and others about what the film contained, and help them decide whether they wanted to see it or not.
In Europe, the emphasis is reversed. Films with violence receive harsher ratings than films depicting sex, making it more difficult for children and teenagers to see it.
This is just one of the ideas pursued by director Kirby Dick is his new documentary “This Film Is Not Yet Rated”.
When a filmmaker completes a film, they submit it to the Ratings Board and a secret panel of people watch the film and discuss the rating it should receive. Initially, this system was set-up to guarantee filmmakers artistic freedom. If a film was too adult, it would receive an NC-17 and provide a clear sign to people that the film was only suitable for adults. In reality, studios will not release an NC-17 film and insist the filmmaker make cuts to receive an R rating. Why won’t they release an NC-17 film? Newspapers and television stations will not run ads for these films, multiplexes won’t carry them, so it makes it impossible to make the kind of money they need to make to pay their overhead. A filmmaker can still release an NC-17 film, but they are relegated to independent studios and movie theaters, ensuring the film will have to generate a lot more word of mouth for a much smaller audience.
Worse, many cities and even some states don’t have a lot of independent theaters and Wal-Mart and Blockbuster won’t carry these films. How can the audience see it? They can’t.
Therefore, a lot of pressure is placed on filmmakers to deliver films with a certain rating, many directors have a rating stipulated in their contract. How does this do anything but create censorship?
All of this might be a useful system, but the Ratings Board has proven to be less than consistent. Dick conducts a series of interviews with filmmakers who have been affected by an NC-17 rating. Matt Stone, part of the tam who created “South Park”, talks about when he and Trey Parker created “Orgazmo” as an independent film. They received an NC-17 rating. When they tried to find out what they had to cut to receive an R, they were told the Board doesn’t provide that type of information, it would be censorship. Then, when they made the “South Park” movie, they received an NC-17 rating and extensive notes about what was found offensive, providing them with a road map to an ‘R’ rating.
Dick sets out to uncover who the secret members of this board are. He hires a private investigator, Cheryl Howell, and they stake out the headquarters of the MPAA. Stationed outside the garage, they write down license numbers of cars as they leave for lunch, do some investigation, and soon uncover the names of the people who are on the board. Using a series of archival interviews with Jack Valenti, Dick sets out to determine if the members are, as Valenti frequently states, just normal parents, trying to help other parents makes an informed decision.
And here we come to the major problem with “Not Yet Rated”. Everything in the film is so heavily slanted to support the argument of the filmmaker, that it becomes one sided. Okay, okay, so Michael Moore’s and Morgan Spurlock’s films are not exactly unbiased, but they do try to present at least a partial opposing viewpoint. In Spurlock’s recent television series of documentaries “30 Days”, we all know he is very liberal, yet he presents interviews with people with different viewpoints, listening to them, giving them some thought, before continuing on his path and presenting the arguments he wants to present. There is nothing wrong with a documentary having a point of view. But in “Not Yet Rated”, any opposing views are presented after we learn what they are talking about. Basically, Dick is catching them in lies, and making us laugh at it. It works, and I completely agree with the message he is presenting, but it would be nice to have seen something, anything that presented a viable counter message.
As he talks to filmmakers about their troubles with the MPAA, he gleefully presents the uncut footage the filmmakers are discussing. Director Wayne Kramer and actress Maria Bello talk about a scene cut from “The Cooler”. John Waters talks about his film “A Dirty Shame”. Atom Egoyan talks about “Where The Truth Lies”. Kevin Smith talks about a scene in “Jersey Girl”, showing Liv Tyler and Ben Affleck talking about sex. Director Kimberly Peirce talks about her film “Boys Don’t Cry” and the objections of the Ratings Board.
“Not Yet Rated” is perhaps most effective when it compares similar clips of films that received different ratings. In one sequence, Dick shows clips of violent films rated more favorably than scenes depicting sexual encounters. In another, he explores how similar sexual acts between a man and a woman, depicted in similar ways, are rated more favorably than the same situations between same sex partners.
Towards the end of the film, Dick submits an early cut of the film to the Ratings Board. Not surprisingly, he receives an NC-17. He then documents as much of the appeals process as possible given no cameras were allowed into the actual hearing.
“This Film Is Not Yet Rated” does a very good job of walking the viewer through this Byzantine, strange process employed by the MPAA. He also does an excellent job of pointing out the various eccentricities of this system which frequently frustrates and maddens many in the filmmaking community.