They're secret no more! Judge Bill Gibron has nothing but praise for this eye-opening documentary about the MPAA and its problematic "parental guidance" system of censorship.
It's the greatest logical fallacy in all of Hollywood. If you listen to them tell the tale, the MPAA and its "non-mandatory" ratings board do not censor films. No, instead they pull out the compulsory cliché that they merely "help guide parents toward better entertainment choices for their children." That being said, the MPAA kindly leaves out a few concrete consequences of getting on the board's bad side. A rating of "G," "PG," or "PG-13" is seen as an acceptable industry standard. Capable of maximizing marketing and making the most of demographics, these initial three categories have become the post-modern benchmark that nearly all studio efforts strive for. Get labeled with an "R" and you're still received, but a stain of hyperbole—either from violence or sexuality—follows your film. You're allowed in the door, but the merchants would rather see you tone down your wares.
God forbid you land the dreaded—and quite arbitrary—"NC-17." Seen by most in the consumer trade as replacing the "X" in terms of content viability, newspapers won't allow ads for such features, stores like Wal-Mart and Blockbuster won't stock these items, and some theater chains refuse to offer such a movie for mainstream viewing. Even with all their talk of the system's voluntary nature, failing to meet the requisite "G" thru "PG-13" parameters means you're substantially screwed. Money, time, talent—all wasted on something no one will see, let alone know about, all based on a capricious decision that has no set ground rules or guidelines. The Supreme Court of the United States, final arbitrator of Constitutional concerns, would easily find this practice preemptive, using the direct dicta known as "the chilling effect" for their final decision. Of course, no one has actually challenged the MPAA. As illustrated in his amazing documentary on the subject, filmmaker Kirby Dick discovers that testing the board can be comparable to career suicide. A label like This Film is Not Yet Rated can ruin more than just a movie's chance of being seen.
Facts of the Case
After hearing the horror stories told by friends in the business about their dealings with the MPAA and its ratings board, Kirby Dick—director of documentaries focusing on sexual abuse and the Church (Twist of Faith) and self-proclaimed "supermasochist" Bob Flanagan (Sick)—decided to expose the organization for what it really is. Many make the fatal mistake of believing that the Motion Picture Association of America is merely set up to screen and rate films. But the truth is far more troubling. The MPAA is actually the film industry's lobbying organization, a branch of the major studios set up in the '30s to monitor, influence, and determine movie content. From their self-serving work in copyright and piracy to their foundational purpose of fighting labor unions, there is more to the moniker than handing our PGs and Rs. Since there is no transparency in the make-up of this system shilling juggernaut, Dick decided to expose the most problematic part—the anonymous "parents" who make up the ratings board membership. By finding out who they are, he would show how well the MPAA lives up to it propagandized mantras. It's no surprise, then, what he really discovers. From the influence of the clergy to the equating of gay content as "aberrant behavior," Dick reveals that the conspiratorial fix is in and that Hollywood likes to hamstring artists as much as "helping" them.
It's an outrage, plain and simple. Step aside from all the issues of morality and social purpose, put aside your personal beliefs and your own philosophical stance, and think about it for a moment. You spend your days working hard on a project, trying to satisfy a group of bosses who just want financial results from your sweat and skill. You finally complete your assignment, but before you can deliver it to your supervisor's desk, it has to go through "a process." Now, your prospectus or business plan—whatever the finished item represents—doesn't have to go through this procedure. But not doing so renders your performance pointless to the powers that be. Submission is tantamount to consent, and after a while, your efforts are graded. A passing score—let's say G, PG, or PG-13—makes the bigwigs happy, and you are rewarded with a bonus, a chance to run your project past the stockholders, and maybe another opportunity at impressing the company. If you're unlucky, however, and end up with an R, your attempt is viewed suspiciously. It's still accepted, but walks into the boardroom with a noticeable blemish on its cover. Somehow, you will be viewed apprehensively, no matter how superior the final result really is.
Then there's the worst-case scenario. Your report earns an NC-17. You can't get it past the secretary's desk. It's rejected outright before the trustees even see it, and you're given an option to revise and resubmit. When you ask for some kind of critique, a way of making your project more palpable to the review process, you're given glorified ambiguities, meant to stump more than steer you. Maybe there's a suggestion about cutting a line or two, or losing a specific pie chart. But in the end, you are back to square one, your acknowledged acumen tossed aside by an ill-defined pronouncement. You could appeal, but those who've gone before you will tell you that the chances of victory are "none and noner." So you sit back at your desk, rejected work in hand, and try to figure out how to make the brass happy—and all the while, management is in cahoots with the methodology, making sure that the end result meets with their own ideas of what makes a valuable piece of work.
That's the MPAA in a nutshell, a boss who refuses to review your efforts until it passes a subjective test that really means nothing contextually, but everything commercially. As he makes clear in his blistering denouement of the organization, Kirby Dick believes that all ratings revolve around money. In fact, This Film is Not Yet Rated routinely argues that cash controls the film business in a way that's more astonishing than many of us even realize. Now, before you put on your "Du'h" cap and conclude this statement stupid, listen to the logic. The studios have built-in pools of possible income—streams derived from theatrical, home, and international sales. Add in cable, licensing, and catalog considerations, and a film would have to flop big time—say a Heaven's Gate level of negative cost-benefit analysis—to actually lose money. So what Hollywood wants is maximum return for its mega-bucks, and the MPAA can guarantee this. An NC-17 means these revenue rivers dry up, and an R means that some of the more lucrative inlets disappear as well. So they need a system set up to drive films toward the G/PG/PG-13 arena. There, content matches cash flow, and the bean counters can greenlight another set of similar projects.
It's all very incestual and indecent, and all throughout This Film is Not Yet Rated, Dick reminds us that it's almost always been this way. The material on the Hays Code may not be that shocking, but the ties to McCarthy, the unions, and the House Un-American Activity hearings truly are. Even worse, Dick keeps bringing Jack Valenti's vacuous mug into frame, showing how he delivers a politically-correct assessment of his successes to broadside any outstanding criticism. As the fiery figure head of this creativity-stifling cabal, Valenti is not the sole villain here. Indeed, he's more of a scapegoat, taking the jibes and the jokes so the studios don't have to come clean. Many may know that the major players in Tinseltown own and control the MPAA, but Dick illustrates how deep their deceptive claws really go. When he appeals the ratings verdict for this film (in a wonderfully satiric move, he submits the project while simultaneously recording the process for inclusion), we learn that the appellate board is made up of studio heads, film buyers, theater chain presidents, and two very unusual participants—members of national religious organizations. Justice is not an option. It's all about the bottom line and the Benjamins.
Granted, there are many salient arguments about the MPAA and the good it does. After all, one wouldn't want a random system of state-based censor groups, Florida differing from New York in what is and is not acceptable artistic expression (even though its quite clear any legal challenge of such a scattered approach would be upheld under the First Amendment). And the ratings themselves have kept the more reprehensible idioms in check. Thanks to the group, we aren't subjected to seedy snuff films or inexcusable child pornography. But in the gray area between general audiences and "no one under 17 admitted," Dick discovers the fabulous fallacies in the MPAA design. In general, they do not remove material. In some cases, they don't even suggest edits or changes. But the labeling they use has become a part of the cultural dynamic, a way of both approving of and stigmatizing a motion picture. Tell a fellow film fan that the latest release by a favorite actor warranted an R, and suddenly a perception is developed. The one-time star of only PG fare is "going adult," making a film that is "more mature" and "pushing the boundaries" of the proposed demographic. If it's a man, it's violence that's the imagined new approach. If it's a woman, her perceived sexuality and nudity become instant fantasy fodder. Think what happens when a previously wholesome celebrity steps into something "slapped" (for you, Kevin Smith) with an NC-17. Bankability may trump talent, but no one wants to risk the alienation that comes from such a scandalous tag.
Even more disturbing is the response to homosexuality and gay themes. One of the more amazing elements of This Film is Not Yet Rated is that Dick winds up hiring a lesbian private investigator—Becky Altringer—and her matter-of-fact orientation is juxtaposed against the MPAA's notorious prejudice against same-sex cinema. To paraphrase one board member, the reaction toward (or better yet, rejection of) homosexual content is merely reflective of the society's overall opinion, meaning that they don't have their own agenda so much as inferring one out of the national uproar over gay issues. They then use this implied directive as an excuse for being harsher on films featuring explicit depictions of alternative lifestyles. One of the more memorable moments here finds Dick using scenes from American Pie and Single White Female in comparison with similar sequences in But I'm a Cheerleader and Boys Don't Cry to show how straight sex is acknowledged while similar same-sex acts are instantly rejected. Some may feel the Devil is in the details, or it's yet another case of independent cinema bearing the brunt of a studio-based monopoly, but when you actually see the material being discussed, said specificities are pretty damn obvious.
But even beyond all the testimonials, the noted filmmakers flustered and furious by a system that shuts down the very ideas they are working with, there is a much more devious game afoot. For too long now—and Dick would definitely agree—the MPAA has functioned as its own private club, capable of steering away attention by bandying about the supposed "good" it does. The lack of transparency is predicated on dated motives, noble intentions, and a lack of influence. But the truth is far more disconcerting. The MPAA "raters" are not made up of "concerned parents of school-age kids." Many are divorced, with grown adult children. Some seem to be "professional" participants, again contradicting reports that members only hold their post from three to five years. They are also not free of influence, but often work closely with major studios—usually on big-budget prestige pictures—to help them through the screening process, and more than a couple feel empowered by the authority they are given, and have been known to bully and persuade less staunch members to change their final vote. Thanks to Dick's decision to uncover these people's identity, as well as to speak to others who've previously come out about their time on the board, we learn that, in reality, the MPAA is a self-serving, hypocritical entity that may not censor outright, but definitely believes it can control content.
If it accomplishes nothing else—and it is a wildly entertaining, very funny film—Kirby Dick's This Film is Not Yet Rated puts to rest all the arguments about the MPAA and its influence over movies. The next time you hear a spokesperson for the group argue that they "don't determine substance or require edits," and that "the rating is merely voluntary, and used to help guide parents…BLAH BLAH BLAH," you will have a factual rebuttal for all that bullshit. In fact, the MPAA is like the Warren Commission, totally unflappable in its party-line approach to any issue brought before them. Even with mounting evidence that suggests they are out of touch, completely arbitrary, borderline prejudiced, and well within the control of the major movie studios (who, are in turn, controlled by massive media corporations that, as well, control the news), they hold to their single-shooter stratagem and wait for the next conspiracy "nut" to try and upset them. You could call Kirby Dick's This Film is Not Yet Rated the JFK of industry documentaries. There is a lot of great substance here. There is more than a little stunt showboating. There are people who help propel and diffuse the arguments. And the conclusions drawn are definitive, decisive, and, in more than one case, defendable. But just like Oliver Stone, Dick is opening a door that few have ever walked through, especially in the 40 years since the entryway was first built. Here's hoping that, once in, the right people ask the right questions. That will become this dazzling documentary's final legacy.
Hats off to IFC for picking up this amazing movie when no one else would dare to touch it. It bears repeating that, above all the MPAA bashing, it is a highly entertaining, exciting look behind the scenes of how films are made—and unmade—by the ratings board. From Kevin Smith and John Waters (both wickedly funny and slightly wounded at the same time) to Mary Harron and Atom Egoyan, the talking heads presented are articulate, unemotional, and very persuasive in the history and horror stories they present. Captured by Dick in an effective off-the-cuff style—thanks in part to the portability of this new digital era—the nonanamorphic widescreen presentation (about a 1.78:1 sort of ratio) looks very good. The colors are bright and the contrasts crisp. Equally important, the Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo is phenomenal, offering the discussions with directors like Darren Aronofsky, Matt Stone, and Wayne Kramer in crystal clarity. This is not a visually arresting work, even with all the surveillance sequences and animated illustrations. In keeping with the conventional approach to such unconventional material, Dick lets his message, and those delivering it, do the selling.
As for added content, IFC sort of lets us down. The 20-plus minutes of deleted scenes are fabulous, especially the sequence where John Waters and Kevin Smith make jokes at the expense of the MPAA. In fact, all the material here—including the notorious moment when Dick discovers the organization pirated his film for its own in-house needs—could easily be reincorporated back into the main movie itself. In addition, we are treated to the trailer, a nice nine-minute Q&A from the film's SXSW premiere, and a very telling audio commentary. Moderated by Ain't It Cool News' "Moriarty"—a.k.a. Drew McWeeny—and featuring Dick, producer Eddie Schmidt, and P.I. Becky Altringer, this genial sit-down is more of a roundtable overview of the film and its themes than a blow-by-blow description of how the movie was made. Dick actually defends Jack Valenti—if only a little—calling him a benchmark for more businessmen to strive for. Schmidt discusses the showdown to Sundance and how the movie was still being editing two days into the festival. Altringer talks openly about her lesbianism and the thrill she received when asked to walk the red carpet at the premiere. Through it all, McWeeny is commentator and host, adding his own two cents while keeping the conversation focused and lively. More of an addendum than an alternate narrative track, this is a wonderful addition to a slightly underwhelming DVD package.
He must have struck a nerve. Dick deserves credit for finally breaking down the rock solid façade of the MPAA's infallibility. Recently, Jack Valenti's hand-picked replacement, Dan Glickman, announced that, in response to This Film is Not Yet Rated, the organization will look at overhauling and/or refining the current ratings system. In particular, they will look at ways of making the R distinction more clear (hard R vs. soft R, violence vs. sex) and broadening the input from experts outside the so-called "parent" raters. While it's not a debunking of the age-old letter scores, it's a start. And in reality, that's all this movie can aim for. When you take on an entrenched icon, a wildly successful lobbying business with massive connections and unbelievable influence, you don't expect acquiescence. In most cases, plain acknowledgement would be the best-case scenario. Dick managed to get more, which means This Film is Not Yet Rated had the required effect. Through a use of anecdotal evidence, incontrovertible proof and a little huckster ballyhoo, the documentarian made a dent in the MPAA's rock-solid pretense. Here's hoping the crack creates a gradual flood of oversight into what is basically a de facto determiner of artistic and moral merit. If it leaves no other legacy, This Film is Not Yet Rated should be praised and appreciated for shaking up the supposedly unflappable. That it's a fantastically entertaining film on top of that is the icing on the investigative cake.
Not guilty. This Film is Not Yet Rated is an amazing documentary and deserves all the accolades it can get. This court dismisses all charges against it. Case closed.
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