Friday, January 27, 2006

This Film is Not Yet Rated

The audience at the Sundance premiere loved This Film is Not Yet Rated. Of course, director Kirby Dick perfectly played the role of iconoclastic documentarian who is fearlessly stickin' it to the man (in this case, the MPAA). And in fact, the movie was plenty of fun.

Kirby makes frequent use of controversial footage (mostly sex-related) from films, as well as interviews with directors. But the highlight is the work of a private investigator who is tasked to identify the secret panel of reviewers who assign the ratings. The fact that the PI is a rather dowdy, middle-aged lesbian that is accompanied by her partner's teenage daughter is such a departure from the Sam Spade mythology that you're rooting for her from the beginning. This was a genius move on Dick's part! There is also plenty of footage of former MPAA president Jack Valenti, often pontificating in the silver-tongued (and silver-haired) glory he made famous.

I like documentaries, but I'm troubled that audiences are so easily swayed by these typically one-sided arguments designed more to enrage and entertain than to uncover the truth. So in that spirit, let me make a few comments on the MPAA rating system and the movie. Kirby drives home the following points:

1. The ratings board seems to have a greater tolerance for violence than for sex. I can see why filmmakers might feel that way, but honestly, how on earth can you compare the two? Is one decapitation equivalent to the fondling of a breast? I'm just not sure how anyone could successfully argue this claim. Frankly, I see an awful lot of explicit sex and graphic violence in movies.

2. The MPAA is harder on Independent movies than from the studios because it's studio-driven organization. This is probably true, but the documentary gives the flimsiest of evidence to support it. Kevin Smith gives an example from how the MPAA dealt with him on two movies, one indie and one studio, but they were five years apart and may have simply reflected different people, policy changes, etc.

3. The MPAA treats homosexual sex more stringently than heterosexual sex. Uh … yea. And so does network TV, cable, print and the Internet. This is not news. I'm not defending it, but I think it reflects the public's squirm factor.

4. The MPAA reviewers are supposed to be parents of teens or younger, but often their kids were grown. Hmmmm. Who cares? The whole parent thing is a silly PR ploy anyway. These reviewers probably jaywalk as well, and maybe lead with their dessert fork.

5. The fallacy of comparisons. Dick wants a world where a filmmaker can find examples of similar scenes that have been allowed in the past to get their scenes approved. My teenagers have tried to use the same approach to systematically eliminate restrictions. Open that door a crack and the wall comes crashing down.

6. The MPAA doesn't publish its standards, which is unfair to filmmakers. Unfortunately, Kirby never asks why. And there's the rub. The MPAA secrets its standards because they would be highly controversial and the public (as well as Washington) would use it against the industry. Everyone snickers about today's PG'13's being yesterday's R's, but what if it was laid out in black and white? What if the press reported when the MPAA chooses to make a new word acceptable in PG-13's that was previously restricted? This is fuel for those that attempt to censor Hollywood and the result would be exactly the kind of regulation the MPAA has lobbied against for years. The evolution of these standards over time would not suffer scrutiny well. Filmmakers can live in an ideal world, but Jack Valenti knew exactly what he was doing, which was protecting the economic interests of the movie industry.

I could go on. Personally, I think the MPAA ratings system is an abomination. At the same time, I think filmmakers ought to rejoice that an organization run by their own industry is allowed to police itself with secret standards and the worst punishment being not a restriction but rather an ill-defined ratings label. Filmmakers should come not to bury Jack Valenti, but to praise him.


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