This Film Not Yet Rated
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This Film Not Yet Rated

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I wrote my first essay about the Motion Picture Association of America rating system when I was still a teenager. It was something new back then to associate a letter ranking of films; G, M, R and the dreaded X. Over the years the messages have changed, but one thing seems constant; the methodology, guidelines, and membership used by the MPAA are secret. Since it appears that the Central Intelligence Agency has some problems in keeping the public in the dark, it is odd and disturbing that the organization that rates films have managed to keep just about every aspect of itself top secret decade after decade. For those conspiracy freaks out there take a look at the picture of Lyndon Johnson being sworn in as President aboard Air Force One after President Kennedy was assassinated. To his left is Jack Valenti, founder and long-time president of the MPAA. Documentary filmmaker, Kirby Dick as taken on the almost impossible task of uncovering who and what is behind the MPAA in his latest film, ‘This Film Is Not Yet Rated.' His goal was to bring out in the open the numerous secretive practices of this organization that controls the fate of most significant American movies.

Dick hires a couple of private detectives to help discover just who is on the secretive rating board. All that the MPAA has ever stated about them is they are parents of young children who are concerned with the films that their children watch. This does seem a laudable goal, protecting the youth of America but Dick examines the validity of that statement. Dick takes his cameras along as his pair of female detectives stake out the MPAA office in Los Angeles with some comic effect. His detectives track down some of the members of the board and find out that those that are parents have children in their twenties. One member is not even a parent. So much for the claim of parents worried about their kids. It’s not as the review board comprised of evil, sinister people, the point is why the MPAA should be deceptive about the makeup of this body?

Besides hiding the identities of the people responsible for the actual film rating the process cloaked in mystery. There are no published criteria that filmmakers can go by to understand why their film received an individual rating. It would almost appear that the board members have some agreed upon rationale but since no one outside the review room knows what it is the filmmakers have to guess what content resulted in a harsher rating. Since there are no published MPAA guidelines for directors and producers to follow getting the proper rating is a case of hit and miss. When a rating is initially set only the most general indication such as nudity, violence, etc. is given to indicate what subject matter was considered objectionable. There may be only a few frames of film difference between an R and an NC-17 rating. In one case noted here, Matt Stone and Trey Parker discuss the rating of their puppet flick, ‘Team America: World Police.' The pair deliberately inserted overly obscene material certain to garner an NC-17. This way when the film received that rating, they could remove the planted scenes and wind up with the R they originally wanted. Dick proposes that games like this would not be necessary if the MPAA were more open about their procedures and criteria.

Since the people who do the ratings are not known, there is no accountability with the way they rate films. One point made in this documentary is that this leads to certain prejudices in the criteria. Dick interviews many people in the talent side of the industry including directors, producers, and actors to get the background on rating disputes in the past. The MPAA is known to be less harsh on the display of violence than they are with sexual content. While a film like ‘Saw’ or ‘Hostel’ can receive an R rating frontal nudity is sure to get the more restrictive NC-17. In one interview actress, Maria Bello talks about how a brief shot of her pubic hair in the film ‘The Cooler’ threatened to get the film the dreaded NC-17. So, according to the secret review board watching people horribly dismembered are okay for a parent to take a teenager to, but a little glimpse of a patch of hair is only for the most adult audiences. If the sex presented in a more comic manner such as the Scary Movie franchise, it most likely gets an R. A realistic but depicting an adult relationship will push the rating over the line to NC-17. It is also noted here that homosexual content and male nudity is dealt with more severely.

This documentary also looks at the appeal process. If a director felt the MPAA assigned was unjustified it was feasible to appeal the decision. Unfortunately, this body is also secret both in membership and guidelines. There is no higher appeal so what they determine is the final word.Unfortunately, the composition of the review board consisted of people engaged in the retail portion of the movie industry. The representation includes theater chain owners, retail outlets, and marketing people. It documentary demonstrates that they are more interested in the cash flow than artistic integrity. This also brings Dick to why the NC-17 rating is so deadly to the success of a film. While this rating was supposed to indicate mature material it has become a pariah among the ratings. Most theaters will not show an NC-17 film; most media outlets and publications will not permit them to be advertised. The difference between R and NC-17 is often the financial viability of the film. The filmmaker could have gone into this aspect of the most serve rating, but he focuses more on the secrecy than the impact.

This is not a balanced documentary; it is one-sided. Dick has some archival footage of Valenti and some transcriptions of conversations with the MPAA representation, but little attempt is made to allow for rebuttal. This movie differs from others that attempt to peer into the inner workings of this ‘secret society,' it does not pretend to be unbiased. It presents a specific viewpoint that predetermines the presentation of the information. He set out to uncover the people and practices behind the MPAA without their permission or input. Its goal was to spark controversy, and to that end, he succeeds. Most of the people interviewed have had conflicts with the MPAA and had to fight to get their films out. Also excluded from the discussion is now the unrated DVD offers these artists a realistic means of distribution.

The Independent Film Channel and Genius Pictures as always provided excellent little independent many people may not have been known. Here, they can use their position of being outside the mainstream film business to take a risk and bring this film to DVD. The film was initially given an NC-17 due to the use of some clips from films with that rating. The film has been re-edited but not submitted for a rating. IFC is bold in their willingness to bring this film to the public.

Posted 12/29/06                04/20/2017

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