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This Film Is Not Yet Rated Review

By Shawn McKenzie 11/12/2006

The Synopsis:

Oscar-nominated director Kirby Dick (Twist of Faith) investigates the MPAA film ratings system and its affect on the movies made.  The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) is a lobbying organization for the movie industry and a ratings system that was started in 1968 by longtime president Jack Valenti.  The current system uses letter grades to rate movies:  G (all ages admitted), PG (some material may not be suitable for pre-teenagers), PG-13 (some material may be inappropriate for children under 13), R (no one under 17 admitted unless accompanied by parent or adult guardian), and NC-17 (no one 17 and under admitted; it was formerly X.)  The board members are anonymous though.  Dick attempts to find out the identities of the names of the board members by hiring a private investigator.  Becky Altringer is a detective from Ariel Investigations outside L.A. who works with her partner (and girlfriend) Cheryl Howell, along with their junior PI, Cheryl’s daughter Lindsey.  Starting with the current ratings board chairwoman Joan Graves, they manage to track down all nine members.  Filmmakers who give their opinions include John Waters (A Dirty Shame), Kevin Smith (Clerks), Matt Stone (“South Park”), Kimberly Peirce (Boys Don’t Cry), Atom Egoyan (Where the Truth Lies), Darren Aronofsky (Requiem for a Dream), Mary Harron (American Psycho), actress Maria Bello (The Cooler), distributor Bingham Ray (cofounder, October Films and former President, United Artists), and more.  Also giving their opinions are two insiders:  Stephen Farber, a former MPAA rater and film critic; and Richard Heffner, a former chairman of the MPAA ratings board from 1974 to 1994.

The Review:

I have had a longtime gripe with the MPAA.  I can see their usefulness, but I don’t like that they can dictate what is considered appropriate.  In This Film is Not Yet Rated, we finally get a chance to see the hypocrisy of the system.

Let me at least give some kudos to what they have done right.  Their existence has made it possible to avoid a federal censorship board or any local boards.  Also, I like that the ratings system can tell me how good a movie is, i.e. a sucky PG-13-rated horror movie vs. a good R-rated horror movie (that is the same thing as the Recording Industry Association of America’s “Parental Advisory: Explicit Lyrics” sticker.  When I see that sticker, I know that it is a good album!)

The MPAA is mostly the enemy to filmmakers or anyone who likes to see their movies uncensored though.  Dick does a good job at giving us a brief history of censorship in the movies, from the Hays Code (adopted in 1930, enforced in 1934) to the current system.  He is also effective in showcasing the discrimination of independent movies and movies containing homosexual scenes in favor of heterosexual studio scenes.  Indies are given a harsher rating than their studio counterparts are.  He also does a side-by-side comparison of selected scenes from homosexual and heterosexual movies showing essentially the same amount of explicit content, but that the homosexual movie is given the harsher rating.  This was a revelation that I wasn’t aware of before.

My favorite scene in the movie was when Matt Stone showed some deleted scenes from his 2004 movie Team America: World Police (obviously taken from the “Uncensored and Unrated Special Collector’s Edition” version of the DVD) where the MPAA originally wanted to rate it NC-17 because of a goofy puppet sex scene.  Of course, the graphic violence spread throughout the rest of the movie didn’t concern them.  He and partner Trey Parker specifically filmed these explicit scenes with full knowledge that the MPAA would give it the NC-17 rating, and that when they resubmitted it on appeal, they would get the R-rating that they wanted and the scene they had originally envisioned.  It’s sad that they have to play these games, but at least Matt and Trey have found a way to skirt the system.

I will say that I think that the private investigator aspect of the movie is probably more important to filmmakers than to moviegoers.  I personally don’t care to know who is on the board, but I can understand why a filmmaker would be ticked off to learn that these supposed “average parents” are actually people who either don’t have kids, or that their kids are full-grown adults now.  I’m more concerned about them passing judgment on movies with little to no knowledge of movies themselves.

Now…I have to acknowledge the criticisms I have heard about the movie.  First is the fact that Dick doesn’t mention that the MPAA is in a partnership with the National Association of Theatre Owners (NATO), so they also get a say in how a movie is rated.  Also, I wish he had explored the fence between PG-13 movies and R movies.  The best example I have is that the same PG-13 rating was given to two Richard Linklater movies:  2003’s The School of Rock and 2005’s remake of The Bad News Bears.  If you have seen both of movies then you will agree with me that the former one is an uplifting movie that sends a great message to kids about acceptance and the latter one is just a foul-mouthed little league coach and his equally foul-mouthed players.  If I were rating the movies myself, I would have given Rock a PG rating and Bears an R rating.  I have had many discussions with my colleague Reggie McDaniel that there should be a new rating that bridges PG-13 and R…like maybe PG-15 or something.

Dick concentrates more on the bridge between R and NC-17, which is understandable, because receiving an NC-17 severely limits a filmmaker’s ability to promote or distribute the film.  Many movie theater chains won’t play an NC-17 movie, TV networks won’t accept their ads, big rental chains like Blockbuster and Hollywood Video won’t stock the movie, and some uppity retail chains (i.e. Wal-Mart) won’t sell the movie.  That means that people are forced to go to out-of-the-way independent movie theaters and video stores to see the movies…and if they happen to live in small towns where Blockbuster or Wal-Mart are their only movie viewing/purchasing options, then they are screwed.

I am giving This Film is Not Yet Rated a perfect score because I strongly believe that it’s an important film that might shine a light on the stuffiness of the MPAA.  Ironically, the movie was originally rated NC-17 before Dick went to the appeals board (and filmed the process to tack on the end of the movie) and had it changed to “rating surrendered.”  Before you think that I am blind to the fact that the movie is completely one-sided, I will tell you that I realize that aspect of the film.  Unlike a one-sided Michael Moore film, all of the facts in it are true and are not fabricated.  It is not a complete film (as I stated above), but I still think that it is the best documentary of the year so far.  I would say that it should be nominated for an Oscar in the Best Documentary Feature category, but I bet that the detractors of the film will find a way to make sure that it isn’t even eligible for contention.

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