This Film Is Not Yet Rated (2006, directed by Kirby Dick)
So this is an interesting documentary that's currently airing on the Independent Film Channel (IFC), about the weird, secretive process that films go through to get ratings from the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). It's a very interesting subject, and I've read about it quite a bit, being a movie lover. It seems really strange and insular; the board that makes the decision is kept secret, and they often give ratings without explaining their reasoning or telling filmmakers what they can change to get a lower rating. There are a lot of fascinating interviews with filmmakers describing the headaches they experienced trying to argue for a lower rating.
As can probably be expected, the main reason for high ratings (especially NC-17s) is sexual content. American society is strangely Puritanical about sex, and that's reflected in the ratings many movies receive. Kimberly Peirce, director of Boys Don't Cry, describes how her movie got an NC-17 for a few scenes, but two things the board mentioned was Hilary Swank wiping her mouth after going down on Chloe Sevigny, and the extended shot of Sevigny's face as she was having an orgasm. There were no complaints about a character getting shot in the head, however. That's pretty odd. And it's only the first example in the movie; we get many more before the film is over, including a side-by-side comparison of similar scenes in R-rated flims versus NC-17s where the only difference is that the movies that received an NC-17 featured homosexual relations.
That's another theme, that the board gives harsher ratings to gay-themed movies. The director of But I'm a Cheerleader, a teen comedy about gay kids sent to camps to be turned straight, describes how frustrated she was to receive a NC-17 when her movie was not very explicit. The board didn't like a shot of a female character masturbating, but at that time, American Pie came out, and it had that scene of Jason Biggs masturbating with a pie in the trailer.
That's the problem that this film points out, that so much of the ratings process seems so arbitrary, especially since there are no published guidelines. It also seems skewed toward films produced by studios, with harsher ratings often going to independently-produced films. Matt Stone, co-creator of South Park, describes how the board gave their independent film Orgazmo a NC-17, and when asked what could be changed, stated that they did not give recommendations for changes. But five years later, they were making the South Park movie, which was produced by Paramount; after receiving a NC-17, the board gave them specific recommendations for what could be changed to get an R.
So, it's a very interesting look at the subject, but the documentary can be kind of a chore to sit through, due to it's "stylish" editing and digressions from the main topic. It seems like there has to be a goofy sound effect every time text appears on the screen, and we often get annoying animated sequences; a description of what the various ratings mean is accompanied by blob-like cartoons having sex. It gets tiresome, although it definitely fits the obnoxious style of IFC's commercials and bumpers. Also, the filmmakers decided to hire a private investigator to see if they can discover the identities of the secretive ratings board. That's fine; the information is important to the film, but we get seemingly endless scenes of the P.I. staking out MPAA headquarters. Boring. And after discussing the tendency to give harsher ratings to gay-themed films, we are treated to a scene in which we learn the the P.I. is a lesbian. It's completely pointless. And there are a few scenes describing the extent of the MPAA's influence, including in areas of copyright legislation and piracy. That's all well and good, but this movie is about ratings. Focus, people.
Oh, and they could have stood to discuss violence a little more, in my opinion. There are some mentions that extreme violence seems okay, but sex is what the board really gets hung up on. But violence is still an issue, isn't it? Where are the discussions with directors who had to cut out some blood to get a PG-13 and make their movie marketable to teens? In fact, there's no mention of the creation of the PG-13 rating in the 80's (from what I understand, it came about after complaints about violent scenes in PG-rated movies like Gremlins and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom), which would have been a good example of how the MPAA can change its rules due to outside pressure.
But, for the most part, it's worth sitting through the bad stuff to get the interviews with filmmakers and descriptions into the process. I don't even agree with some of them, especially the weird case made by the director of the documentary Gunner Palace, which is about American troops in Iraq. There's plenty of swearing and depictions of a war zone, and the movie received the predictable R. He fought for a lower rating because it's "real life" and he thinks it should be seen by everybody. I'm not sure what he's even trying to do. Does he want a PG-13? PG? It seems like the board made the right decision, giving information to parents about what they want their kids to watch. I think parents would like to decide whether or not their kids should see this movie, which is the purpose of an R rating.
The end of the movie is an extended bit in which Dick submits the documentary to the board. Since it features many offending scenes from NC-17-rated movies, it gets an NC-17. Dick appeals the rating, and it's amusing to see him go through the process of an appeal, trying to find out about the appeals board (which we learn is "observed" by two members of the clergy. That's strange, especially since there is some disagreement whether or not they get a vote). He fails, of course, and it's pretty fun to watch, especially since the ratings people realize that he's probably documenting the whole process to add to the film.
So it's a pretty nice look at a flawed system, and a good call for change. It seems to have had some effect, as the MPAA recently changed its rules a bit and relaxed somewhat on the secrecy. It's a good start. I think that one thing the film could have focused more attention on is the rejection of the NC-17 rating and the de facto censorship caused by it. They briefly mention that movies that receive this rating (or choose to go unrated) don't get shown. That is, most theater chains, video stores, and retail outlets refuse to carry NC-17-rated movies, and that's why filmmakers have to fight to try to get an R. In my opinion, there should be a place for movies for adults; a NC-17-rated movie should be acceptable as something for mature viewers. I think that's what the MPAA wants as well, since it created the rating to avoid the pornographic stigma that went along with the old X rating. But if NC-17 movies don't get distribution, it's basically censorship. IFC has a petition to the MPAA about the issue, but I think they should also be petitioning Blockbuster, WalMart, and Loews Theaters to carry movies for adults. Let's get that movement started!