MPAA in Sights of This Film Is Not Yet Rated

Michael Fox September 12, 2006

Kirby Dick chuckles when I ask which organization is more secretive, the Catholic Church or the Motion Picture Association of America. It’s a bizarre question on its face, but one the L.A. documentary maker is uniquely qualified to answer. For “Twist of Fate,” his Oscar-nominated portrait of an Ohio fireman’s agonized crusade to get the Catholic Church to come clean about the sexual abuse he suffered at the hands of a priest, Dick found himself toe-to-toe with the Toledo archdiocese. His follow-up, “This Film Is Not Yet Rated“ (opening this week at the Lumiere), is a full-bore attempt to pierce the veil and challenge the authority of another monolithic institution that fancies itself outside the law: the Motion Picture Association of America, and the ratings board that operates under its auspices. One group (allegedly) engages in cover-ups, the other in de facto censorship. Dick gives the secrecy edge to the Church, but perhaps the better question is, Which entity poses the greater harm to a supposedly free and open society?

The ratings board exists, ostensibly, as a guide for parents to protect their children from brutal violence, sexual content, strong language, drug use and adult themes. (I use the board’s own rhetoric, culled from various R ratings.) So those of us who’ve achieved the age of 17 — the threshold for seeing an R-rated movie without adult accompaniment — and without children tend not to pay a lot of attention to ratings. Even if we’re as exorcised as filmmakers Kimberly Peirce (“Boys Don’t Cry”) or Atom Egoyan (“Where the Truth Lies”) about the reality that it’s harder to get an R for sex than violence, we figure we can always wait for the director’s cut or flip to HBO for adult entertainment.

The trouble with that attitude is that we don’t know what else we’re missing. As Pacific Film Archive curator Steve Seid wrote in the catalog accompanying the 1993 PFA series, Banned in the U.S.A.: America and Film Censorship, “When the efforts to censor are partially effective, we see controversial subjects compromised, moderated or recontextualized. When the efforts are absolutely effective, we see absolutely nothing.”

The MPAA claims it’s not a censor because filmmakers don’t have to submit their movie for a rating. But an unrated film is limited in the number of theaters that will play it, the papers that will accept ads and the video outlets that will carry the DVD. Watch what happens in the next few weeks as John Cameron Mitchell’s ebullient ‘Shortbus’ and the documentary “F*ck” (which hopes to mimic the success of last year’s scatological hit, “The Aristocrats”) challenge the system.

Leno and Letterman can make all the supposedly sophisticated jokes they want, but they won’t get near the tough questions raised by “This Film Is Not Yet Rated” and “Shortbus.” Which screenplays don’t get made because investors are put off by the financial implications of an NC-17 rating? How often do writers delete scenes or ideas from their scripts because they’re too risky or provocative?

“This ratings system isn’t morally driven,” Dick notes during a recent promotional stop in San Francisco. “It’s driven by the bottom line. Because the studios would prefer there be no rating system at all. But if there’s going to be a system, they want to control it, because they want to insure that their films get out to the widest possible marketplace, and to do that they want the least restrictive rating. Their market, now, is really toward adolescents, and adolescents respond to violent films. That’s why you see violence getting rated much less restrictively than sex. Their competition, which are independent films and foreign films, have taken on that role of making films about adult themes and sexuality, and those films often get much more restrictive ratings. It’s bottom-line driven. And that can be more damaging than a moral position. In this country, economic censorship and corporate-driven censorship is more of a threat to us than government censorship.”

In fact, the impetus for movie ratings has always been an industry desire to fend off outsiders eager to regulate the content of motion pictures. In the early 1930s, in response to the grandstanding of political and religious leaders about the den of Hollywood iniquity, the studios developed a production code. This wasn’t self-policing so much as smoke-blowing; as anyone who’s seen such sexually knowing films as “Babyface,” “Downstairs,” and “Design for Living” can attest, the studios paid no attention to their own guidelines. Under renewed pressure, the studios agreed to actually enforce the Code, and brought in a man named Joseph Ignatius Breen to run the show.

“This Film Is Not Yet Rated” includes a brief segment on the historical precedent for the MPAA, but it’s worth making explicit a point that the documentary makes implicitly. Even if a ratings system was established with the most limited goals and operated with the greatest integrity, it would inevitably devolve into an ad hoc censor. Once someone says, “This scene passes and that scene needs to be trimmed,” it’s a small step to “This scene needs to lose three f-words and that scene can’t include shots of that unorthodox sexual position.”

The documentary makes the case not only that studio films have an easier ride than independents, and that violence isn’t frowned on as much as sex, but that heterosexual sex has more leeway than gay and lesbian love scenes. It occurs to me that new modes of distribution — video on demand, movies on the Internet and, yes, DVDs of directors’ cuts — might circumvent and reduce the MPAA’s power. That elicits another smile from Dick.

‘This system allows them to sell the same product twice,” he points out. “They sell it first R-rated theatrically, and then they can take a little bit more material, throw it in and sell it as an NC-17 or unrated [DVD]. If you’re making an art film, you’re probably not that well financed and you’re under production constraints, so it’s hard [to shoot two versions]. But also there’s a certain cynicism or hypocrisy built into that whole structure, because if the MPAA was really concerned about protecting children, they would want these ratings applied to DVD as well. But they don’t.”

Dick’s mind shifts to other manifestations of the digital revolution. “You see a lot of people who would go into film going into new media,” he observes. “That’s a pretty wide-open arena right now. Hollywood, in particular, is so based on the 19th-century novel, and it’s getting so played out now, and this nonlinear new media just seems like” — he breaks into laughter — “Thank God it’s come. I mean, we would be very bored with film otherwise, I think.”