Sunday, August 15, 2010

(Sunday) Night at the Movies: "This Film Is Not Yet Rated"

Welcome to "Saturday Night at the Movies," a weekly feature in which I recommend an older title that you can go watch, right this very minute (provided you have Netflix Instant). Sorry for the day-lateness of this installment.

The MPAA rating system has been broken for years now. Film scholars and film critics have written about it—hell, Roger Ebert’s practically made a cottage industry of bitching about it. But no one had the balls to make a film about it—until now.

Kirby Dick’s documentary is called This Film Is Not Yet Rated, and it is a bitter, angry indictment of a fundamentally corrupt system. It is also wickedly funny and ridiculously entertaining. That Dick got this film made, and got anyone to talk to him for it, is remarkable. That the resulting film is so good is some kind of a miracle.

Dick, an affable, charismatic documentary filmmaker (his previous films include Sick: The Life and Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist and last year’s Oscar-nominated Twist of Fate), utilizes a Super Size Me structure—he finds a gimmick (in this case, hiring a private detective to uncover the identities of the MPAA’s raters, which are kept secret for no good reason) and alternates those sequences with his facts and talking heads.

The talking heads here are mostly fellow filmmakers, and lucky for Dick, some of the most articulate, interesting, and funny directors around have locked horns with the flywheels at the MPAA. He opens the film by having Kimberly Peirce talk, in detail, about her battle for the “R” rating for Boys Don’t Cry; Peirce, unsurprisingly, is a great storyteller, as are Kevin Smith, Matt Stone, and John Waters (his candid discussion of the sexual euphamisms in A Dirty Shame is a highlight).

First Ammendment attorney Martin Garbus raises some interesting points about the constitutionality of the de facto censorship of the ratings system (since most media outlets won’t carry advertisements for NC-17 films, and most video chains won’t carry them, the financial ramifications of the rating are unallowable). October Films co-founder Bingham Ray goes one better, warning that he’s going to use “the f-word”, and he does: in his view, it is a fascist system.

In the interest of brevity, not everyone’s story can be told, of course, and not every salient point can be made (the most glaring omission is the often-made argument that the MPAA’s focus on “helping parents” couldn’t matter less to adult moviegoers, without children, who just want a workable, non-stigmatized adult rating that allows them to see films that directors like Stanley Kubrick and Brian DePalma want to make for adult audiences). And to be sure, more screen time could be lent to the conventional documentary elements by slimming down the investigation angle, but interestingly, the detectives (a fortysomething lesbian and her partner’s teenage daughter) and their story become almost as interesting as the primary subject matter.

And besides, some of their discoveries are amazing. The MPAA claims that its members all have children from 5-17, but few do; most have kids in their twenties and thirties, and one may have no children at all. The appeals board is not supposed to be a secret committee, but Dick is not given their names, and no wonder—it turns out they’re all industry insiders, nearly every one connected to a major studio or media conglomerate.

Dick, luckily, doesn’t give a shit about anonymity, and helpfully names names. And maybe he’s playing dirty—but who cares? There should be some transparency to the process; filmmakers should have the right to know who is determining the fate of their films, and there should be some sort of accepted standard, especially when the precendents (which cannot be cited in an appeals hearing) are so inconsistent.

The independents, come to find out, have a lot harder time with the MPAA than the major studios—of course, since the studios pay the MPAA’s salaries. Matt Stone explains that when their independent production Orgazmo was slapped with the NC-17, they were told that specific cuts couldn’t be suggested; years later, when they did the South Park movie for Paramount, a detailed list of cuts was helpfully provided.

Violence, of course, gets far more leniency than sex, and male sexual pleasure is given way more slack than female pleasure (the female orgasms in Boys Don’t Cry and The Cooler had to be trimmed). Most astonishingly, scenes of gay sex are far more likely to get the NC-17 than similar scenes of straight sex—a point made astonishingly clear when Dick slaps up split-screen comparisons of R and NC-17 sex scenes with similar compositions and similar nudity—just different gender combinations.

Dick and editor Matthew Clarke pull an astonishing number of clips to great effect (this is one of the great movies about movies, right up there with Hearts of Darkness and Z Channel). What’s more, they pull the neat trick of making a film that feels stream-of-consciousness without feeling aimless. The resulting film is smart, thought-provoking, shocking, and laugh out loud funny. This Film Is Not Yet Rated is one of the year’s best.

-Originally written 9/06

"This Film Is Not Yet Rated" is available on DVD and via Netflix Instant.

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