Sunday, May 20, 2007

"This Film Is Not Yet Rated"

If you hadn't previously heard of the 2006 documentary, "This Film Is Not Yet Rated," it could be because the film was rated "NC-17" (no children 17 or under) by the film rating board of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). And if you don't understand what that might have to do with anything—and you love movies and oppose censorship—then you owe it to yourself to watch this documentary.

I watched it last night and I was frankly appalled—and grateful that I learned about it (simply because the UNC film collection has it and I routinely search its growing list of consecutive call numbers assigned to films as they're acquired).

There are so many things of note in the film, but I'm going to mention only a few. One of the objectives of the director, Kirby Dick, was to try to identify the members of the rating board, whose makeup had for many years been a closely held secret, on the command of Jack Valenti (1921-2007), who created the rating board and was the MPAA's president for 38 years. Dick hired a private investigator and was successful in identifying all of the current members and exposing the fact that a number of them didn't fit the official MPAA profile of "average American with children." He also identified the members of the appeals board, to whom a film maker can appeal a decision of the rating board. Their identity had been even more closely guarded. And no wonder: they represent the corporate interests of the top production companies, who control around 90% of the movie business. Dick speculates that the secrecy and the corporate interest of the MPAA derives from Valenti's ties to government (he was an adviser to Lyndon B. Johnson) and to the movie industry. He candidly testified to Congress in 1968, when the rating board was created, that if the movie industry didn't police itself then undoubtedly government would police it. That is, the rating board was proposed as a self-defensive maneuver.

The MPAA is a lavishly funded lobbying organization, with a building in Washington to house its huge cadre of lobbyists. Through their efforts, Congress hears mostly about corporate interests (in strong copyright laws, anti-piracy technology regulations, etc.), and very little about consumer interests. Ironically, despite the rating board's assurance to Dick that no copy would be made of the tape he submitted for rating his film, a copy was made. But he had to do some more detective work to discover the fact. Ironic that this strongly anti-piracy organization should brazenly indulge in a sort of piracy....

One of the many things that I appreciated about "This Film Is Not Yet Rated" was its insight into the rating boards' role in violence's being so much more prevalent in American films than sex—just the opposite of European films, where sex is accepted as a normal part of life but violence is frowned upon. (But we all know that America is the most violent of "civilized" societies.) The corporation-friendly members of the rating board are okay with the depiction of violence (especially the dishonest variety that implies that shooting, stabbing, or cutting people is akin to make-believe—see, kids, people don't even bleed when you kill them!) But the depiction of sexual pleasure isn't okay (especially when it's a woman enjoying it; the board is much friendlier toward the depiction of rape and other forms of violence against women).

As I said, if you care about movies and abhor censorship (and the promotion of antisocial values) by people whose identity is not normally made public, then you should watch "This Film Is Not Yet Rated."

By the way, I do not recommend the Wikipedia's entry on the MPAA, which strikes me as a whitewash. But you might like to contrast its view of the MPAA to that of "This Film Is Not Yet Rated"—after you watch it.


  1. The film sounds like one worth seeing. I don't know if the library here will ever get it in. Might just get lucky.

  2. Agreed. Sounds interesting. I'll be on the watch for it.

    I do think it a good thing to keep violent or sexually explicit films away from children. And the MPAA ratings have utterly failed to do this. In fact, it sometimes seems to have accomplished just the opposite.

    A PG-13 can easily be filthier than an R, for example. Directors long ago learned to avoid the 'R' triggers, all the while producing films wretched for kids, or anyone else.

    A PG-13, I'm told, can have no more than one 'F'. In practice, that is a guarantee that you will hear one, ususally in the most in-your-face way imaginable.

    Meanwhile, a dignified "R" film may go over the quota with F's, with no intention of titillating or offending, but only trying to reflect the way life is today.

    The excellent "Lives of Others," meanwhile, has some non-provocative nudity, earning it an R and thus putting it off limits to kids who are not restricted from the early Carrey-Sandler crap and today's counterparts. Is the nudity essential? Probably not, yet it does serve to convey some ideas that would be challenging to portray otherwise.

    In countries where there is no rating system, people read movie reviews. You can find tons of reviews these days on the internet (unlike when the rating system was first devised). The reviews are far more useful than are the ratings.

  3. Yes, the ratings are at best worthless, at worst seductively misleading.

    But there are issues of corporate control of what films get made that are far more troubling than the rating system per se. For example, take the question of gun violence. To what extent is its prevalence in the movies a result of the power of the National Rifle Association, even of "the military industrial complex," against which Dwight Eisenhower warned us fifty years ago?