This Film Is Not Yet Rated, Kirby Dick’s cunningly outraged documentary about the Motion Picture Association of America and its infamous, dogged ratings board, is a movie that might just shake up the world of movies. People have been complaining about the MPAA for so long, and the gripes are by now so familiar — the system is arbitrary! Sex is judged more harshly than violence! The stigma of the X rating was never resolved by NC-17! — that it can seem a little like grousing about dorm food or campaign finance law. There may be good reasons to object to the status quo, but that doesn’t mean that anyone expects anything to change.
Yet This Film Is Not Yet Rated has a bright, dishy spirit, an eagerness to provoke of the very sort that the MPAA has always tried to put in its place. Filmmakers like Kimberly Peirce, John Waters, Mary Harron, Kevin Smith, and Atom Egoyan share their inside-the-star-chamber horror stories about the relatively unsensational scenes (a lengthy female orgasm in Boys Don’t Cry; a mention of the word ”felching” in A Dirty Shame) that resulted in their films being threatened with the box office oblivion that is NC-17. We’re made privy to the ratings board’s obsession with pelvis thrusts, as well as details of its hypocritical double standards — the preferential treatment given to studio over independent films, and to straight over gay sex. Matt Stone, of the South Park duo, is quite amusing recalling his experiences with the indie midnight movie Orgazmo versus the big-studio Team America: World Police, which was submitted with a great deal more sick puppet sex than the filmmakers ever intended to use (so that the board could pat itself on the back for nixing something naughty).
The liveliest gambit in This Film Is Not Yet Rated was Dick’s decision to hire a private detective to expose the identities of the ratings board members. Yanking these professional fuddy-duddies out of the shadows, Michael Moore-style, turns out to be just the hot poker this debate needed. As Dick and his investigator, Becky Altringer, who’s sort of like Ann B. Davis with attitude, sit in a car in downtown Los Angeles, watching the board members drive out of the MPAA’s slightly sinister mini-mall complex, with its tinted windows and security guard, the movie develops the cheekiness of a put-on conspiracy thriller. With a hidden camera, Dick, in a restaurant, photographs veteran rater Joann Yatabe, a 61-year-old mother of grown children who stares at him with her Imelda Marcos scowl. Yes, she has just been ambushed, but that pinched, joyless face speaks volumes. It’s the face of a punisher, and it becomes the film’s emblem of how the ratings board turned from a defensible watchdog into an executioner of art.
In 1968, when the MPAA’s ratings system was created by Jack Valenti as a more enlightened successor to the Production Code, Hollywood films were just starting to grow violent, dangerous, and erotically explicit, and the groundbreaking ones, like Bonnie and Clyde and Rosemary’s Baby, were disturbing to just about everyone — even liberal film critics. The ratings board was conceived as a buffer for children, but also as a force to ward off government regulation, and that, more or less, is how it worked. So what changed? In the ’80s and ’90s, pop culture became more extreme (slasher flicks, porn on demand, gangsta rap, Basic Instinct), yet Hollywood, in tandem, grew more homogenized, less enamored of raciness for the sake of creativity. The key point I’d criticize This Film Is Not Yet Rated for failing to explore is the way that the gradually increasing puritanism of the MPAA now serves the consumerist priorities of a PG-13-centric Hollywood. If everything is blander, then in theory it becomes more marketable. Which is certainly why the industry has winked at the board’s transformation into a vehicle of censorship.
There, I finally said it. The C-word! But does it truly apply? The ratings board’s chosen mission is to protect children. That it undoubtedly does. Yet over the years, as This Film stingingly captures, too many filmmakers of too much ambition have had to compromise or destroy too much of their work to now consider this organization the safeguard of an open society. As the raters sit in their screening rooms, in dour anonymity (at least until now), toting up the bad words and the body parts, timing orgasms, turning the very force of their reactions into a strike against the movies they’re watching, they have become bureaucrats of oppression, starkly out of touch with their era. To save the children, this agency of white-rubber-glove lab technicians now treats adults the way the rest of Hollywood does, as if too many movies made in freedom could kill them.