Tuesday, April 13, 2010


Directed by Kirby Dick

Featuring Kevin Smith, Kimberly Pierce, John Waters, Wayne Kramer, Maria Bello

I remember the exact moment I realized there was something not quite right with the Motion Picture Association of America's ratings board. That moment was when I walked out of a showing of Steven Spielberg's 2002 Minority Report. Spielberg treads some of the darkest territory of his career with the film both thematically and visually, and during its two-hour and fifteen minute running time features not only scenes of intense violence (including a stabbing with a pair of scissors during the first ten minutes of the film) but a semi-explicit (although brief) image of a couple having sex, a character chasing his eyeballs as they roll away from his, and a sub-plot involving child-rape. To this day it remains one of the hardest PG-13 films I have ever seen, and thinking about the film in my head I found it inexplicable that the movie received any rating other than R. It hit me that it must have had something to do with the influence of its director and the studio behind its release, Twentieth Century Fox.

In his documentary This Film is Not Yet Rated, director Kirby Dick examines the concern I and many people have (you included - and if you're not concerned you should be and will be after watching this film) about the MPAA and its ratings board specifically. The board includes members of...well, we don't know. Their names are...well, we don't know that either. There are...well we don't even know how many members there are. The point is this: we don't know who the people are rating the films we see, we don't know the criteria used to rate the film, and we don't understand why they rate films the way they rate them. This can be especially frustrating as a filmmaker. Believe it or not, despite what Jack Valenti says, a film's rating can have an affect on how it performs at the box office. Every single major motion picture released must have a film rating. If a filmmaker decides not to have his or her film rated, it goes out into the market "Unrated." Unrated films are impossible to market. When a film is impossible to market it makes no money.

The ratings board also makes things difficult for the filmmaker by sometimes being vague with why the board rated something a particular way. If they rate a film NC-17 (No children under 17 admitted under any circumstances), a rating usually given to movies with high sexual content, it can be difficult for a filmmaker to re-cut the film to secure an R rating - a much more marketable endeavor. This is especially true with independent films, which This Film is Not Yet Rated finds are treated differently than studio productions.

This is because, as Dick finds out through some independent investigation, the board meets with the heads of the respective major studio (of which there are six) after the board rates one of its films. The board then gives the studio specific notes to films released by major studios and advises the studio as to how to re cut the film to secure the desired rating. Independent filmmakers, lacking the influence of the major studios, don't receive that same opportunity.

This Film is Not Yet Rated covers this ground, relatively new to the average movie goer, and ground that's been covered many times before, such as questioning why movies with gratuitous violence are judged more harshly than films with sexual content. While this is a question that has been around almost since the inception of the ratings board, it is still the most perplexing inquiry regarding the judgment of the board's members. The MPAA claims that the board is a guide for parents and lets them choose what and what not to let their kids view, but is rating a film that has 2 hours of gratuitous gun-play PG-13 (a rating it would receive if the violence was bloodless) while a film with two consensual adults having sex receives an R really protecting our children? Filmmaker Darren Aronofsky distills the absurdity of the puritanical thought process down to this: he believes if the consequences of violence - such as bullets creating deep, bloody, unrepairable flesh wounds - are shown on-screen, then the film should be rated PG-13 and allowed to be shown to kids, as they don't fully comprehend the way the effects violence can have on another individual. If a film doesn't show the effects of violence - bloodless bullet wounds, people recovering from their injuries immediately - then the film should be R rated and only allowed to be seen by adults, who have developed a real world understanding of what violence really does to others.

Kirby's film is filled with interviews with actors, directors, and law professors pontificating on the state of the ratings board. It's also filled with a self-satisfied Kirby investigating the members of the ratings board and trying to uncover the identities of its members. He is - at the risk of mentioning a spoiler - successful, and although he has been criticized for giving out personal details of the board members, there is a certain level of vindication felt when he finally reveals who they are. The MPAA ratings board is the only film ratings board in the world that keeps its members secret. As a matter of fact, it's the only board in this country who keeps its members secret at all.

The third act of the film largely does away with the filmmaker interviews and focuses mainly on Dick and his attempt to get This Film is Not Yet Rated a rating. This portion of the film is infuriating for two reasons: 1) Dick injects more of himself into this portion, and his smug, self-congratulatory attitude is ingratiating. Documentaries work best when the filmmakers let the subject speak for itself. And 2) Dick comes to find that the Appeals Board (This Film is Not Yet Rated receives an NC-17 so he must take it to the next level of the ratings board) is even more secretive than the fist level board. So secretive that it was not known, before the film was made, that the Appeals Board includes two members of the clergy - a Catholic and Episcopalian priest - that act as advisors of the board and even cast votes. So much for an independent appeals process.

This Film is Not Yet Rated is required viewing for those that want to know who, on a daily basis, rates the films we view. Although Dick injects too much of himself into his film, there is no denying that the MPAA ratings board is a hypocritical and biased organization that demands transparency.

Oh - and the rating This Film is Not Yet Rated received? None. Dick decided to release it Unrated after the Appeals Board sustained the original NC-17 rating.

Trailer here.

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