After the conference, I dug into one of my new Netflix titles: This Film Is Not Yet Rated. Kirby Dick’s documentary explores the history and controversy of the Motion Picture Association of America’s seemingly misguided ratings system, taking issue first and foremost with the fact that all the film raters’ identities are kept secret.
Through illuminating interviews with filmmakers, Dick tries to articulate the difference between an R rating and an NC-17 rating, the latter being considered a box office “kiss of death” for filmmakers because it turns off middle America. Filmmakers discuss feedback they received from the MPAA in light of their NC-17 rating and what they can do to get down to an R rating, proving, to some degree, that the MPAA has an awareness of its influence and impact over the filmmaking community.
The director of Boys Don’t Cry, for instance, explained that it was fine to show Brandon Teena being shot in the head, but not fine for her to film Lana’s face as she orgasms for about a full minute. The film is full of such comparisons, including an extended montage that posits that heterosexual sex acts, no matter how explicit, often capture the R rating, while homosexual sex acts generally lead to an NC-17 rating, even if the characters are fully clothed and, in the case of But I’m a Cheerleader, only masturbating.
Dick makes the point that in America, the only two organizations that work in secret are the CIA and the MPAA. To that end, he hires a team of private investigators to uncover the identities of the raters.
Through surveillance and good old fashioned detective work, the team track, follow, and unearth the identities of the raters, all of whom are purported to be parents of children up to age 18…but most of whom have adult children only. Dick discovers the ratings board’s appeal board is made up almost entirely of studio executives and theatre chain owners, who, through the appeals board, are able to effect undue impacts on the filmmaker’s creative decisions–and the general public’s moviegoing options.
Of all the documentaries I’ve seen, I think this is one of the most chilling for the insidiousness of its subject. It points out yet another hypocrisy in the nation of free speech and free thought, neither of which seem to be in good health these days.