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February 21, 2007

DVD Journal: "This Film is Not Yet Rated"

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Despite my love of racy movies, I don't have anything against the idea of film ratings, or a film board, or a film-ratings board. In principle, anyway. Parents should have a reasonably accurate idea of what the kiddies might be seeing, and grownups deserve to know what might be in store too. How else to convey these facts at a glance but with ratings? Far be it from me to cry "censorship" when a film is slapped with an R or an NC-17.

I root for a sensible ratings system for the sake of the movies themselves too. I want movies to flourish -- I sure do love that artform. And I want people's appreciation for movies generally to broaden and deepen. I don't think that can happen in the absence of a sensible ratings system.

Throughout their history movies have often attracted immense criticism. They're big, they're a popular artform, and they're overwhelmingly immediate and sensual in their impact. Squaresville people (from both the right and the left, by the way) can get really worked up about them. Society often seems to be on the verge of cracking down on movies, and the films they seem determined to give the hardest time are often the very movies I prefer to watch. Besides, when too many people get indignant, moviemakers become cautious, and caution often equals boring.

So, before putting the DVD of "This Film Is Not Yet Rated" -- Kirby Dick's documentary about the Motion Picture Association of America's ratings board -- into the DVD player, my only complaints about America's film ratings system were three.

  • Along with a zillion other people, I'm baffled by the way the MPAA cuts violence a lot of slack while dealing harshly with portrayals of sexuality. Whose idea of a good idea is it to say: "Hey, violence is fun! It's great material for entertainment! Sex? Gee, I just don't know ..."? America, eh?

  • I'm miffed as well by the way cartoonishness is cut more slack than realism, let alone emotional resonance. Per the MPAA, it's fine to blow something to smithereens so long as the action is exaggerated and no one's hurt. This seems a strange lesson to convey to kids. Don't we generally want the impressionable to understand that certain actions will result in pain and misfortune?

    The leeway shown cartoonishness prevails where sex is concerned too. Teen comedies feature extremely smutty imagery and behavior yet are dealt with more leniently than are films that feature resonant portrayals of sex. Whose idea of a good idea is it to say: "We're happier if and when you treat sex irresponsibily than we are when you acknowledge that sex has some power"? America, eh?

  • My third quarrel with the ratings system is another "America, eh?" objection. It has to do with the NC-17 rating. The trouble here has nothing to do with the MPAA or with the rating itself. Certainly an "adults-only" rating makes sense and has its uses. I view extreme art and entertainment -- which I'm often fond of -- as analogous to booze, cars, cigarettes, nightclubs, and the lighter recreational drugs. They're pasttimes that are potentially dangerous, but they're also pleasures that adults ought to be allowed to enjoy.

    The trouble with the NC-17 rating is a practical one: Many American movie chains simply won't book NC-17 films, and many American newspapers simply won't run ads for them. That's their right, of course. But it does mean, or it has meant up until very recently, that adult-themed extreme entertainments aren't produced very often. Not being able to distribute your film to a big part of the market is a strong disincentive. It ain't censorship, but it's severely discouraging.

Of course, I live in NYC, where many of these films can be easily found. (It's one reason I'm here.) And of course Amazon and Netflix now make most of these films easily available to anyone who might want to watch them.

So I didn't carry an enormous ball of concern with me into Kirby Dick's movie. By the time I turned the DVD player off after watching the film, though, I was feelin' some heat. What peeved me the most was the MPAA's treatment of sex. The board seems obsessed with anticipating the objections of some mythical mid-American soccer mom. A mythically prissy one, too: The soccer moms I've known have often had pretty rowdy pasts.

Director after director gives examples of absurd decisions. Kimberly Peirce reports that her movie "Boys Don't Cry" was threatened with an NC-17 because of a shot showing a girl rising from between the thighs of another girl, wiping her mouth. The mouth-wipe had to go. Maria Bello and Wayne Kramer of "The Cooler" (praised by yours truly here) recall that their movie was threatened with an NC-17 for a brief glimpse of Maria's pubic hair. Meanwhile, jokey "Scary Movie"-type movies showing cartoonish images of gallons of semen sploodging onto ceilings and of boys humping pies quickly receive R ratings. Hmm, "Boys Don't Cry" and "The Cooler" are indie movies ... The Maxim / fratboy comedies are studio pix ... Coincidence?

Atom Egoyan couldn't figure out any way at all of trimming his film "Where The Truth Lies" to receive an R. The Wife and I watched the film completely mystified by the film's unrated status. We were a little disappointed, to be honest: Where was the extreme material we'd been looking foward to? Had the MPAA been bugged by a couple of shots showing one actress' head vanishing between another's thighs? Yet it was such a chaste and beautifully-lit moment ... Could the raters have objected to a moment when one guy makes a gay advance on another? Yet nothing schlongish, let alone stiff-schlongish, was visible ...

(Some ammunition for those who like politicizing these matters: Joan Graves, the woman in charge of the ratings board is, boo hiss, a Republican. But both Jack Valenti, the MPAA's driving force, and his replacement Dan Glickman have served time in Democratic administrations.)

Kirby Dick does a good job of laying out the MPAA's ties to the corporate parts of the film industry, and he argues convincingly that the board treats corporate product more ... cooperatively than it does indie product. But what Dick is particularly fascinated by is the MPAA's devotion to secrecy. Bizarrely, the names of the people who actually rate films aren't made public; neither are the names of the people on the appeals board, which convenes to pass judgment when a filmmaker protests a rating. The MPAA says that it wants to protect its raters and its judges from outside influence. But, as several interviewees point out, what kind of sense does this make? After all, the names of real-life judges, lawyers, and prosecutors are known to the public.

The MPAA's secrecy-obsession provides Dick with his narrative spine. He hires a private eye, and together they track down some of the MPAA's film-raters, a number of whom turn out not to have kids of impressionable age, despite Joan Graves' claim that most of the people who rate films are concerned parents who have kids of school age.

The funniest and most fascinating part of the movie comes near the end, when Dick submits the very film you're watching (evidently minus its last ten minutes or so) to the MPAA. He's informed by Joan Graves herself that the film has been awarded an NC-17. Dick protests the rating and eventually goes before the appeals board; they turn him down flat. Dick and his detective dig up their names too. One after another, they have tight connections to the movie studios. As Dick points out: If the point of keeping their names secret is to protect them from attempts to influence them .. . Well, they're already in the pockets of the businesses they're supposedly being protected from.

A few quibbles. I'm unsure why Kirby Dick made some of the style choices he did. The zany typography, the parodistic music, and the hipster graphics certainly give the film some tone, but the goofiness and drollery seem at odds with the film's muckraking intentions. The History Channel fan in me could have used a lot more time spent on historical background. And, while the tracking-down-the-raters gambit may tie the movie together, it takes up a lot of time and doesn't finally come to a whole lot (though tracking down the names of the people on the appeals board certainly hits the target).

All that said, the film was a well-organized and hyper-informative documentary, and I'm very glad I watched it. I'd imagine that anyone interested in the movies would find some eye-opening material in it too.

Hey, recent years have been a great stretch for documentaries, haven't they? Here are links to reviews I've written of some other recent documentaries:

Kirby Dick speaks to C.H.U.D about the MPAA. Here's the MPAA's website. Joan Graves responds to Kirby Dick's movie here. Gregg Kilday reported in January that the MPAA has decided to make its process more transparent.

Newteevee reports that, where touchy content is concerned, YouTube seems to be going the way of the American movie business: ie., violence sure; sex, no sirree.



posted by Michael at February 21, 2007


Excellent points, and an equally excellent list. I've seen three on this list and *loved* them, which should mean many more hours of excellent vid viewing if I work my way through the list.

Might I humbly add the following docus:

"We Jam Econo", the story of seminal L.A. punk band, the Minutemen

"New York Doll", the story of ex-New York Dolls member (and Mormon convert) Arthur "Killer" Kane hooking up with the band for one last, big gig

"Comedian", which examines the strange and harrowing world of standup by following both Jerry Seinfeld as he builds a new headliner act from scratch and the trajectory of a just-breaking comic, Orny Adams, at the same time

"The Dancing Outlaw", the story of Jesco White, folk dancer, Elvis impersonator, glue huffer

"Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story", the Todd Haynes classic, and one of my all-time favorites,pulled from distribution but available via a few clicks on Google Video (as of this writing, anyway)

Oh, how I do love a nice documentary...

Posted by: communicatrix on February 21, 2007 11:53 PM

Maybe we need an new intermediate rating in between "R" and "NC-17"?

"SM: Not recommended for soccer moms. The reality in this movie is not candy-coated."

It could help. The soccer moms can still get their R-Rated sex, but avoid seeing any of them thar fayges doin' it.

Posted by: Upstate Guy on February 22, 2007 9:05 AM

...but the goofiness and drollery seem at odds with the film's muckraking intentions...

Isn't that the influence of Michael Moore at work? It's hard to have any respect for documentarians who take a smirking, sneering, sarcastic approach to their subject matter; they come off as spoiled children.

..."If I Should Fall From Grace," about the Irish rocker Shane MacGowan...

Caught that on TV. The sound of MacGowan singing resulted in my father cursing and racing out of the room.

..."Standing in the Shadows of Motown," about Motown's backup musicians...

Hard to go wrong with music that good, unless the performances are chopped up, but they let the music play. The flashback dramatizations were silly though.

A recent doc I'd recommend for those with big, fancy TV screens is "Our Daily Bread", about the current state of factory farming. The director interviewed some of the workers and managers on camera, but stripped all dialog for the final cut, while at the same time saturating the colors to create other-worldly images (hence the value of a good TV screen). One comes away both disturbed and impressed by the technology and scale of the modern food industry.

Posted by: James M. on February 22, 2007 11:28 AM

The "cartoonish" exemption seems bizarre, but we all know that speech (or other content) is treated very differently when it's meant seriously or as a joke. "Smile when ya say that, podner!" is how old?

Heck, it applies to sex, too. There's lots of drag humor in old cartoons.

Posted by: Rich Rostrom on February 23, 2007 1:41 AM

Lemme start with the fact that I agree with what this movie is about and what its goals are.

As for bombs getting an easier hall pass from the MPAA than boobs, I think I might have an insight on that one.

First let's make it clear we're talking about movies where the audience should be adult only.

I've opined here before that the more realistic (or even real) sex in a non-porno movie is, the more uncomfortable I am (usually). However, bodies getting riddled with bullets doesn't really phase me (with the exception of hyper-realistic/this-really-happened stuff like the beginning of "Saving Private Ryan"). And, as I opined recently on my blog, I actually get a kick out of true gratuitous gratuitous nudity, like on "Beerfest" where the joke is girls flashing their boobs. Another example is "Jackass 2" where the Little Man streaks through a room of unsuspecting folks.

I think it's because of the difference between a vicarious thrill and a visceral one.

When I see violence on screen, I know it's fake, because it has to be faked. When I see animals get hurt, I know it's fake. But when actors get naked and start rubbing on each other, it's real in the sense the actors had to do that.

But enough about them, it's about me. I don't mind facing a splatter fest necessarily, but I don't really want a movie arousing me without my permission. If I'm in the privacy of my own home with my wife, then maybe ok. But out at a theatre sitting there with a bunch of strangers, and getting a boner - that's kind of embarrassing.

I know all you folks who consider yourself more sophisticated than I will be rolling your eyes and chortling about this, but there it is.

When I came to post this, I saw people were listing other docs that were good. Here are mine:

The Thin Blue Line - this got the falsely accused released and makes you understand why anyone could be a bad witness

The "Up" series by M. Apted - see any Roger Ebert writeup on these as to why they rock

Mother Teresa (1986) by Ann Petrie and Jeanette Petrie - when M. Teresa calms the orphan who's having a seizure, I think it's a literal miracle we're witnessing

Crumb - gripping portrait of a messed up dude

Grizzly Man - gripping portrait of a messed up dude

The whole "Classic Albums" series - the artists (who are still alive) explain in detail what went into creating a classic. Link:

Woodstock - classic time capsule; you can almost smell the BO.

Chuck Berry Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll - probably the only good doc on the other man who invented rock and roll (the other King if you will)

Animals Are Beautiful People - by the guy who made "The Gods Must Be Crazy," highlights of which are drunken elephants and giraffes

The Hunting of the President - heartbreaking account of the wingnut witch-hunt for Bill Clinton that resulted in Susan McDougal - who wouldn't testify against Clinton - being put in the prison clothes reserved for serial killers and death row inmates, so when she would be transported, she was contained in a special cage on the bus and other inmates were allowed to masturbate and ejaculate on her. Make sure you watch the DVD extra where Clinton speaks after the premiere.

The Power of Myth - Bill Moyers on Joseph Campbell

The Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress (1944) - one of my teachers, a WWII vet, was given a personal copy of this so we saw it a few times. It puts you in the seat of a WWII bomber.

Posted by: yahmdallah on February 23, 2007 10:55 AM

"Crumb" is one of the very best movies ever made about the nature of art and the character of the artist, you should really see it if you haven't.

Posted by: MQ on February 23, 2007 9:52 PM

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