In the decades since its inception in 1968, the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) has been subjected to severe controversy. Accusations of homophobia, favouritism of studio films over independent productions, and a preference for violence over sex have been made over the years. Not to mention, MPAA President Jack Valenti’s flawed brainchild has continued to operate in almost total secrecy. According to Valenti (who died in 2007), ratings are designated by a board of raters who supposedly represent the average parent and have children between the ages of five and seventeen. Yet, the identities of these raters are always kept secret from both the public and the filmmakers who submit their movies. Meanwhile, film critics (Roger Ebert included) have suggested that the MPAA has exhibited biases and unmistakable inconsistencies. Kirby Dick’s This Film Is Not Yet Rated is a documentary which sets out to unmask the MPAA’s policies and reveal the identities of those who determine film ratings.
For those who are familiar with the controversies surrounding the MPAA, this exposé will not offer much in the way of surprising revelations. On the other hand, for those who naively believe that the MPAA are valuable public servants providing a useful helping hand to filmmakers and parents, This Film Is Not Yet Rated will shock you. Over the duration of 90 entertaining minutes, documentarian Kirby Dick delves into the hypocrisy of the MPAA in addition to providing insight into the arbitrary, secretive ratings process. Another of Dick’s goals was to uncover the secret identities of the ratings board members. In order to achieve this, he employed a trio of private detectives. Thus, the film often follows Kirby and the private detectives as they go on stakeouts, follow cars, and rummage through trash cans. However, the film’s weakest moments are those concerned with providing background about the detectives. Their overinflated presence dilutes the focus of Dick’s thesis.
Thankfully, This Film Is Not Yet Rated was assembled in a skilful, entertaining manner. Kirby cuts between statistics on the MPAA, interviews with filmmakers, and footage from offending movies which received an NC-17 rating. Several directors like Kevin Smith, John Waters, Matt Stone, Kimberly Peirce and Wayne Kramer provide testimonials throughout, and express concerns that the ratings board constrains and censors them. An especially interesting point which is raised is that realistic sexuality and violence usually earns an R or NC-17 rating, whereas unrealistic (i.e. bloodless) violence is given a docile rating to allow for more of the public to see. Former MPAA ratings board members and other distinguished individuals are also interviewed throughout. On top of this, there is a particularly effective sequence showing a side-by-side comparison of sexual sequences removed from indie pictures (in order to obtain an R rating) contrasted against almost identical footage from R-rated studio releases which made it into the final cut.
As it turns out, not all of the ratings board members of 2006 are average American parents with teenage children. The majority of them are in fact older Americans whose offspring are in their 20s. Also, since the members were selected from a small geographical region in South California, one cannot consider them to represent an accurate cross-section of the country. It also begs the question of who does represent the “average American parent”. Essentially, the MPAA are a bunch of anonymous individuals whose cynical judgments impact how motion pictures are created, marketed and distributed. Not to mention, their judgments affect box office performances. Am I the only one who finds this notion disturbing and scary? Without a doubt, This Film Is Not Yet Rated affirms that the MPAA system needs a complete overhaul.
To the credit of Kirby Dick, This Film Is Not Yet Rated is not a mere angry diatribe against the MPAA, but instead a thoughtful documentary which raises legitimate questions about the ratings process. Of course, it will be interesting to see whether the movie will cause the organisation to take a look at its policies, realise the problems, and revise their modus operandi. Perhaps the death of Jack Valenti will eventually allow for a revision of the system.