Monday when I went downtown to get my passport photo taken, I stopped at the IFC center to see a documentary I had heard a lot about – This Film is Not Yet Rated by Kirby Dick. It takes a hard look at the MPAA ratings system.
The purpose of the ratings system, of course, is to give information about the content of film to parents. Most people agree that the MPAA ratings board could be doing a better job. But Dick approaches the subect from the perspective of the artists – directors, writers and actors – who are concerned that the system is leading to de facto censorship. In particular he focuses on how the NC-17 rating has become a financial kiss of death for a movie – many exhibitors won’t show an NC-17 move, many newspapers won’t advertise them, and many video/DVD retailers and renters, including Wal-Mart and Blockbuster, won’t stock the video versions. Faced with the fact that this not only prevents teens under 17 from getting into their films, but means that the adults they were intended for won’t be able to see them either, filmmakers often struggle to edit their works to get an R rating.
I was interested, not just as someone concerned about what children will see in theaters, but as at least a potential film artist who may one day face dealing with the ratings board. I know that I would dread (and resent) anyone trying to tell me what to film or how to edit to get distribution. But then none of my films are likely to stray anywhere near NC17 territory. All the same, I was sympathetic towards the filmmaker’s concerns.
Dick’s interviews with film artists (Kimberly Peirce, director, Boys Don’t Cry; actress Maria Bello and director Wayne Kramer, The Cooler; Kevin Smith, director, Jersey Girl), are very revealing in a number of ways. The documentary covers a lot of familiar ground in regard to filmmakers’ complaints: the most extreme violence is OK’d for teen audiences with an R, while any graphic depiction of sex, no matter how loving, gets an NC-17; there are no real guidelines for what content gets what rating and the system is applied arbitrarily, with small independent films being treated curtly and given no help in editing their films, while the board works very closely with big studio pictures to see that they get the rating they want when millions are at stake.
Most of all, Dick seems obsessed with the fact that the board won’t release the names of the parents who vote on the ratings to the public. A major part of the film involves Dick and a hired PI tailing the cars of MPAA board members, stalking them with a hidden camera in restaurants and searching through their trash. This mainly comes across as a juvenile and annoying stunt that accomplishes very little, and makes you feel sorry for the people whose privacy has just been invaded. There are certainly a number of ways that the film board could be made more accountable without needing to release the names of the ordinary parents who advise the studio. (It’s done, the board says, to protect them from pressure and harrassment of exactly the type Dick engages in).
In fact, the film documents the process by which Dick himself submitted his film for a rating, and received an NC-17, largely because the film contains graphic scenes from a number of NC-17 movies. Whe he appealed the rating, instead of defending the content of his film, he kept asking for the board members’ names, because he didn’t want to be judged by an anonymous group. No wonder they didn’t take him seriously. Because he didn’t accept the rating, the film has been released unrated, and is going to apear in only a few theaters before it is shown on the IFC cable channel later this fall.
Unfortunately, Dick never really acknowledges that the difficulties that NC-17 films experience in the marketplace are part of the economic and cultural reality of the entertainment business as a whole. I recall critic Roger Ebert, back in the late 80′s complaining that the X rating was defamatory and placed an unfair stigma on “adult” films. It was in part because of these complaints that the name of the rating was changed to NC-17. Of course, changing the name didn’t solve the problem. It’s certainly not the fault of the raters that exhibitors won’t handle NC-17 films, but that of the exhibitors themselves. Since the American film industry has been concentrating its marketing on the teen audience, NC-17 films, which are off-limits to that audience, are never going to make much money under present conditions and theaters and advertisers realize that and are acting accordingly. Maybe Dick would have been more on target if he’d had his PI stalk Wal-Mart employees. But Wal-Mart isn’t a small, secretive group that’s easy to attack.
There are far more serious things that the filmmaker largely fails to address , however. One is the actual harm that not only the violent content, but the sexual content of many movies is creating. Several of those used a false and misleading analogy that might be summed up as: “Violence is an evil, sex is good; why restrict the depiction of something good and loving?” This ignores the fact that many films contain sexual acts and portrayals of such acts that aren’t healthy at all for children to view, such as sexual abuse and rape. Nor is even the less disturbing content always portrayed as particularly loving, or respectful of the real meaning of human sexuality. I was amused by the film’s frequent innocuous description of the sexual content of NC-17 films as “depictions of baby-making” and “reproduction.” How many Hollywood films have you seen recently that actually show parenthood resulting from the graphic sexual encounters shown? I’m willing to bet almost none. The film does briefly acknowledge that even many R-rated films offer a disturbing blend of sexuality and violence, with exploitative treatment of women and female nudity. I was glad to hear Catholic filmmaker Kevin Smith specifically ask for the most restrictive rating possible for scenes of rape. But these sound bites made up about a minute and a half of a 97-minute film.
Nor does the film spend more than a moment or two considering how a good ratings system might function — say, with some input from child pyschologists or social scientists who might be able to identify material that would be really harmful to the developing psyches of children and teens, especially when it comes to the question of sexual violence and exploitation of women in film. While berating the ratings board for its pre-occupation with sex, Dick seems unwilling to discuss the subject in any depth himself.
The film is earnest as well as often funny, and makes some good points. It certainly deals with a problem that needs attention. But it’s done from too limited and self-absorbed a perspective. Let’s not let artistic concerns blot out the needs of parents.
UPDATE: 2:30 p.m. Sunday Sept. 10
After I finished writing this review, I discovered, courtesy of Creative Screenwriting’s online newsletter, that Dick and his colleagues have started this petition to the MPAA requesting, among other things, better guidelines, the participation of psychologists, social scientists and other experts on the board – and also abolition of the present NC-17 rating , something the film itself actually didn’t do.
It asks “that the NC-17 rating be replaced with a category that describes content fairly and accurately, but does not restrict the rights of individual parents to make their own decisions about what their minor children may see or limit the ability of adults to see films.”
The petition doesn’t describe this rating in any more detail, but presumably it would be like the R rating, where kids could attend with an adult, but with perhaps a stronger warning to parents.
Once again, note the misunderstanding that it’s the rating itself, not the economics of the system that prevents wide distribution of NC-17 films. I would greatly prefer it if filmmakers want to make adult films, they should learn to live with having an adults-only audience, rather than failing to protect children — even when parents can’t be with their child every moment. What’s wrong with parents depending on the movie industry to police itself effectively? (And where is that old liberal “it takes a village to raise a child” mentality when you need it?). So what does everyone think of all this?
I also ran across this article in the National Catholic Reporter in regard to the Catholic participants in the MPAA appeals board. Very interesting. (You have to scroll down the page to get to it). An excerpt:
As part of his exposÃ©, Dick discovers that Protestant and Catholic “clergy” sit on the MPAA’s appeals panel. He makes reference to the long history of antagonism between Hollywood and the churches, including various attempts over the years at censorship. At the end, Dick flashes the name of the Catholic delegate on the screen: Harry Forbes of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.
For the record, Forbes is not “clergy.” He’s a former New York drama critic and executive for the Public Broadcasting Service, who came to work for the American bishops as their in-house film critic in 2004.
I spoke to Forbes this week, who said that in reality neither he (nor his colleague David DiCerto, who sometimes attends meeting in his stead) has any voice in the MPAA appeals process.
“We observe, we don’t contribute to the conversation,” said Forbes, head of the bishops’ Office for Film and Broadcasting “We’re not asked for an opinion. That might influence the vote, and we don’t have a vote.”
The point of his presence, Forbes said, is to monitor the process and to report back to the bishops about how it’s working.