Is it possible for a documentarian to hit the bullseye and completely miss his mark on the same shot? For Kirby Dick, with his quite funny but ultimately irksome “This Film Is Not Yet Rated,” the answer is strangely “Yes!” While Dick gets high marks for finding a new and unique way of bringing to light the shadowy figures that operate the Motion Picture Association of America, he must also given a fail for flying through his narrative on a shaky single premise, unwilling or unable to grasp the issues he is tackling aren’t as black and white as he wishes them to be.
For those of us who actually care about these things, Dick wishes to enlighten us about how truly evil the MPAA is, as if this is some kind of a revelation. (Yes, go ahead and remind yourself of the moment when Captain Renault exclaims “I am shocked to discover there is gambling going on here!”) As Dick points out several times through the course of the movie, the MPAA is the only movie ratings guild in the world whose members are kept hidden from the public, supposedly to keep them from being influenced by outside forces. I know if I were a parent, I would want to know what types of people are influencing how people go to the movies. But then, most people don’t really care about movies like I do, especially judging from the multitudes of people I have personally witnessed just drop their kids off at the theatre, sometimes bothering to actually take them to the box office to buy their tickets and find out around what time they need to be there to pick the yearlings up, throughout my years as a movie theatre manager.
To set up his premise, Dick spends some time with a number of semi-famous or quite infamous filmmakers, including Kimberly Peirce (“Boys Don’t Cry”), Kevin Smith (“Clerks”) and Matt Stone (“South Park”), who regale for the cameras their personal dealings with the MPAA and the rating system, along with some of the footage that needed to be removed in order to secure a more user-friendly rating. (Of course, some filmmakers shoot footage never intended to be used in the movie, editing the shots into the first cut of the film specifically so the film can get an NC-17 rating, then remove the most offensive footage before the appeal in hopes of securing an R rating with the footage always intended.) But there in lies the problem… how can we honestly champion artists’ rights when the artists freely admit screwing the system for their own gainsr The MPAA may very well be completely out of touch with the realities of our society, with their views of sexuality becoming more puritanical by the day while their ignorance of how violence in cinema permeates society grows scarier, but corrupting an already corrupt endeavor is not going to make a better system.
Where Dick’s documentary ultimately fails is based on something Jack Valenti has repeatedly said over the years and decades since the current rating system began in the late 1960s: “No rating can hurt a good movie. No rating can help a bad one.” (But let’s forget how patently implausible that statement truly is for a moment.) It is often Dick’s opinion that a film’s success or failure is based on what kind of MPAA rating it receives, which just isn’t true. It’s one of those fantasies that filmmakers like to tell themselves when their films do not find an audience, when in truth, films succeed or fail not because of what they are rated but because what they are about. It didn’t matter how many critical plaudits and awards “Boys Don’t Cry” received, there are only so many people in the world that would be open to a film about a sexually ambivalent person who is murdered for being who they are or are not. There are only so many people who want to see a film about an uptight, repressed middle-aged woman who becomes a sex addict after getting hit on the head, even if it is a John Waters movie. There are only so many people who want to see any Atom Egoyan film, let alone one about a Martin and Lewis-type showbiz team who may have killed a young girl thirty years before. One would think someone who has been in the film industry as long as Kirby Dick would understand story comes first in the eyes of most filmgoers.
Dick also ignores the fact that, if there were no MPAA, filmmakers would likely be subject to a thousand different community ratings boards, each with their own rules.
Don’t believe me?
It was happening in Dallas as late as the mid 1990s, when the city forced filmmakers and movie distributors to submit their films to a local ratings board, whose ratings would supersede the MPAA rating for a film, lest a film find itself shut out of local theatres. Can you imagine Peter Jackson needing to either edit his “Lords of the Rings” films in dozens or hundreds of ways to meet each different community’s standards, or see the films not released in those townships? The MPAA is a lesser evil than this scenario, but Dick barely acknowledges this.
Despite all this, “This Film Is Not Yet Rated” remains a quite entertaining and fascinating movie, because Dick doesn’t just talk to filmmakers about the rating system but actually takes the viewer into the process of how a film gets rated, using this very film as a guide. It seems like an Orwellian nightmare, with all the doublespeak and nonspeak from MPAA’s lone public official and lawyer, but surely Dick’s cause wasn’t helped by his hiring a private investigator to find out who the mysterious members of the ratings board are. Yes, like any self-respecting muckraking journalist, Dick and his private dick scope out the MPAA offices, follow suspected raters around, dig through their trash and expose the members and how many of them are not up to snuff with the MPAA’s own internal qualifications.
Also of special interest is how the MPAA passes itself off as the worldwide leader in anti-piracy measures, but decided without Dick’s consent to make a copy of his film (possibly for a future lawsuit against Dick for violating the members’ personal privacy).
It is unlikely this film will connect with audiences outside of Los Angeles, New York City and a few other major metropolises with heavy filmmaking communities, as the general public will simply not care about the topic. One can bet, however, Dick will somehow blame the MPAA for its lack of success.Rating: C+