Dir. Kirby Dick. US. 2005. 100mins
Alight-hearted but ultimately serious exploration of the cultural chill imposedby the Motion Picture Association Of America's ratingsystem, Kirby Dick's new documentary exposes the process for the sham it is.
Financed by US cable network IFC TV anddirect-to-home video distributor NetFlix, This Film Is Not Yet Rated has specialised theatrical potential in the US and, if thepositive critical reaction out of Sundance is any measure, could find its wayto UK cinemas as well.
The US is alone among major Western nationsin having an industry-controlled film monitor passing judgment on what can andcannot be shown in US cinemas.
Other Western countries have a governmentcensor or, as in Canada, the rule of obscenity laws holdsway. But the US is a special case: the main TV networks and some newspaperchains refuse to broadcast or print advertisements for NC-17 films, with theresult that films so rated have a harder time making an impression in themarketplace.
The film includes interviews with a numberof directors, including Atom Egoyan and John Waters,who have challenged the imposition of the NC-17. Others had a film intended fora teen audience that was rated R and effectively barred from their targetaudience. For example, Jamie Babbit, director of teencomedy But I'm ACheerleader, argues her film was penalisedbecause of its lesbian theme while the resolutely heterosexual American Pie, with its pie-masturbationsequence, earned a PG-13.
Similarly, Kimberley Peirce,director of Boys Don't Cry, suggeststhe demand to trim a lengthy female orgasm sequence isa reflection of the bias against female sexuality not just in the MPA's Classification And Rating Administration (CARA) butin Hollywood as a whole.
Some films, like Mary Harron'sAmerican Psycho were accused of beingtoo violent, others too foul of mouth, like MichaelTucker's Gunner Palace, about USmarines in Iraq. Their comments are intercut with theoffending scenes. As a result, This FilmIs Not Yet Rated was itself rated NC-17. Indeed, part of the film involvesDick's own journey into the star chamber-like process of appealing the rating.
Dick, an Oscar nominee last year for Twist Of Faith,avoids the talking head syndrome by employing a nifty conceit: he hires aprivate investigator to expose the secret panel of "raters". She does this withaplomb, following them from the Encino, California offices of CARA to theirhomes, rooting through their garbage and - in a more basic piece of detection -pointing a camera into the security guard's window and reading a list of namesand telephone extensions. Later, during the appeal process, the investigatoruncovers another layer of anonymous decision-makers. All the names are named.
Lively animated sequences provideillustrative short-hand on background material. For example, the ratings systemof G, PG, PG-13, R and NC-17 is described to hilarious effect using cartooneffigies while expanding bubbles illustrate the omnipotence of the majorstudios and that of their multi-national corporate masters.
When Jack Valenti,eminence gris of the MPAA, introduced the CARA systemin 1968, he insisted the ratings were designed to act as a guide for US parentsas to the nature of a film lest their child unwittingly enter a cinema and beadversely affected by what appeared on the screen. "Neither god nor fools,"says the famously loquacious Valenti in an archivalinterview clip, describing the type of person selected as a rater. Onecondition is that they be the parent of a child between the ages of five and17. As Dick and his private eye discover, several of the raters now only haveadult children.
Dick's ultimate argument is that the MPAA's current system effectively forces filmmakers toself-censor and is limiting self-expression. By forcing the raters to rate afilm in which they themselves are exposed, he reveals the underlying hypocrisyof a system designed to retain control within the MPAA while repressing therevenue-earning potential of independent producers.
Chain Camera Pictures
Netflix (US home video)
Alison Palmer Bourke