You wouldn’t be reading this blog if you don’t like movies; have you ever wondered why they are rated, and how they get their ratings? This Film is Not Yet Rated will help explain that, despite the secretive nature of the Motion Picture Association of America and their ratings board. This documentary by Kirby Dick (Sick: The Life & Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist) was sponsored by the Independent Film Channel, and seems mostly concerned with how indie films get screwed, because they are about gay cowboys eating pudding, instead of ripped superstars shooting people in the face.
America has a tortured relationship with sex; we are a nation settled by Puritans, a bunch of prudish tight-asses that were so fucking annoying that Europe kicked them out. By the time we got over Puritanism, movies in the 30’s were openly talking about divorce, Hedy LaMarr was swimming naked, and we saw a scandalous amount of leg on flapper girls. Life was good. Then a hard-drinking actress died after partying with Fatty Arbuckle, and Hearst publications ran with it like Fox News does with a missing white girl. Though never proven, it was intimated that Fatty stuck a champagne bottle in her cootch, or merely ruptured her bladder through exertions not unlike a sex-starved walrus upon her slender frame. This outraged the American people, who were not yet jaded toward sexual behavior of walruses, since this was before Animal Planet.
This led to the Hayes Production Code, which is why you see the back of people’s heads during kisses in movies from the 40’s and 50’s, and also why beds continue to have an L-shaped sheet that goes up to a man’s waist, but up to a woman’s shoulders on the other side. It is a known fact as proved in John Waters’ movie Pecker that pubic hair causes crime, so they are just doing what’s best for society. The MPAA ratings have changed with the times; Planet of the Apes was rated G, and had violence, nudity, slavery, and so on; Midnight Cowboy was famously rated X for showing Jon Voight’s ass and suggesting homosexual sex. Melvin Van Peebles’ classic Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssss Song was “Rated X by an All-White Jury!” and my generation remembers the PG-13 rating coming about in part thanks to Mola Ram tearing hearts out in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. NC-17 came about shortly after Peter Greenaway’s excellent The Cook, the Thief, his Wife, and her Lover was refused an R rating for its scenes of sex, violence (fork in the cheek!) and um, “try the cock… I hear it’s a delicacy.”
This has led to a shaping of movie values, in what is tolerated and what is not. In the 80’s, when teen movies were rated R, we came to expect a generous helping of Gratuitous Boobies if we plunked down our dollars for a ticket. Around 1985, this was replaced by the Side Boob, and soon vanished altogether. There was a great Boobie Drought in the 90’s and ever since. This was of course replaced by the violence that the PG-13 rating was supposed to protect us from.
This Film is Not Yet Rated is best when it interviews several directors who ran into problems with the MPAA. The problem is not censorship; the MPAA merely rates the films; it is the studios, distributors, and media resellers like Wal-Mart who do the actual censoring. Many contracts demand a R rating or lower; if the director won’t provide a cut that pleases the MPAA, the studio will cut it for them. Thus the glut of “Unrated” DVDs, which allow the studios to double-dip into your wallet if you want to see what the director intended. Even if the studio allowed it, some theaters would refuse to show an NC-17 film; and shtiholes like Wal-Mart wouldn’t carry the DVD’s. So the NC-17 rating exists only for independent films, really; and they get branded with it all too easily.
The interviews with directors John Waters (A Dirty Shame), Kevin Smith (Jersey Girl), Kimberly Peirce (Boys Don’t Cry) and Wayne Kramer (The Cooler) are the best part of the film; we learn the trials and tribulations they had making those movies, and how they eventually came to be released. You see, the MPAA isn’t supposed to tell you specifically what’s wrong; that would reek of censorship. They also didn’t used to allow the defense of prior use, so if you got an NC-17 for beating someone with a rubber dildo, you couldn’t say “You gave Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels an R, douchebag!” in your defense. For example, in Pecker, Waters shows a naked butch lesbian’s bush, and got an R. To quote the man, he was amazed, but then figured it was “a happy pubic moment.” In A Dirty Shame, he shows nothing, but talks about all sorts of vile practices, which used to be the staples of shock jock radio before they all moved to Satellite. Sure, the movie is disgusting, but no more than Clerks 2 or Superbad.
What’s more offensive is when we get to The Cooler; sure we get subjected to William H. Macy’s dingus, but they really objected to a scene where he goes down on Maria Bello. When it comes down to it, there was a more shocking oral sex scene in The Doors; but the camera lingers too long on Maria’s pleasure, and seeing her enjoy sex is much more offensive than lets say, seeing someone ravaged with a chainsaw, at least according to the MPAA. Boys Don’t Cry dealt with lesbian sex as well, and needed a lot of cutting. It’s one of the more brutal films I’ve seen, but it tells a true story, one that deserves to be told. It would be like making United 93 without showing the planes hitting the towers, if we watered down the vicious murder of Brandon Teena. The MPAA objected to the rape; we’d seen similar in The Accused, a big studio piece with a well-known star. Even the sex scenes were rather less licentious than The Hunger from the 80’s.
Kirby Dick wanted to know what kind of people rendered these decisions, so he hired a Private Eye to out the MPAA ratings board. This part of the movie is fun, but has a reality show feel at times. P.I. Becky Altringer is on the case, and with some spying she locates the “average parents” who are supposed to comprise the group of raters. This part made me a little uncomfortable, since I don’t know if it’s the raters’ fault for all this. But they did find that only one of them has children who would still be going to school. The rest are much older and have kids in their 20’s and 30’s; hardly “in tune” with what might scar today’s kids for life. Besides, my favorite films like Poltergeist, Alien, and The Thing all scared the living shit out of me as a child; it builds character. It sure made a character out of me…
So while This Film Is Not Yet Rated may feel like it was made for TV to play on IFC at times, it should be required viewing for all moviegoers, if only to see the sausage factory that is our rating system. It’s driven by money more than anything else; One quote I liked (Kevin Smith, I think) was about how bloodless violence, without consequences, is less suitable for children than shocking violence. But cartoon violence sells. The movie did manage to make a difference; the MPAA now accepts other film’s ratings in defense. That might help indie films against the immense power of the studios, who seem to have fewer problems with NC-17 being slapped on their films. Maybe we don’t even need an NC-17; shouldn’t R be enough?