How many pelvic thrusts does it take to earn an R rating? How long can a female orgasm last before it's considered obscene? Which uses of the F-word are acceptable?
The Motion Picture Association of America has the answers, but they're not telling the process of how a film earns its rating is off-limits to filmmakers and the public. If you wind up with an NC-17 or choose to forgo this "voluntary" process of having your film rated, the majority of daily newspapers won't run ads for it and cinema chains won't screen it, and Blockbuster and Wal-Mart (40 percent of the home video market) won't carry it.
This de facto censorship has filmmaker Kirby Dick (Twist of Fate, Sick: The Life & Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist) up in arms. The coincidentally named Dick set out to expose the secret members and practices of the MPAA, and it wasn't easy. The organization works inside a gated compound, employs a clandestine ratings panel and forces all employees to sign strict confidentiality agreements. Its level of secrecy rivals the CIA, and is unprecedented for any public advisory board.
Founded in 1968 in reaction to Mike Nichols' controversial adaptation of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? the organization was charged with developing a voluntary ratings system for American film releases. The MPAA touts itself as a board run by ordinary folks who have young children. Eventually, it became a lobbying group for Hollywood.
Dick's film confronts the MPAA's claim that it uses common-sense "parental" guidelines, revealing a system that's completely arbitrary and woefully out of touch with contemporary society. Studio films are favored over independents, violence is preferred to sex, and gay themes or female sexuality are heavily restricted. Boys Don't Cry director Kimberly Peirce claims the ratings board had no problem with the violent rape and shooting in her film, but slapped her with an NC-17 because Chloë Sevigny's orgasm lasted too long (the shot was neck up). One of Dick's most compelling arguments is a split-screen comparison of R-rated hetero sex scenes vs. strikingly similar NC-17 gay sex scenes.
Furthermore, indie filmmakers who receive an NC-17 are never told what the board found objectionable. If they choose to edit down to an R-rating, they're operating in the dark. Studio films, however, are given explicit suggestions on how to cut their film to receive a softer rating. Matt Stone explains how his studio-backed South Park movie, originally rated NC-17, received specific cut recommendations to earn an R. His earlier independent Orgazmo, however, received an NC-17 with the explanation that the "entire tone of the film" was unacceptable.
Though Dick's outraged criticisms are indisputable, he fails to offer any alternatives to the present system. Even opponents of the MPAA such as Newsweek film critic David Ansen point out that the idea of forming numerous regional ratings boards and submitting to each of them would be a far worse fate for filmmakers.
But Dick succeeds in exposing the MPAA's public dishonesty and questionable business practices; two former employees break their code of silence and explain how raters are given no guidelines and are often pressured into building a consensus. Worse still, if the board's chair disagrees with the majority's decision or the vote is tied, the chair can overrule the verdict.
The MPAA claims its raters are parents of school-aged children, who serve a four- to seven-year term. But Dick hires a pair of lesbian private investigators who reveal that most of the raters are middle-aged and white, with adult children. Several have been employed for more than a decade. Shockingly, two members of the clergy (one Catholic, one Protestant) actively participate in decisions. Dick savors these revelations with Michael Moore-like glee, but devotes far too much time to the investigator's techniques.
Finally, after listening to the gripes and frustrations of directors like Kevin Smith, Atom Egoyan, Mary Harron and Darren Aranofsky, Dick submits Rated for MPAA review. The ensuing verdict, his appeal and the unmasking of the board's identity make it abundantly clear the system is not only capricious, it's unequivocally rigged.
This Film Is Not Yet Rated is a sharp and entertaining film that just might shame the film industry and MPAA into developing a more fair-minded process. That is, if audiences get a chance to see it.
In an ironic twist, the MPAA, a powerful advocate for anti-piracy measures, was caught copying Dick's documentary without consent. Their excuse? They wanted evidence should they choose to file a lawsuit.
Showing at the Main Art Theatre (118 N. Main St., Royal Oak; 248-263-2111).
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.