Movie review by Greg Carlson
Potter Stewart is largely known for initially claiming of hard-core porn that “I know it when I see it,” a line that concludes “…and the motion picture involved in this case is not that.” Another of the justice’s best known statements is “Censorship reflects society’s lack of confidence in itself. It is a hallmark of an authoritarian regime.” This idea courses through veteran documentarian Kirby Dick’s “This Film Is Not Yet Rated,” a sharp and irreverent examination of the arcane practices of the Motion Picture Association of America’s movie ratings board. “This Film Is Not Yet Rated” is required viewing for movie buffs and people interested in free speech issues.
Dick sets the scene by explaining, through vibrantly creative animation, the MPAA ratings from G to NC-17. While the ratings themselves are familiar to most American moviegoers, the process by which they are decided remains shrouded in clandestine obscurity that has frustrated hundreds of moviemakers and thousands of viewers. Launched in 1968 by the major Hollywood studios, the ratings board was for decades the province of Jack Valenti, a slick politico cast as the movie’s grinning villain. Dick spares no opportunity to skewer Valenti’s inconsistencies and distortions regarding the role of the board, and numerous interview clips allow Valenti ample opportunity to make himself look like a boob.
Dick focuses on theatrical exhibition as opposed to the DVD market, which means that the movie never gets around to discussing the impact of the ratings system once films are released on home video. Generalities are given regarding Europe’s inversion of the sex-violence equation, but Dick is essentially silent on government censorship in countries beyond the United States. A majority of the filmmaker’s arguments, however, are on the money. The MPAA clearly privileges heterosexuality over homosexuality, and one of the most disturbing segments of the movie provides substantive visual evidence that female pleasure is verboten while violence against women is condoned.
Dick includes interviews with a number of filmmakers whose work has been punished by the MPAA. Matt Stone discusses the puppet sex of “Team America: World Police,” Kimberly Peirce articulates her frustration regarding the handling of “Boys Don’t Cry,” and John Waters, with characteristic humor and aplomb, notes with trepidation that “A Dirty Shame” couldn’t even discuss certain aspects of sexuality, let alone show them. All of the above moviemakers dealt with the consequences of an initial NC-17 rating, a commercial kiss of death that is particularly vexing to moviemakers whose work is intended for adult audiences.
Because the people who work as raters do so anonymously, Dick hires a private eye to out them, and the results are a mixed bag. Significant sections of the movie are devoted to a kind of lowbrow investigative journalism complete with stakeouts, spy cameras, car pursuits, and garbage digging. While the energies spent on this thread connect later with Dick’s own appeal process once “This Film Is Not Yet Rated” has been branded with an NC-17, the movie would have more wisely utilized this time to cover possible ways in which the ratings system could be improved. Despite these shortcomings, however, “This Film Is Not Yet Rated” is thought provoking fare.
This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 12/18/06.