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This Film Is Not Yet Rated (5/10)

by Tony Medley

In 1934 the Breen Office started enforcing a Code that all members of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) had to follow. If a film didn’t receive a seal of approval, it couldn’t be shown in the United States. This continued for thirty years, until Warner Bros wanted to release “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” in 1966. Language was negotiated which allowed “hump the hostess” to be included, along with other previously prohibited language. Later that year, MGM wanted to release “Blow Up,” which contained nudity and was denied approval. MGM released it anyway and the Code was dead.

In 1968, MPAA President Jack Valenti initiated the MPAA Film Rating System, which replaced the Code. Director Kirby Dick doesn’t like the ratings system and that’s what this film is about. Apparently he and producer Eddie Schmidt want filmmakers to be able to put anything they like into film.

Dick has some good points to make, one of which is that the ratings system is controlled by the major studios at the expense of independent film makers. What a major wants to put in a film doesn’t face near the impediments placed in the road of an indie. But the good points lose their effectiveness because of the lack of even-handedness of this film. There is no fair exposition of the position of the MPAA here. When Valenti is shown it is always in a way that makes him laughable. When an MPAA attorney is shown, he is shown as a cartoon character with what sounds like a computer generated voice. There is not one person who gives a reasonable statement of MPAA’s position. It is this tendentious approach that dooms the film.

The filmmakers hired a mother-daughter team of Private Investigators to try to learn the identities of the people who determine the ratings, all of whom are apparently anonymous. A substantial portion of the film, far too much, is showing these PI’s as they stake out the MPAA office in the San Fernando Valley, take license plate numbers and photographs in an attempt to solve the case.

            Cinematically, this is hardly Sam Spade trying to solve the case of the Maltese Falcon, but it does add enough minutes to the film to qualify it as a feature length film.

According to Dick, he had a hard time getting filmmakers to appear on camera to criticize the ratings system. Of course, there is always the possibility that Dick didn’t want anyone to pragmatically explain the MPAA’s position and didn’t even try to find someone who could give it an effective defense. This leads to the film’s basic weakness; those whom Dick chose to interview and who agreed, are, mostly, people who want to make sexually explicit films. We hear Atom Egoyan, who made “Where the Truth Lies” (2005), a film with a fairly explicit scene of bisexual orgy originally rated NC-17 but negotiated to R and which grossed less than $1 million on a $25 million budget, John Waters, an eccentric filmmaker who once made a film with a scene showing a dog defecating and then an actor eating the feces, and Jamie Babbit, who made “But I’m a Cheerleader” (2000) about gay teenaged girls, which is 4,391 on the all time domestic chart and grossed $2.5 million. Well, you get the point. These people want sexually explicit films, so they don’t like a ratings board that will give their films an NC-17 rating which will preclude them from getting effective distribution in America.

Kimberly Price, writer-director of the gay/lesbian themed “Boys Don’t Cry” (1999, 2,819 on the all-time chart) complains that the board didn’t like a scene in which an actress had sexual fluid on her face after giving oral sex. The expurgated scene is shown and it is not something you’d want to watch while eating dinner.

This film is a hatchet job if you ever want to see one. The sad part of the film is that had it been less partisan, it could have made a much more valid point than lobbying for more sexually explicit scenes. The MPAA ratings board has always been far more concerned with sexuality than violence. About the only person who makes that point in this film is actress Maria Bello (“The Cooler,” 2003, “A History of Violence” 2005, “World Trade Center” 2006), who comments, accurately, that the board comes down hard on scenes showing tender sexuality but virtually ignores brutal violence. Right on! I wish the film had concentrated on that more than in campaigning for the right to show graphic sex. There’s a difference between graphic sex and “tender sexuality.” This film doesn’t seem to understand that distinction and the appropriate work that the board does in rating films that many people can find offensive.

They finally do claim to have found out the names of the members of the board and list them. About the only thing I learned from this film was that Bruce Corwin, Chairman and CEO of Metropolitan Theaters, a guy I’ve known since college days, is allegedly on the board. From the members listed, the claim of the MPAA that they are “moms and pops” is pretty effectively disproved, if the list is accurate. Most of the people shown are major executives in the industry.

I was looking forward to this film, but found it a boring, biased, uninformative, disappointing lost opportunity.

August 3, 2006