Narc of the Matinee

Director Kirby Dick on his documentary, This Film Is Not Yet Rated

This Film Is Not Yet Rated is a film about obscenity, and you know you're watching something uniquely obscene when Jack Valenti, longtime lobbyist-in-chief at the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), stands before Congress and declares his solidarity with Alaska's loathsome Sen. Ted Stevens. Stevens, the Republican best known for his addiction to taxpayer largesse, and Valenti, a former assistant to Lyndon Johnson, are a pair straight out of libertarian dystopia. Their friendship, a brief afterthought in Kirby Dick's documentary, encapsulates much of what the MPAA has come to represent: an alliance between big government and big business, anti-competitive in nature and paternalistic by design.

Valenti is the man behind the Voluntary Rating System, devised in 1968 to free filmmakers from the strictures of an ultra-restrictive censorship device known as the Production Code. Sold as a way to keep government out of Hollywood and controlled from day one by the six major studios, the system now wields considerable influence over what Americans parents show their children and American theaters show their patrons.

Kirby Dick skims over the MPAA's origins, choosing instead to stage a sustained attack on what the MPAA has become: a secretive organization that combines arbitrary moral judgment with enormous economic power. In Dick's telling, the organization bludgeons filmmakers into submission by way of the dreaded NC-17 rating, a cinematic Mark of Cain that damns a cinematic work to limited distribution. The dozen or so men and women behind the ratings are anonymous, unknown to independent artists but familiar to studio heads.

The film's best moments emerge in conversations with exasperated filmmakers forced to choose between neutering their films and accepting that few will even see them. John Waters, Kevin Smith and Matt Stone, among others, describe their clashes with a board that far prefers blood to semen, straight sex to gay sex, male eroticism to female pleasure. The only thing more offensive than an extended female orgasm is a tuft of pubic hair, while, a bevy of directors complain at length, scenes of graphic violence slip through the ratings process unnoticed.

Defining filth is dirty work, and Kirby Dick has a lot of fun with so-called "average parents" trying to work out what is obscene: pelvic thrusts are counted, naughty words tallied. Directors report that different sexual positions connote varying levels of offense, missionary and cowgirl provoking less virulent objection than anything else you might see in Cosmo's annual catalogue of bedroom hydraulics. Notes found by a private investigator, sifting through MPAA trash, read: "Motherfucker: 20+."

There is more agitprop than intellect in This Film Is Not Yet Rated, its director having eschewed a weighty meditation on censorship for a guerilla campaign to unmask the censors. The film doesn't argue against ratings per se so much as it attacks a parochial definition of decency; listening to directors complain about the proliferation of graphic violence, one gets the sense they just want a system that more closely resembles their secular values. That's not necessarily a weakness of a spirited film meant to spur a ratings revolution, but it's likely to leave audiences with unanswered questions about the relationships among ratings, technology, and culture.

Dick, whose prior directorial credits include Twist of Faith and Derrida, spoke with associate editor Kerry Howley by phone this week.

Reason: The MPAA is obviously more comfortable with depictions of violence than those of sexuality. What accounts for the disparity?

Kirby Dick: The studios control this system in large part because they want to make sure their films get out to the largest possible audience. And right now they target adolescents. Those adolescents tend to respond to violence, so the studios make those kinds of films. They also make sure the system gives those films less restrictive ratings so they can get out to the widest possible audience. Their competition on the other hand, are independent filmmakers and foreign filmmakers who make films, generally, with more mature themes—not always—but in general with more adult sexuality. Those films receive the NC-17 rating. It's a situation where it helps them and hurts their competition.

Reason: But doesn't the MPAA's obsession with sex just reflect the culture to which it is providing these ratings? Aren't the raters just doing their jobs?

KD: I don't think the MPAA's job is to reflect the culture. I think the MPAA's job is to inform parents. One cannot reflect culture from a uniform position. It's a very varied culture that we live in. So as soon as you choose one point of view from that variety, you're going to suppress the others.

Reason: It sounds like directors want a uniform standard—a checklist—in order to make the process more transparent and predictable. But is that a realistic way to judge obscenity? The MPAA claims to represent the views of average American parents, who might well hold the view that they know obscenity when they see it.

KD: But you don't know obscenity when you see it. It obviously changes from what you personally consider obscene, what a particular era might consider obscene, what a particular religious perspective might consider obscene. There is no uniform viewpoint from which to judge obscenity. There is no single perspective of the average American parents. You have the "average American parents" in the ratings board rating gay sex more restrictively than straight sex. Does that reflect the perspective of a gay mother? I think there is an oppression in that very concept. There is a reactionary aspect to it. I'm not calling the rating system fascist but there is a fascist tone to that concept.

Reason: Do studios perceive the general public to be more easily offended than it actually is?

KD: They have control of this rating system and they want to keep it as under-the-radar as possible. They prefer to rate things in such a way that there is no public response or criticism. As soon as there is criticism, people are going to ask, well how does it work? Why is it so secret? Why is it run by the same people who are putting out the films? So they are willing to censor filmmakers and film artists in exchange for not offending the public.

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