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.

This is absurd. Artists should have the opportunity to put out whatever they want to the public, and any adult should have access to it. That decision should not be made by ten anonymous people living in Los Angeles.

Reason: Is there one film that stands out as having been unfairly targeted by the MPAA?

KD: But I'm a Cheerleader. This was a teen comedy, a very sweet story, a love story. The sex is so non-explicit that it's kind of surprising, given the story. And yet that was given an NC-17 rating. That's a clear case of homophobic bias in the rating system. The other one is A Dirty Shame in a different way. It should have been rated R, no question about it. It's very similar to Team America in many ways. And had it been rated R, I think it would have done the kind of business Team America did. Because it was rated NC-17, there is a stigma of pornography that gets associated with it and there are all kinds of limits on distribution.

Reason: What's the problem with keeping raters anonymous? Why should it matter?

KD: The reason they keep the raters' names secret, they claim, is to protect them from industry influence. But in fact, the only people who have any kind of significant contact with them are people from the studios. Heads of studios contact the raters during post-production. Oftentimes on a weekly basis over many years they develop relationships and they are in a position to guide the rating process and influence votes. The independent filmmakers and foreign filmmakers not only don't have that access, they're not even aware that the studios have that access.

Reason: Given the expansion of backend markets, is the MPAA declining in significance?

KD: The MPAA would probably prefer there be no rating system at all, but if there is going to be one they want to control it. Right now the way it's set up, it financially benefits them. Even if the DVD marketing increases, this rating system helps them make more money. They show a film with an R-rated version, then they are able to add a few more sex shots and release it unrated and sell the same film to the same audience twice, which is a producer's dream. So again they have no motivation to change this even as the backend markets increase. Will it lose its significance? Maybe, slightly, over time. But I think you'll still see theatrical releases as the primary point where a film is being advertised. So that's the one place the studios want to keep control of because that's when the focus on a film is most intense and they want to make sure they have control of that rating system.

Reason: But at the same time, it's easier than it has ever been to avoid the MPAA's influence.

KD: No, I don't think so.

Reason: In that consumers have more access to uncut versions.

KD: That's true. Except for, filmmakers do not want to go out with an NC-17 rating. More importantly, their investors don't want to go out with an NC-17 rating. So they demand that their filmmakers deliver an R. So the film is censored at the script stage even before it gets to any kind of distribution outlet. You never have the option to purchase the film the filmmaker intended to make. That's part of the reason people say American sex scenes all look so similar. Directors are shooting to get an R rating, and they're very careful to work within those limits. If you look at a film like Bertolucci's The Dreamers, a film made without regard to the American rating system, it's a much more interesting cinematic exploration of sexuality.

Reason: What is there to stop the emergence of a rival rating system?

KD: People wouldn't pay attention to it. This is the one that has the most focus. It's associated with the MPAA, which is the marketing machine. One could set it up but one would have to have the marketing muscle to drive people to it. There are good ones out there now, like screenit.com, which is a model system in many ways because it provides information to parents and to the public. So they can make the decision themselves rather than ten anonymous people living in L.A. making the decision for them.

Reason: Is there a partisan angle here? Jack Valenti and [current MPAA head] Dan Glickman are both liberal establishment figures.

KD: Liberal and conservative is a bit of a distraction. If you want to create an opposition, it's wealth versus those without wealth. As Valenti says in my film, he has friends on both sides of the aisle. As lobbyists, they will do anything for anybody to get the votes their trade organization wants them to get. They have no particularly significant allegiance.

Reason: Has there been any retaliation from the MPAA since they saw your film and slapped it with an NC-17 rating?

KD: They pirated my film.

A few days before I submitted my film to get a rating, I thought, the MPAA will probably want to keep a copy of this. So I called them up and I said, "As part of the process of rating a film, do you keep a copy?" And they said "Oh no, we don't do that, we're the MPAA!" They sent me an e-mail corroborating that. A few weeks later, I heard that Dan Glickman, who is in Washington, had seen the film. The MPAA is in Los Angeles. So I thought, well that's curious. So I call up [ratings board chairman] Joan Graves and asked, "Has a copy been made of the film?" She says, "Errr… not to my knowledge." Five days later the attorney from the MPAA who makes the animated appearance in my film calls me up and says "Kirby, I have to tell you, we have a copy of your film. But you don't have to worry, because it's safe in my vault." Well, you can imagine how reassuring that was.

The MPAA defines piracy as any single unauthorized duplication of a copyrighted work. So by the MPAA's own definition, they have pirated my work. Now the MPAA, this paragon of anti-piracy, has taken my film eight months before its theatrical release, and has copies circulating I don't know where. Maybe the film is in Malaysia by now. I hope so.

Reason: If the system were to become more open, how would that happen?

KD: One thing people can do is actually call Joan Graves. It's 1-818-995-6600. She says she's willing to take calls from the public. If people called up, I think that would get things going.