This Film is Not Yet Rated Review

The Film

I once had a long and heated argument on a forum with a poster who vehemently claimed that censorship did not exist in the USA in any form. Case in point, according to him, was the Motion Picture Association of America, the organisation which views and assigns ratings to virtually every film released theatrically in the country. This system, I was told, is completely voluntary and, because no-one was forced to use it, its decisions could not be considered a form of censorship. Such an outlook has always struck me as incredibly naive. In a sense, he was absolutely right: filmmakers in America do have the option of bypassing the MPAA entirely and releasing their film without a rating, something that filmmakers in the UK can only dream about. On the other hand, though, the image of the censor as a government official holding a pair of scissors and slicing a reel of film to ribbons is a hopelessly oversimplified one, and one that fails to take into account the fact that censorship can assume many forms, not least self-censorship (or, at least, censorship as a decision made by a studio) and the notion of an entire industry colluding to maintain a specific status quo.

This Film is Not Yet Rated is filmmaker Kirby Dick's response to what he sees as an unfair and hopelessly out of touch organisation. Following a rudimentary introduction to the MPAA's roots as the successor to the notoriously prohibitive Hays Office Production Code, and a brief run-down of the content you can expect to "get away with" at each of the board's five ratings (G, PG, PG-13, R an NC-17), he stages a multi-pronged attack on the organisation, interviewing directors, producers and actors whose work has run afoul of the board, while at the same time hiring a team of private investigators to dig up as much dirt on the organisation as possiblem. In brief, Dick's argument can essentially be broken down to three specific points:

1. The MPAA's decisions are arbitrary and lack accountability
2. The MPAA is biased, against independent filmmakers, women and homosexuals
3. The MPAA is too soft on violence and too tough on sex

This is a very specific type of documentary, one which seeks to convey a single viewpoint, with the outcome of the investigation determined before the director has even picked up his camera. In a sense, it's preaching to the choir: there's never even the remotest possibility that Dick will emerge from the experience having decided that the MPAA isn't so bad after all. What is commendable, however, is the lengths he goes to in order to unveil the inner workings of this notoriously secretive organisation, bringing the clandestine process out into the open and exposing it for the sham it is. Watching side by side comparisons of obviously similar gay and straight sex scenes, the former rated NC-17 and the latter rated R, is all very entertaining and conveys its point clearly and succinctly, but it's nothing a reasonably observant filmgoer couldn't have worked out for him/herself. Far more revealing are Dick's own attempts to get this documentary rated by the board (predictably enough, it is awarded an NC-17), and the brick wall he finds himself up against when he first tries to get more information on what he would need to cut in order to get an R, and later when he faces the appeals panel.

Equally engaging, but somewhat more morally suspect, are the various excursions with a team of private investigators hired by Dick to put names and faces to the anonymous MPAA raters. These range from waiting outside the MPAA headquarters and tailing various employees to restaurants to film them and listen to their conversations, to rooting through their garbage in the dead of night to obtain secret documents pertaining to ratings decisions. There's a definite thrill to it, and the chief investigator, Becky Altringer, is a charismatic and amusing woman, but there's something rather invasive about the whole affair. Does knowing the names of the raters and what they look like really add anything to the proceedings? Yes, it's outrageous that we know nothing whatsoever about who is making the decisions, beyond the fact that they are parents (as lesbian director Jamie Babbit so succinctly puts it, "I'm a parent, but do you honestly think there's anyone like me on the board? I doubt it!"), but I'm not convinced that the eventual collage of candid camera snapshots with the names of the subjects attached puts us in a more informed position.

If this film manages to convey anything, it's a sense of sheer frustration and helplessness, a gradual realisation that the whole system stinks, but that everyone is too apathetic, or actually benefiting from the status quo, to do anything about it. South Park co-creator Matt Stone accurately observes that continual surveys which show that parents think the MPAA is a good thing are fundamentally flawed: most people (especially parents) like to know what they (and their children) are going to see, so having the MPAA probably is better than having nothing. The problem, therefore, is that there is no alternative at the present time in the US, and the entire movie industry is so cosily tucked into bed with the MPAA that nothing is likely to ever change the situation short of the complete collapse of Hollywood. Even if every single independent studio in the country decided to boycott the ratings board en masse, the effect would be close to imperceptible, given that 95% of the industry is controlled by the same six conglomerates. It's quite ingenious, really. By maintaining the illusion of a choice, the MPAA are able to deny their role as state censors, while at the same time working hard with the industry to ensure that, essentially, you either use their system or you're screwed.

Indeed, this sense of complacency does, at times, extend to the attitude of the film itself. While Dick and co spend a great deal of time criticising the MPAA, they never once provide even the vaguest suggestion for what an alternative solution might comprise (one interviewee, attorney Martin Garbus, suggests that government censorship would be preferable, because at least then every decision would have to be approved by Congress, but there's a degree of facetiousness to his claim). The documentary also takes certain things for granted, including the notion of the "soft" PG-13 and R ratings (which allow children of all ages to be admitted, provided they are accompanied by an adult). The fact that no attempt is made to question whether or not a child should be allowed into a screening of a film like The Passion of the Christ or Team America: World Police highlights the fundamental difference between the US and the UK, where, in the former, every film rated "R" or lower, despite what the labels might suggest, must essentially be made with the assumption that children of any age might see it, whereas in the latter, the fact that cinemas, by law, have to enforce the inflexible "15" and "18" age ratings means that, at least for theatrical screenings, this is not an issue (although, of course, this doesn't stop the odd underage child sneaking in).

What This Film is Not Yet Rated ultimately shows is that censorship is an extremely broad and tricky concept, and that the MPAA system has become entwined with the very heart of American society itself, creating a state of complacency in which problems that should be challenged are taken for granted, not just by colluding studios but also by a public that has itself come to accept the NC-17-rated film as an enormous taboo. Theoretically, what former MPAA president Jack Valenti says makes a lot of sense: if you make a film that people want to see, they will see it, regardless of the rating. But, in reality, it all boils down to a grand illusion, and Valenti's motto might as well be "My way or the highway." So, ultimately, is the MPAA imposing its own twisted morals filmgoers, or does it simply reflect the twisted morals of American society as a whole? One thing's for sure: for the situation to improve, there is going to have to be a fundamental change in the attitudes of both.

DVD Presentation

With a title such as this, critiquing the image quality is virtually pointless. It's essentially of the "does its job" variety, with an unremarkable non-anamorphic transfer (a result of the low-tech manner in which the film was shot and edited rather than a failing on the part of the DVD producer) showcasing materials of varying quality, from consumer VHS recordings of old interviews with Valenti to reasonable-looking clips from films being discussed. No, I'd certainly never call this a good-looking disc, but for all intents and purposes you're probably better off ignoring the video rating for this particular release.

The same holds true for the audio, which is an unremarkable Dolby Digital 2.0 track, mostly mono but with music and some clips from films in stereo. It's always clear, and, on occasions when it becomes difficult to hear what someone is saying (such as during the various "candid camera" moments), burnt-in subtitles are provided. The rest of the speech, however, is unsubbed.


The first of the main extras is an audio commentary featuring Dick, Altringer and producer Eddie Schmidt, moderated by Ain't It Cool News reporter Drew McWeeny. Normally I am somewhat sceptical of commentaries offered on documentaries, given that, by the very nature of a factual film, the director has presumably already had ample opportunity to say everything he intends to convey. I was pleasantly surprised by this track, though, which contains a plethora of new material and provides a slightly different view of the events portrayed on screen, commenting after the fact on such issues as actually convincing victims of the MPAA's process to risk virtual career suicide and openly condemn the very organisation that will be responsible for approving any subsequent films they might make, as well as problems with getting the film distributed, given that 95% of the entire industry is controlled by the six MPAA-friendly majors. Less interesting are Becky Altringer's comments, which don't really convey anything not already shown in the film itself, but overall this track is one of those rare commentaries that actually leaves you with a greater understanding of the whole process.

Ditto with the nine-minute Q&A session with Dick, and the five deleted scenes, also contained on the disc. The former repeats some material also covered in the commentary, but the latter are every bit as interesting as what made it into the final cut. Especially interesting is the first segment, in which John Waters and Kevin Smith vent their frustrations regarding the MPAA in a more extended form, as is a piece interviewing Love & Basketball director Gina Prince-Bythewood, which discusses the potential for racial prejudice in the MPAA's ratings, a thread not developed in the final film. The true highlight, though, is a series of telephone calls between Dick and the MPAA, in which the organisation, whose web site is plastered with anti-piracy slogans, repeatedly assures the director that no copies have been made of his film, only to later admit, reluctantly, that yes, they did make an unauthorised bootleg.

Finally, the film's trailer, and a selection of trailers for other releases (which play when you insert the disc, but can be skipped), are also provided.


It's an oft-overused statement, but I'm going to say it anyway: This Film is Not Yet Rated is something that anyone with any interest in films, mainstream or independent, needs to see. The MPAA's decisions have such an impact on the viewing experiences of every filmgoer, regardless of whether or not they live in the US, that people really should be more aware of just how what they can or cannot see is decided. The documentary does suffer from a handful of oversights, and it doesn't even pretend to be unbiased, while the DVD itself is hardly a technical masterpiece, but don't let those provisos dissuade you from seeking it out.

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Last updated: 19/04/2018 03:10:44

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