This Film is Not Yet Rated Review
It’s an unintentional irony of Kirby Dick’s film that a documentary which is in large part about the problems of an American censor rating not allowing any children under seventeen, is restricted to the over-eighteens in the UK. And no-one is likely to object to that.
This Film is Not Yet Rated is an entertaining, snappily put together exposé of the inconsistency and double standards displayed by America’s ratings board, the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). In particular the film highlights the highest and most problematic rating, NC-17 (formerly X), which bars children under seventeen from seeing the film. Dick’s film is spot on in pointing out the MPAA’s predilections – a conservative, male and heterosexual view of sex, which results in gay content and depictions of female sexual pleasure being rated more harshly; violence being more leniently treated (supposedly as that attracts a key audience demographic, namely young males); and a bias towards major-studio product and against the independent sector. Filmmakers line up to tell of their experiences at the MPAA’s hands: Atom Egoyan (Where the Truth Lies), Mary Harron (American Psycho), Wayne Kramer with actress Maria Bello (The Cooler), Kimberley Peirce (Boys Don’t Cry), John Waters (A Dirty Shame) and others.
The MPAA’s rating system was launched in 1968, replacing the Hays Office Production Code, which was becoming more and more antiquated as taboos were broken throughout that decade. The highest rating was the X. At first, this was a respectable rating. Midnight Cowboy was the first and so far only X-rated film to win the Oscar for Best Picture. In the early 1970s, the major studios released such films as Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (which still bears a NC-17 rating), A Clockwork Orange, Last Tango in Paris, Myra Breckinridge and Performance. Not all of these were successful, commercially or critically – and some X-rated films did draw protests from moralists – but the rating itself was no stigma. What caused the problem was the fact that, unlike the other ratings, the MPAA had not copyrighted the X and allowed it to be self-applied, something the burgeoning porn industry seized upon. It was that that brought the X into disrepute more than anything else. In 1989, the X-rating of several major arthouse releases (The Cook The Thief His Wife & Her Lover, Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!) caused controversies over the rating. When the X was applied to a major-studio release, Henry and June, the MPAA caved in and replaced the X with the (copyrighted) NC-17.
At first the NC-17 gave people hope that adult films could be released without unnecessary censorship, but in practice it has simply become the X by another name. Filmmakers are contracted to deliver nothing higher than a R rating (which allows accompanied children under seventeen). They are often forced to cut their work. Some, like Matt Stone, add material that they know will never be passed, just so they can give the MPAA something to cut, safeguarding the material that they want to keep. (We see examples from the puppet sex scene in Team America, which does beg the question, is a director’s cut one that includes shots that were never intended to be there in the first place?) Many newspapers will not carry advertisements for NC-17 films and some cinema chains will not show them. Major video/DVD chains – Blockbuster notably – will not carry NC-17 films, though they will stock “unrated” fare.
I’ve spelled this out at some length, because this is an area that Dick neglects in his film: how the stigma of the NC-17 arose, and its effects. You could look at the other end of the scale, at the G rating (suitable for all ages). This is also seen as an undesirable rating to have, unless you’re releasing a children’s cartoon or a subtitled arthouse movie. There are many examples of filmmakers adding one or two swearwords to increase the rating to PG or PG-13. On the other hand, if the majors wanted to, they could release a NC-17 film if they wanted to. The last one to try this with a wide release was MGM/UA in 1995, with Showgirls. That film certainly has its fans, and a sizeable cult following, but as a critical and commercial bomb, it was probably not the best film to test the waters with. But given the right film, and a studio willing to back it, then Hollywood could take the NC-17 and run with it. On a low-budget indie scale, this has occasionally been done: Abel Ferrara's Bad Lieutenant is one of the few NC-17s so far to show a profit.
What Dick also neglects to explore is that mandatory age ratings bear no stigma in other countries. You may quibble about the leniency or strictness of individual rating decisions, but a film like Basic Instinct, say, however much you cut from it (40-odd seconds by the MPAA) is not suitable for children in any form. Indeed, it mixes sex and violence in a way that many would rather children and young teenagers not see…and why is that preferable to consensual, non-violent and non-coercive lovemaking?
This Film is Not Yet Rated concludes with Dick submitting the film to the MPAA and appealing the NC-17 rating he receives. (Frankly, given that he includes material that the MPAA originally gave the rating to, what did he expect?) This does however show that the process is weighted against the filmmaker: Dick is not allowed to record the proceedings and cannot give examples of other films as precedents.
Dick’s film spends too much time on the private-detective work, which ultimately seems like a stunt, and tends to avoid some of the issues he does raise – which I’ve attempted to address above. But many of the points he does rate are valid, and are important as the MPAA’s decisions affect the great majority of the films that we see in cinemas.