Interesting appropriate for the "Violent Media Fast" this week, I watched the documentary "This Film Is Not Yet Rated" last night. An entertaining diatribe by one filmmaker against the Motion Picture Association of America’s film rating system, it makes a convincing argument that the system is unfair, non-transparent, prudish and possibly even harmful to children it ostensibly protects.
My only major critique is that it leaves out the "what now" as you watch the final credits roll.
The film, directed by Kirby Dick, describes how the MPAA ratings board operates, and what are the rough parameters of the G, PG, PG-13, R and NC-17 (formerly X) ratings. As it gets into the details of how these various ratings are determined, the waters get extremely murky.
It turns out that there is a secret board of reviewers hand picked by the President of the MPAA (who also serves on the board) that watch all films that are to be distributed in the United States and assigns them one of these ratings. The filmmaker is informed of this decision, and if she is lucky, is given some vague guidance on why her film was assigned the rating that it was. Often they have to reshoot the offensive scenes, add digital blurring and other effects to cover up the naughty bits, or otherwise re-edit their film to try and get re-rated to an R.
Why is this so important? A filmmaker whose film receives and NC-17 is basically doomed to failure, since no theater chains will show the film, Blockbuster and Walmart will not carry it, and it will never be shown on regular cable.
The ratings system reveals the obsession with sex in this country, and the fear and loathing often associated with sexual practices that aren’t straight, Missionary-position sexual activity that quickly cuts away to a fireplace shot. Kirby Dick argues convincingly that film depictions that emphasize either (1) the woman’s pleasure, (2) gay or bisexual sex, or (3) full body shots of people having sex are assigned an NC-17 rating. Meanwhile, depictions of rape, close-up partial body shots, and straight sex get the much coveted R rating.
More tellingly, the most graphic depictions of violence never receive an NC-17, even decapitations, bloody rampages, and buckets of blood splattered on the screen. Arguably, these countless scenes of horrific violence are more detrimental to children than people engaging in a natural biological act with each other. Why should sex be so much scarier for parents than violence?
Apparently, the ratings system in Europe (which I wanted to know
much more about) is almost the opposite of the US system, which much
more explicit sexual content receiving the equivalent of a PG or R
rating, while extreme violence getting an NC-17. What this says about
our culture versus European culture one could write several
The only problem I have with the film is that it doesn’t address what would be the alternative to the current system. The MPAA ratings system was born out of an industry fear of government intervention. But what would that look like?
I guess it would be something like the FCC, which governs content on the television and radio. Now there are a myriad of problems with the Federal Communications Commission. But at least we know who the officials are who sit on the commission, and they are accountable as officials to the public. Their policies have to be made known and they are subject to Congressional oversight.
The Independent Film Channel has a petition on its website for people who want to join the fight for a more sane, transparent, fair movie rating process.