This Film Is Not Yet Rated

IFC Films, 2006

Kirby Dick

Kirby Dick, Eddie Schmidt, Matt Patterson

Kirby Dick, Becky Altringer, Cheryl Howell, Kimberly Peirce, David Ansen, Wayne Kramer, Kevin Smith, John Waters, Matt Stone, Allison Anders, Darren Aronofsky, Michael Tucker, Atom Egoyan.

Unrated, 97 minutes

Society Must Be Protected
by Michael D. Klemm
Posted Online, August 2008


This film is a couple years old, and I don't know what took me so long to get around to seeing it because it examines one of my biggest pet peeves involving the film industry - namely the MPAA Ratings Board and the double standards by which it rates the movies we see. Have you ever asked yourself how a film like But I'm A Cheerleader can get an NC-17 while torture porn like the Hostel movies get away with an R? This is the subject of Kirby Dick's documentary, aptly titled This Film Is Not Yet Rated.

I have ranted for years in my columns about the hypocrisy of the ratings board and how, back in the days when Blockbuster refused to carry unrated and NC-17 films, directors were often forced to butcher their work so that the biggest video chain in the country would rent it. (I'll list a few of my examples, from over the years, at the end of this review.) Dick is an Academy Award nominated documentary filmmaker (2004's Twist of Faith) whose newest film is a nice piece of investigative journalism, channeled through the Michael Moore school of astute, yet snotty, satire and irreverence.

This Film Is Not Yet Rated comes with a good pedigree. A number of prominent filmmakers, most of them known for pushing the envelope, risked the future wrath of the MPAA by appearing in the interviews that make up a good bulk of the film. They include such notables as Atom Egoyan, John Waters, Kevin Smith and Kimberley Peirce. Each concedes that there is no oversight of this anonymous group, supposedly made up of concerned parents, whose identities must be kept secret at all costs. All agree that there is no accountability and that someone has to "police the police" because the ratings bestowed on a movie can mean life or death at the box office. Why? Because a PG-13 rating guarantees a bigger audience than an R, and many newspapers will not carry ads for NC-17 films.

Interspersed throughout, and providing a narrative arc, is footage involving a dynamic lesbian duo of private detectives, Becky and Cheryl, hired by the director to seek out and identify the secret members of the MPAA board. While providing a bit of comic relief, these ladies also deliver the goods. A brief history of film censorship is presented; from The Hays Code and the House Unamerican Activities Committee up through the current ratings system. The MPAA's war on piracy is also addressed and a climactic disclosure reveals that, ironically, the MPAA breaks their own laws when they illegally copy This Film Is Not Yet Rated when the director submits it for a rating.
This film is information overload. Much of what I always suspected turns out to be true. For example, the MPAA cooperates far more with big studio releases than they do with the small independents. South Park's Matt Stone talks about the MPAA refusing to divulge what they found offensive about an early independent he made and how, when doing the South Park movie for a big studio, they were supplied with a detailed list of the "suggested" cuts.
All of the talking heads have a horror story to recount. Kimberley Peirce, director of Boys Don't Cry, is one of several filmmakers who suggest that the MPAA upholds a straight male perspective when it comes to sex - and is afraid to acknowledge feminine pleasure - because she, and several others, have had their films slapped with an NC-17 because the camera lingered for too long on a woman's face during the throes of orgasm. It is a sad reality, but rape scenes are deemed more acceptable and are more likely to be awarded the R rating instead of the dreaded NC-17.
Jamie Babbit, director of But I'm A Cheerleader, is furious that her film (that she wanted teens in rural Wyoming to be able to see because it exposed the dangers of sending gay kids to deprogramming camps) got an NC-17 because of a fully clothed scene of a gay teen (unsuccessfully) trying to pleasure herself - while American Pie's infantile apple pie fornication scene not only gets an R but is even shown in the film's trailer! Kevin Smith remarks that sex talk earned Clerks an NC-17, Wayne Kramer explains how his film, The Cooler, was done in by a few seconds of pubic hair, and John Waters recounts how he asked what he had to cut in order for A Dirty Shame to get an R and they told him that they stopped taking notes after the first 20 minutes.

Two former MPAA members break silence and admit that the committee follows no clear set of standards, that everyone is far more concerned with sex than with violence, that there is no one with any background in child behavioral psychology, and that two priests are present at every screening. Big surprise - there is no one gay on the ratings board.

From my own experience reviewing gay films for the past ten years, I've always known that, until just around the new millennium, gay films that should have been PG were routinely slapped with an R rating if there was kissing or any form of intimacy. Films with lesbians sometimes got a pass but men kissing was a definite no-no that would corrupt our children. Would anyone who has seen The Broken Hearts Club or All Over The Guy tell me how these films could possibly be rated R? The topic of gay vs. straight sex is, happily, not ignored in This Film Is Not Yet Rated.

There are a few good Michael Moore-ish cartoon sequences, the best being the one that explains the ratings. Some of the flip comments include G rated movies being able to have scenes of kicking ass but they can't show ass; a PG-13 movie can have one, and only one, utterance of the F word so please choose your profanity carefully; and R rated movies can't show sexual couplings in any position besides the missionary but we can see acts of extreme violence like this village of children being mowed down by an AK-47.

Throughout it all, we see clips of NPAA president Jack Valenti speaking sanctimoniously about the system's merits and making such blatantly false (or just plain oblivious) statements - like claiming that ratings have no effect on box office. A scary fact is pointed out, while "He's Got The Whole World In His Hands" plays on the soundtrack, about how the major studios are all part of six conglomerates that, together, own 90% of the media in the United States. To his credit, Valenti was the one who proposed the ratings system, in the late 60s, so that more adult films could get made in the first place but somewhere along the way the mission got skewed. Newsweek's David Ansen sums it up when he says that the ratings board is "supposed to protect children, but it's turning us all into children."

The Rush Limbaughs of the world will probably call This Film Is Not Yet Rated one-sided but, since the film shows the MPAA refusing to answer a single question about their methods, it's not like the filmmakers didn't give them the opportunity to present their side of the debate. All in all, this is a very good, quite comprehensive and very entertaining documentary.

In closing, ponder this argument (no one, to my knowledge, has ever said this in print and so I will). What is the point of these ratings when any teenager can walk into a store and buy restricted movies once they are out on DVD? Ultimately, more people will see the film on DVD than they will in the movie theater. And, to make matters even worse, filmmakers will cut their films to get a lower rating for its theatrical run, and then release it on DVD as an unrated director's cut with all the offending footage restored - and so the NPAA's gallant efforts to protect our children backfire spectacularly when a child can walk into Target and buy the unrated version, with more gore, of Hostel II. Think about it.

More On Kirby Dick:


Here's a few examples from some of my older reviews....

The Broken Hearts Club (reviewed 2001) is rated R despite the fact that there is 1. no nudity 2. no sex scenes 3. no violence and 4. no intimacy beyond a couple kisses and hugs. Why is this film rated R when so many straight youth flicks get away with a PG-13? There's something rotten in the State of Denmark.

Relax...It's Just Sex (reviewed 2001)
... the film was unrated. The VHS tape for rent at the chain stores is rated R... [I] was appalled to discover that the entire second scene of the movie (the funny scene about swallowing) is missing. Any R-rated Michael Douglas movie has more explicit sex than there is in the scene that was torn from Castellaneta's film. Straight sex is okay but gay sex isn't? The double standards applied by the ratings board are enough to drive a filmgoer mad.

L.I.E. (reviewed 2002)
The MPAA refused to pass L.I.E. [a film about a middle-aged pedophile] with an R rating. This is unfortunate because vulnerable teens might actually learn something from the film, like how to avoid such a dangerous man... As I write this review, a comedy called Tadpole, in which a 15 year old boy has sex with a woman in her 40s, has just hit the multiplexes with a PG-13 rating. Go figure.

Hard (reviewed 2006)
The R rated video is a good five minutes shorter than the unrated theatrical cut. Some of the more graphic violence is gone, as is, predictably, most of Jack and Ramon's very steamy sexual romp. Yet, while the genitalia of bound captives is still visible in the R, [Hard is about a sadistic, gay, serial killer], a brief shot of Ramon removing a condom from his penis was excised. So... full frontal male nudity during torture is okay, but not during a scene that promotes safe sex? Tell me what's wrong with this picture.