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This Film Is Not Yet Rated   B+

IFC / Chain Camera Productions

Year Released: 2006
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Director: Kirby Dick
Cast: Kirby Dick, Becky Altringer, Atom Egoyan, Cheryl Howell, Lindsey Howell, Kimberly Peirce, Kevin Smith, Matt Stone, John Waters.

Review by Rob Vaux

At a recent press conference for the remake of The Hills Have Eyes, horror-movie legend Wes Craven uncorked a surprising rant against the MPAA's rating system. His anger arose less from artistic reasons than from financial ones. He was contractually obligated to deliver an R-rated film, he said, but the criteria for what constitutes an "R" constantly shifts -- not just from movie to movie, but from screening to screening -- making it impossible for a responsible filmmaker to deliver what the ratings board asks. His lament amply demonstrated what a failure the system has become, not just creatively, but from an economic perspective as well.

The board's arbitrary fiats have nearly limitless power, dictating how a film can be marketed, where it can be shown, and whether discerning parents will decide if their kids should see it. And yet there is no barometer, gauge, or consistent criteria to guide one film's rating from another. Influential studios can steer the board's decisions towards a commercially favorable outcome (I adore The Lord of the Rings, but PG-13 my lily-white butt), while struggling indie directors must grapple with financially crippling adult ratings. One film is kissed with a PG-13, while another with far milder content gets slammed with an R. Big chains like Blockbuster and Wal-Mart refuse to carry NC-17 films, but cheerfully sell far raunchier "unrated" DVDs, their repulsively indiscriminate moralizing dictated solely by the little letters in the corner of the box. And yet, no one knows precisely who assigns those letters. The board's names are not a matter of public record, their methods are not disclosed to outsiders, and their actions are not accountable to any external source -- a privilege no other business in America enjoys.

This Film Is Not Yet Rated dedicates itself solely to blowing that hypocrisy wide open. Director Kirby Dick adopts guerilla tactics and an agitprop style to show just how broken the rating process is, and how much damage it causes to filmmakers and audience members alike. An experienced documentary director normally given to more placid topics, Dick takes a page from Michael Moore's book here, using broad-based humor and not a little self-promotion to call the MPAA on the mountains of stinking bullshit it has perpetrated. Critics have taken umbrage at his flippant tone, but the very secrecy of his subjects demands something unorthodox to draw attention to the problem.

And the problem has been around for quite some time. The MPAA first introduced its system in 1966, at the behest of its president, Jack Valenti. It was intended to supplant the old Hays Code, which had been rendered obsolete by such taboo-breaking films as Psycho and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf. The ratings are familiar to even the most casual moviegoer -- G, PG, PG-13, R, and NC-17 -- and are assigned by a panel of "parents" who "[use] the same criteria as any parent making a judgment" (this from the MPAA's official website). When compared to Hayes, the system is revolutionary, but as Dick demonstrates, its impact from both a creative and advisory perspective has long since devolved into a full-bore disaster.

This Film Is Not Yet Rated uses three specific methods to get to the bottom of the issue, all employed with moderate (though hardly perfect) success. First, it takes clips from a number of controversial films, directly comparing their content (sometimes with a split screen) and noting how nearly identical images often earn very different ratings. The trends which arise are quite disturbing: bigger films receive more leniency than smaller ones, nudity appears to be punished far more than violence, female sexual gratification is more sharply restricted than male, etc. To this, Dick adds a plethora of interviews from button-pushing filmmakers like Kevin Smith and John Waters, who recount their woes at vainly trying to jump through the MPAA's arbitrary hoops. Their observations are insightful (if somewhat predictable), and a few surprising ideas help punctuate how nonsensical the board's standards can be (director Darren Aronofsky puckishly asks why R-level mayhem shouldn't actually be PG, since it shows kids the consequences of violence glossed over by "lighter" action films).

Dick's second weapon is a private investigator, Becky Altringer, whom he hires to ferret out the identity of the MPAA's super-secretive ratings board. Here, the film moves closer to Moore's gonzo techniques, as Dick rides shotgun with his new shamus while she tails suspects, peers in windows, and roots through garbage cans in search of concrete forms of identification. Altringer proves to be quite a character, a self-confessed busybody with a penchant for Disney paraphernalia and a harmless suburban demeanor that sets even the most suspicious security guard at ease. Dick reveals the fruits of her labor in a series of Candid Camera moments, displaying the names and faces of various board members while simultaneously debunking claims about their impartiality. Though there's a certain perverse thrill in watching these folks get outed (along with the lies that posit them as "average American parents"), the subplot often stalls, and its best moments are usually tangential to the topic at hand.

But the piece de resistance -- and the point at which Dick fully embraces his muckraker tendencies -- comes with the film itself. It needs a rating to get distribution, after all, and the only way to receive one is, um... well... to submit it to the MPAA -- the very people it's scraping over a cheese grater. Sadly, the ratings board never rises to the bait the way Dick clearly hopes, forcing him to improvise important details in some of This Film's sloppiest segments. But the fiendish iconoclasm of prepping his film-in-progress for screening by his own targets is supremely enjoyable to watch, delivering a poisonous comeuppance that more than a few directors must be secretly cheering.

The resulting portrait is biased to be sure, and its shoot-from-the-hip technique covers up some shaky gaps in coverage (the DVD market -- with its propensity for unrated films -- is never mentioned, nor is the larger cultural hypocrisy that can't accept that some very good films really shouldn't be seen by kids). But it remains sharp, energetic, and extremely funny, while shedding some much-needed light on a very serious problem. Anyone with eyes can see what a shambles the process has become, and how fundamental changes are required if the system is to serve anyone beyond a tiny cabal of self-important censors. Despite its flaws, This Film Is Not Yet Rated serves as an invaluable rallying cry against their methods, their secrecy, and their unmitigated gall at presuming to dictate how filmmakers can express themselves. The further its message goes, the greater the chance that someone will finally start watching a very irresponsible band of far-too-powerful watchmen.

Review published 08.31.2006.

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