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This Film Is Not Yet Rated (2006)



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This Film Is Not Yet Rated is another in a recent spate of editorial documentaries that seem designed more to entertain those who already side with it than engage in an honest examination of the subject. A great documentary might be made about the flaws in the MPAA's rating system and the problems they cause, but it is not this one, which feels no more analytical than a child in a temper tantrum. The clincher is that I myself do sympathize with what the film's point seems to be, that the current ratings system seems to result in a de facto censorship due to the existence of an unmarketable adults-only rating. But I actually held that stance stronger before I saw the film than after.

That might be overstating it, but the reasons the film gave for why the problem is a problem are absolutely not mine. As I say, it feels like a temper tantrum, and featured in it are snippets of interviews with filmmakers complaining about how they had to cut their films to get an R rating. Many of them seem to take the attitude of "What's the big deal?" or "Teenagers have heard these words before." Not the point. Movies are role models for kids. Maybe they've been exposed to all the behavior the movies might present, but that doesn't mean parents shouldn't be concerned if the movies their children watch affirm that behavior. Context is everything. A shot of nudity in a film can be used in a number of constructive contexts, or it can be used to cheapen human sexuality. Graphic violence, such as that found in Saving Private Ryan, can raise conscientiousness of the great sacrifice others have made for our freedoms, or, as in most slashers, it can cheapen the sanctity and value of human life.

The MPAA does not discern context well enough for my taste, but it understands it better than this film, which makes much of its argument by showing us scenes of violence and (mostly) sexuality out of their original contexts and asking us to be outraged that the MPAA required this material to be cut in order to obtain an R rating. So? Where are the reasons anyone other than those seeking sensationalism should care that these moments were trimmed? In some cases, there are such reasons, but what are they? Just to pick a title at random, there is no justifiable reason for the graphic content of Eyes Wide Shut out of context; it is within the context of the film, in its exploration of the obsessive nature of jealousy and the deep psychological trauma it can cause, that there is arguably a reason to defend the content of the film. But This Film Is Not Yet Rated presents no such argument. It extracts sensationalistic scenes out of context, thus stripping away whatever worthwhile reason for their existence there might be, and tries to convince us that this material should be made more accessible to children. Huh? After a relentless parade of such out-of-context examples, I started to wonder if I was really as bothered by the state of the MPAA ratings system as I thought I was.

I can hear objections forming in the minds of those reading this already. Admirable or not, worthwhile or not, speech should be free, right? Yes, but we're not talking about whether speech should be allowed or restricted. We're talking about whether or not an organization serving the film studios and the parents of America should be endorsing specific types of speech for specific types of audiences. By rating Eyes Wide Shut an R, the MPAA is saying that it is an appropriate film for kids to see, provided they are accompanied by their parents. Nonsense. Eyes Wide Shut is a film for adults. The MPAA initially agreed, then stupidly conceded the R rating after the filmmakers used digital imagery to partially concealed some of the more graphic moments. In its edited form, the film is no more appropriate for kids; merely less graphic. But This Film Is Not Yet Rated attacks the MPAA's initial decision and implies that Eyes Wide Shut should have been R rated in its original form. Why? I see no justification for it being anything other than an adults-only film either way. It should have been released with an NC-17 the way the director originally intended it.

The monkey wrench is that the NC-17 is an unmarketable rating. Many theaters refuse to carry NC-17 rated films, and many newspapers refused to run ads for them. That is their prerogative. It's not particularly the MPAA's fault that the NC-17 rating is unmarketable. But far worse is working around the unmarketability of the NC-17 by letting adults-only films slide by with an R, with or without a couple of usually insignificant edits. The MPAA might do well to create a new rating between the R and the NC-17, where adults-only, non-pornographic films could be classified, thereby freeing up the R rating for what it was intended to be. It might work. It might not. Surely it is a preferable idea to try out than to attack the MPAA for not just awarding whatever rating filmmakers want to self-apply. The MPAA is attacked for representing the studios, which in turn are interested in selling tickets to movies. Therein lies a very real problem. But the solution This Film Is Not Yet Rated offers by way of implication -- with all the interviewed filmmakers moaning about the MPAA not making the decisions they wanted them to made -- is surely a few steps in the precisely wrong direction.

Whether you agree or disagree with my thoughts in the above paragraph, I've at least given far more thought to the issues than This Film Is Not Yet Rated does. Temper tantrums do not pose solutions, do not weigh alternatives, do not speculate on causes and effects. They uphold grudges, and boy does this film have a grudge against the MPAA. It attacks it from as many quarters as it can and glories in digs that are cute and snappy even if they are unsound. There is a moment when the film runs two different graphic scenes side by side, both scenes being similar, but one earning one rating and one earning another. The point is to highlight the inconsistency and hypocrisy of the MPAA's ratings assignments, but what was I just saying about context? Context matters, and even if it did not, the MPAA ratings apply to whole films, not individual scenes.

There is also an extended sequence where the director hires a private detective to track down the identities of the members of the ratings board, which are kept secret. Keeping the identities of the ratings board secret has a pro and a con: it means they aren't held accountable for their individual decisions, true, but it also frees them from political pressure that might be exerted by those with a vested interest in their ratings decisions. I'm open to a discussion about whether or not the board members should be kept secret or not, but this film is content simply to foster the paranoia that secrecy is bad and proceed under that assumption. Then it goes ahead and actually stalks the ratings board. It's a discomfiting invasion of privacy, and what is accomplished by unmasking a few ratings board members? Nothing but the puerile satisfaction of having stuck it to an organization that obviously so irks the director, Kirby Dick.

I read an anonymous Internet comment about the film that expressed hope that a lot of people would see this film and spread its message. What message? This Film Is Not Yet Rated has no idea what it's actual problem with the MPAA is, and it poses no solutions. The only message it seems to have is that the MPAA is an imperfect organization. But what organization is perfect? And what if the MPAA is still the best of the alternatives? I'd love to know how the MPAA can be made better, or, if necessary and possible, replaced with a better system. A documentary that actually explores these questions and possibilities would be fascinating and potentially important. But This Film Is Not Yet Rated is, as I say, merely a temper tantrum.