Thrust in Us

The idiocy of the movie ratings board.

Kirby Dick’s documentary This Film Is Not Yet Rated(IFC Pictures)cannily combines Super Size Me’s mischievous muckraking with the sanguine raunchiness of The Aristocrats. It’s only natural, making an exposé about the secretive institution that is the Motion Picture Association of America, that Dick would want to show us just what it is that the MPAA doesn’t want filmmakers to show us—at least not without saddling them with a kiss-of-death NC-17 rating. So—by way of educating us, you understand—This Film Is Not Yet Rated is all but required to feature plenty of matter-of-factly presented, and thoroughly entertaining, filth.

We get to see the shots from the infamous puppet-sex scene in Team America: World Police that never made it into the final cut(including puppet rim jobs, puppet goldenshowers, and worse). As the film’s co-creator, Matt Stone, explains in an interview, he and Trey Parker shot far more dirty footage than they planned to use, on the theory that the MPAA needed the satisfaction of cutting at least something out. John Waters, whose reputation as a raconteur may outlive his fame as a filmmaker, tells a priceless if possibly apocryphal story: Apparently while rating his 2004 film A Dirty Shame, the MPAA called in doctors to explain to them what“felching” meant. Waters obligingly explains the term himself, then adds, “I know a lot of perverts, and I don’t know anyone who’s done that.”

Jack Valenti, who’s headed the MPAA for 40 years, and who created the ratings system in 1968 to succeed the even more repressive Hays Code, in place since the early ‘30s, is seen in an old film clip sternly intoning that, “No film can ever survive the brazen hiss of public scorn.” But of course, brazen hissing can also make for big box office, and, as the film points out, filmmakers who’ve chafed in the past at the MPAA’s restrictions range from arty types like David Lynch and Atom Egoyan to popular artists like William Friedkin, the Wachowski brothers, and Peter Jackson.

The movie is both clever and ruthless at exposing the ratings board’s inconsistencies and hypocrisy. Critics and film scholars, as well as directors and actors, show up to muse over the ineffable standards of the board: How do they know what obscenity is when they see it? “I think there is definitely, like, a thrust number,” laughs indie director Allison Anders, over a montage of vigorous onscreen humping in recent films like Storytelling, The Cooler,and The Dreamers. Maria Bello wonders aloud what it was that made a second-long glimpse of her pubic hair in The Cooler more offensive than the blood and guts on abundant display in Sin City.

As many of the interviewees point out, the MPAA ostensibly exists for the protection of children, yet its members object far more to graphic sex than to graphic violence (by Dick’s count, four times more movies receive NC-17 ratings for sexual content than for violent scenes). The board also engages in de facto censorship by tailoring the kind of sex that does make it on-screen to a standard that’s overwhelmingly skewed toward straight male taste. For example, scenes of women receiving oral sex (especially if, like Chloe Sevigny in Boys Don’t Cry, their orgasms last too long for the board’s taste) are far more likely to earn a film an NC-17 rating than images of their male counterparts getting similarly serviced. Same-sex couples are also subject to far harsher scrutiny than straight ones. A split-screen montage in the film makes this point by juxtaposing near-identical scenes from two different films at a time, one featuring gay sex, the other straight; invariably, the gay movie gets an NC-17 rating, the straight one a PG-13.

It’s the investigative reporting angle that makes This Film Is Not Yet Rated more than just a witty montage of such moments. Dick hires a private investigator, a cheery sparkplug of a woman named Becky Altringer, to conduct a charmingly low-tech stakeout (think an SUV and a pair of mini-binoculars) on the mysterious MPAA building in Encino, Calif. After a lot of ethically questionable eavesdropping (asked by one MPAA member if he’s taping a phone conversation, Dick coolly replies, “No,” even as we see the digital recorder switched on), he manages to track down the identities of virtually the entire corps of film raters active in 2005 and displays their names and photographs on-screen, rap-sheet style. Despite the confidentiality agreement that MPAA raters are required to sign, two former members of the board agree to on-screen interviews, and their assessment of the institution seems to square with that of a film scholar who insists that “the current ratings system is unconstitutional.” As another interviewee points out, the MPAA may be one of the only institutions outside the intelligence community that controls the flow of information in complete secrecy, with no accountability whatsoever to the public it serves.

At times, Dick does engage in the kind of deck-stacking that seems de rigueur in the post-Michael Moore documentary. Yes, the MPAA members he hounds for interviews seem laughable in their prissy outrage; then again, they’re being, in essence, stalked and filmed by a total stranger. But for all its carefully choreographed impertinence, Dick’s movie makes a persuasive case for something most people on the production end of the film industry have agreed on for a long time: the need to reform a ratings system that, as Newsweek critic David Ansen observes in the film, seems less interested in protecting children from objectionable material than it does in infantilizing the rest of us.