In his 2006 documentary This Film Is Not Yet Rated, director Kirby Dick (Twist of Faith, 2004; Derrida, 2002) rails against the all-encompassing hold of the Motion Picture Association of America, the MPAA. Despite the conventional format of this film, the script is based on a decidedly brazen move: the documentary itself has to be submitted to the film review panel which Dick seeks to expose for its ‘shadowy practices.’
A Brief History of Censorship
As an organisation founded in 1922 after a US Supreme Court ruling in 1915 stating that motion pictures were not covered under the First Amendment (a decision subsequently reversed in 1952), the MPAA operated according to production code (the ‘Hays Code’) guidelines which stipulated that:
1. No picture shall be produced that will lower the moral standards of those who see it. Hence the sympathy of the audience should never be thrown to the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil or sin.
2. Correct standards of life, subject only to the requirements of drama and entertainment, shall be presented.
3. Law, natural or human, shall not be ridiculed, nor shall sympathy be created for its violation.
The MPAA Production Code Administration required all filmmakers to obtain a certificate of approval before the distribution of their work. In 1966, Jack Valenti became head of the MPAA, and set about introducing a ratings system upon the violation of the existing code by MGM and Warner Bros with their respective films Blowup and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Operating under a schema of G, M, R, and X, there have been certain shifts of classification over intervening years, culminating in the creation of the NC-17 label in 1990.
It is the effect of being rated ‘NC-17’ that is the focus of this documentary: far from transparent or accountable, MPAA wields this status as a political tool to disable the distribution of content it deems to be inappropriate for American youth. How the MPAA Classification and Rating Administration (CARA) goes about their decision-making process, likened to censorship, is closed to scrutiny – until Kirby Dick hires private investigators to get to the identity of those who rate films. In true Hollywood style, Dick gleans information from trash cans, hidden cameras, and reconnaissance trips in order to uncover the demographic who makes these decisions.
The stakes are undoubtedly high: receiving an NC-17 rating, where children under the age of 17 are not admitted to a screening, rather than ‘R - Restricted’ where patrons 17 and under must be accompanied by an adult or guardian, means that a movie cannot be openly advertised. Hollywood studios refuse to promote these films, most cinemas won’t play NC-17s, and large distributors Wal-Mart and Blockbuster refuse to stock DVDs with this classification. Clearly, this may mean the difference between box office success and failure. Stigma would also attach to the suggestion of content deemed unseemly by the parents of America… whoever they may be. In whose name? is a question which resonates in the denial of an official response, given the diversity of ‘youth’ tastes and interests. This is a clear insight into the shaping of the monolithic American mainstream.
Actor Maria Bello, most recently of The Cooler, comments on the inconsistency of the rating when you look to comparable content of more mainstream Hollywood films (think American Pie, for one!). What exactly is gratuitous? All evidence suggests that there is an assault on the depiction of female pleasure, and anything deemed to be ‘queer’. To clarify: no-one is arguing against the utility of guidelines for viewing decisions; rather, they are questioning the lack of consistency and transparency of their application, as well as a seeming vendetta against independent thought. Suggestions that professional child psychologists and independent media experts sit on the panel were rapidly quashed:
MPAA maintains that the identity of ratings board members must not be disclosed because of their supposed sensitivity to pressure from lobby groups; however, it is clear that close bonds are formed between Hollywood and the committee, given the detailed feedback provided to amend to an R, versus ‘it’s the film’s overall feeling’ and ‘we stopped making notes’ for the independents. How one addresses such generalities before a closed appeals tribunal is also up for consideration. Dick reveals, however, that the board is constituted by members of the major studios, and in appeasing religious-minded lobby groups, two members of the clergy. In addition, Jack Valenti unashamedly courted statesmen and US Senators for support of his ‘impartial’ decision-making body.
Opinion on the independence and fairness of the system is sought from prominent American filmmakers who have endured the NC-17 branding: John Waters, Kevin Smith, Mary Harron, Matt Stone, Kimberly Peirce, Darren Aronofsky, and Atom Egoyan. This process is also witnessed in meta-text, as Dick is subjected to the scrutiny of MPAA for the present film. Stanford law professor and rights guru Lawrence Lessig weighs into the debate on the front of copyright and piracy and the encroachment on the public sphere and free thought. In a beautifully appropriate moment of irony, apparently the MPAA pirated copies of the film to distribute to their executives. Let us hope for a wide release for the film in Australian cinemas.