Friday, September 22, 2006

This Film is Not Yet Rated

"NC-17: This rating declares that the Rating Board believes this is a film that most parents will consider patently too adult for their youngsters under 17. No children will be admitted. NC-17 does not necessarily mean obscene or pornographic; in the oft-accepted or legal meaning of those words. The Board does not and cannot mark films with those words. These are legal terms for courts to decide. The reasons for the application of an NC-17 rating can be excessive violence, sex, aberrational behavior, drug abuse or any other elements which, when present, most parents would consider too strong and therefore off-limits for viewing by their children."

So goes the MPAA's definition of the NC-17 rating. This Film is Not Yet Rated both exemplifies this rating and explores how the MPAA has implemented its distinctions between the less-restrictive R rating and the boxoffice-kiss-of-death NC-17.

The subtext of Kirby Dick's film, which Dick never really addresses, is exhibitors' reluctance to book films with either no rating or the dreaded NC-17. Why? Because theatres that exhibit NC-17 or unrated films often become the targets of protest. Plenty of watchdog organizations believe that people shouldn't be able to decide for themselves what's prurient or ill-advised entertainment, and they're more than willing to help theatres police themselves. So booking such films is just bad for business.

But what's Dick's beef, really?

First is the inequity with which the MPAA applies the NC-17 rating. As Dick's documentary (sometimes graphically) shows, independent and gay-themed films are rated more harshly than their studio and straight-themed counterparts, based on scene-for-scene comparisons. Second is the veil of secrecy behind which the MPAA "protects" its ratings board members from scrutiny—a veil which Dick's film rips to shreds. Third is the obvious (and covert) influence that the studios wield over the process.

It's this third element that I find most troubling. Though the MPAA's website declares that "No one in the movie industry has the authority or power to push the Board in any direction or otherwise influence it," Dick's film irrefutably demonstrates that this is simply an outright lie. The appeals board is entirely staffed with employees of the major studios and distributors. If that's not influence over the ratings, I don't know what is.

So what value is there in braving Dick's film? If one is not easily shocked by graphic sexuality (which seems to fascinate Dick far more than graphic violence or profanity), the film is certainly educational—if a bit too glib and sophomoric; and viewers should be aware that the bulk of the film's most graphic footage comes in the opening minutes. Most people interested in the subject, however, would be better off to simply read a selection of reviews and essays about the film. There's valuable rational content in this topic, none of which really needs to be reinforced with imagery.

Some words really benefit from being made flesh—I can think of One in particular. Though Dick's documentary is an outstanding contribution to the larger cultural discussion about morality, politics, business, and art, I'm not sure his words profit from so much explicit fleshing out.


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