March 22nd, 2007


Movie Recommendation: "This Film is Not Yet Rated"

I like movies. I enjoy hearing about moviemaking. A buddy made a movie in college that I appeared in (and from which I continue to quote, in spite of the obscurity of the film). I liken my own craft to moviemaking now and then.

I've seen some movies.

Most of them have gone through a somewhat questionable process - a shadowy cabal of decisionmakers placing their imprimatur on the finished product. "What's that?", you may ask. "Some smoke-filled room, with old men conspiring to shape the films that get viewed?"

Close - I'm talking about the MPAA ratings process. To be sure, ratings are better than no ratings, but this process is tragically broken - yet held in place by the major motion picture studios, as it serves their interests. (And really, it's a good thing somebody is looking out for Hollywood.)

I just got this movie today from Netflix (full disclosure, I own Netflix stock, and Netflix participated in making this movie, so therefore, I own part of this movie) and I'm going to make it the next DVD I buy. I also strongly encourage anybody who enjoys movies, or has children who might want to see movies, or people who are interested in the dynamics of popular culture to see this film.

One of the disturbing things about the MPAA process is the complete lack of transparency - filmmakers are told little about why their films were rated the way they were, sometimes being told what to cut, sometimes not. The individuals who rate the films are a better guarded secret than the formula for Coke. To stike out at that, the filmmaker (Kirby Dick) hired a private investigator to track down the names and some biographical data of the MPAA's raters (9 people in 2005).

Additionally, there's a board of appeals (although, one can be forgiven for wondering if a rubber stamp might achieve the same results for less work). The membership of this group is even more tightly guarded. Turns out, these guys are executives of movie studios or movie theatre chains. Conflict of interest? I suppose. But nothing's wrong with that, assuming you ignore the body of antitrust legislation.

One of the most delightful moments in the film was in a DVD extra - this movie was, of course, submitted to be rated by MPAA. On film, you see Kirby Dick verify that his film was only going to be showed to the raters, and that no copy was going to be made. A second phone call, and again, he verifies and is assured that the one copy was just there to be rated, and that no copies were being made. And then a third phone call, (comedy comes in threes) and a lawyer for the MPAA assures Kirby that the copy that the MPAA has was in the lawyer's safe, so he shouldn't be worried. Cut to quotes from the MPAA that all unauthorized duplication is illegal and all pirates are thieves.

There's enough room for discussion here for a season-long set of documentaries, but this is only an hour and a half. Questions that were touched on in passing that could fill full hour-long documentaries on their own:

  • Given two similar love scenes, if one is a heterosexual couple, and one is a homosexual couple, will the scenes be rated the same?
  • Given three similar love scenes, if one is a white couple, and one is a mixed couple, and one is two non-white people, will the scenes be rated the same?
  • Given two similar scenes of violence, one in a war documentary, and one in an action film, will the scenes be rated the same?
  • Given two similar movies, one from a major studio, one from an independent production house, will they be rated the same?
  • Given a scene of violence and a scene of sexuality, what constitutes equivalent acceptability?
  • "Ratings Creep" - a PG movie from 20 years ago would today get a G rating, a R from 20 years ago would get PG-13, or more likely PG today. Is this appropriate, given a more permissive culture? Or should ratings be more absolute?
  • Much of this documentary is about the dividing line between NC-17 and R - because studios will not market a NC-17 movie, so filmmakers blindly edit their movies to become R-rated. But is that a meaningful dividing line? The difference at the theatre beween R and NC-17 is whether an adult can bring a kid in with him - it's not whether an unattended kid can see the movie. (And really, if the kid wants to see the movie, does the NC-17 rating actually work to protect the child?) How about a simpler set of rules: if someone's imperiled, if someone's hurt, if someone shows "private bits", if someone says something that's not appropriate for the dinner table with grandma, that's an R rating. Everything else is PG. No G, no NC-17. Everything comes with an expectation that the parents exercise discretion.
  • Is a copyright term of 95 years appropriate? Almost no films are in the public domain. None of the films we saw first-run in the theatres will go into public domain in our lifetimes. Is that proper? With new television standards, it will become harder to make "fair use" of cultural works. Is that what we want? DMCA already prohibits making even limited copies of DVDs for archival and other personal use. Is that serving a vital purpose?
  • The lore says that the demographic most likely to pirate movies (and music, but that's a different rant) is late teenaged males. The demographic that provides the movie industry with their biggest income is late teenaged males. Is there evidence showing that anti-piracy efforts are paying off? What are the benefits? To whom? What are the costs? To whom? The Supreme Court recognizes the value of derivative works, but digital media are somehow exempt from parody and satire as protected speech?
  • What if the filmmakers could make their own rating system, separate from the existing MPAA rating system - how would it be different? Would it be more nuanced and informative?
  • Do anonymous movie raters have more influence over films than movie critics? Should they?
  • Will YouTube change any of this? All of it?

Ok, I'm only getting more worked up the more bullet points [PG] I list. I'm going to get up now.

If you do get a chance to see this, let me know. Better yet, let all your friends know.

Also, regardless of where you stand on this issue, if you get some money back from the IRS this year, consider contributing a small part of it to an underserved action group - for me, I'm going to donate to the Electronic Frontier Foundation this year, based on an awfully compelling interview with one of their representatives in the deleted scenes of this DVD.