Once again, the unelected and unaccountable moms of America are ruining the fucking country. In the name of “protecting the children” — surely a phrase more chilling in its implications than “work will make you free” — these chubby, unloved, undersexed, and overmedicated shrews and hausfraus, women devoid of humor, intellect, and any ability to discern art from pap, pull out their clipboards, purse their lips, and pronounce judgment on motion pictures they couldn’t possibly understand. Of course, these tired, dreadful wombs-on-wheels aren’t the only ones responsible for the colossal joke that is the ratings system, but they are all-too-typical of Jack Valenti’s philosophy: enlist “regular people” as arbiters of taste, and rely on “common sense” as the final verdict for hundreds of movies every year. Better yet, create a shadowy network of anonymity — all under the guise of “professionalism” — so that no member of the media is able to determine whether or not conflicts of interest exist (or even simple competence). Given the barriers and firewalls that exist in the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) itself, not even the CIA could lay claim to such an airtight system of stifled dissent.
Kirby Dick’s This Film is Not Yet Rated is a blistering, riveting account of this very association, and no more important film will be screened all year. It confirms for all time that the MPAA’s ratings do in fact encourage censorship, and as filmmakers are unable to make challenges in an open arena, it reeks of an authoritarianism that was long thought put to bed with the death of the Soviet Union. Established in November 1968, these ratings were voluntarily installed by the movie industry itself in order to keep the government from legislating more overt means of repression. The ratings would aid parents, it was believed, so that they could immediately understand the content of a particular product. And yes, it would be “product”, as these ratings serve to eliminate context, nuance, or complexity in art, all in favor of a “grade” that reduces the images to the sum total of their profanity, nudity, and violence. Nothing else appears relevant to the ratings board, and it matters not that these acts might be in service of a larger theme. In this way, a gratuitous decapitation is treated in the same way as the invasion of Normandy. Needless to say, no one wants the ratings board to be making political distinctions, which is why they shouldn’t be evaluating these movies to begin with. That said, they do in fact traffic in the political, as the nature and method of sex determines the severity of the rating. It should surprise no one that gay sex (along with the female orgasm) almost always warrants an NC-17, while heterosexuality and more “normal” positions are granted an R. I’m still waiting for the evidence to trickle in that sex which results in punishment or death is never branded beyond a PG.
That secret agents are deciding the ultimate fate of our motion pictures is so vile as to invite calls for random acts of violence, but little is bound to change, given the MPAA’s incestuous relationship with the very industry it claims to dispassionately regulate. While the ratings board is made up of ordinary nitwits, the appeals board (where one must go if the rating is deemed unacceptable by the filmmaker) is packed with insiders, including numerous VP’s and CEO’s of theater chains and studios. As such, their interests are those of the majors, and more independent expressions and films are instinctively punished, despite all claims of objectivity. Worst of all, this group consults — and sits — two members of the clergy, though it is claimed that they don’t actually have a vote. What possible need could there be for the alleged insights of the Catholic order? No answers are forthcoming, but as this is a private organization, all church/state objections are killed in their crib. Curiously, if the ratings board were a government organization, Constitutional claims could be pursued in the courts, and some level of oversight would exist. At the very least, hearings would be public and members would be accountable to Congress (as well as the Freedom of Information Act), and therefore the people. Sure, the possibility exists that secrecy and cover-up could infect such a body, but surely it could not be worse than the sham that burdens us today.
As expected, Jack Valenti does not appear on camera, nor does his successor Dan Glickman. What footage we do get of Valenti repeats the standard defense — parents want it, government respects it, and it ensures the freedom of expression for all. I’m sure Valenti genuinely believes this, but he’s a company man through and through, and his sympathies do not reside with the artist. The MPAA today, of course, is more about anti-piracy and copyright violations, and there is little sympathy for movies as a craft. So when a film is branded, it is never with specifics (that, they say, would be censorship), only a general “tone” that gives the director no idea how to edit the film appropriately. Such edits should never be necessary, of course, but at least if a laundry list were provided (along with detailed reports from actual persons who could be consulted), we would have a better insight into the process. Currently, it is a bizarre, almost surreal guessing game; a maze of confusion where directors are forced to resort to sheer trickery, as when Trey Parker and Matt Stone consciously added more “offensive” material than even they wanted to Team America: World Police so that the final edit would be closer to their original vision. It’s pure madness, and not at all what a healthy marketplace of ideas should endorse. And since most newspapers won’t advertise NC-17 films (to say nothing of the theaters that won’t carry them, as well as Blockbuster’s refusal to stock them), the free market’s voice — where patrons speak with their dollars — isn’t allowed to flourish. Instead, a mysterious board has made that decision for all of us.
In addition to the history of the ratings board and assorted tales of its arbitrary insanity, the movie’s director enlists private investigators to reveal the identities of these self-proclaimed moral guardians. Phone calls are made, cars are followed, and trash cans are overturned in the wee hours of the night, all in the desire to expose and hopefully, hold to account. The same methods are also used with the appeals board. I had hoped for more humiliating tactics (microphones shoved in faces, catcalls, sniper fire, etc.) but it’s enough that we learn who these people are. Valenti’s desire to have parents on board is fulfilled, but most of the kids are now adults, and the board members themselves are all above forty years old, adding to the charge that out of touch philistines are ruling on movies most likely beyond their fossilized brains. No prizes for guessing that an overall lack of diversity also exists. It’s like the wealthy, lily-white Supreme Court of the nineteenth century ruling on matters of racial justice. Their hearts simply aren’t going to be in it. Minds have been made up well in advance of the opening arguments, or in this case, the whir of the projector. And whenever you bring together a group of parents, there’s bound to be assumptions concerning the harmful effects of assorted images. But has Valenti ever admitted that perhaps experts in the fields of child psychology or media studies should be consulted? Rigidly, stubbornly, he clings to the wisdom of those whose sole qualification is the lack of foresight to use birth control.
Mr. Dick gives this issue the weight it deserves, but he injects of a level of humor that keeps in mind cinema’s need to entertain, as well as instruct. Some of the undercover work smacks of Cheaters, but why not resort to such methods in the face of a laughable enemy? Their work deserves to be taken seriously, but the secret handshakes and bunker mentality of the ratings board reveal a cringe-worthy self-importance that far outweighs the service they claim to provide. As we don’t rate books in this manner, why do films continue to receive such treatment? The true answer, of course, is that books are far from safe, and I anticipate a day in which scarlet letters call to us from the library shelves of America. It’s the instinct to suppress that defines our lot, and as we have seen, private industry’s fangs are on par with the boogey man of the state. And so we have random citizens deciding that pubic hair is offensive, profanity excessive, or the naked form is fine when sitting in a tub, but not when sprawled out on the hood of a car. That kiss is too passionate, that intercourse too mindless, or that nipple too exposed for the situation. It’s an impossible task, and one unworthy of a nation professing before the world the power of its freedom. If This Film is Not Yet Rated proves anything — beyond, of course, the necessity of having Jack Valenti strung up and roasted before a roaring crowd before he dies quietly — it is that we should reserve our ire, rage, and hole card of armed revolt not for the paper tiger of terrorism, but the forces of true evil who seek to soothe our souls with the salve of moral sanctimony.