Thursday, March 08, 2007

Culture Shock 03.08.07: Documentary takes on the hypocritical film ratings

The system used to rate the content of movies isn't all it appears to be. And that's a problem both for parents and filmmakers.

The Motion Picture Association of America's ratings system has been in place for about four decades. It has been modified twice, first with the introduction of the PG-13 rating, and later with the substitution of the NC-17 rating for X, which had come to be associated exclusively with hardcore pornography, as opposed to tamer "adult" films like "Showgirls."

But those small tweaks can't make up for the fact that the MPAA's system is broken and should be scrapped entirely.

Documentary filmmaker Kirby Dick set out to learn just how the MPAA rates films. The result was his 2006 movie, "This Film Is Not Yet Rated," recently released on DVD. The title refers to the standard disclaimer used on ads for films awaiting an MPAA rating.

Dick learned that the MPAA's supposedly impartial ratings system is anything but. But he had to hire a private investigator to do it.

The board that rates films for the MPAA is kept top secret, supposedly to shield its members from outside pressure. It is supposed to be made up of parents with small children.

Dick's investigator learned, however, that several of the board's members didn't have school-aged children. Others had ties to major movie studios. And, on top of that, two representatives of major religious groups served in "advisory" capacities.

In interviews with filmmakers, Dick found that independent films are held to a higher standard than are major studio releases. "This Film Is Not Yet Rated" was itself slapped with the dreaded NC-17, even though its content seems to merit only an R. (Dick released the final cut of the film without an MPAA rating.)

Then, of course, there is the longstanding criticism, which Dick notes, that the MPAA has a double standard for violence. Extreme violence earns a film a PG-13 or R. But too much sex can get a film an R or NC-17. Which are you really more concerned about your children viewing?

"This Film Is Not Yet Rated" leaves little doubt that the MPAA's ratings system benefits its member studios at the expense of independent films. Which is just what it was really intended to do. That's no surprise when you consider that the father of the ratings system, former MPAA President Jack Valenti, was a political hack in the Johnson administration. He had made a career out of crushing enemies, real and imagined.

Of course, Valenti sold it to the public as a tool for parents and a way to ward off any kind of government-run ratings system. Big corporations have a history of using the threat of government action to scare their smaller competitors into going along with things that end up benefiting only the big corporations.

One lawyer interviewed in Dick's film, however, says he'd prefer a government-run ratings system because he has no doubt it would be found unconstitutional. I think he is far too optimistic about the Supreme Court's ability to read the U.S. Constitution, but I can see his point.

Dick's film is strongest when it stays on message. A digression about "media consolidation" is simply factually incorrect. And in a discussion included on the DVD as a bonus feature, Dick downplays the MPAA's waning influence. Clearly, however, as more people view movies at home rather than in theaters, ratings are less of an issue. Unrated versions of films are widely available, even at retailers that claim to avoid racy entertainment.

Quibbles aside, "This Film Is Not Yet Rated" is a powerful indictment of the MPAA's self-serving, hypocritical approach to rating films.

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