The Movie Binge

Review: This Film is Not Yet Rated

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In the film's opening, Boys Don't Cry director Kimberly Peirce discusses her experience in having Boys rated by the MPAA, and comes to the conclusion that the ratings board is "terrified of female pleasure" and judges it harshly, in a double standard with male pleasure. As she says this, one gets a sense that it's an unsupported proposition, a somewhat reflexive leftist stance (and I say this as a leftist). But then the side-by-side comparisons start — of an "NC-17" female masturbation scene in the comedy But I'm A Cheerleader, placed on the screen next to "R"-rated male masturbation scenes in American Beauty and American Pie. And suddenly Kimberly Peirce is proved absolutely right.

Kirby Dick's documentary is a bold-faced, unashamed attack on the MPAA's "voluntary" film-rating system, and as such, you can't expect it to be even-handed. Some of its tactics — as seen in the still above, Dick hires a private eye to tail and "out" the ratings-board's secret members — are ethically questionable and somewhat oversensational, though the fundamental point regarding the board's thoroughly unnecessary obsession with secrecy (why must film-raters' identities be secret to protect them from influence, when judges, lawyers, FDA officials, and others are all exposed to public scrutiny?) is very sound. Several crucial exchanges between Dick and members of the ratings board are (by necessity) re-created and dramatized, lending those scenes a suspect and unfortunate air of he-said she-said ambiguity. Overall, while the rhetoric is generally shrill (if crudely satisfying for its shrillness), the points the film makes remain iron-clad — especially damning is the experience of South Park's Matt Stone, who describes the profound difference in treatment between submitting independently-financed and studio-financed films for review (namely, when submitting a studio picture, the ratings board provides point-by-point feedback on what would need to be altered to get an R rating; for an independent film, zilch).

The documentary characterizes the NC-17 rating as the kiss of death for any film with serious content, as it prevents wide distribution in both theatres and the home-video marketplace and cuts out most advertising opportunities; but it skims over the implications of this question: who is really performing the censorship of such films, the MPAA or the supply-chain that rejects them? The MPAA ratings board represents a conveniently-targeted bottleneck in this chain reaction, certainly, but a deeply interesting documentary could also be made exploring just who it is down the line that doesn't think adults deserve access to serious films of an adult nature. But as an entertaining piece of rabble-rousing that does blow some particularly large holes through the MPAA's ratings rhetoric (and some of the shadier business practices of the industry at large), This Film... is an unquestionable success.