Director Jean-Luc Godard famously said that the best way to criticize a movie is to make another movie. In his muckraking 2006 documentary This Film Is Not Yet Rated, director Kirby Dick (Twist of Faith) set out to prove that making a movie is also the best way to criticize a movie-ratings system.
The result is a deceptive, morally blinkered bit of Michael Moore cinema that made more of a splash in the media than with actual viewers. But the film still managed to get the attention of the Motion Picture Association of America, which jointly owns and administers the ratings system with the National Association of Theater Owners, known as NATO. Though the ratings system has taken fire for years over similar complaints about secretiveness, murkiness of ratings standards and qualifications of anonymous ratings-board members, This Film may have been the spur that finally moved the system’s owners to try to polish its tarnished image.
Ironically, after an initial splash at Sundance, This Film vanished without a ripple at the box office. It didn’t even do half a million dollars worldwide. Its DVD earnings potential is also sharply limited by the fact that the film really does bear no MPAA rating, and thus isn’t carried at Blockbuster and other large chains that pay lip service to family values. (Actually, though technically unrated, the film might be more accurately titled This Film Is No Longer Rated. The filmmakers did submit their film to the MPAA, but later appealed and ultimately “surrendered” their rating when the film was slapped with an NC-17 — inevitably so, given the film’s patently adult content documenting the line between the R and NC-17 ratings.)
It’s easy to see why the MPAA might have taken the film personally. This Film spends much of its running time on efforts to identify and embarrass the anonymous members of the Classification and Rating Administration ratings board, which is jointly operated by the MPAA and NATO. Critics of the film have pointed out that, in its efforts to establish the Motion Picture Association of America, which represents the major Hollywood studios, as the Big Bad Guy, This Film completely ignores the theater owners’ role in the ratings system.
The rest of This Film is largely taken up with polemics against the system’s alleged “inequalities.” Yet in the face of “charges” that sex is rated more harshly than violence, and sex between homosexual persons more harshly than straight sex, the MPAA’s much-maligned defense that “we don’t try to set the standards, we just try to reflect them” seems eminently reasonable.
Even so, the film does land a few blows, and the Motion Picture Association of America and National Association of Theater Owners have recently announced proposed changes intended to demystify and clarify the ratings process. Some of these are procedural: Notoriously opaque ratings rules will be made public, and the ratings and appeals process should be more transparent. Ratings-board members will undergo a formal training process, and the traditional rule that members must be parents with school-age children will be consistently enforced.
There will also be cosmetic tweaks to the ratings system itself, in particular to the problematic R and NC-17 ratings. The line between these two ratings has long been a serious problem. Most R-rated films, especially so-called “hard-R” films like slasher films, are inappropriate not only for unaccompanied children, but for young children, period, with or without a parent or guardian. Yet it’s common to see clueless, callow parents at the multiplex with tikes in tow buying tickets to the most patently adult fare.
If there’s to be an adults-only rating at all, it should be applied more liberally to keep adult content away from children. The catch is, the NC-17 rating is commercially unviable: Many theaters won’t show NC-17 films, and big home-video distributors like Blockbuster won’t carry them. As a result, studios push for an R rating, trimming content to within a hairsbreadth of an NC-17, regardless how thoroughly adult the whole character of the film may be.
To deal with this, the MPAA and theater owners have proposed two tweaks to the system, one concrete and one abstract. First, the R rating will now be accompanied by the following caution: “Generally, it is not appropriate for parents to bring their young children with them to R-rated motion pictures.” Second, the two organizations hope to rehabilitate the NC-17 rating to make it more commercially viable, in theory making it more feasible to release more films with the adults-only rating rather than the more permissive R.
What remains to be seen, of course, is whether the first change will make a difference, and whether the second change is even possible, or how it would be accomplished. Will the sort of parents who abuse their children by subjecting them to the likes of Saw or Hostel change their ways just because an advisory statement tells them it’s “generally inappropriate” to bring young children to R-rated movies? Perhaps some might. Would a rehabilitated NC-17 rating keep more children away from adult content? Or would it lead to the mainstreaming of unrestrained perversity beyond even the boundaries of the current permissive R rating?
Ultimately, the problem isn’t the ratings system. It’s the movies. The Motion Picture Association of America recently made a show of cracking down on a company called After Dark Films for offensive, non-MPAA-approved advertising for their horror film Captivity, which consisted of four sequential images of a young woman apparently being kidnapped, imprisoned, tortured and murdered. The images were accompanied by one-word captions: “Capture. Confinement. Torture. Termination.”
Parents flooded After Dark Films and the Motion Picture Association with complaints. The ads were yanked. The association slapped the film with a 30-day ratings embargo, potentially jeopardizing the release date.
The problem is, the revised ads weren’t much better than the originals. Two of the four images are a little less graphic, but they tell the same sick story with the same four captions. After Dark has admitted that their original ads were in “bad taste.” Do they think the new ones are in good taste? Do they think the film itself is in good taste?
That the original billboards did provoke enough public outcry to prompt their removal is at least somewhat reassuring. Unfortunately, the film itself, featuring 24 star Elisha Cuthbert, is likely to do well at the box office. And at least some of the grownups lining up for tickets will have young children with them.
Steven D. Greydanus is editor and chief critic of DecentFilms.com.