Because of the content of some of the films that were made in the silent and early talking era, the Motion Picture Production Code was developed and implemented in 1930. Commonly known as the Hays Code, after Will Hays (Hollywood’s main censor at that time), it served as the rules of censorship for Hollywood until the development of the MPAA film rating system in 1968. This code dictated what filmmakers could and could not include in motion pictures (Doherty). There were some definite no-nos, such as profanity, licentious or lecherous notice, illegal drug trafficking, and miscegenation; there was also a list of subjects about which special care was to be taken, including marriage, the seduction of girls, the use of drugs, scenes showing law enforcement officers, and “excessive or lustful” kissing (Lewis). This last scene led to an interpretation that would censor out any kisses lasting longer than three seconds; in the movie Notorious, director Alfred Hitchcock got around this by having his lead actors stop kissing every three seconds but then resume, in a scene that lasted longer than two minutes (McGilligan). If we fast forward to modern cinema, in which outright censorship of content has been replaced by a rating system indicating the degree of acceptability and, with some ratings, controlling the age of the audience, filmmaking in the modern area has much more license than it did before 1968. However, as such documentaries as This Film is Not Yet Rated, the spirit of censorship is alive and well in much of Hollywood, particularly in the differentiation between heterosexual and homosexual conduct on the silver screen. This double standard ends up leaving much of queer cinema in the dark.
This Film is Not Yet Rated centers around the rating system used by the Motion Picture Association of America and the effects that this system has on American culture. The documentary was rated TV-MA when the Independent Film Channel showed it; originally, the MPAA gave the first cut a rating of NC-17 for “some graphic sexual content.” The director, Kirby Dick, appealed the rating, and then included the descriptions of the appeal process and the deliberations that led to the ratings in the final version of the film, which is not yet rated. In general, the film covers some of the contradictions that Dick sees in the feedback and ratings process. In his view, there is a difference in the way movies from inside the Hollywood establishment are rated from those that are independently made, as well as a difference between heterosexual and homosexual sexual scenes, between sexual depictions of the male and female, and between sexual and violent content.
The general purpose of this film was to uncover these different contradictions. As a result, a lot of the press coverage that the film received came from the fact that the film crew hired a private detective to figure out the hidden identities of the members of the appeals and ratings boards. Some of the findings from the film include the fact that many members of the ratings board have no children or have adult children; the MPAA has indicated in the past that it only hires parents of children of school age. Another revelation was the fact that the board views homosexual material much more dimly than it does heterosexual material. The board’s raters also apparently receive minimal or no training in the rating process and are purposely chosen because of their paucity of exposure to media literacy and the principles of child development. Senior raters have mandatory meetings with personnel from the studios after screenings of movies. The appeals board for the MPAA is shrouded in as much secrecy as the ratings board, and its members are mostly executives with movie studios and movie theater chains. There are even two ministers on the appeals board (one Protestant and one Catholic).
One difficulty with watching This Film is Not Yet Rated would apply to any documentary that covers a process that occurs mostly behind closed doors. As Roger Ebert points out, the “Oscar broadcasts used to try desperately to find ‘creative’ ways to explain the voting rules with cheesy comedy routines or musical numbers.” However, there was just no way to do that in a way that was either entertaining or accessible. While Dick attempts to give the process of the MPAA rating system a similar boost of entertainment value, those attempts have little to do with any success that the film has. The scenes of detectives writing down license plate numbers of cars parked outside the nondescript commercial suites that the MPAA uses, and taking photographs of employees who are out on their lunch breaks, are a bit much. It is intriguing that Dick was able to find clues in the trash about the ways Memoirs of a Geisha was able to get out with a PG-13 rating, but other than that, this movie wanders off course when it includes these shots.
After all, the movie is targeted toward those who are interested in censorship or the movie business as topics. Those people would have watched this movie with or without the detective mumbo-jumbo. The problem with the film rating system is that exposes a contradiction that is just a simple part of American culture. We like to believe that we resist any sort of censorship that comes from the government. Indeed, since the 1980s, the popular shift in belief has been to move away from government regulation of the private world of industry. However, it does not take much for the people to run screaming for protection from what they deem obscene. Let just one “wardrobe malfunction” take place on live television, and the American public is calling for massive fines to be levied by the FCC on the offending network, so that semi-nudity can be banned from the network airwaves – never mind that there are cable channels galore offering different degrees of nudity. We want freedom, but only for ourselves; we claim to be able to think responsibly, but then we run shrieking when anything even remotely challenges that responsibility.
This is where the MPAA comes in. It is a series of ratings that was designed to end the censorship of the Hays Code; however, it just took the censorship away from the government. The Hays Code required rules, paperwork, clarity, accountability and a system of due process. The MPAA does not have to deal with any of those nuisances. Instead, it bills itself as “voluntary.” Meanwhile, though, there is a network of agreements among the studios that pay for the MPAA’s operations, the advertising media, and the movie theater executives, to make rating less than optional. When you look in the newspaper to see what is playing at the local theater, you will almost never find a movie that is “NR” (not rated) playing at a theater that is owned by a movie studio. In many markets, you will not find any advertising in the local media about movies that are released without an MPAA rating. That advertising is only granted to movies that agree to take the MPAA’s rating in many places (Ebert).
The problem with the MPAA rating system is this: the association says that its rules are applied fairly and consistently. However, the procedure is so secret that no one can say what they actually are. If an element of a film is not permitted, it is because it has violated one of these invisible rules. It is unwinding the logic of the process that takes up much of this film. South Park’s Matt Stone talks about the dual standard given to studio-financed pictures as opposed to those financed and distributed independently. Maria Bello and Kimberly Peirce talk about the harsh ratings that scenes with female sexual pleasure receive; Allison Anders discusses the discomfort that any orgasm receives; the fact that female orgasms tend to go longer may contribute to the greater discomfort with it. However, at the same time, the male body is more taboo in nudity than the female, making it acceptable to display the female body but not to show female sexual pleasure, which is just another way in which the feminine is objectified in Western society.
Perhaps the most ironic effect of this film is that it makes one long for some system with accountability in a rating system, or even of a censorship board. Particularly when children are involved, it is important for a society to set limits about what is acceptable in the media. However, the lack of accountability at work in the MPAA’s system ends up being more frustrating than helpful. It is worth asking, then, what the purpose of such a system is. The MPAA, then, becomes a metaphor for that paradox of prudishness that runs rampant through American culture. Consider the film Basic Instinct, which had to cut several scenes to get the rating of “R” that made it a commercial success. While there are few who would argue that the sensuality of some of the remaining scenes made an “R” rating necessary, that the film should be restricted to viewers 17 and above who were not with their parents, there are also those who argue that those sorts of scenes are not as damaging as those from another movie that also received an “R” rating – Saw. The depictions of physical violence, torture and pain in that film, according to the MPAA, qualify it for the same rating as Basic Instinct, even though the content areas of concern for the two films are quite different. Is pubic hair, which was revealed in the director’s cut of Basic Instinct as well as the director’s cut of The Cooler, and which threatened both films with an initial rating of NC-17, that much of a threat to children? Is pubic hair worse for juveniles to potentially view than torture and violent death? In American culture, violence has long been seen as more acceptable than sexual content. However, this is just one of the items that This Film is Not Yet Rated calls into question.
Some of the most cinematically engaging scenes from This Film is Not Yet Rated come from Dick’s own phone calls to the MPAA, questioning the initial NC-17 rating of his own movie, which came from some of the clips that he includes in his documentary. The editing and framing of those calls is straight out of Kafka’s The Trial; the circular logic shows all of the contradictions that are at work in the evaluation and ratings process. However, much like some of the work that Michael Moore does, one walks away from this film wondering how Dick expected any other outcome than what he got out of the process. After all, the ratings process came about in the first place because people did not want censorship of film. Instead, they wanted a guidance system to be able to make their own choices. However, if Basic Instinct had been released as a PG-13 film, there would have been public uproar all over the country as soon as Sharon Stone adjusted her seat in that police station. The bottom line is that Americans want protection, but they do not want control. They want security, but they do not want restrictions. It is this paradox that informs the current budget deficit debates, and it is also this paradox that informs the ongoing battles over film ratings. The problem is that, by the time Will Hays would have realized that his thumb was hurting him from operating the stopwatch while clocking Cary Grant’s kisses with Ingrid Bergman in Notorious, that the kiss had gone on for as long as it had. While we focus on the minute, the monumental issues pass us by. When it comes to film, if there are going to be rules, the more transparency, the better.
Doherty, Thomas P. Pre-Code Hollywood: Sex, Immorality, and Insurrection in American Cinema 1930-1934. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999.
Ebert, Roger. “This Film has Not Yet Been Rated. Chicago Sun-Times 14 September 2006. http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/this-film-is-not-yet-rated-2006
“For Movie Folks Who Considered Burning Down The Ratings Board When The Adjustment Was Enuf.” Movie City News 25 January 2006. http://moviecitynews.com/archived/festivals/sundance_2006/dp_060125.html
Lewis, Jon. Hollywood v. Hard Core: How the Struggle Over Censorships Saved the Modern Film Industry. New York: New York Unviersity Press, 2000.
Scott, A.O. “Some Material May be Inappropriate or Mystifying, and the Rating May Be as Well.” New York Times 1 September 2006. http://movies.nytimes.com/2006/09/01/movies/01rate.html?_r=0
This Film is Not Yet Rated. Dir. Kirby Dick. Perf. Kimberly Peirce, Kirby Dick, Darren Aronofsky. Independent Film Chanel, 2006.