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Dr. Rated-X or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the MPAA Rating System

by Rob Friesel

What to say about [tag]Doctorow[/tag]‘s write-up of [tag]This Film Is Not Yet Rated[/tag]? My inner libertarian is screaming out: “Heck yes! Fuck ’em and their so-called ratings! Vive le Rated X! Vive le [tag]NC-17[/tag]!” And there’s a lot of compelling reasons to rally around those cries if what he’s saying about the film are true. And if what the documentary film is portraying is also true. The take-home thesis: What the hell is so wrong with some sexual and/or queer themes and/or portrayals and/or taking on a little organized religion when you’ve got some brutally graphic and apparently pro-violence movies out there slipping by with little more than a nudge in the “R” direction?

It’s a fair question. It’s also a little bit of a loaded question but let’s not digress too much.

First of all: full disclosure. I have not (yet) seen This Film Is Not Yet Rated. But Doctorow’s article was not my first exposure to it. I caught a short piece about the film on television a couple weeks ago. (No, I still don’t have TV. I wasn’t at home though.) The little tid bit that I caught seemed interesting but (truth be told) I was far more compelled by its inclusion of Chloe Sevigny (which later turned out to be bogus) than by its themes. A documentary about how the Hollywood rating system keeps indy directors and their films down and out? NO WAY! This basically sums up my position about most documentary films, however.

It’s a fair assessment. It’s also a little bit of a loaded assessment but let’s not digress too much.

I was fully prepared to gloss over Doctorow’s article in much the same way that I’m prepared to gloss over the film. But then I caught the following slug:

The most incredible thing about this film is the filmmakers that Dick interviews. The creators of Team America, Boys Don’t Cry, Gunner Palace, Dirty Shame, But I’m A Cheerleader, Jersey Girl and other movies that received NC-17s from the MPAA recount the incredible heartbreak of slamming into the immovable wall of MPAA ratings. They talk about making movies that they hope will change the world. They talk about having hope snatched away from them by a little clique of oligarchs who control 95 percent of the films released in the US.

“…having hope snatched away from them…”? I’ve seen three of the six films referenced in that paragraph. I would have ignored this as well except that it’s sandwiched (thematically speaking) in the essay between a bit on MPAA-as-censorship and on how the MPAA’s coveted NC-17 rating keeps those films off of Wal-Mart’s shelves and out of Blockbuster’s circulation.

It’s a fair argument. It’s also a little bit of a loaded argument but let’s not digress too much.

Without coming to the defense of the MPAA or its rating system, let’s propose and consider the following:

  1. The MPAA and its NC-17 rating do not prevent filmmakers from writing, directing, producing, or even releasing their films. There’s a thriving Adult Film Industry (for example) that releases hundreds (thousands?) of unrated movies every year. This is not to place porn in the same category as an independent film exploring a lesbian coming-of-age story with a time-out-of-joint sci-fi twist but the crux is still the same. The MPAA doesn’t control film production or funding; they just dole out these sill ratings which may or may not ultimately effect ad budgets and circulation. As I mentioned above, I’d already seen half of the films specifically referenced.
  2. Maybe the examples just weren’t very good but I’ve had no trouble at all coming in contact with these films. I saw Boys Don’t Cry in the theater. Gunner Palace came to me by word of mouth. I saw a million ads for Team America (which is probably why I haven’t myself seen that one yet).
  3. To quote the article: “…NC-17 […is…] a death-sentence: studios won’t promote these movies (sometimes they don’t even release them), most cinemas won’t exhibit them, and Wal-Mart and Blockbuster won’t carry them.” This is patently false. Every film referenced in Doctorow’s article is available through Blockbuster Online. And in most cases, the brick and mortar stores as well. There are few barriers in the release and circulation of films. Cost may be a major factor and consideration – – but you’re not indy if you’re not word-of-mouth and DIY, right?
  4. “…NC-17 […is…] a death-sentence…” Funny then that we should discuss John Waters’ A Dirty Shame. I wish I had the article so that I could get the quote right but Waters was once published as saying something along the lines of: “If you can obtain an NC-17 rating without any explicit sex, violence, or gratuitious language, you are officially the envy of your directorial peers.” Bringing me to:
  5. Aren’t most independent writers/producers/directors somewhat defined by their outsider status? I’m sure that they’d all love to have MGM’s budget but let’s call them all out on it. Would Clerks or Reservoir Dogs or Pink Flamingos necessarily have been as successful with multi-million dollar budgets? Perhaps defining themselves outside the system is what makes these directors great. Perhaps they need an “immovable wall” with which to tag and stencil and gussy up with their filmic graffiti.

The MPAA rating system isn’t there for the directors or the producers or the actors. Is it there for the studios? If they’re backing it and funding it, sure. I suppose to some extent it is a self-serving organization. But it’s there for the Red State parents. It’s there for the folks that don’t want to be exposed to the hot queer action or even the straight girls that just love to get down. And seriously, when was the last time that YOU looked at the MPAA rating of a film?

About Rob Friesel

Software engineer by day, science fiction writer by night. Author of The PhantomJS Cookbook and a short story in Please Do Not Remove. View all posts by Rob Friesel →

2 Responses to Dr. Rated-X or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the MPAA Rating System

John says:

I haven’t seen the film either, so its a bit odd to disagree. But I think you’re’ missing an important point – All those films mentioned were released theatrically with an R rating, meaning they were altered from the creator’s original vision to fit the views of an outside agency. Which is censorship in my book.

And it isn’t logical. According to an article in the Sept 8 Entertainment Weekly, it was the length of the female orgasm in Boys Don’t Cry that ultimately had to be cut. Dirty Shame got an R after they cut the word “felching”

So, no, no one is stopping you from making the film you want. But someone is stopping people from seeing the film you want to make.

Other nations don’t need the government to protect their children from media. Why do we?

found_drama says:

That’s a good point but I’m still not buying it. “But someone is stopping people from seeing the film you want to make.” That’s still called compromising. I still think that those films would have gotten distribution in independent cinemas and regular rotation through the more liberal independent film rental houses as well. These directors decided (for whatever reason) that they would change some element of their artistic vision in order to push it past an MPAA board and get it into more Red State theaters. (Sorry, I’m now officially in love with that last phrase.)

Also, it’s important to note that the MPAA is not a government regulatory body. So it’s not the government that’s “protecting children from media”. That would be censorship and a First Amendment violation. But (and this is what I think “the point” of the film probably is) it’s OK for censorship to take place when it’s performed by an independent (i.e., non-government) body that may or may not be funded by the big film production houses. Especially since Tipper et al. did a fine job convincing Americans that they need to be saved from our entertainments. (MPAA ratings go back before Tipper though … if I’m not mistaken.)

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