Documentarian Kirby Dick has been compared to photographer Diane Arbus in the way he prefers to open the camera lens to the pained, the freakish and the inexplicable that exists on the margins of everyday life. Over the course of his career, Dick's subjects have included people dying of cancer in a Los Angeles hospice, sexual surrogates in the employ of psychotherapists, actual freak show performers and Vegas showgirls. He also once followed around French philosopher Jacques Derrida for a documentary that attained cult status the moment the 70-year old deconstructionist was forced to entertain questions about Seinfeld. For his latest film, the Academy-award nominated director sets out to answer a simple question: Who actually sits on the film ratings board of the Motion Picture Association of America? What qualifies them to rate films? What are their names?
Turns out it's not so simple. The MPAA guards that information so jealously that in This Film is Not Yet Rated, Dick is almost immediately reduced to hiring a professional private investigator to sit outside the gates of the organization's Encino compound and wait for someone to enter or exit. A few telephoto lenses and license plates later, Dick is off on a quest to not only explore the identities of the board members, but also to pull back the shroud of secrecy surrounding the MPAA's practices and its indelible bond to the Hollywood studios. Cinematical spoke to Dick, in town to do press for the movie:
Some of the early festival reviews of this film rounded on you for not proposing a lot of solutions to what you view as the deficiencies of the MPAA. Did you feel it was your job to point a way forward, or were you satisfied with just shining a light on problems with the organization? What's your response to that criticism?
KD: I did make a significant effort to get that in. The film itself had a very complex structure, with all these multiple elements, but I think in retrospect I would have worked even harder to try to get that in. Because I definitely have a strong opinion on that. What I'd like to see first and foremost is that the ratings system get out information about what the content is in films. That is one thing that the MPAA claims it's doing, but it's doing a very poor job of. I would like to see a concise but comprehensive list of the content of a film, whether its sex, violence, nudity, or drug use, so that parents can make the decision as to whether they want their child to see the film, and not have ten anonymous parents in Los Angeles make that decision for them. I'd like to see a professional system. One of the surprising things was how unprofessional this process was. There are no written standards. The raters receive no training whatsoever. There are no media experts or psychologists, unlike in Europe where it is professionalized. Also unlike in Europe, there's no transparency to the system. We should know who the raters are and we should know how the process works. In Europe everyone knows who these people are and they do their job just fine.
Elaborate on what kind of 'training' you would like to see these raters undergo. Because there's certainly a school of thought that says 'I'm glad the MPAA is just counting up 'f-words' and breasts like Screenit.com, instead of performing some half-assed psychological evaluation on a film and then conjuring up a rating based on that.' To do that would be just as controversial and possibly more opaque, wouldn't it?
KD: That's a very good question. First of all, one has to develop some professional standards and methodology even to list content. There has to be some training for that even at Screenit.com. But the training becomes more important if they're actually applying ratings to films and age-based restrictions to films, because then you're making decisions as to the potentially harmful effects of films to adolescents. All of that is content dependent. You have to have a certain media literacy to be able to make those decisions. Someone who has no background in media studies ... I mean, I think there's an argument for having some parents on the board, and maybe that's their only qualification. I can see accepting that, but those people have to be trained. And finally, on the NC-17 rating, I think there should be another rating between NC-17 and R. All the films I focused on in my film and all these art films that are now getting the NC-17 because of sex and violence -- those should fall into this new category. They should be separated from pornography.
So what should get the NC-17? An overt sexual fantasy film with non-stop nudity like Showgirls?
KD: I don't even think Showgirls. I mean, it's sexual. Showgirls is not going to have any real damaging effect on an adolescent. I'm talking about pornography, or really, really, violent, violent films. Those should be the ones. I would accept the restriction that no one under 18 could get into those films. But films like Showgirls or The Cooler -- these are films where it's up to the parent to let their child see. There have been many studies done on the impact of sex on the behavior of adolescents and there's really no evidence -- and this is pornography we're talking about -- there's no evidence that even pornography negatively influences adolescents. There's no reason to be restricting adolescents across the country, but if parents want to restrict their children, that's their right.
Do you think the MPAA's power is naturally on the wane, as a result of general trends in technology and culture? This isn't 1948, when two-thirds of the U.S. population would show up at the movie theater on the weekend. Movies carry nothing like that kind of cultural weight anymore, and all signs point to a continued slide into deeper irrelevancy, at least where the mass culture is concerned. If the MPAA wants to chug along with its antiquated conventions and hand out its ratings, then so what?
KD: Well, I actually think the MPAA would prefer that there be no rating system at all. But if there is going to be one, they want to control it. They want to make sure their films get the least restrictive rating possible and get out to the widest possible marketplace. Right now, they make films that target adolescents and adolescents respond to violence. That's why you see violent films getting off with very easy ratings. Their competition is independent films and porn films. Films with more mature themes and films with sexual, adult material -- those films get the NC-17 rating. The MPAA has set up a system that it controls, that allows its films to get out to a very wide audience and prevents the competition's films from getting out to a wide audience. So it's not so much an issue of power in this regard. If there's no rating system the MPAA doesn't care, but whatever rating there is, the MPAA wants to control it.
Now, the fact that there's now a DVD marketplace where they don't apply the same ratings, even though its the same distributors, is an indication of the hypocrisy. But even more so, the fact that they can make a film R-rated and then release it on DVD as an NC-17 or an X-rated film -- this setup allows them to sell the same film twice to the same filmgoer. In some ways, it doubles their marketplace, or increases it substantially. They're benefitting monetarily from this rating system rather than addressing the hypocrisy of having one arm of their company insist that they can only release a film as 'R' and then turning around with the other arm and releasing the film as NC-17. So that's another reason they don't want things to change.
So let's say there's no nationwide ratings board, and that authority is devolved to local jurisdictions. What obstacles would that present? There's the famous example of Dallas, before the MPAA came about, which was very restrictive in terms of what could be screened inside Dallas city limits and what couldn't. What if the alternative to the MPAA leaves people in Nowhere, Kansas unable to see any mildly controversial film at a public theater?
KD: Well, okay. The least restrictive rating that the Dallas rating board used was a rating that prevented children under 16 from entering a movie. That is less restrictive than the MPAA's NC-17 rating. So if the MPAA is arguing that it prevents worse censorship, well, in fact censorship was not as bad as what the MPAA [currently] engages in. So I think that's a very bogus claim. It's true that there were a number of ratings boards operating, but nowhere near as many films were restricted. They weren't restricted as substantially as they are by the MPAA.
Tell me a film of the last few years that you think was grossly misrated by the MPAA, and maybe lost its economic viability as a result of that.
KD: A Dirty Shame, by John Waters. This is a film that has really no sex in it, and it should really have been rated R. And if it had been rated R, it would have been responded to by audiences much the same way Team America was, where a comic filmmaker is making a film with ribald sex and pushing the envelope. I think it would have done much better. I think the NC-17 rating hurt it substantially. Also But I'm A Cheerleader by Jamie Babbit, even though she ended up taking an 'R', the fact that that was rated NC-17 was outrageous. It was obviously rated that because it was a story about two girls who went to a sexual reorientation camp and fell in love. There was one masturbation scene. She's masturbating and her hand is obscured and her clothes are on. There's a very short shot of her hand over her crotch and then it moves up to her face. That gets an NC-17 rating, while in American Pie a boy is masturbating with a pie and that gets an R rating. That's a clear case of homophobia in the ratings system, and there are dozens and dozens of examples.
Did you approach any filmmakers to interview for this project who turned you down out of fear of reprisals by the MPAA?
KD: Yeah, there were many independent filmmakers who really supported the project but who were afraid to talk to me because they were afraid that if they were seen in this film their future films might be rated more harshly by the ratings board. Some were even afraid of being branded troublemakers within Hollywood. And within the studio system, no one would speak to me on the record even though there was a great deal of support within the creative community for this film and a great deal of antipathy toward the ratings system.
What kind of oversight can the public exercise if the MPAA acts inappropriately? I'm thinking in particular of a scene in your film where Matt Stone claims to have received extensive notes on how to edit a studio film to avoid an NC-17, while receiving no notes at all for an independent film. If those kinds of shenanigans are really going on, then it's extremely problematic. It borders on a kind of civil rights violation where artists are concerned.
KD: I agree with you. It's very egregious, and if the system were transparent they couldn't get away with that. If you knew why ratings were given for particular films and if the filmmakers knew -- if all of this was made public -- then they couldn't do this. This is one of the reasons they insist on this incredible secrecy. It's not because this is so important -- we're not talking about national security here. They argue that the reason for the secrecy is to keep the raters isolated or immune from industry influence, but the only people who influence them are people within the studios because those are the only people who have contact with them. Heads of production and post-production supervisors have contact with these raters, often on a weekly basis and over many years. They develop relationships. And like Matt Stone said, they are able to get the information about what they need to do to get their film rated a particular way. They are able to influence these raters and sometimes even influence their votes.
These days, when you hear about directors re-submitting their films to the MPAA to receive a harsher rating than the one originally given, the whole thing starts to seem like a time-waster and a farce, doesn't it?
KD: Yeah, I think it is really a farce when you see people gaming the system like that. In principle, I don't really have an objection to that, but I have an objection to the fact that none of this is done with transparency. If a filmmaker, for whatever reason, decides he wants to edit more objectionable content into his film, that's the filmmakers' right, as long as its transparent in terms of how it goes through the ratings process, because the public has a right to know.
Anything else you'd like to add? Any message you want to get across that we didn't touch on?
KD: Well, one thing is that there's a petition on the IFC website that you can go to and sign. We're going to be delivering these petitions to the MPAA. That would be one thing. Another thing would be that Hollywood listens to money. They read those box office reports. They'll know that if a lot of people see this movie, then they must be outraged by the system. I hope they'd then be compelled to respond with at least some changes.
Okay, last question. Do you know who holds the lease on that big, fancy MPAA building on Ventura Blvd.?
KD: You know, I don't. We may have done some research on that, but I do not know.