According to the MPAA website, "One of the highest accolades to be conferred on the rating system is that from its birth in 1968 to this day, there has never been even the slightest jot of evidence that the rating system has deliberately fudged a decision or bowed to pressure." If that statement's patent absurdity wasn't already obvious to any follower of non-mainstream film, This Film Is Not Yet Rated proves it, with a celluloid middle-finger salute to the MPAA and the Leave it to Beaver-style fantasy image it sells to the public.
Despite proudly proclaiming that its board of directors includes "the Chairmen and Presidents of the six major producers and distributors of motion picture and television programs in the United States", the MPAA nevertheless insist with a sort of dreamy sanguinity on the film ratings board's -- made up of parents, we are repeatedly told, whose only interests are in protecting children and families -- absolute neutrality and invulnerability to outside influence. With that sort of material to work with, mocking the MPAA is like shooting fish in a barrel for a filmmaker as witty and skilled as director Kirby Dick. And mock he does: Via a multi-pronged attack featuring interviews with directors, detective work and side-by-side comparison of levels of obscenity, Dick creates an often-hilarious documentary that is both cutting and compelling; it's so engaging that even filmgoers who wouldn't dream of setting foot in an arthouse cinema will eat it up.
The Film is Not Yet Rated is most effective when it focuses on films, rather than on the MPAA. Though Dick says many directors of independent films were unwilling to talk to him because they feared participation might cause problems with the MPAA in the future, he managed to persuade filmmakers ranging from John Waters and Darren Aronofsky, to Matt Stone and Kimberly Peirce to talk on-camera about their MPAA experiences. To a person, the filmmakers -- all of whom are thoughtful and articulate -- feel that the MPAA treats independent films differently than they do major studio products, and gay sex differently than straight. While both of these arguments are nothing new to opponents of the current ratings system, the gain added power when we hear of Matt Stone, when he was merely the producer of an independent film (Orgazmo), being told that the MPAA doesn't give notes on what scenes cause films to be assigned particular ratings; when he submitted the Paramount-backed Team America: World Police for approval, he was stunned to receive a detailed list of problematic scenes. Or see side-by side sex scenes from films with different ratings, that are virtually identical apart from the genders of the participants.
Later, Dick turns his attention to the members of the much-derided ratings board -- a board that is rigidly anonymous, ostensibly to protect its members from undue influence -- hiring a private detective to unearth their identities. For what appears to be several weeks, the detective -- with Dick in tow -- stakes out the heavily fortified MPAA building, watching and following everyone who leaves for lunch in an effort to determine which are raters and which are simply office workers. In addition, she (legally) goes through the trash of at least one of the possible board members, makes several phone calls to unsuspecting MPAA secretaries and films and photographs her suspects. In the end, she succeeds, and Dick triumphantly displays the names and photographs of all but one of the raters (they have his name, just no pictures), as well as information about their families and living situations -- in some cases, their homes are shown.
While the detective sequences are undeniably great fun to watch (conveniently for Dick, the detective is a lesbian whose is frequently assisted by her partner's teenage daughter; her story ads a bit of tangential emotion to the film), they're also a bit unsettling, when one pauses to consider them. One could perhaps argue that the members of the ratings board should be public figures, and that it's therefore acceptable to share personal information about them in a motion picture -- but what, exactly, is Dick proving by his unmasking? Yes, he found them, and yes, their identities certainly should be a matter of public record. But then what? In reality, Dick has accomplished nothing more than making himself feel better -- the identification of these devils often feels like the tantrum of an offended child: They've made him angry, so now he's going to get back at his appointed bad guys. Which, in reality, is nothing more than an inconvenience for the MPAA: They will simply appoint a new board, and continue to function as they have for years. Though Dick portrays himself as something of a grassroots-style revolutionary in these sequences, his revolution is nothing but a big show, put on, it seems, to satisfy his own ego, and assuage his frustration.
Despite those unsettling moments, however, This Film is Not Yet Rated ably achieves its primary goal: It will get people talking, hopefully in great numbers, about the MPAA and the absurdity of its ratings system. In addition to its snappy editing, a genial host/director in Dick himself and consistent wit, the movie offers the undeniable draw of making audiences feel smart. There's nothing more alluring as a filmgoer than being convincingly told how superior you are to someone in power (in this case, the MPAA and its minions), and Dick is a masterful manipulator. With this film, not only do we learn about the MPAA, but we get to laugh at them as well: They probably deserve it, and Dick knows a perfect hook when he sees it.
For another viewpoint, check out James' Sundance review of the film and read Ryan Stewart's very excellent interview with Kirby Dick.