This Film Is Not Yet Rated

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A movie for every day of the year – a good one

31 March

Motion Picture Code introduced, 1930

On this day in 1930, the Hollywood studios introduced a new code which laid out what was and was not acceptable in movies. It was a system of self-regulation which a scared Hollywood adopted after a series of widely reported scandals and after a number of risqué movies had prompted numerous states to introduce censorship bills. Rather than navigate through all this restrictive detail – what was fine in Iowa might not be in Texas – Hollywood bought off the objectors by introducing a code that satisfied nearly everybody. Working from a list of “don’ts” (eg sex, drugs, blasphemy, white slavery) and “be carefuls” (eg arson, murder, lustful kissing) hashed out by studio bosses, the eventual Code was drawn up by a pair of Catholics, Martin Quigley, editor of the Motion Picture Herald, and Father Daniel A Lord, a Jesuit priest. Broadly speaking it promoted morality, banned vice, deplored the mixing of the races, respected authority and the clergy, and stipulated that bad deeds should never be shown to be profitable. The result is that films from the late 1920s and early 1930s (the code didn’t get properly enforced until 1934) often seem a lot fresher and more modern than films made decades later. This Motion Picture Code, often called the Hays Code, stayed in force until 1968 when it was replaced by the MPAA’s rating system.

This Film Is Not Yet Rated (2006, dir: Kirby Dick)

Who are the members of the MPAA and why are the criteria they use for rating films so obscure? These are the two questions that documentarist Kirby Dick asks in a film that scored a few headlines when it was release because it came to light that Dick had employed private detectives to find out who these powerful people are – that’s how secretive the whole process is.

And the answers are important because moviemakers – especially indie ones whom Dick is most concerned about – routinely pour their heart and soul, often their life savings, as well as those of parents and friends, into making a film, only to find that it gets a dreaded NC-17 certificate, for reasons they can’t fathom. NC-17 means the mainstream media won’t advertise it, major cinema chains won’t book it, the big DVD companies won’t stock it. This matters less if you’re a major – studios and distributors seem to have access to the MPAA, which allows them to tweak here and there, in accordance with the board’s wishes.

Dick lines up a host of talking heads who have come off worse in their dealings with the Classification and Ratings Administration (CARA) wing of the MPAA – Atom Egoyan, Kevin Smith, Kimberly Peirce among them – to ask why, for example, nudity is more acceptable when it’s heterosexual than when it’s homosexual, his film concentrating most on the shady line between the R (ker-ching) and the NC-17 (ker-plunk) ratings. In a meta-documentary turn, Dick submits his own documentary to the board. And gets a NC-17 rating.

By far the most obviously exciting bits of Dick’s film is watching as his sleuths work out who the nine members of the CARA board are, though his complaint that they’re just “ordinary people” does seem unjustified – would industry insiders be better? – but shining a light on a secretive cabal who determine what people in America get to see has got to be counted as a public service. And he’s doing the rest of the world a favour too, since a film that bombs at home hasn’t the muscle to travel. Yes, Dick does complain too much and there’s the suspicion that some of the directors he interviews are using MPAA decision to excuse their own artistic shortcomings, but you can’t deny his film is an eye-opener.

Why Watch?

  • Meet Jack Valenti, boss of the MPAA from 1968 to 2004
  • The thorough investigative approach
  • The views of directors such as John Waters, Darren Aronofsky, Matt Stone
  • Because sunshine is the best disinfectant

This Film Is Not Yet Rated – at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2014

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