Thursday, October 11, 2007

“If you make a movie that a lot of people want to see—no rating will hurt you. If you make a movie that few people want to see—no rating will help you. Ratings have nothing to do with box office.” – Jack “Boom Boom” Valenti, former head of the Motion Picture Association of America (1966-2004)

He doesn’t wear a silk hat nor twirl a moustache, but for all intents and purposes Jack Valenti is the villain in This Film is Not Yet Rated (2006), a funny, incisive documentary by Kirby Dick that I had the distinct pleasure of watching last evening as my latest rental from Netflix.  (Netflix’s Red Envelope Entertainment produced this doc in tandem with the Independent Film Channel and the BBC, which leads me to think there might be a conflict of interest going on here.)  In archival interviews spaced throughout the film, Valenti makes a self-serving statement only to have it knocked down by evidence painstakingly put together by Dick and writers Eddie Schmitt and Matt Patterson that the “ratings system” implemented by Valenti in 1966 is completely gamed and biased, often coming down on films with strong sexual content while looking the other way where violence is concerned.

Let me just say upfront that while I’m not a prude about this sort of thing, I prefer the movies made at a time when much of said sexual content onscreen was a no-no—only because it inspired creativity among filmmakers to make mention of “Topic A” in a sly, subtler fashion (Ernst Lubitsch, call your office).  But to me, the only form of censorship individuals regularly practice is turning a TV knob to the “off” position or not bother coughing up the nine bucks to see a movie in the first place—so I do sympathize with the filmmakers interviewed (Kevin Smith, John Waters, Kimberly Peirce, Allison Anders) when their work is judged by a “star chamber” (as Dick memorably terms it) who purportedly have their finger on the pulse of America’s moviegoers and who rate films in keeping with the interests of “impressionable young minds.”  (For God’s sake, won’t somebody think of the children!)

A documentary that features renowned filmmakers bitching endless about receiving NC-17 ratings and the unfairness of the system would get old pretty quick, so it’s a good thing that a large portion of This Film is made up of Michael Moore-type muckraking with Dick and a pair of lesbian private investigators (who look like convenience store clerks) successfully identifying the unknown individuals who make up the MPAA ratings board.   They learn that many of these individuals (whose identities remain secret because of the fear they might be “pressured”) have children, all right—but most of them have left the “impressionable mind” stage years ago.  I also chuckled at the irony of Dick himself receiving an NC-17 upon submitting his film for review; his attempt to appeal the rating results in a hearing that reeks of Franz Kafka and Lewis Carroll.

I have to say, this new Netflix arrangement is working out pretty well—I’ve been able to squeeze in a rental at least once a week and I’ve stacked a number of both documentaries, silent films and recent movies in my queue to offset my usual classic movie habit.  Last week, I watched Kevin Keating’s Giuliani Time (2005), a thought-provoking look at the former NYC mayor who may very well (and this is the part that scares me) become the next President of the United States.  I liked Keating’s film, and would definitely recommend it to rent; though I think Keating pulls his punches on several occasions when he gets a little too close to revealing just what kind of fascist Giuliani really is.  Next in the queue is Jesus Camp (2006), Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s harrowing look at how culture warriors spend their spare time during summer vacation.

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