The Ratings Game

It’s a familiar experience for many moviegoers: You walk out of a theater scratching your head, wondering why a movie was given a particular rating.

Was it the sex? The violence? The foul language? Or maybe just the general tone? Trying to make comparisons does no good, as you recall films with similar content that have different ratings. So just how does the ratings system work?

That’s the question that director Kirby Dick attempts to answer in his new documentary, "This Film Is Not Yet Rated." Purported to be a muckraking expose about the shadowy workings of the unduly secretive MPAA ratings board, it teases out a few inconsistencies and imperfections in the way films are rated, but it does not make nearly as powerful a case as its filmmakers think. And, quite unintentionally, it reminds viewers — with its barrages of sexually explicit imagery — why the major movie studios instituted a ratings system to begin with.

Mr. Dick’s film is a jaunty, vaguely comic, low-budget affair, interspersed with lively graphics and montages of clips from the films it discusses. The film weaves together interviews with directors detailing their experiences with the MPAA ratings board and a separate story line in which Mr. Dick hires private investigators to discover the secret identities of the ratings board members.

The film argues that the ratings board is inconsistent and error-prone. Side-by-side comparisons show remarkably similar scenes that receive different ratings. Filmmakers offer strange reasons given for restrictive ratings as well as stories of the board’s occasional refusal to justify its decisions at all. Fair criticisms, but, still, a certain amount of inconsistency and imperfection is to be expected from any human endeavor, especially one as subjective as classifying content.

Less convincing is Mr. Dick’s portrayal of the ratings board as a threat to free speech. The film explains that many major chains refuse to show NC-17-rated films and that some newspapers won’t run ads for films that carry the rating. One interview subject uses this to suggest that the board’s actions are unconstitutional, while several directors hint that its existence stifles artistic freedom.

The "unconstitutional" argument is, of course, clearly false. The First Amendment bars the government from banning speech but does not prohibit private organizations from declining to air it on their property. One proposed solution — a government-run ratings board that some argue would have more accountability — plainly would be unconstitutional.

As for artistic freedom, it’s true that many movie chains and DVD retailers won’t allow NC-17 films on their shelves or screens. But with the rise of Internet video and direct DVD sales, filmmakers today have more options than ever to distribute their work independently. They are hardly the free speech martyrs the film seeks to portray.

"This Film" opens with a long montage of graphic sexual acts set to cheery music, proclaiming, from the outset, its delight in wanton sexual frivolity. Every few minutes another flesh-filled montage blares out from the screen. Taken out of their narrative context, these blasts of cinematic lust exult in and amplify the consequence-free carnality of Hollywood’s sexual fantasies. Yet the "edgy" filmmakers interviewed see no cause for concern.

Shock-director John Waters scoffs at the idea that his films could show kids anything they haven’t seen before, claiming that "because of the Internet … all kids have gone deep into Web porn." Other filmmakers grumble about how much more lenient Europe’s attitude is toward sexual content, as if it’s self-evident that the U.S. should emulate foreign mores.

"This Film Is Not Yet Rated" tries to tar the ratings board with charges of secrecy and censorship, but it mostly serves as a forum for purveyors of graphic sexual imagery to whine that movie theaters and retail outlets have declined to air their work.

"I felt censored. I felt discriminated against," one filmmaker complains. It is a complaint delivered in the language of feelings and personal offense — a language that these filmmakers seem to think only applies to them.

There are many reasons to be concerned about censorship — notably when it comes from a government body — but this film offers little reason for the public to fret.