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Hi, everyone. "Moriarty" here with some Rumblings From The Lab...

I may not be in Utah, but that doesn’t mean I’m sitting Sundance out completely this year.

Early this afternoon, I drove over to Silverlake, to the offices of Chain Camera Productions, where I met Kirby Dick for the first time. I’ve been writing about his work here on AICN since at least 2001, and I really admire his approach as a documentarian. TWIST OF FAITH was one of last year’s most wrenching movies, a stark film about a survivor of childhood molestation coming to terms with his feelings about the church and family and other issues as an adult. CHAIN CAMERA still strikes me as one of the best films about modern adolescence, a spy’s view of what it’s like to grow up right now. SICK, his film about Bob Flanagan, should be required viewing for anyone who wants to make documentaries, right up there with CRUMB or GATES OF HEAVEN in my book.

When I first ran some news about THIS FILM IS NOT YET RATED last month here on the site, you guys responded quite vocally. It spurred a pretty long debate in talkback, and I got bombarded with tons of e-mail from you guys about your personal impressions on the MPAA and the CARA and the ratings system in general. I can see now why Dick had to make his film under a cloak of secrecy, and the result isn’t the movie I expected at all. For one thing, it’s a lot more playful than any other film he’s made so far, particularly coming on the heels of TWIST OF FAITH, which was so difficult, so emotionally draining. This is a serious subject that Dick’s dealing with here, and he’s not making fun of it, but he also seems well aware of how easy it is for a filmmaker complaining about the ratings system to sound like a crybaby. This film never whines; instead, it remembers to entertain as it illuminates, and it keeps its anger focused in a way that’s never preachy.

The film does two separate things, intercutting the two. First, it’s a history of the MPAA and the CARA (which is the actual ratings division, a distinction that is frequently misunderstood or ignored), and this is the part of the film where Dick’s smoldering indignation is most evident. I don’t blame him. Jack Valenti is, simply put, one of the most successful flim-flam men in history, a big government con artist who sold Hollywood a big lie that feathered his nest for 35 years. He was a professional politico, a guy who had been cozy with the Nixon and Johnson administrations, and when he came to Hollywood, he had a mission. He convinced the studios that they were about to come under attack from Washington. He scared them with the notion of a government-controlled censor board, or even worse, a nationwide spate of local censor boards that would make it nearly impossible to distribute controversial films. He created the MPAA as a solution, a way for the studios to watchdog themselves so no one else had to do it, and ever since then, the major studios have happily played along with the ratings game.

But was there ever really a threat? That’s one of the questions I’m curious about now that I’ve seen the film, and I don’t think I’ve ever heard any persuasive argument or seen any evidence that Valenti was right. To me, he’s The Music Man, a guy who rolled into a town and sold them something they didn’t need. The ratings system depends on any number of carefully constructed and distributed lies to maintain the power it has. One of the lies is that the people who actually give the films their ratings are regular people, chosen based on only one criteria: that they are all parents of children between the ages of 5 and 17. Another lie they depend on is the lie that the ratings are only in place to help parents, and they don’t ever censor filmmakers. If you want to understand that second lie, just talk to the filmmakers who have fought major ratings battles over the years, and listen to the differences in the way that indie filmmakers and studio filmmakers were handled. Talk to people who tackled tough subjects like gay relationships, frank sexual material, or anything that falls outside the narrow definition of mainstream morality. But to understand just how insidious the first lie is, you’d have to take a look at the people who make up the ratings board... and that’s something the MPAA has always worked vigorously to make sure you can’t do. At all. Ever.

Think about that. The people who decide what entertainment is allowed to be distributed to mainstream theaters and advertised in major media outlets... arguably the most powerful force in American film today... and it’s a complete secret as to who is actually making those decisions. No one is accountable. No one has to justify the decisions they make. No one has to answer to the artists whose work is ruined by these choices. No one ever has to explain anything. They can just take something that someone has invested years of their life into and they can slap a rating on it that guarantees that it never plays in 90% of the theaters in this country and that it won’t be carried by major retail chains when it goes to home video, and they can make sure that the film never really gets a chance to be seen by the general public, and they don’t ever have to answer for that. Does that strike anyone as fair or just or even rational?

Here’s where Dick’s film manages to be both genuinely investigative but also sly and playful and funny all at the same time. He hires a private investigator to find out who all the raters working for the CARA are. Slowly, methodically, they start to put names together, then put faces to those names, then put together profiles of these raters. Many of them have been on the ratings board for a long time, decades even, and have children who are grown and have moved away. In a few cases, it’s not even clear if the raters have children at all. These are not average people, chosen randomly, either. They appear to be a tight-knit group of people, a couple of them even living next door to one another, making good money at a cushy job and staying much longer than the myth that Valenti has always pushed. Dick doesn’t stop there, though. His investigator manages to get hold of some of the actual reports filled out by the raters when they’re watching films, something I’ve never seen before anywhere. And when he’s put together a fairly damning look at the process and the people behind it, he does something genuinely crazy: he submits the film to the ratings board for their approval.

As Eddie Schmidt, the film’s producer, puts it, “I think they had their ETERNAL SUNSHINE moment, when life folds in on itself. The ultimate voyeurs watching a film about themselves, the ultimate voyeurs.”

Which brings us back to the news story I initially ran on this site last month, when the film was given an NC-17 for “some sexual content.” And, sure enough, Dick’s film features a barrage of clips that earned other movies the dreaded rating. I have to believe that context makes a difference, though, and in a documentary where you’re discussing how ratings are applied, it seems like you’d be given more leeway to show these clips than if you’re just including them in a dramatic film. This is not a movie designed to stimulate or titillate. This is a smart, somewhat rowdy academic piece. One of the most persuasive segments that discusses a double standard has to do with the way the NC-17 is routinely used to keep gay themed material out of mainstream theaters. Dick edits together a split-screen montage that consists of side-by-side comparisons of similar footage from different films. In each case, the film that has the R rating is the straight-themed film, while the film that got the NC-17 is the gay-themed film. And, seriously... no exaggeration... the shots look identical in every case. The same amount of exposed skin. The same positions. The same number of thrusts. The same framing. So how can you account for the disparity in the ratings without seeing some sort of concentrated effort to demonize gay behavior? Sexuality overall seems to be a major issue for the ratings board, something that they’ve been called on many times. The way they let cartoon violence pass with a PG-13 or even a PG in many cases while making sure that any hint of normal sexual dynamics between adults is slapped with a restricted rating is just asinine, and it’s got to have something to do with the way our culture gets hung up over its naughty bits while having no problem at all expressing its rage and aggression through violence.

After Dick gets the NC-17 on his film, he decides to appeal the decision instead of cutting his film, and when he asks to have the names of the people he’ll be dealing with at the appeal, he is told that, once again, no one is allowed to know that information. So he puts his private investigator on the job again, and what he comes up with this time is more unsettling. The members of the appeal board aren’t parents, and they can’t be called members of the public by any means. They’re members of NATO or bookers for major theater chains or high-level members of management at various studios. These are the people that decide the final fate of a film when the filmmaker feels mistreated? Seems fishy to me.

I could choose to be even more outraged by the revelation that two members of the clergy (one Catholic, one Episcopalian) are part of that appeals board as well, something that truly confuses me. How does that help parents? How are we supposed to believe that moralism doesn’t play a part in the decisions they make? And why is everyone associated with the process so afraid to be identified at all, even once they’ve left the MPAA behind? What Dick’s done won’t change anything immediately, but I suspect the film will get under the skin of anyone who sees it, especially if they didn’t know the way all of this works. There was a period of about two years where I worked in the same building as the MPAA, for another company, and it was amazing how much security there was around every aspect of the ratings process. You couldn’t turn the wrong corner in that building without expecting to get pounced on by hired guards. I commend Dick for getting this far inside the system, and for making himself a giant target for the MPAA in the future. And the same goes for any filmmaker who speaks on the record here... they have to expect that there will be retribution against them the next time they try to get a film rated. There’s a moment where we see the names of filmmakers who have either been given an NC-17 or who have had to change their films to avoid it, and as the names fill the screen, one after another, you realize that you’re looking at a who’s who of the most influential, important, and intelligent filmmakers of the last 30 years. I’d think anyone would be proud to be part of that club, and after seeing a film that exposes the dishonesty and absolute moral corruption at the heart of the system, I’d think filmmakers would realize that things are getting worse, not better. We’re really at a turning point, too, as the studios become more and more monolithic. There will come a day when you will not be able to reform the MPAA or to come up with a viable alternative system, and independent voices will be silenced completely. I don’t even think that day is too far away.

But for the moment, as long as there are guys like Kirby Dick out there willing to put their own necks on the chopping block, we’re not there yet. THIS FILM IS NOT YET RATED will make its premiere this week at Sundance, and then IFC will be showing it uncut later this year. I urge you to seek it out and make sure you see it. It’s a great way for me to start off this movie year, and a nice next step from one of our most interesting documentarians.

I’ll be back this weekend with my big fat 2005 end of the year list, and then I’m going to be kicking off a series of articles that will celebrate the tenth anniversary of Ain’t It Cool News. Until then...

"Moriarty" out.

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