Professional gadfly Kirby Dick doesn't understand movie ratings, and he's not alone: Few filmmakers and fewer moviegoers could tell you exactly why one film gets an R rating and another that seems no sexier or more violent gets NC-17. Who really cares, you might ask, except some under-17s barred from movies they're dying to see? Well, filmmakers care a lot,...read more
Professional gadfly Kirby Dick doesn't understand movie ratings, and he's not alone: Few filmmakers and fewer moviegoers could tell you exactly why one film gets an R rating and another that seems no sexier or more violent gets NC-17. Who really cares, you might ask, except some under-17s barred from movies they're dying to see? Well, filmmakers care a lot, because many newspapers won't carry advertising for NC-17-rated movies, many major theater chains won't book them, and many retailers, including Blockbuster Video, the largest video sales and rental outlet in America, won't stock them. An NC-17 can strangle a movie in its cradle, and an R slashes profits by locking out teens, which means studio executives often demand cuts and sometimes pass on controversial projects. And it drives filmmakers sputtering crazy that CARA — the Classification and Ratings Administration of the MPAA — operates behind a veil of secrecy, passing judgment like some modern-day Star Chamber. Dick's gleeful guerrilla campaign to expose the system's hypocrisy, inconsistency and double standards and to uncover the identities of CARA's anonymous raters — whose only qualifications are having children and feeling they can address the concerns of ordinary American parents — is hugely entertaining. Dick interviews aggrieved filmmakers, including Kimberly Peirce (BOYS DON'T CRY), Atom Egoyan (WHERE THE TRUTH LIES) and documentarian Michael Tucker (GUNNER PALACE), about their run-ins with the MPAA's unwritten and mysteriously flexible standards regarding violence, harsh language and nudity. He supports their testimony with charts, statistics (how disturbing is it that six studios make and/or distribute 95% of films released in the U.S., and that those studios are owned by six conglomerates that control 90% of American media outlets?) and other visual aids, including side-by-side comparisons of R- and NC-17-rated sex scenes that suggest that gay-themed films are held to more restrictive standards. In a series of decades-spanning clips, longtime MPAA head and rating-system creator Jack Valenti (who recently passed the baton to Dan Glickman) regularly misrepresents the MPAA's mission and methods. But the film's meat is Dick's quest to name names: He hires a private eye to run license plates, tail MPAA employees and riffle through their trash, and eventually identifies all nine raters; several fail to meet the organization's own undemanding standards. The film comes to its inevitable conclusion when Dick submits it to the MPAA and, after it receives an NC-17, undergoes the Kafka-esque appeals process. Ultimately, Dick subordinates scholarship to passion, which may be exactly what it takes to convince mainstream moviegoers that they should care about a system that shortchanges them when they go to the movies.
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