A not-so-quick note before we get this feature off the ground: In Hollywood parlance, a “round table” is an interview environment provided by PR companies and studio PR departments that allow a gaggle of journalists to bombard filmmakers with inane, often stupid and petty questions. Sitting around at these things, waiting for the talent to arrive, you sometimes let your mind wander. Sometimes you stare at the ceiling. Sometimes you glance over to see what the short, balding guy beside you is reading: Ann Coulter’s Godless: The Church of Liberalism
. That’s when you realize that your upcoming interview with director Kirby Dick and producer Eddie Schmidt — the men behind This Film Is Not Rated
, a decidedly not-Right look at the ultra-conservative MPAA’s ratings board — is going to be, as Bette Davis once said, “a bumpy ride.”
When Dick and Schmidt finally arrive, things don’t fall apart right away, of course. Many of the points their scathing rebuke of a top-secret ratings system that has absolutely no transparency can’t be denied. But it’s always better to let Right-Wing-extremist ambushes percolate up through the cracks of logic naturally.
So, what drove the documentarians to make this film-on-film (which received an NC-17 rating from a very-pissed-off MPAA before they opted to go unrated)?
“For many years, I, like many film-makers, have been pretty upset with the way that the ratings have been administered,” Dick explains. “In particular, art films get such stringent ratings.”
, the director shows how this has persistently been the case, with major studios receiving leniency from a collusive MPAA while art films — particularly independent films financed outside of Hollywood and foreign-film imports — are labeled with R-ratings or, worse, the dreaded NC-17 (no child under 17 permitted) stamp. It is, the filmmakers argue, an attempt by the MPAA to maximize the studios’ takes by restricting smaller films that might cut into profits.
After years of wanting to storm the MPAA’s Fortress of Solitude — trumped by an inability to get the association to cooperate — Dick and Schmidt hit upon the idea of hiring a private investigator to uncover the identities of those on the ratings board (created in 1968 by former MPAA president Jack Valenti).
“We realized that this could really make the film because we could follow the arc of this P.I., in a sort of cinéma vérité fashion,” Dick says. “Also, if we outed the raters” — who are hidden from the public — “we’d be able to hit sort of at the core of this secrecy. It’d be sort of a statement in a way.”
Beside Dick, the jittery little Ann Coulter Fan Club President begins to stir. He’s convinced he’s on to something and, in an accusatory tone, asks, “Isn’t that a really strong bias, because you’ve kind of directed the private investigator toward one or certain thing so you’ve found what you wanted to find?”
Dick defends their private investigator saying that, after all, all she found were facts. “The facts that everyone should know about,” he says. “I mean, this rating system is for the public; it should be public. In Western Europe, everybody knows who the raters are.”
“It’s interesting you ask about the bias,” Schmidt adds. “We did want to research it in a traditional way, but the MPAA doesn’t release the information on how films are rated so you can’t get a file and see like, ‘Oh, how did they vote on Mission Impossible
?’ There’s no way to find out about the process.”
When Dick argues about censorship (the MPAA forces studios to cut content in order to ensure certain ratings), the uppity Right Winger pounces again; he manages a few incoherent utterances before stumbling upon his certitude that “the
definition of censorship is always prior restraint by the government, which has nothing to do with the MPAA. The MPAA does not censor because they can’t censor.”
Dick, on the fence, is quick to point out, that “censorship can be economic, too. There is only one ratings system, you know, and if the MPAA gives an NC-17 rating, it restricts how that film gets out into the marketplace. Now, you can call that censorship. You can call that restraint of trade.”
The round table gets progressively weirder after that, with Dick and Schmidt trying to defend their film against a man who is (A) seemingly convinced that a ratings board with an appeals process that (believe it or not) includes a priest and a pastor is preferable to filmmakers who want to use their liberal ideals to rate movies, (B) thinks art films are too edgy, and (C) doesn’t really like Apocalypse Now
, but really, really likes the Star Wars
The fact that Dick and Schmidt didn’t smack him across the cheek with Ann Coulter’s tome of hatemongering is a tribute to how liberals like them are a lot more patient with the concept of free speech than many conservatives.