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"This Film Is Not Yet Rated"

Behind the scenes with the MPAA

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Art is all but dead anyway

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Recent documentaries are leading me to the conclusion that my blind faith in everyone and everything isn't so much a comforting virtue as it is a fatal flaw. In the last couple of years I've been forced to accept that Big Macs are bad for you, politicians are less than forthcoming, oil companies are greedy, and the world is slowly roasting. (But it hasn't been all doom and gloom: I was also able to confirm that baby penguins are mega-cute, though I had long suspected this.)

My latest education has arrived in the form of This Film Is Not Yet Rated, an eye-opening exposé by documentarian Kirby Dick about how yet another trusted organization operates autonomously and anonymously, with nebulous policies and an inflated sense of importance. This secret society is called the Motion Picture Association of America, and it decides what's culturally appropriate for your kids. In This Film Is Not Yet Rated, Dick delves into the workings of the MPAA and uncovers a number of startling facts, though equally shocking is that no one has yet investigated the MPAA in its nearly 40 years of existence.

The MPAA was formed in 1968 as an alternative to the long-antiquated Hays Code, which had held the key to Hollywood's iron chastity belt since the mid-1930s. (Check out some pre-Code flicks; they're charmingly risqué.) Until his retirement in 2004, LBJ crony Jack Valenti headed up the MPAA, which offers a parent-populated Ratings Board that views films and attaches a rating --- G, PG, PG-13, R, NC-17 --- based on the content of a particular movie so you can make a relatively informed choice about what your children should and shouldn't see. So who are these people policing your kids' exposure to art? That's actually none of your business. How dare you.

As part of This Film Is Not Yet Rated, Dick hires a pair of private investigators to suss out the members of the Ratings Board, whose names are kept secret in order to save them from "undue influence." Way more fascinating than the makeup of the board, however, is their criteria for rating films: there is none. What might pass for an R in one film could get another slapped with an NC-17, and the board refuses to give an independent filmmaker any guidance on edits, loftily equating it with censorship. This, as you might imagine, is frustrating for a filmmaker, who has no precedent to follow when cutting or recutting his film for submission to this voluntary ratings system.

That's right; it's voluntary. So why bother with it? Money. Most chains won't book an unrated film, leaving the MPAA as the ugly little troll blocking the bridge. Once rated, though, the difference between the earning potential of a PG-rated film and an R-rated film is staggering, and receiving an NC-17 is box-office poison. Dick interviews filmmakers like Kimberly Peirce (Boys Don't Cry) and Wayne Kramer (The Cooler), both of whom have tussled with the MPAA over an NC-17, and at least one thing becomes disturbingly clear: seeing a woman getting her brains blown out is perfectly cool, but showing a woman having her mind blown during oral sex is not. It's the opposite of the European stance, which embraces sex and abhors violence.

There's no getting around the fact that the MPAA does provide a valuable service to parents, but it's at the expense of the artists, who are often forced to compromise their vision in order to have their work exhibited. The MPAA, whose membership includes the major studios, thinks the green-fisted public comes first, while Dick comes down on the creative side. Both filmmakers and filmgoers are entitled to a fair system, and the time has come for another overhaul of the rules. Well, maybe the MPAA could first set some rules, and then it could revamp them.

I'm far too unsophisticated to deconstruct the films of Czech surrealist Jan Svankmajer (Little Otik) so I won't even try. From a simple movie-watching standpoint, Svankmajer's latest film, Lunacy, is a visually gratifying Poe-meets-Sade-meets-Carroll experience in which a melancholy young man accepts the hospitality of an unhinged Marquis (character actor extraordinaire Jan Triska) only to find himself entangled in the bizarre goings-on at a patient-run insane asylum, his exit thwarted by a fascination with the seemingly innocent young nurse. It's vintage Svankmajer, complete with stop-motion cow tongues, that desaturated Eastern Bloc color scheme, and people who look like people, only more so.

This Film Is Not Yet Rated (NR), directed by Kirby Dick, opens Friday, November 17, at the Little Theatres | Lunacy (NR), directed by Jan Svankmajer, is showing Friday, November 17, 8 p.m.; Saturday, November 18, 5 p.m.; and Sunday, November 19, 7 p.m., at the George Eastman House's Dryden Theatre.

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