This Film Is Not Yet Rated (18)

Watching the detectives
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The Independent Culture

Kirby Dick is responsible for one of the most extreme images I've ever seen on film: a man driving a nail into his own penis. That appeared in his documentary Sick, a study of a performance artist with cystic fibrosis and, despite all lurid expectations, a remarkably sensitive and moving portrait. Sick proved, as much as any film, that there's no way of predicting what an image can mean: everything depends on the context it appears in. Context, however, doesn't appear to mean much to the MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America), the body that rates films in the US. The MPAA appears to have a mechanical, literal set of criteria: exceed a certain number of pelvic thrusts in a sex scene (the MPAA raters are punctilious counters of pelvic thrusts) and you could end up with the feared NC-17 certificate (no-one of 17 and under admitted).

In Dick's new documentary, This Film Is Not Yet Rated, interviewee Kimberly Peirce, who directed the remarkable Boys Don't Cry, says she was delighted when she heard her film would be an NC-17: all her favourite movies had that rating. Then she realised it meant that the film would have trouble getting released. Many newspapers won't accept advertising for NC-17 films, they don't get advertised on television, can therefore lose millions of dollars in revenue - in short, are effectively consigned to the wastelands. Consequently, film-makers bend over backwards to cut, or massage, their films for the more lenient R-rating.

Dick's film about the MPAA might seem to address a limited issue affecting the US entertainment industry, but the ramifications are far-reaching. The MPAA's rating decisions are taken by a group of men and women whose identities are a closely guarded secret, as are their criteria. Evidence suggests that the MPAA routinely offers friendly guidance on films released by the major studios, while independent film-makers are left in the dark to guess what cuts might conceivably save their product. Film-makers damned with an NC-17 can go before an appeals board - again, the members' identity remains secret - but are not allowed to mention other films in their defence (in other words, to cite Sharon Stone's R-rated crotch as precedent).

A Michael Moore-ish undertaking, Dick's film is not what you might consider a soberly argued documentary - more a pamphlet, exposé, stunt reportage larded with comedy graphics - but by God, you're glad he made it. His big stunt idea is to hire detectives to find out who the shadowy MPAA raters are. That Dick's gumshoes are two amiable lesbian moms is a neat polemical ploy: the MPAA makes a big deal out of its raters being "average American parents". But this "average" apparently doesn't represent parents like film-maker and lesbian mother Jamie Babbit, whose comedy But I'm a Cheerleader was originally rated NC-17 for its mild female masturbation - very demure compared to the male pastry-pumping of American Pie, deemed wholesome enough for an R.

One by one, the MPAA's prejudices are laid bare: it's tough on homosexual sex, relatively happy with heterosexual, but uneasy with orgasms. Violence it can handle: the raters objected to three-way sex in Mary Harron's American Psycho, but took a flying chainsaw in their stride. "Violence is fine, sex isn't," comments interviewee John Waters - as ever, the sanest and sweetest of provocateurs. "[The raters] are reflecting the truth of what America believes."

Dick unearths more than quaint puritanism: the MPAA, he argues, is an instrument of corporate corruption, serving the powerful players at the expense of the independents. The Association, grins its hoary founder Jack Valenti in newsreel footage, is composed of "the old great studio names", ie the industry's seven biggest companies. The body increasingly emerges as a mechanism for enforcing not only economic power, but also the approved ideological, political and social norms: little wonder that Hollywood seems less and less to have any relation to the world as we know it.

Dick's stunt approach raises a few questions. His show-stopping coup is to submit his own film to the MPAA and appeal when he gets an NC-17, but it's never clear quite what the film is that the MPAA saw: obviously not exactly the one we get to watch. Nevertheless This Film... is highly entertaining and will make you angry. And if you ever wondered why so much mainstream Hollywood product seems targeted at vicious-minded 13-year-olds, Dick's informative film will tell you. It's an NC-17 in the States - and, absurdly, certificated 18 by our own supposedly more liberal (and certainly more accountable) BBFC.