Posted November 16, 2007 in Film

They’re powerful. They’re secretive. They’re hostile. And inside their Southern California pink stucco fortress, they claim they’re saving the hearts and minds of America’s kids. Scientologists? The Bilderberg Group? Nope! They are the MPAA—formally known as the Motion Picture Association of American, and informally known as those puritanical half-wits.

MPAA president Jack Valenti, former politico and today’s studio-interest shill, was crowned MPAA President in 1968 (a throne he sat on until last fall). Since then, film-goers have acclimated to having our movies brought to us by the morality grades of G, PG, PG-13 (since 1984), R, and NC-17 (the son of X). But while horny teenagers care about the distinctions because they mean they might have to wait for the DVD to see Jason Biggs fuck a pie, the rest of us ignore them. Kirby Dick’s cheeky documentary tells us that we shouldn’t.

For filmmakers like Atom Egoyan (Where the Truth Lies), Matt Stone (South Park) Kimberly Pierce (Boys Don’t Cry), Darren Aronofsky (Requiem for a Dream), Mary Harron (American Psycho), Kevin Smith (Clerks), Wayne Kramer (The Cooler), Jamie Babbit (But I’m a Cheerleader) and John Waters (A Dirty Shame), the repercussions of the MPAA’s distinction between R and NC-17 not only touch on the fight for true freedom of speech but can actually mean the difference between box office receipts and straight-to-video oblivion. It’s when each filmmaker talks openly about their own struggle to have the censorship board specify what precise frames tipped their rating over the edge (others, fearing retribution, stayed quiet) that Dick zeroes in on the smallest and most troublesome measuring stick of the MPAA’s influential ideology. 

What could it have been in these director’s films that offended the MPA—with triple-digit shootings and ass-slappings from Governor-to-be Ahnold on TV each night and Scary Movie‘s rampant misogyny storming the multiplexes? Pierce and Kramer’s biggest sin was zooming in on an actress’ face as she delighted in orgasm; for Babbit, a shot where a fully-clothed Natasha Lyonne touches herself over her dress while thinking of another girl. Clearly, one can accuse the MPAA board of being biased against female and homosexual pleasure while being pro guns, gore and straight guys and Dick drives the point home with a split screen montage of NC-17 rated alterna-sex scenes and their identically graphic, but hetero—and thus R-rated—counterparts. The mysterious MPAA judges could attempt to defend themselves against this overwhelming evidence, except that Valenti forced his cabal of critics to sign a secrecy pact so clandestine that for 30 years, no one has known who these powerful “decency” police really are. 

When Dick hires a plucky private eye named Becky to unmask their identities—a mission that requires months of stakeouts and dumpster diving—the talking heads take shape around a totally Meta narrative that crescendos with Dick submitting his documentary about the board to the board. In a brilliant twist, the MPAA slaps his film with an NC-17. But instead of nipping his exposé in the bud, their rating gives the intrepid filmmaker an opening to dig even further into their barricade of silence when he appeals their decision and discovers that there’s an even higher and more secret MPAA board that—Becky reveals—have some astonishingly prejudiced members. Two clergymen, for starters. 

Equal parts incendiary and hilarious, Dick’s documentary is a fine piece of armchair activism, offering awareness without solutions—a drive-by egging of our family values culture that shields kids from the beautiful things their bodies can do together while showing them in violent detail how those same torsos and limbs can be mangled. Now that’s smutty.


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