When South Park creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker made Orgazmo, a romp about a Mormon porn star, and submitted it to the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) for a rating, it came back NC-17. The filmmakers asked what they could do to get it down to an R, and they were told, brusquely, nothing. Years later they made Team America: World Police, which included a four-minute puppet-sex scene (including many shots they had no intention of using, just so they'd have something to cut out) that pushed them into forbidden territory. This time, however, they were provided scene-specific notes on how to make the film into an R. The difference? Orgazmo was an indie release, while Team America came from Paramount Studios. The message of this story, as relayed by Stone in the documentary This Film is Not Yet Rated, is fairly simple: The MPAA is less a responsible watchdog organization keeping the country safe from sexually explicit material than it is a corrupt industry tool, keeping the fig leaf of respectability not so firmly in place.
The MPAA was a lobbying organization that first implemented its voluntary ratings system in 1968 under the auspices of Jack Valenti, a Washington insider and LBJ confidant determined to defend Hollywood from the possibility of government regulation. Valenti argued it was better for film studios to police themselves so as to avoid having political prudes come down with a modernized Hays Code. So filmmakers must present their films to the MPAA's classifications panel (whose identities are never disclosed and are only described on the MPAA's website as "a board of parents") and then, if they don't have enough industry clout or the ability/desire to cut and resubmit their film for another pass, have to live with whatever rating is passed down. As This Film points out time and again, given that NC-17 films are shown by almost no theaters and often not carried by video rental chains, it's a system where de facto censorship is carried out by a secret nongovernmental body that seems to have a real problem with sex.
This Film director Kirby Dick brings a fizzy style to this story, using snazzy graphics and saucy clips of naughty films to add some punch to the litany of filmmakers who rail against the inscrutable ways of the MPAA bluenoses. He continually cuts in scenes of explicit sex because more often than not, it is these moments that trip films up during the ratings review. Mary Harron expresses bewilderment as she talks about how the reason American Psycho was initially slapped with an NC-17 was not from what she expected (brutal, over-the-top serial killer violence) but instead a scene in which Christian Bale's character has sex with two women. Any number of grisly disembowelings or gunshot wounds goes down just fine, but as directors Kimberley Pierce (Boys Don't Cry) and Jamie Babbit (But I'm a Cheerleader) testify, a film that depicts any sort of sex considered in some way aberrant (almost anything with gay characters, or something as simple as showing a female orgasm) gets slapped down. In one informative sequence, Dick shows scenes considered NC-17 next to those which came through which made it through as R -- a lesbian teen demurely masturbating with clothes on in Babbit's film was considered the former while Kevin Spacey openly pleasuring himself in the shower in American Beauty was the latter.
Given the strangely conservative ways of the secretive MPAA raters, Dick turns half his film into a gimmicky mystery story by hiring a pair of private investigators to stake out the organization's bunker-like complex in Encino (15503 Ventura Blvd., for anyone who cares to do the same) and tail the raters when they leave. The idea is that since the MPAA is in essence a censorship board with massive influence on art and commerce, it's nonsensical that the identities of the ratings board be kept secret. The approach is light gonzo filmmaking and an entertaining diversion, as they go through rater's trash, eavesdrop on their conversations in restaurants, and take down license numbers like cops on stakeout.
What's problematic here is that while this device is a fun way of jabbing a finger in Valenti's eye (especially when Dick later submit the film for review and records the bureaucratic absurdities of the appeals process), it also detracts from the film's more serious charges. It's all well and fun to go hunting around after the raters, and while Dick has probably performed a public service by finally identifying many of them, too many charges -- sexism, homophobia, free-speech-tampering, corrupt corporate favoritism, hypocritical preferring sex over violence -- are made by the directors (and former raters) brave enough to show up but then left dangling as Dick plays detective.
Now rate these binoculars.