Combustible Celluloid

Interview with Kirby Dick

I Wanna Be Re-Rated

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

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Kirby Dick comes from a new school of documentary filmmakers, one in which playful meddling serves as much purpose as straight-ahead journalistic reporting.

And indeed, it would have been difficult to make standard-issue talking head/archive footage films out of subjects like Sick: The Life & Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist (1997) and the Oscar-nominated Twist of Faith (2005).

Those are two of Dick's previous films, one about a performance artist who incorporated pain into his act, and the latter about former altar boys attempting to sue the Catholic Church for sex crimes.

Dick, 54, also co-directed a film about philosopher Jacques Derrida, but instead of a traditional timeline of his life, Derrida (2002) attempted to incorporate his philosophies into its cinematography and editing.

Dick's newest film, This Film Is Not Yet Rated, is poised to strike even bigger sparks. Like Michael Moore's debut film, Roger & Me (1989), Dick takes on a largely invisible, unapproachable corporate entity: the Motion Picture Association of America's ratings board, the people who award films with 'G', 'PG,' 'PG-13,' 'R' and 'NC-17' ratings.

This corporate entity happens to be invisible because it's also the only organization in American whose members are kept completely secret.

Dick begins This Film Is Not Yet Rated by seeking a detective to uncover the identities of the raters, and he winds up hiring the wonderful Becky Altringer.

"She was great," says Dick. "Obviously PIs are such a tradition in American film, and she was so atypical: a lesbian from the suburbs, in a stable relationship. She comes from a lower-middle class background. She's able to use that, actually, because people don't think that she's up to anything."

Dick explains that Altringer grew up under a ratings system that tried to tell her that her lesbian leanings were wrong, and the fact that she helped uncover them made her a kind of hero.

"When she was at Sundance, she went to the queer lounge, she just walked in, just checking it out. They immediately threw her on the red carpet and she was descended upon by a lot of young filmmakers and audience members."

In the film, Dick interviews director Jamie Babbit (The Quiet) about her debut feature, But I'm a Cheerleader (2000), a comedy about a camp that re-programs girls with lesbian tendencies.

"I was astounded at her story," said Dick during a recent visit to San Francisco. "It was so egregious what they did. They slapped an NC-17 on it because of this one masturbation scene, when in fact the girl isn't even getting off, really. She's fully dressed."

The NC-17 rating restricts anyone under 17 from seeing the film, but it comes with a heavy price. Certain theaters will not play NC-17 films, and television and certain newspapers will not advertise them. Moreover, there's a psychological stigma that prevents audiences from seeing them.

"In Europe they have very similar ratings," Dick says. "R18 [or simply "18"] is no one under 18 is allowed, and nobody is really concerned about it. Adults go see it, and that's that."

According to Dick, Babbit was doubly upset because American Pie had recently been released, in which Jason Biggs has sex with a pie. That film received an 'R' rating.

"It's so blatant that they rate gay scenes much more harshly than straight scenes," Dick says. To prove it, This Film Is Not Yet Rated comes with its own montage of sex scenes, shown in split-screen. On the left, we see the straight sex scenes in movies that received 'R' ratings. And on the right we see the gay and lesbian sex scenes in movies that received 'NC-17' ratings. The scenes are nearly identical.

Dick also argues that Babbit had no power as an independent filmmaker. According to the MPAA, the raters have been anonymous for 30 years to avoid being influenced by outside forces.

"Well, we come to find out, the only people who have access to them are the people in the studios, heads of production, post-production supervisors, and they talk with the raters on a weekly basis," Dick says.

"They have relationships over many years," he continues. "They're able to find out exactly what they need to do to get a particular rating, and oftentimes they're able to influence the raters. Independents aren't even aware that that exists. Most people aren't aware that that exists."

Dick interviews Babbit and several other filmmakers (John Waters, Kimberly Peirce, Kevin Smith) who fought the ratings board over unfair NC-17 ratings, and each filmmaker expressed concern that their participation in Dick's film would bring them more trouble down the line.

They're right to be afraid; the business behind the ratings is even more sinister than it looks. In another segment, Dick takes a look at war films.

"In order to get access to the military hardware, the aircraft carriers and tanks, the studios agree to allow their scripts to be vetted first by the Pentagon," he says. Anything that's critical of the military or anti-war is rejected.

This strategy could explain a kind of subtle re-programming of the American psyche, turning them into war-mongers and making them distrustful of sex.

The final portion of the film shows Dick submitting This Film Is Not Yet Rated to the ratings board. Because it contains clips of sex scenes from NC-17 rated films, it (not surprisingly) received its own NC-17 rating. (Since he eventually changed the film by including this information, the film is now going out "unrated.")

Dick says that the studios actually do have the muscle to change the perception of NC-17 rating, "but they don't because it works for them in a lot of different ways. It keeps the Christian Right off their back. It keeps their own creative talent corralled. They don't want their directors and writers going out and making adult films about adult sexuality. They feel the money is with adolescent films."

He continues. "So it's bottom line driven. This is not a moral ratings board. It's influenced by the MPAA so that it works for their films and it hurts their competition films. And of course, if you keep the whole thing secret, no one knows how that works, and it just goes on and on."

Though Dick and his team made This Film Is Not Yet Rated legally, he's still slightly concerned with a lawsuit -- just not immediately. The MPAA knows that suing during the movie's run will only provide more publicity.

"Maybe I'll get a summons or something on my desk in November or December or January," Dick says. "Let's hope not, but then it's a sequel."

August 15, 2006

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