One of the cable channels that runs oddball documentaries had one about the MPAA's rating system with the title above. Now, I'm not entirely happy with MPAA's rating system. I've seen movies rated PG-13 for violence that seemed completely indistinguishable from other movies rated PG for violence. Roger Ebert's review of Hannibal (2001) makes a very trenchant observation about the utter inability of a movie to get an NC-17 rating for violence, no matter how gross and gratuitous, and Ebert's obvious revulsion at it:
Many still alive will recall when a movie like this could not be contemplated, let alone filmed and released. So great is our sophistication that we giggle when earlier generations would have retched. The brain-eating scene is "special effects," the face-eating is shot in deep shadow and so quickly cut that you barely see the dogs having their dinner, and Julianne Moore explains in interviews that the story is a fable of good and evil (although she cautions that she "actually talked to my shrink about it").The MPAA rating system also isn't very consistent--and after Shrek 2's transgendered trashiness, I am convinced that the rating system is utterly defective for figuring out what films are appropriate for small children.
I share the apparent concern of the filmmaker that unrealistic violence is given too low of a rating compared to realistic violence. I am concerned that at least some kids may fall into the "violence is a video game" attitude when nothing too terribly serious results from guns blazing everywhere. But there is a real danger that regular exposure to very graphic, very detailed violence may have a desensitizing effect as well.
This may not make some people happy, but I think that even relatively graphic portrayals of a couple making love (as distinguished from having sex) is far less corrosive to the 8-17 set than the repeated portrayal of extremely graphic violence--or even the repeated portrayal of unrealistic violence. But of course, Hollywood has far too much interest in something kinky, something perverse, something degrading (almost always to women), and what seems to make Hollywood happiest of all--something that combines sex and violence.
The more I watched of This Film Is Not Yet Rated, however, the more disturbed I became with the apparent major concern of the filmmaker and many of the people they interviewed, including a self-described First Amendment lawyer--that the MPAA rating system is a form of "censorship." It is nothing of the sort. Censorship is a governmental imposition, either through prior restraint or, in a rather indirect way, through punishment after the fact. The First Amendment has nothing to do with a purely private body like the MPAA. To my knowledge, even state laws that regulate what materials may be shown or sold to minors do not use the MPAA rating, but rather have rather specific definitions of what is prohibited.
As near as I can tell, the big objection--the big point of this documentary--was that the MPAA's rating system, which is from my perspective way too loose for anyone raising kids to make good decisions, is blocking the access of filmmakers to American culture. What?
If you don't want your film to have an MPAA rating, it isn't required. There are lots of art houses that will run it. If the MPAA gives it an NC-17 rating, this will limit your ability to get into a lot of theaters around the country. My only reaction is: "So?" Movies made in the 1940s and 1950s managed to address some rather significant and serious topics by the use of subtle writing. For example, the sequence in Spartacus where the slave's new master talks about how some people prefer oysters, and some prefer clams--and some prefer both--and immediately thereafter, the slave played by Tony Curtis runs away to join the slave revolt.
I'm sure that the vast majority of young people that saw Spartacus when it came out didn't get the implication of that discussion--and that's okay. There comes a moment when you can understand this, and if you don't? No big loss. But it is a reminder that even with the standards that the MPAA operated under back then, it was possible to write serious works without being graphic.
Ditto for Casablanca. There's not a bit of dialog that tells you how intimate the relationship was between Rick and Ilsa back in Paris, but the smoldering looks that Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman exchange tell you that they had gotten a bit beyond holding hands--without hammering the audience over the head about it. Subtlety--a concept that could be reintroduced into filmmaking, without the MPAA's nasty ratings monopoly being any real obstacle to the business.