A Conversation with Kirby Dick

September 01, 2006
A thought by James Berardinelli

As regular readers know, I avoid interviews like the plague - not because I can't do them, but because I usually find them boring. I ask the subject the same questions he or she has been asked a thousand times, and get the same rehearsed responses. Occasionally, I will interview a director, but almost never an actor. After all, what can the average hired gun provide to my knowledge base about a movie? Given an opportunity to spend some time with Kirby Dick, however, I accepted. Why? Two reasons: (1) I was presented with a chance to have a dialogue with him, not just to participate in a Q&A session, and (2) Dick is responsible for the year's most provocative documentary: the MPAA exposé This Film Is Not Yet Rated, which addresses the inconsistency, hypocrisy, and stupidity of the American movie classification system.

During the course of our 65-minute lunch, Dick and I discussed a number of topics, from his film to potential ways to reform the ratings system to piracy. Here are some of the highlights.

We started by talking about the current rating system - not so much the letters (G, PG, PG-13, R, NC-17) as the little content tags that accompany them. (The things that say stuff like "extreme violence," "partial nudity," etc.) Dick noted that "the descriptors are actually composed ad hoc. They're not applying any standards. They're just making them up." I remarked upon the choice of "graphic nudity" that was used for the film Broken Flowers and he nodded, indicating that such descriptors "underline the absurdity and inconsistency [of the system]." He also noted that the closest thing the MPAA has to a standard is the so-called "one fuck" rule. The word "fuck," if used once in a non-sexual context, can appear in a PG-13 film. If "fuck" is used more than once or in a sexual context, it leads to an R.

Dick understands that some sort of content report is needed, but he argues that today's system is deeply flawed. Currently, "the standard often is, 'Are they comfortable?' So if something comes along that's new," they don't know how to react to it. How to change the sytem? "You have to get more transparency and accountability." Government oversight, while perhaps not desirable in the long run, could be more positive than it sounds. "Regarding [government oversight], I think there's a strong argument for it vis-a-vis the current rating system. If it was improved, if it focused on getting information out, there's an advantage to self-regulation. As it is, [the current system] is very ineffective."

When former MPAA ratings board member Jay Landis suggested implementing a system of written standards, he was "forced off the board and threatened with a lawsuit if he talked about it." In Dick's opinion, "[The MPAA] may be the most unprofessional board operating in this country today. No training, no experts..."

He made This Film Is Not Yet Rated for two reasons: to embarrass the MPAA and to bring the truth about how they operate to the public's attention. "I want to challenge people to look at the MPAA critically. [The movie] will tarnish [the MPAA]... The people think the ratings system is ingrained in the filmmaking prodcess... They think it's a governmental organization or independently run." Those assumptions are not true, but the MPAA is happy to let the public think they are. Few groups are better at self-marketing than Jack Valenti's baby.

Getting This Film Is Not Yet Rated off the ground was not an easy task. A lot of directors Dick approached to speak against the MPAA wouldn't do it on the record. "I could not get a lot of people to speak critically about the MPAA... It's almost suicidal for someone in the system to fight it." A lot of smaller studios showed interest, but backed off after pressure was applied by their parent companies. Eventually, IFC put up the money to fund the movie. "If IFC had been owned by a studio, this film would not have been made."

Dick included clips excised from movies like The Cooler in order to assure he would get an NC-17. His intention from the beginning was not only to explain how the MPAA works and expose the "secret" members of both the ratings board and the appeals board, but to document the process. He was able to do all three. We talked about what it was like during the appeals process. Dick noted how intimidating it could be to someone who went in there with the hope of getting a rating overturned (something that happens about 15% of the time). His goal was to engage the members in a dialogue, but it didn't happen, although one man accused him: "You are obviously a talented filmmaker, but why are you attacking your own industry?" To Dick, that shows a fundamental disconnect.

Finally, there is the subject of piracy, one of the MPAA's big issues. The MPAA is the industry watchdog, fighting piracy wherever it can be found. There is more than a little irony, therefore, in the fact that the MPAA pirated This Film Is Not Yet Rated. They have admitted making an unauthorized copy of the movie (after telling Dick beforehand that they never do things like that), although they have not complied with a request made by Dick's attorney to identify the details surrounding the copying. (According to the MPAA website, piracy is defined thus: "Anyone who sells, acquires, copies or distributes copyrighted materials without permission is called a pirate." This applies to the MPAA with respect to This Film Is Not Yet Rated.) Their excuse? They were contemplating a lawsuit.

Dick is skeptical of how members of a group that profess to fight piracy can be taken seriously when they commit the offense they prosecute people for. He thinks their general approach is flawed. "Criminalizing today's youth is not the way to go." People so accused might easily react by saying, "If I'm a felon, I might as well commit a crime." According to him, the MPAA are reacting the way reactionary groups often react to the emergence of new technology - they try to "legislate it out of existence."

Jack Valenti, the former president of the MPAA and the originator of the ratings system, recently retired and was replaced by Dan Glickman. In Dick's opinon, Glickman is "a company man, but not Valenti's man." Does this mean there might be changes ahead? Dick doesn't know, but he's skeptical, because Glickman's power is limited. He is beholden to the studios, which run the MPAA. So how does Dick see things in the near future? "20 years from now, [ratings] will probably still be run by the MPAA. There will probably be some cosmetic changes. I hope there will be some substantive changes." He believes his film will help to make that happen. I share that hope. The difficulty is getting people to see This Film Is Not Yet Rated. It's currently booked for 35 cities, which is impressive, but its real success could come on DVD.

If you get a chance, it's worth the price of admission. The revelations it offers will change the way you think about movie ratings.