CORVALLIS, Ore. – Do movies with sexual content receive harsher treatment than ones with violence? Are independent movies rated equally to Hollywood movies? Is the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) accountable in any way for its rating decisions?
These are just some of the questions that a new documentary from Academy Award-nominated filmmakers Kirby Dick and Eddie Schmidt seek to answer in “This Film Is Not Yet Rated,” which opens Sept. 1 in New York and Los Angeles. It opens in Portland on Sept. 15.
Oregon State University professor Jon Lewis is featured prominently in the documentary as an expert who helps Dick and Schmidt find answers to their questions on the MPAA and its effect on American culture.
Lewis has a national reputation as an author and historian of the film industry. His first film appearance was in the 2005 documentary “Inside Deep Throat.”
Lewis’ 2000 book, “Hollywood v. Hard Core: How the Struggle Over Censorship Created the Modern Film Industry,” caught the attention of director Dick, who was nominated for an Oscar for his 2004 documentary on sexual abuse in the Catholic Church titled “Twist of Faith.”
Lewis said he was flown out to Los Angeles last summer to comment on the MPAA and its ratings practice for “This Film Is Not Yet Rated.”
“They had read my book (“Hollywood v. Hard Core") and asked really smart questions on it,” Lewis said.
“It is a serious documentary, but it has these neat animated graphics and a lot of commercial appeal. They really made an effort to make it entertaining. There aren’t a lot of talking heads -- except me, of course.”
Filmmakers including John Waters (who also appeared in “Inside Deep Throat”), Kevin Smith, Matt Stone, Atom Egoyan, Darren Aronofsky and other industry insiders are featured in “This Film Is Not Yet Rated.”
Lewis talks about how the rating system works in the movie, and provides history on the organization, which started in 1968.
“The MPAA is a PR outfit,” Lewis said. “It was started as a way to make nice with Washington, D.C. The previous system (the Production Code, or the Hays Code) was a moral code. The current rating system was devised as a business proposition.”
Ironically, “This Film is Not Yet Rated” received an NC-17 rating from the MPAA because it shows footage that was cut out of such films as “Team America: World Police.”
“That NC-17 rating (for “This Film is Not Yet Rated”) shows that context means nothing,” Lewis said.
According to Lewis, whether or not the rating system is effective or accurate, classifying films in advance of their release is beside the point. “As long as movies continue to make money, the MPAA figures that the rating system is not broken, so why fix it? It’s a business at the end of the day.”
Lewis teaches film and cultural studies in the Department of English at OSU. He is the editor of Cinema Journal, one of the nation’s leading critical and scholarly journals in film studies. His next book, “American Film: A History,” will be published by W.W. Norton & Co. in fall 2007.