American lie

Pub date September 12, 2006
SectionFilm FeaturesSectionFilm Review

One of the many refreshing aspects of Kirby Dick’s This Film Is Not Yet Rated is that it doesn’t focus on an obvious topic. Documentaries have begun reaching more viewers in recent years, but few take on the many-fangled foibles of the Bush era in an imaginative manner. Dick’s new film does, in addition to providing a lesson about the intersection between film history and American history, a convergence that isn’t as petty or easily dismissed as one might think. This is a smartly comedic private-eye movie with a feminist, even lesbian sensibility. It’s just dressed up in doc clothes.
Leaving aside Dick’s last name, in This Film Is Not Yet Rated the real private dick is Becky Altringer, a PI the director hires to spy on the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) — to reach inside its seemingly impenetrable gated fortress and help reveal its inner workings. Taking a cue from Michael Moore, Dick foregrounds Altringer, a woman normal enough to admit that she gets a thrill (necessary amid the waiting and drudgery that make up most of her day) out of spying on people who don’t know she’s watching them. It also sets her portrait against the entitled eccentricity of the MPAA’s oft Republican and rich members, who discriminate against the likes of Altringer on a daily basis in the name of their own supposed normalcy. Needless to say, they’re a pretty kooky bunch.
Dick’s strongest subtext is female pleasure. Here is a filmmaker who has read his Laura Mulvey yet somehow not wound up with a starchy collar. Considering his past work on subjects such as artist and masochist Bob Flanagan, it isn’t a stretch to say that a Bay Area brand of feminism informs Dick’s latest work, which devotes a lot of time to female (and often queer) filmmakers whose visions of sexuality have made the MPAA uncomfortable. Sitting before a movie poster that spells out her attitude toward recently retired MPAA president Jack Valenti, a Peppermint Patty–rasping Kimberly Peirce tells how the ratings board was much more threatened by a close-up of Chloë Sevigny’s face in orgasmic bliss from lesbian oral sex than it was by, say, Boys Don’t Cry’s protagonist getting a bullet in the head. Mary Harron is even more perceptive in her discussion of the organization and its reaction to her American Psycho. A scene in which the killer literally chomps cannibalistically on a woman’s crotch bothered them less than an orgy scene.
This Film Is Not Yet Rated moves rather quickly through the Hays Code clampdown, a very conservative period in Hollywood. But it does take the necessary time to dig into the ascent of Lyndon B. Johnson underling Lew Wasserman. His influence lingers: for decades under the Wasserman-appointed Valenti’s command, the MPAA has worked in tandem with the major studios to squash individuality and independence. Bearing the IFC and Netflix stamps of approval, Dick’s movie arrives at a time when home video receipts dwarf theatrical box office numbers, and thus the ratings system (outside of Blockbuster country) might not matter as much as it once did. But right now is better than never when it comes to tarnishing a corrupt institution’s legacy.SFBG
Opens Fri/15
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