In the last couple days, we've been both amused and puzzled over the excoriation of the MPAA's inveterate ratings. We all know them - G, PG, PG-13, R, etc., but, what is it, exactly, that gets you an R instead of a PG-13? Or a PG instead of a G?
Today, two very unusually different groups find themselves to be strange bedfellows, indeed, as they both struggle to answer those questions.
On one side of the Sealy Posturpedic is Kirby Dick, the firebrand director of "This Film is Not Yet Rated," the documentary from this year's Sundance Film Festival that attacks the MPAA for systematically rating comparable studio and indie films differently, and for the secrecy of the ratings board which blocks accountability and allows these faceless folks to operate with impunity. In a move that is poetic, after the MPAA gave the doc an NC-17 rating, Dick and his backer, IFC Films, have decided to release the doc without a rating, as was announced earlier this month.
On the other side of the bed are, of course, the Baptists - a group that for the last few years has made it a point to define itself as being against everything, from public schools to gay rights to Walt Disney World. This time, however, it seems they might have a legitimate point. The group has a substantial beef with the Motion Picture Association of America over the Christian sports-themed movie, "Facing the Giants" - the sort of pablum that would normally disappear into the shelves of video stores were it not for the MPAA's bizarre decision to give the film a PG rating due to its strong Christian themes.
"In the last week alone, the Motion Picture Assn. of America, which oversees the rating board, has been swamped with more than 15,000 e-mails arguing that "Facing the Giants" deserves a more family-friendly G rating. The complaints - the number of which may be 10 times the previous record for reaction to a ratings decision - say the movie is being unfairly targeted for its religious themes."
While the filmmakers say they were told that those "Jesus Saves" themes were what triggered the PG rating, MPAA officials deny that was the reason, saying it was the film's violence and the protagonist's struggle with infertility and depression, but aren't offering up any proof of that.
And therein lies the problem: As Dick explained when he was a recent guest on my NPR show, "The Business," its precisely that lack of transparency that is the central reason the MPAA is so fundamentally mistrusted, and not just by fundamentalists.
The move by the "Facing the Giants" filmmakers might well be nothing more than a publicity stunt, but unfortunately, thanks to the way the MPAA ratings board operates, we'll never know. That's the sort of move that simply plays into the hands of nutcase, right-wing talk radio, which has today carved another notch in its belt among the many other imagined and real instances which Hollywood is "anti-Christian."
The irony here is rich: "Facing the Giants," which angry about its PG rating, will benefit from increased publicity and box office thanks to the MPAA rating, isn't appealing the ratings board's decision. The documentary about the ratings board's lack of transparancy and apparent unfairness got an NC-17, which it appealed and lost, and now will be release unrated.
We love a good laugh, and Bruce Feirstein's brilliantly revisionist take on the MPAA ratings provides just that this week. But the real blame in this instance doesn't lay with Hollywood, but the vagaries its trade association takes in rating its wares.