(Visual) Notes on Culture
  The Strangleholds of the American Film Industry
Weird moments of clarity and perspective seem to come in pairs. This week, I had two revelations about the American film industry, both prompted by failed attempts at either supporting it or condemning it. These two interventions can loosely be categorized into angry/progressive and affirmative/conservative. On the "Stuff White People Like" end of the spectrum (I use this in a very precise way, and I assume that most people who read this blog know exactly what I mean) is Kirby Dick's investigative documentary This Film is Not Yet Rated (2006). Dick's premise--supported by myriad filmmakers, critics, and former MPAA ratings board members--is that what could be called the "ratings-industrial complex" enables a corrupt, antiquated, and almost totally unfair system. The MPAA is an interest group, something like a privileged political lobby, that has earned the right to lord over the public interest. The real bone of contention is that the difference between an "R" rating (under 17-year-olds admitted with parent or guardian, capable of opening in mainstream theaters, and able to book advertisements in major papers and on television) and an "NC-17" rating (no one under 17 allowed, not carried on DVD in major chains like Blockbuster and Walmart, and almost instantly stigmatized regardless of message) often boils down to polarizing political issues. The injustices are familiar: there is a double standard allowing female nudity over male, heterosexuality over homosexuality, and violence over sex in general. Further, the film uncovers the differences in how independent productions and studio films are handled, noting how the later almost always warrant preference, leniency, and lax enforcement.

Dick--the name of the filmmaker ironically fits the premise--hires a private investigator to unravel another complaint, that the MPAA raters are anonymous and therefore not accountable. The film makes some good points and gives directors who have helmed films deemed NC-17 a chance to explain their displeasure with the system.

This Film is Not Yet Rated
was an IFC film and it shows: everything is quirky, "fun," overly animated, and more than a little preachy. The whole presentation is a little too "limousine liberal" overall. As with many "issue" documentaries of recent vintage, the conclusions seem foregone (and I am staunchly in favor/sympathy of the filmmakers who have been screwed by this terrible system), the methods slightly slimy. I view this film as a disappointing look at an incredibly important issue. Despite my reservations, I welcome its potential impact and hope that it affects some quantifiable change.

If This Film is Not Yet Rated is staunchly anti-institutional, avowedly "indie," and unabashedly uppity in its "liberal" views, the American Film Institute's recent 10 Top 10 list for "Classic Film Genres" is just the opposite. Reading like a recycled re-hash of previous lists, the AFI has probably totally ensconced themselves in the pocket of the corporatized studio system. While some of the films listed are not even "properly" American (Lawrence of Arabia is almost entirely non-American save for finance, while the Kubrick films were all mainly made in the UK), most of them are the same ol' things that this particular organization has been telling us to see for years. These are the films that get video re-issues every 5 years, sometimes more.

Their construction of genre is noticeably problematic. What they consider "Fantasy" branches over several OTHER classical genres. Worst of all is the Animation category. With the exception of Shrek, their entire list consists of films made by Disney. While Disney certainly constitutes the most visible segment of American animation films, it is one organization among several and DOES NOT constitute the whole of an entire genre. Animation is not only for children and is not solely the terrain of anthropomorphic, cuddly animals. Ralph Bakshi constitutes the most important portion of the counter-tradition and Warner Brothers has some great contenders like Looney Tunes Back in Action and Small Soldiers (Joe Dante!). This is not a matter of fan griping, but rather a pointed critique at the orientation of bedfellows between a decrepit organization that supposedly exists to support the variety of film making in this country and the monied hegemony of the corporate studios. Their previous attempts at taste-making have been criticized--see Jonathan Rosenbaum's alternative (perhaps TOO alternative) to the first list--and they can prepare for another wave of feedback.
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