Saturday, September 23, 2006


This Film is Not Yet Rated - Kirby Dick taking on the MPAA. The film is split into two main devices: first, interviews, mostly with filmmakers who had run ins with the raters, augmented by various experts, and the whole thing sprinkled with damning footage of Jack Valenti and his like... And second, he hires private investigators to track down who the raters are. The interviews, on the whole, are what you would expect - a parade of indie filmmakers mostly, lots of women, lots of gay and lesbian films, sighing about their mistreatment. They run through a litany of atrocities that earned the NC-17 - Maria Bello's pubic hair; puppet brown showers; the word "felching". It's a story we've heard before - it's almost a commonplace - sex is rated more harshly than violence; gay sex more than straight sex; women's pleasure more than men's. Studio films get the benefit of the doubt - indie films get the high hand. It's a commonoplace because it's basically true - the case against the ratings board is often painfully simple to make.

But there's a more interesting argument being made in the film. The fact is, the ratings system usually works fine. (Not that anyone admits it in the film.) The system only really breaks in two places. The first is in the way NC-17 is handled. Newspapers won't advertise - Walmart and Blockbuster and the like won't carry.... This is bad - probably a bigger problem then the ratings are - but it's not quite Jack Valenti's fault. Maybe the MPAA could pressure newspaper and stores and exhibitors to show NC-17 films, I don't know. They should, at least, try to account for this problem. The second place the system breaks is at the edges. The fact is, nobody would have much room to complain if Nine Songs had gotten an NC-17. But at the edges - the second or two of pubic hair, the length of a woman's orgasm, the number of thrusts in a sex scene - balanced against questions like sex vs. violence, gay vs. straight, reality vs. fiction (one case study is the rating debate over Gunner Palace, a documentary about the Iraq war) - it gets very messy.

But even this - for all the talk about the actual decisions made by the raters, the real outrage, and the consistent point Dick is getting at, is the secrecy of the whole process. That is the point of tracking down the raters and naming them on film. That is the most viable suggestion being brought forward. This process should be overt. Raters should be accountable, there should be standards. As one of the interviewees says - we worry about government censors, but governments are accountable. Government boards are subject to judicial review. The MPAA should be subject to the same scrutiny. That's Dick's point, and I can't argue with it.

Murder by Numbers: speaking of IFC and documentaries, they've been running this consideration of the serial killer movie, directed by Mike Hodges (of all people.) It's surprisingly good. It's talking heads and film clips, but the talking heads - the likes of Gary Indiana, Amy Taubin, Mark Seltzer - are compelling, informative, and thought provoking, talking about the roots of the serial killer character, the history of the genre, the connections between serial killers and technology. That is the general argument, advanced by the commentary - that the serial killer is an idea inseparable from modern technology, the technology of film, of modern assembly line manufacturing and so on. The case is presented well, and it makes sense. A very interesting film.

Science of Sleep: Michel Gondry's new film, and the best film of the year, so far. I knew it would be pretty quickly - Gael Garcia Bernal stars as Stephane, a young artist with a French mother and a (recently deceased) Mexican father. He comes to Paris at the beginning of the film - riding in a cab. He gets out and goes to the door of his house, and the camera stays in the cab, as the car drives around the corner. I can't quite explain what's so wonderful about that, but it's something Gondry's films are full of, little details, that feel like you're just sticking your head around the corner to see something irrelevant. I can't explain it now. But I love it.

The film, anyway. Stephane goes to work, at a printer's. His mother promised him a creative job designing calendars - in fact, he's hired as a typesetter. His coworkers are sex and ski obsessed oddballs - though it makes them very useful in the upcoming dream sequences. His mother ignores him. Then a girl, Stephanie, played by Charlotte Gainsbourgh, moves in across the hall. She's cute. She has a cuter friend that Stephane thinks he wants to date. But Stephanie's also creative, whimsical, she makes things with her hands, just like Stephane. And so things move toward romance....

But not directly. There's the style, after all. The film starts with Stephane's dreams, and stays with them throughout - it stays inside his head. And he is not good at separating dreams from not-dreams. Or what is happening from what he wants or fears to be happening. And this gives Gondry the license to play - to create gorgeous, playful animations, low-tech, literalist (if time reverses, the film reverses - easy enough) animations and tricks. To further blur the dream/not-dream line, though, the things in his dreams also exist in the world - he is an artist, and he specializes in the kinds of things we see in the dreams: arts and crafts special effects, animated and refigured toys, disasters as kitsch art, songs played on the broken keys of a piano... So we go back and forth as easily as he does between reality and dreams (and between the represented dream and the representing film of the dream (etc.)).

That isn't always helpful, not the characters in the film. They don't know how to act, exactly - at any given moment, are they dreaming or not? There are times that Stephane starts to come off as just a bit too willfully nutty - it starts to slip into an annoying romantic comedy cliche, the man-child fuckup saved (or not) by a more grounded woman. Those moments don't last - or we are reminded that the film is completely subjective - we are in Stephane's head, all the time. (This is a lot like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which is also completely located inside the lead character's head.) These are not, quite, films about damaged boys being saved by motherly girls - they are films about about damaged boys thinking girls (who are apt to be as damaged as the boys) are going to save them. But even this is too small an idea for the film. There's more. Running through the film are references to Stephane's parents, especially his father's recent death (which never quite gets blamed for his troubles, but is still there, to be dealt with) - though increasingly to his mother's relationship to his father, and Stephane. And their relationship starts to invade Stephane and Stephanie's. "You never finish anything" he tells Stephanie - the same thing he said about his mother (though he probably got it from his father). In essence, then, his story is their story - the film blends them, as it blends reality and dream, film and story, and presumably Gondry's own stories and the stories told. It earns its depths.


Reel Fanatic said...

Great review of Science of Sleep .. we don't get movies that good in my little corner of the world until they got a lot of buzz, so here's hoping!

Chris Gaubatz said...

I'll have to check out, "This Film Not Yet Rated". I find it so interesting that I have friends and family members that either fast-forward or skip sex scenes because of their religious views, yet have no qualms about watching the most blatant, gut-wrenching violence. Needless to say I watch most movies with my dog (OJO). I've been personally affected by Walmart's policy on unrated films: I picked up "Team America: World Police" at "The Evil Empire" because of the price. During the movie I realized I had been cheated the puppet golden shower and "scat love" scene! What an outrage!

TALKING MOVIEzzz said...

I also want to see THIS FILM IS NOT YET RATED, yet it hasn't been released in my area.

It will be interesting to see what they say about GUNNER PALACE. I saw it on DVD, and thought the DVD was mislabeled, because it was PG-13. It definitely deserved the R.

And as for the policy of Wal Mart, while they may sell a lot of major titles, I think I own more different titles than they carry. They carry only the most mainstream of titles, so they shouldn't be involved in the MPAA debate. They won't even carry classic Hollywood films, so why would they carry say Bertolucci's THE DREAMERS?

As SHOWGIRLS proved, a major studio CAN release an NC-17 rating and get it in the multiplexes. But, no one has tried since.

I think a lot of it is just complaining for attention. But, I will check out the film.

Chris Gaubatz said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
weepingsam said...

The fact that Walmart is by far the biggest retailer of videos in the country pretty much renders the "they have a lousy selection" argument moot. Their policies, like not carrying NC-17 films, help define what is mainstream. Like I said - the ratings don't have much effect on most films - obscure art films or your average big budget PG-13 thriller aren't a problem. It's films on the edge, whether it's mainstream stuff that has to temper something, or indie films that, rated R, might get a bigger audience, but are missing something - or just forced to make some really stupid concession.

I don't really understand why Walmart doesn't carry objectionable material. They don't have to sell it to kids. They sell guns and cigarettes, so it's not like that have any moral grounds for not carrying, - what the hell - porn. It just bugs the religious nuts, whose agenda, after all, is to control what people think.