Who can stop an exposé of the MPAA? The MPAA

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The Motion Picture Association of America - those fine folks who represent the movie industry in Washington, campaign against movie piracy and set the ratings on which millions of parents rely for guidance - has never been one to recognize irony, even when it steps in the stuff.

Six years ago, when Trey Parker and Matt Stone made the "South Park" movie, their original title was "South Park: All Hell Breaks Loose" - an apt label for a movie that, among other things, depicted Satan and a deceased Saddam Hussein as lovers. But the MPAA would not allow Parker and Stone to use the word "hell."

The solution? Parker and Stone came up with the name "South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut." The MPAA approved the new title, before someone pointed out to them the obvious penis-related joke (which goes to show that any watchdog of morality should have somebody on staff with a dirty mind).

Another example of MPAA-inflicted irony came Wednesday with the announcement that the documentary "This Film Is Not Yet Rated" - an exposé of the MPAA's ratings system and how it affects American culture - received the most severe rating, NC-17, for "some graphic sexual content."

The movie, directed by Oscar nominee Kirby Dick ("Twist of Faith"), is set to premiere at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival and air on the Independent Film Channel next fall. Its theatrical fate is still up in the air.

According to a statement from IFC, the movie explores questions about the ratings system that many observers have wondered for years: Do Hollywood movies get preferential treatment over independent films? Are gay-themed movies given harsher ratings than movies with equivalent heterosexual content? Is there a double standard in rating sexual content and rating violence? Do studios receive guidance in achieving a lower rating, while indies have to guess?

And the movie aims to expose what IFC calls "Hollywood's best-kept secret": the identities of the ratings board members, who wield unimaginable power without being held accountable.

Dick said in IFC's statement: "It is important that this film be seen by as many people as possible, as it deals with an insidious form of censorship resulting from a ratings process that has been kept secret for more than 30 years."

Now here's the irony, and it's twisted: The MPAA, by sticking the NC-17 rating, is not just passively but actively squelching a movie that aims to reveal the MPAA's inner workings.

A movie with an NC-17 rating doesn't get screened in many theaters. It doesn't get ads in many U.S. newspapers. It doesn't get stocked on the shelves at Blockbuster and many other video stores.

What's infuriating about the ratings system is how arbitrary it is, and how there are no reliable standards to which filmmakers and parents can refer.

Take, for example, what I have called the "Julia Roberts rule" regarding the use of the "F-word." One use of that particular profanity, in a nonsexual context, and you will probably get a PG-13 (there's even a joke about this in "Be Cool"). Multiple uses in a nonsexual context, or a single use of the word in a sexual manner, and you get the R rating. The exception: When the "F-word" is used in a sexual context in a Julia Roberts movie - and it happened in "My Best Friend's Wedding" and "Notting Hill" - the film skates by with a PG-13.

There is a danger in exposing the weaknesses and hypocrisies in the ratings system, in that the alternatives are worse. If the industry (the MPAA's membership consists of the major movie studios) doesn't police itself, defenders of the ratings board say, some opportunistic politician will try to get the government into the act. And if there's anything everyone can agree on, it's that putting our political leaders in the role of culture cop is a really bad idea.

There's one more thing everyone can agree on: Dick's movie has just become one of the hottest tickets in Park City.


Got a question about the movies? Send it to movie critic Sean P. Means: The Salt Lake Tribune, 90 S. 400 West, Suite 700, Salt Lake City, UT 84101, or e-mail at movies@sltrib.com.