DICK HIRES A DICK: And she’s not Sam Spade.
I’m surprised that this close to the November elections neither party has opted for the tried-and-true tradition of scapegoating Hollywood indecency for easy votes. Maybe the politicians think that ploy has been used up after Janet Jackson’s wardrobe malfunction. In case they do bring it up, however, Kirby Dick has put together a potent argument against censorship in general (with some troubling reservations) and the current system set up by the MPAA in particular. He does fall for the current documentary trend of turning a blind eye to the opposition. (So the MPAA wouldn’t talk — was Michael Medved too busy?) But he makes up for that by pulling off a brilliant bit of post-modernist self-reflexivity. Maybe that’s a carryover from his previous effort, Derrida (2002).
Dick wheels out the usual suspects — film historians, civil-rights lawyers, aggrieved filmmakers — to make the familiar case against the ratings system cooked up by Jack Valenti, the recently resigned president of the Motion Picture Association of America, back in 1968. What’s wrong with the ratings system? Major studios monopolize it and use it as a club to beat down the competition of independents. It’s a sop to fundamentalist religious interests. It punishes sex more than violence, and gay sex more than the straight kind. (Dick gets himself in trouble here, suggesting that maybe the censorship of violence is okay and implying that censorship is not the problem but rather who gets to make the rules.) Its standards are capricious and absurd and inconsistent. And though the ratings board itself is supposed to comprise a broad spectrum of parents of non-adult children, it remains anonymous and unaccountable for its decisions.
That last complaint inspires one of the film’s blither devices. What if someone could track the board members down? Dick hires a dick, a PI who (coincidence?) is the antithesis of what the MPAA and their sponsors regard as normal family values. Becky Altringer and her partner Cheryl run Ariel Investigations, a mom-and-mom detective agency that includes Cheryl’s teenage daughter Lindsey as a cub field agent. They don’t look very formidable as they fumble in a photography shop for spy equipment. But what they lack in finesse they make up for in determination. And charm: Becky is like a lesbian Michael Moore with more innocence and less attitude.
This pursuit of the identities of the board members intercuts testimonials from the likes of director John Waters (very funny as usual) and writer Jon Lewis (whose provocative theories in Hollywood vs. Hardcore get short shrift). It provides narrative momentum and human interest. At times it appears to be staged. But Dick embraces the artifice. The title refers to the fact that the film itself, as part of the film, was submitted to the MPAA for a rating; it got an NC-17. The finished version remains unrated. By the end, viewers might not be as outraged about censorship as Dick is, but they can share his delight in constructing this Möbius strip of a film.