You’ve got to figure that a guy who makes a film about a performance artist who nails his penis to a board isn’t going to worry about getting a PG rating. From his first film, Sick: The Life & Death of Bob Flanagan (1997), a tragic portrait of a sadomasochistic artist, to his latest, an investigation of the MPAA ratings system, Kirby Dick projects a subversive image. In person, though, he’s a nice guy with a humanistic agenda. That includes expanding what’s deemed acceptable on the screen and exposing the hypocrisy of those who would dictate what audiences can see.
Kirby Dick (right) and Atom Egoyan
“I’ve been wanting to make a film about the ratings system for more than a decade,” he says. “I guess I was stymied by the fact that they’re so secretive. I knew that I was going to get nothing about the system from their side and end up with interviewing some directors talking about their experiences and putting in some clips. But I don’t really make that kind of film. And so when I hit upon the idea of hiring a private investigator, that’s when I realized I had the dramatic arc and that it’d be a real coup to film these raters being caught.”
The Michael Moore approach?
“People say that. Obviously, he’s pioneered a certain style. I think Roger & Me is a phenomenal film. And my film does follow reason my exploits a bit. In some ways I didn’t really have a choice. The I submitted my film to get a rating was to find out what happened to a film when it went through the rating process. So this was the best way to find out, to follow my film through the process. But there is definitely an influence.”
Such as the one-sidedness that Moore is criticized for? In this film no one makes a case for the MPAA, though board members do appear as cartoons in “re-creations” of phone conversations they have with Dick.
“We thought about it” — he means including spokespeople for the other side. “But I wanted to have a certain polemic. I didn’t want the argument to take place among critics. I wanted to stay away from the talking-heads kind of debate.”
Dick himself makes a case for censorship when he examines the MPAA’s unbalanced approach to sex and violence.
“What got me interested in ratings was research on the impact of sex and violence on audience behavior. As far as I can tell, sex on film really doesn’t impact even adolescent behavior negatively. If there’s violence associated with it, some studies show that it does. And some studies show that violence itself affects adolescent behavior negatively. Many people think the issue is resolved. I don’t think it is.
“I want to be very careful about coming out advocating the censorship of violence because it’s been a part of storytelling for millennia and it will always be. And if you censor violence, you censor critiques of violence. That’s what happened to Michael Moore [and Fahrenheit 9/11]. He got an R rating because he had graphic images of Iraqi civilian casualties that were obviously meant as a critique of the war. Children that are 16 are restricted from seeing that, yet they’re only two years away from being enlisted.
“I would like to see a rating system where there’s no age-based restrictions. I don’t think society will accept that, so I would rather instead see a system where information gets out to the parents about what’s in a film. A very concise but comprehensive description of sex, violence, smoking, drug use, thematic behavior, whatever, and let the parents of America decide what they want their children to see.”