In the middle of This Film Is Not Yet Rated, Kirby Dick’s fine documentary about the ratings system, Newsweek critic David Ansen makes an observation about the MPAA that continues to resonate in my mind: “Even though it’s supposed to protect children, it’s turning us all into children.”
There are two reasons I’m feeling like a child this week: The first is the news that a handful of major theater chains, including Regal and Cinemark/Century, are refusing to book Death Of A President, the controversial pseudo-documentary about the assassination of George W. Bush and its aftermath. The second is the also-controversial Deliver Us From Evil, a documentary about sexual abuse within the Catholic Church that Lionsgate opted to distribute without an MPAA rating after the board red-banded its trailer. (Many major chains won’t show red-band—i.e. restricted—trailers and they also won’t show films that are unrated, meaning that this film will have limited options for exhibition.) In both cases, films are being shut out of theaters for their ideas, not for any explicit or offensive content on the surface. These gatekeepers have basically decided that adults need to be shielded from ideas that they deem inappropriate. They’ve created a special rating and it’s called GFY (Go Fuck Yourself).

I’ve seen both of these movies now—which puts me ahead of the majority of their critics, I’m sure—and they’re provocative but far from inflammatory. Death Of A President may sound to some like some sick piece of wishful thinking, but rest assured, nobody breaks out in a chorus of “Ding-Dong, the witch is dead” during the movie. In fact, the lead-up to the assassination is handled with such careful verisimilitude that the first two-thirds of the film are virtually apolitical. There’s half-real/half-stage footage of the President coming into a volatile downtown Chicago for a speech, supported by often moving accounts of Secret Service agents and close advisors who were with him on the day. The shooting is treated as a tragedy and I think that point is inarguable; I saw it with a festival audience that’s ready to hoot at any breath of anti-American sentiment and they were stone silent throughout most of the film. It’s only after Bush’s death that the film’s political message starts to surface, as the killer’s identity is muddled by the Administration’s well-known gifts for grand-scale lies and obfuscation. Regal’s CEO feels that it’s “inappropriate” to consider the future assassination of a sitting President, I don’t think D.O.A.P. takes its premise lightly. Besides, I trust that adults don’t need some ass-covering corporate douchebag to determine what is or isn’t appropriate for them to see.

As for Deliver Us From Evil, I find that case even more perplexing. First, watch the trailer that earned the film a red-band (you have to get past some annoying flash art, but be patient). No curse words, no nudity, no queasy recreations of child molestation—nothing that would normally warrant a red band. What’s apparently offensive about this material to the MPAA is that Father Oliver O’Grady molested dozens of children in Northern California and the Catholic Church did nothing to stop him. And that’s just a fact; when you prevent people from considering these truths, you’re guilty of the same sort of stonewalling that the Church has turned into an artform. Granted, the suggestion that Pope Benedict’s hands are dirty may edge into Sinead O’Connor territory for some, but it’s worth mentioning that the Bishop who quietly shuttled O’Grady from one parish to another after accusations of abuse kept surfacing became one of the Cardinals who elected Benedict to the papacy. These images are powerful—though the trailer (and the movie) could stand to be a little less strident—but their content is really no different from the headlines on sexual abuse in the priesthood that have flooded American newspapers for the past decade.

Of course, this being a market-driven system, it costs these theater chains nothing to bar Death Of A President and Deliver Us From Evil, since both of those movies have finite box-office potential. Let’s see what happens when their corporate morality when tempted by lady fortune: Hey Brangelina, any interest in Shortbus 2?