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Popflick Confidential: Indie Movies Revolt, "Passages" Goes Unrated

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It’s Day 80 of the Writers Strike and Day 8 of the SAG-AFTRA strike. We stand with writers, actors, crew members, and every creative worker fighting for a livable wage.

The strike forces filmmakers to move release dates around, especially movies that need stars doing the hard sell in interviews and red-carpet events. That is the case in “Force of Nature: The Dry 2.” Producer Eric Bana, who also plays the lead, announced the scheduled release of the sequel to the surprise hit “The Dry” (2021) is postponed indefinitely. Even though the movie is a homegrown Australian production, Bana is a SAG-AFTRA member and will not cross the picket line.

Some indie movies are unaffected by the promotional circuit's virtual absence of stars. That is the case of Sofia Coppola's "Priscilla," which will premiere at the New York Film Festival. The movie will open in theaters in October.

The “X” factor in NC-17 hits “Passages”

Ira Sachs’ “Passages” became one of the most eagerly-awaited movies of the year after earning glowing reviews at film festivals everywhere: first, the Berlin Film Festival, then the Sundance Film Festival. The plot follows a volatile love triangle, as flirty Tomas (Franz Rogowski) alienates his husband Martin (Ben Wishaw) when he takes a shine to the beautiful teacher Agathe (Adele Exarchopulos). MUBI bought the theatrical and streaming rights and prepared to reap the benefits of positive word of mouth. But as the release date of August 4 looms on the horizon, old-style prudishness reared its ugly head. The movie received an NC-17 rating by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA).

Wait. Are ratings still a thing? Yes, they are. At least for movie exhibitors, which use them as an excuse to limit screens, and media outlets who refuse to take ads for adult content. This is such a “retro” problem. Once upon a time, the MPAA decided to update production codes. By the time the 60s came around, the production code running since the 30s was so outdated that even an institution as conservative as this one decided an update was in order.

Over time, ratings were adjusted but mostly remained unchanged. G stands for “General Audiences,” “Rated M” morphed into “PG” (Parental Guidance suggested) and “PG-13” (Parental Guidance for children under 13), and “R” for “Restricted” (No person under 16 admitted, until accompanied by an adult or a guardian). The top of the mountain was “X,” which prohibited admission to anyone under 17.

For a while, the adults-only rating did not work against the movies. “Midnight Cowboy” (John Schlesinger, 1969) became the first X-rated movie to win the Best Picture Oscar. “A Clockwork Orange” (Stanley Kubrick, 1971) was released with an X and still became a scandalous success. However, as porn films like “Deep Throat” (Gerard Damiano, 1972) began to seep into the mainstream brandishing the “X,” the rating acquired the halo of perversion - it didn’t help that the consummate salesmen of porn embraced the stigma and would sell their wares with hyperbole, describing them as “XXX.” Soon, poor old X became the kiss of death, not because of adult themes but because of America’s fear of sexuality. Theaters would reject X-rated films. Newspapers and TV networks, the dominant TV outlets of the time, would not advertise them.


For a couple of decades, filmmakers would jump through hoops and cut their movies until they hit the sweet spot of an "R" rating. At least, until the now-disgraced Harvey Weinstein, at the top of his power, challenged the MPAA over the twin provocations of "Time Me Up! Tie Me Down!" (Pedro Almodovar, 1989) and "Henry and June" (Phillip Kaufman, 1990). Both got struck with an X. Almodovar's twisted comedy ended up being released unrated - in Hollywood, He was not yet an institution, and this was barely his first release since getting nominated for an Oscar for "Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown" (1988) -.

But Weinstein had Oscar expectations for the sexy drama inspired by the love triangle of writers Henry Miller, his wife June Miller, and his lover, writer Anais Nin. Kaufman was fresh off the acclaimed literary adaptation “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” (1988), and the movie had all the trappings that Weinstein craved: Intellectual pretensions! Handsome period production design! Uma Thurman is in a sexy role! It is easy to see why he went to the mat for it.

The push and pull ended with the MPAA putting out the NC-17 rating to label adult movies that were not porn. Alas, theaters and media outlets did not fall for the ploy. For all practical purposes, filmmakers kept striving for that “R.” Things might have changed if “Henry and June” had been a hit, but that did not happen. The box office was middling, reviews mixed, and it barely got a single Oscar nomination for Phillipe Rousselot’s cinematography - it lost to Dean Semler’s work in the Best Picture winner “Dances with Wolves” (1990).

Since then, many movies have got the dreaded NC-17 rating - including Almodovar's "Bad Education" (2004) - but it has not been an issue until now. Instead of cutting their movie to please the MPAA, Sachs and distributor MUBI will release "Passages" to Art House Cinemas unrated and uncut. At heart, this is not just an economic choice but an existential one.

(The MPAA decision is)...quite dangerous, particularly in a culture which is already battling, in such extreme ways, the possibility of LGBT imaginary to exist.

In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Sachs said the MPAA decision is “quite dangerous, particularly in a culture which is already battling, in such extreme ways, the possibility of LGBT imaginary to exist.” The rating decision folds in with the conservative war against literature sympathetic to sexual diversity, evicted from school libraries and books denouncing racism and anti-semitism. The civilian contingent of people decrying sex scenes in movies will also gloat at the troubles “Passages” face.

“It’s so 1950s that this still exists,” adds Sachs. “We are talking about a board that is not visible, that does not make its rules known, that exists in silence. We are talking about a select group of people who have certain bent, which seems anti-gay, anti-progress, anti-sex - a lot of things which I am not.” He is right. If you want to know where the MPAA comes from, check out the documentary “This Film Is Not Yet Rated” (Kirby Dick, 2006).

By now, it is clear that the MPAA rating system exists to policy art, thought, and expression of ideas that might not fall in synch with the mainstream. There is even no pretense of “protecting” the children. The ratings only work when it comes to hindering filmmakers. When movies hit theaters, there is no pretense of enforcing them. No theater enforces access rules, nor do they patrol their venues in a way that would prevent a kid with an initiative to buy a ticket for “The Super Mario Brothers Movie” and sneak into “Evil Dead Rise.”

It’s about time a movie topples the MPAA’s gatekeeping power. “Passages” is well positioned to be impervious to its obstacles. When the film hits theaters on August 4, vote with your ticket-buying power. It does not have to make “Barbie” bucks, not even “Oppenheimer” money. Topping the indie charts will be more than enough.

Happy Birthday, Judy Greer!

Judy Greer is 48 years old today. She debuted in the indie horror movie “Stricken” (1997) and soon added memorable appearances to her resume in film and TV. Perhaps the one that captivated casting agents all over Hollywood and hinted at the possibilities of her talent was a small role in “Three Kings” (1999). She registers almost 160 parts and has revealed herself as a deft comedienne.

A filmography as long as hers is full of deep cuts, and we want to take the chance to point you in the direction of “Addicted to Fresno.” Jamie Babbit’s irreverent comedy is like an all-star game, with Natasha Lyonne, Aubrey Plaza, Fred Armisen, Molly Shanon, and Ron Livingstone rounding up the cast. Greer plays against type as a hot mess of a sex addict who moves in with her sister as she tries to pick up the pieces of her life. Lyonne is the straight-arrow sister. One can easily imagine them switching roles, but once you see the movie, you will be thankful they didn’t.

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Diana Rigg was born today in 1938. Early in her career, the beloved British actress became an international TV star, playing secret agent Emma Peel in the spy comedy “The Avengers” (1965-1968). On the big screen, she was the ideal Bond Girl in “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” (1969), next to George Lazenby in his sole outing as Agent 007. She spent the next decades jumping from the stage to TV studios and film sets. Perhaps her best movies were “The Hospital” (Arthur Hiller, 1972), a scalding Paddy Chayefsky satire starring George C. Scott; she was magnificent in the shlocky thriller “Theater of Blood” (Douglas Hickox,1973), and played a socialite to kill for in “Evil Under the Sun” (Guy Hamilton, 1982), a delicious adaptation of an Agatha Christie novel.

In her last years, she conquered a new generation of fans playing supreme puppet master Lady OleannaTyrell in the wildly successful HBO series “Game of Thrones.” Even if movies never matched her TV impact, she found a memorable final role in the posthumously released “Last Night in Soho” (Edgar Wright, 2021).

Dame Diana Rigg, born today and immortal. / Photo courtesy of Dreamstime.

Dame Diana Rigg, born today and immortal. / Photo courtesy of Dreamstime.

Trailers of the Day

It’s a foregone conclusion that “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer” will top the weekend box office, but somebody has to be around to pick up the scraps. There must be a sliver of the public desperately wanting to go to the movies and NOT see the two most eagerly awaited films of the year. Or perhaps they aim to catch those audience members who don’t get tickets for the prime contenders.

We salute the brave movies opening against #Barbheimer. First, “The Cobweb,” a horror movie with Lizzie Caplan

The sci-fi blaxploitation parody “They Cloned Tyrone” would be at the top of my must-watch list on any other weekend of the year. But this is not a regular weekend. Sorry, Tyrone. I’ll catch up with you sometime later.

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