Sex, Violence, Confrontation and Censorship
"Off to the movie we will go, where we learn everything that we know," sing a group of kids in South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut.After paying a homeless man $10 to buy tickets for them, these same kids gain entrance to an R-rated film called Asses of Fire, starring the foul-mouthed Canadian duo Terrence and Philip. When the children start mimicking the nasty language of their screen idols, their parents go ballistic. Since this leads to a war with Canada, thousands of gruesome deaths and Satan emerging from hell, it may be somewhat of an exaggerated metaphor for creative freedom vs. moral censorship. But the events of the movie accurately mirror a summer bombarded by equal parts sex, violence and profanity that has inevitably led to outrage, confrontation and censorship.In the wake of last April's Columbine High School massacre, a group of politicians led by Kansas Republican Sen. Sam Brownback and Connecticut Democrat Sen. Joseph Lieberman, backed by former presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, comedian Steve Allen, singer Naomi Judd and retired Army generals Norman Schwarzkopf and Colin Powell, made a well-publicized plea on July 21. Gathering in Washington, DC, the nearly 60-member collective presented "An Appeal to Hollywood," which called for the entertainment industry to cut back on graphic sex, violence and language in movies, music, television and video games.The high-profile event merely added fuel to a cultural bonfire that had been raging since the beginning of the summer. Viewers have been subjected to scenes of masked orgies, pastry copulation, semen-laced beer drinking, boiled-excrement sipping and a movie star shooting Ping-Pong balls out of her vagina at troops during a U.S.O. show. Films such as Eyes Wide Shut, South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut and American Pie have incited enough obscenity and censorship debates to keep the bumper sticker industry afloat for years. But like any volatile issue that defines this country, there are many sides taken because of it and many motivations as to why.Cracking the CodeIn certain respects, what "An Appeal to Hollywood" is asking for is a return to the days of The Motion Picture Code of 1930, which was enforced by Will Hays, who was president of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America from 1922-1945. Often called the Hays Code, this nearly 4,000-word edict (authored by Catholic publisher Martin Quigley) governed what could and couldn't be shown, said or implied from 1930-1966."If motion pictures present stories that will affect lives for the better, they can become the most powerful force for the improvement of mankind," began the document. Helping to usher in the dominance of the Code was the Catholic Legion of Decency, which was established by the denomination's bishops in 1934. Along with some 10 million Catholics, the group promised to boycott movies that it deemed offensive. A trial boycott that same year convinced Hays to create the Production Code Administration, which had the authority to demand changes in studio shooting scripts and in editing.Included in the Hays Code were clear guidelines on everything from sex ("Excessive and lustful kissing, lustful embraces, suggestive postures and gestures, are not to be shown."); to religion ("No film or episode may throw ridicule on any religious faith."); to segregation ("Sex relationships between the white and black races is forbidden."); to profanity ("Pointed profanity [including] Hell, S.O.B, damn, Gawd...is forbidden."); to dancing ("Dances with movement of the breasts...violate decency and are wrong.").For three decades the Hays Code governed Tinseltown, but as the conservative '30s marched into the more liberated '60s, the charter was continually attacked for mandating antiquated ideals. Eventually it was dismantled in 1966, and the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) stepped in two years later to take its place."An Appeal to Hollywood" calls for industry executives to establish standards for sex, violence and profanity "below which producers cannot be expected to go." At the press conference to announce the proposal, Sen. Lieberman stated they were not calling for censorship, "just better citizenship." He went on to compare American pop culture to a "polluted lake," claiming, "What we're asking them to do is to clean up the lake of America's culture so we can all, with our children, go swimming.""First of all, it would be substantively different (from the Hays Code)," says film critic and radio talk show host Michael Medved, one of the signatories of the proposal. "I don't think anyone is talking about altogether banning four-letter words or disrespect for the clergy. Secondly, I don't think there would be any meaningful enforcement provision. The Hays Code had that."Also contained in "An Appeal to Hollywood" is a request for parents and concerned citizens to write or E-mail movie industry executives with their concerns. This is not dissimilar from the grassroots approach that sired the Hays Code, nor from how the Catholic Legion of Decency acted as a watchdog for what Hays and his staff were doing. While those behind the Appeal may find the concept of moral self-regulation a legitimate ambition, few in the business of moviemaking are jumping up and down at the idea."Regrettably, Hollywood will give this about as much consideration as they give a chase scene or a special effect," says Mike Collins, press secretary for the Republican National Committee (RNC). "You'll be able to measure the amount of time they give it in nanoseconds.""Politicians are for it but in the Hollywood community there are very few," says Jill Bernstein, a staff writer for Premiere. "Are there even any actors, producers and directors supporting this? There is going to be no overt political movement coming from within. There's not going to be an official stance Hollywood is going to take."When asked if Hollywood will actually consider his group's proposal, Medved says, "No," and begins to laugh. "The point of doing it is to help sensitize the public. My position is somewhat different from Sen. Lieberman. I don't really believe there is much chance of meaningful change on the part of Hollywood. I believe there is a chance for meaningful change on the part of the public."Though the MPAA has been under attack recently, one thing most everyone agrees on is that a voluntary code would be preferable to anything which would be developed or handled by the government."You can't legislate morality," says Collins, who stresses it is especially unlikely in this situation because the Democratic Party counts on Hollywood for too much money and political support. "What you can do as a society is to restore some amount of self-restraint, some amount of self-discipline, some amount of mutual respect....That can't be legislated. It has to happen voluntarily. We are in a marketplace, and the viewers, the buying public, can make those demands."The kiss of death"An Appeal to Hollywood" further put the MPAA on the defensive. Jack Valenti, president of the MPAA, wrote a response in Variety in which he called critics of his system "constant whiners" and "so-called intellectuals."(The MPAA itself is somewhat misunderstood in its actual duties. Though Valenti helped develop the letter ratings three decades ago, he does not administer them. This is done by the Classifica tion and Rating Ad mini stra tion (CARA), of which Valenti appoints the chairman. CARA is a 12-person panel of industry professionals who remain anonymous so that their decisions are unaffected by studio pressure, the press or, one assumes, bribery. The actual "members" of the MPAA are the seven major Hollywood studios who voluntarily submit their products for review.)Roger Ebert, the Chicago film critic and host of TV's At the Movies, argued against Valenti's defense of the MPAA in a guest column in Variety. He called Valenti's "illogical defense" an "embarrassment to the filmmaking community and serious lovers of film" that read "like a fatal collision between his Roget's and his Bartlett's."Ebert offered the solution of an A rating to replace the much maligned NC-17 (no one under 17 admitted). He wrote: "The NC-17, like the X before it, has been crippled with the curse of pornography. Even though hardcore pornography is not rated NC-17, everyone acts as if it is, and therefore NC-17 is shunned for its proper purpose of indicating adult films." Ebert's theory is that an A rating would signify a serious film for adults -- "kind of an advanced R, just as PG-13 is an advanced PG" -- that would be acceptable to filmgoers, advertisers and theater owners."Ebert's argument is a joke," says Medved. "The whole idea of the NC-17 rating was exactly the same as his proposal for an A rating, which was to allow people to release a serious movie with content that's not suited for kids. The only thing the NC-17 rating does is it prevents people under 17 from seeing it. Does Roger Ebert really believe that it's so important that kids under 17 see Eyes Wide Shut?"When the late Stanley Kubrick's final film Eyes Wide Shut was reluctantly heading toward being rated NC-17 because of an explicit orgy scene, Warner Bros. digitally altered the film by placing "people" in front of the naked participants' offending genitalia. This led to an uproar among film lovers (Ebert included) who felt that it was a subversion of the artistic vision of a deceased filmmaker."Kubrick signed a contract to deliver an R. How hard is that?" asks Medved. "I thought Eyes Wide Shut was a pathetic film...really one of the worst films of the year. Would it have been helped by giving us unobstructed views of copulating orgiasts? No, it would still be a pathetic film."I think it's ludicrous for people on the Roger Ebert side of things who believe that changing that 60 seconds involves some artistic atrocity," Medved adds. "But it's also ludicrous for people to assume that changing that 60 seconds takes a movie that was unacceptable and makes it acceptable."Just as NC-17 was a way to distance a "serious" film from the old X rating (which it replaced in 1991), Ebert is calling for the A to differentiate itself from the now derided NC-17."They were going to dress up the X rating in a clean, fresh trench coat and call it NC-17," Medved remembers. "Why didn't it work? The reason is because the first couple experiences they had with it, Showgirls and Henry & June, were flops....But I don't think they flopped because they were NC-17, they flopped because they were terrible movies. Now people view the NC-17 as the kiss of death."Most studios are reluctant to handle films that have an NC-17 rating because theaters shy away from carrying them. There has yet to be a film so rated that has made a substantial profit.According to Premiere's Bernstein, "It's more of an economic issue than anything else. Theaters don't want to stock NC-17 movies because they know it will mean fewer ticket sales. It's the kiss of death," she says, echoing Medved's phrase. "An A rating might be very helpful. The R rating itself has gotten so lenient and broader in terms of the violence that's allowed under it. The R rating isn't even as limiting as it used to be."Another judgment dilemma may put a roadblock in Ebert's plan that could turn his idea of an A rating into more of a "scarlet A." MPAA Vice President of Public Affairs Rich Taylor says, "We've had legal analysis of that very question that says you can open yourself up to some lawsuits and litigation if you had two separate, restricted categories, as proposed by Mr. Ebert -- an A for his 'quality' adult films, an NC-17 for others. Then instead of having an opinion of the board (CARA) as to what is the level of intensity or content of the film, you're making calls on quality. That's not something the board is going to do."Casting aside the concept of Ebert's A rating, Medved offers his own plan, which involves changing PG-13 to R-13. "I'm not saying to change the substance of the rating, just change the designation," Medved says. "PG-13 confuses people. They think it's PG, and it's really much closer to R. Secondly, I've testified before Congress on this, before the Judiciary Committee -- something that I passionately believe and I know now that Sen. Lieberman supports it -- is that we really need a universal ratings system. Most people kind of understand the MPAA ratings system, with some confusion, but they're basically familiar with it. Nobody understands the TV ratings system. Nobody understands the video game ratings system. Why is it necessary to have different designations except for industry jealousy and backbiting? Why not rate TV shows G, PG, R-13, R and NC-17?"Taylor says, "What is interesting is that there has been an outcry from people like Matt Stone of South Park or film critic Roger Ebert, but the ratings system was never designed to be pleasing to producers, writers, directors or film critics -- or children, for that matter. It's made for parents. We poll parents annually, and they say the ratings are working. They find them effective. They find them useful."We always listen," Taylor says of his organization. "But we've not heard a hue and cry from the masses that we aim to serve. I don't think any major adjustments need to be made. (CARA) consists of parents, and all they are asked to do is look at a film through the prism of a parent's eye and ask (themselves) what rating is most appropriate for it. And while some people may argue about individual decisions, they are disagreements on a subjective measurement. But there's never been any kind of suggestion that the board is corrupt or under influence by studios or others. I think the system is working."Pistol-whippedAlthough this summer has been surprisingly tame when it comes to violent films (the raunchy and profane definitely are what dominate the marketplace), cinematic brutality seems to always be the scapegoat whenever some sicko with a rifle climbs a tower -- or, specifically when two high school students gun down 13 of their classmates and teachers. When determining why "An Appeal to Hollywood" was drafted when it was, the word "Littleton" became the most conspicuous answer."When there's a tragedy or disaster like the massacre in Littleton, CO, people are looking to point fingers," Bernstein says. "I don't believe personally that there is a correlation between movie violence and teenagers' actual violence. There are a lot of other factors that are less visible with a lower profile that are smoldering."Nonetheless, Hollywood is affected by this crackdown," she says. "They've been pulling projects and releasing them later, cutting violent scenes from films already shot, changing names of movies -- the upcoming Miramax film Teaching Mrs. Tingle was originally Killing Mrs. Tingle."According to Cathy Konrad, producer of the new black comedy Teaching Mrs. Tingle, the title was always going to change, but the political climate helped expedite things. "Due to current events, people started picking on this movie unjustly without even knowing what the movie is," Konrad says. "I think that it was just a matter of timing. It was like, we knew we were going to change the title and then suddenly we realized we should really change the title before this gets out of hand because people are completely misinterpreting the movie and trying to find something to tackle and an issue that (it) had nothing to do with."All it takes is one thing to happen for everyone to start looking for the poster child for something," she says. "Everybody was citing media, they were citing this, they were citing Columbine....Everyone was looking for something to root the reasoning behind. I think the thing that everybody soon realizes is that it's just not that easy. You can't just pick a movie and say that it is the reason....It's a lot more complicated than that."Konrad is careful to draw the boundaries between Hollywood taking moral responsibility regarding an issue and being coerced into modifying an artistic viewpoint. "I have a conscience, but I don't believe that in the spirit of entertainment you can take it to the point that you're censoring yourself, because then what are we doing?" she asks. "Everything that I've made from Kids to Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead to Citizen Ruth -- everyone expected that to kind of be like, 'Oh my God, that's like the abortion hot-button issue.' But sometimes a way in which a story is told can really speak to the climate of what people are talking about....It's leaving it out there and saying that we're all debating this, we're all looking at this....If we let the climate alter our artistic desires and whims, we're in for a pretty ugly world."An Associated Press poll taken in July found that 40 percent of adults said they would be less likely to see a movie if they knew it contained violence. The results are 20 points lower than the answer to the identical question in 1989, meaning Americans don't appear to be as upset by violent flicks as they were the previous decade. According to the poll, only one-third of respondents said violence is the biggest problem with movies today -- roughly the same percentage who said tickets are too expensive. So the poll brings up the question: Does that mean more Americans are less concerned with the impact of cinematic violence or simply that more people are becoming desensitized to violence?This latter reasoning was one of the first factors to "explain" the Colorado killings. The 1995 film The Basketball Diaries was initially targeted because it had a fantasy sequence in which the lead character (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) shot up members of his high school. Though it has never been proven that teenage gunmen Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris had actually seen The Basketball Diaries, it helped thrust the blame onto the film industry more than any other entertainment outlet."When Hollywood makes a scene like that, it has a responsibility to know that there are all kinds of people who might be seeing it, of all kinds of psychiatric backgrounds," says the RNC's Collins. "Most everyone will look on it as entertainment, but there are those out there who aren't capable of processing those kinds of images. If you're Hollywood, you have to have a greater sensitivity for the power that you have and the impact what you're doing might cause. It cannot be legislated -- not in a country that cherishes the First Amendment. It has to be acted on voluntarily by the men and women who make those pictures."Anybody who thinks that those films don't have those kinds of outcomes...let me explain something to you," Collins continues. "The Cancer Society fights like the devil to get a 30-second commercial on the air because they know that a 30-second commercial affects people's behavior; it encourages them to act more responsibly; it encourages them to give up smoking; it encourages them to engage in behavior that is good for their long-term health. If we believe that a 30-second commercial can affect people's behavior, how much more then can a two-hour vivid movie experience affect our behavior? Of course there's a cause and effect. You'd have to be blind not to see it."But film critic Medved disagrees. "I am not now or have I ever been someone who was hysterically worried about violent movies," Medved says. "They're not a big deal. Movies are influential and important only to the extent that they influence TV and are advertised on TV and help determine the shape of TV in the future. That's why movies matter. The notion that someone goes into a movie and comes out changed is ludicrous. But the notion that someone spends 28 hours a week watching TV and does not come out changed is equally ludicrous."While television is federally regulated as to the levels of barbarity it can show, movies only have the MPAA standing between them and limb-hacking mayhem. And though the organization is constantly under attack for its stance on sexual content and profanity, it is violence that is apparently the most difficult to appraise."Everyone has a different opinion on how much is too much for certain categories," says the MPAA's Taylor. "One thing about language is you can count the four-letter words. One thing about sex is there are only so many ways you can couple. With violence, you start getting into one person's Three Stooges slap is violence, verses another person's Clint Eastwood's shoot-em-up. And there are a lot of areas in between."Taylor explains that the MPAA may have its say about what kind of rating a film may ultimately be stuck with, but that in no way governs or limits how much graphic violence will be churned out by Hollywood."Jack Valenti testified way back in May that he has been having dialogue and will continue to have dialogue with the arts and creative community, just asking them to curb gratuitous sex and violence," Taylor says. "But he's not going to be the one to dictate what that is. It is up to the individual director, screenwriter, actor, actress, whomever. And when something is too much, (they) should consider taking it out. That kind of self-regulation is the only thing he would ever endorse and the only thing we would ever suggest. But at the same time, that is not any admission that the woes of society should be heaped upon the entertainment industry. We think there's a lot more complex issues at work here, and we're willing to be a positive partner in a dialogue to find some solutions."Ultimately, the crackdown on violence is having an effect. "Now how long this effect will last is unknown," Bernstein says. "It may blow over and they may go back to violent content. Right now, nobody wants to look like the bad guy. No producer wants to look irresponsible or feel irresponsible if, God forbid, some teenager does something inspired by one of their movies. That's a big cross to bear."Sex, lies and videotapeThough video offerings such as The Basketball Diaries and Natural Born Killers were originally targeted as scapegoats, the first theatrical movie to really suffer in the aftermath of the Littleton, CO, massacre was this summer's American Pie. Despite containing nothing in the way of violence, the bawdy film was immediately criticized for being a story for and about high schoolers that boasted an R rating.In response to requests from President Clinton, the National Association of Theater Owners adamantly claimed they would check photo IDs before issuing tickets (which they are theoretically supposed to do anyway). Not surprisingly, when the film was released the weekend of July 9, it shot up to the number one slot at the box office -- and not because all of its viewers were over 17."No theater is going to spend a lot of money retraining teenage employees to card IDs," says Bernstein. "It's not a law, it's a restriction. It's not like you're going to have cops there checking. Kids can get around it because they've always gotten around it. Then these movies are going to come out on video where they'll get to see them. It's just futile."Sarah Thornton, a 15-year-old from Overland Park, KS, says that it was easy to get into American Pie. "Usually, we do buy the tickets, but (sometimes) our friends with older brothers or sisters buy the tickets for us and we go in. We usually don't have a problem doing that," she says. "Because, if you have the ticket already, I don't think the people at the entrance can turn you away."Although she hasn't yet seen American Pie, Libby Walker, a 16-year-old from Kansas City, MO, utilized one of the simplest methods to get into an R-rated movie. For the Keanu Reeves sci-fi flick The Matrix, she says, "I just bought a ticket to another movie and went and saw it instead."Before the rise of multiplexes (which first debuted in Kansas City as the brainchild of AMC Theater's late Stan Durwood), teens had to physically sneak in to see movies. But now when there are often dozens of theaters in one complex, the laws of economics and logistics make it nearly impossible to police all the screening rooms once a person has bought a ticket."There's nothing we can do about it (theaters checking IDs)," says Warren Zide, one of the producers of American Pie. "If people are going to enforce it, they're going to enforce it. I just have to roll with it. I think we can all agree that this probably wasn't the type of movie they (the MPAA) had intended to stop kids from going to see. There's no violence in the movie. It's actually the kind of movie that parents should take their kids to go see.""If it's geared toward a teenage audience, it's kinda ridiculous to stamp an R rating on it," high schooler Thornton says, "because kids are going to see it no matter what."Thornton feels that the material in American Pie was appropriate for her and her high school friends. "Maybe not so much for kids under 13, but any age over that," she says. "We tell jokes related to sexual issues. It's nothing we haven't been exposed to. Of course, we've never had one of our friends do anything grotesque with a pie, as far as we know."Even before its release, American Pie had trouble with the censors."There was actually nothing cut from the movie," producer Zide says. "It took us four times to get an R, and it was mostly trims from current scenes. We didn't have to lose anything. There was maybe a thrust or two out of the humping scene (where actor Jason Biggs mounts an apple pie). But there was no scene actually cut.The thrust count was literally that specific. Zide adds, "We would make little edits and they (the MPAA) would see it again and say, 'Well that seems better.' It's still the act happening. But that's the arbitrary quality of it."The language barrierWhile violence and sex have always been the meat and potatoes of the censorship diet, it is a third category that is the most often indicted: language. Brutal acts of carnage and full frontal nudity have occasionally resulted in no more than a PG-13 rating, but throw in a handful of "fucks" and the film is guaranteed an R.MPAA President Valenti recently told the press it was a "mistake" not to give South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut an NC-17 rating. And this concerns an animated film made up entirely of construction paper cutouts.According to the watchdog company Media Index, South Park injects 399 profane words and 128 lewd gestures into 80 minutes of screen time. This averages out to five four-letter words per minute. (Media Index also counted 221 examples of violence.) Although Pulp Fiction, the previous kingpin in this category, contains 411 nasty words, it is well over two hours long. Thus, Park packs more profanity per minute than any feature in motion picture history."I hate to say it, but on this one I emphatically agree with Jack Valenti," Medved says. "He's right that South Park should have been NC-17...because it wanted to be. In other words, if you don't make South Park NC-17, what basis do you make Eyes Wide Shut NC-17, except if nudity is really the 'biggest thing' to you?"While Medved agrees it's not possible to give an animated cartoon an NC-17 because of violence, he believes the social satire earned it for other reasons. "I wouldn't rate South Park NC-17 for the language, I'd rate it NC-17 because of (scenes showing) anal sex between Saddam Hussein and Satan. I don't think it makes sense to rate something NC-17 just because of language."The movie's original title was South Park: All Hell Breaks Loose, but the MPAA deemed it unacceptable because of the word "hell." The show's creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker half jokingly suggested South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut. It was a week after the title was approved that the MPAA figured out the phallic double entendre, and by that point it was too late.Though the title slipped by the censors, the film was originally slapped with the dreaded NC-17. Stone and Parker kept resubmitting offending scenes, and a particular segment involving one of the film's musical numbers (set, ironically enough, in a theater) was consistently kicked back out because it was unacceptable.According to an interview with the Internet publication Mr. Showbiz, Parker says, "Just 'cuz we were pissed, we made (the scene they hated) five times worse and 10 times longer because they'd have to watch it again. And that version came back with a note saying, "It's better, thank you!' Literally, four or five times they said, 'Change something' and we made it dirtier! This is the dirtiest version of the movie, made so by the MPAA."Roll the creditsConsidering the film industry is one of the last places one would look to find outstanding examples of morality, "An Appeal to Hollywood," though decent in its intent, will ultimately change nothing. A filmmaker might trim a line, alter a title or lower a body count, but within a few months it will blow over. That is until the next outrageous tragedy occurs that will be blamed on the moviemaking industry.As for now, the most viable monitoring option, and one that is infinitely more desirable than federal legislation, is relying on the MPAA and CARA. The system is by its very nature fallible, since there are no actual written guidelines by which ratings are determined. Thus the dozen board members are perpetually at the mercy of shifting subjectivity. This anonymity may shield them against direct influence from the corporate film industry, but it doesn 't make them impervious to religious upbringing, marital pressure, parental ideology or simply having a bad day at the office and taking it out on whatever unfortunate movie is being screened.It also doesn't prevent them from playing favorites. Stanley Kubrick may have had to do battle with the board, but that's not necessarily true of others. As in baseball when a veteran star pitcher will get the strike calls from an umpire on a borderline pitch, so too will a respected director with the MPAA. What else is there to explain how Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan, one of the most graphically violent mainstream films ever released, avoided an NC-17 rating to end up with an R? Compare this to the novice indie flick The Blair Witch Project, which had no actual violence, nudity or sexual situations (only profanity) and received the same rating.But the MPAA does represent an autonomous outfit that merely offers suggestions, not legislation or mandates, as to what films should be rated. Whether the alphabet is employed as an A or an NC-17, a PG-13 or an R-13, the ratings will always be viewed as a shifting Rorschach test of societal mores. And if the board members' goal is to censor offensive product (as critics contend), they certainly aren't doing a very good job of it. Teens are lining up in droves to see "that Mission Impossible guy" attend an explicit orgy, hear grade schoolers curse like Teamsters and watch a high schooler swap seed with an apple pie.Medved says, "Every year people will call me up and ask in interviews, 'Whoa. Has Hollywood finally gone too far?' They went too far a long time ago....In other words, could you say that the comedy is a bit more tasteless than last summer or the summer before it? Yeah, maybe. But some of that tasteless comedy is very witty and inventive."Or as big-boned cartoon kid Eric Cartman says in the South Park movie when he is confronted by a prim activist mother who feels the sex, violence and language in cinema have gotten out of control: "What's the big fuckin' deal, bitch?"