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Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Enough With The "Republican Lite"

I've avoided weighing in on the latest scrap about the Democrats and violence in Hollywood for obvious reasons – I don't like to mix this blog with business, and even when I write about movies I like to do it with an eye toward politics. But as someone who's spent much of the last decade in legal battles (all the way up to the supreme court) for making the movie ostensibly responsible for more deaths than any other in the history of film making, it seems like a glaring evasion not to do so.

There are a whole lot of reasons why the movies that get made get made – most of them having to do with profitability and hence what kinds of films movie stars want to be in (think Stanley Kowalski, not the dad in Swiss Family Robinson). They are also largely driven by what kinds of films will reap profits in overseas markets (not surprisingly, action films that don't rely on knowledge of language or cultural nuance to be appreciated). The Republican notion being advanced – namely, that family films are more profitable than “R” rated films, yet Hollywood makes more “R” rated films than family films – is just so stupid I don't even know where to begin, and you'd have to be pretty friggin' ignorant to believe it. Well, the Repugs have gotten this far counting on the absolute inability of the electorate to connect the dots in many of their tragically flawed arguments. I guess this one is no different.

The truth of the matter, as any bonehead can figure out, is that Hollywood is driven by profit, and as such it has an intrinsic conservative bias – it wants to reach the wallets of as many people as possible, and avoid controversy whenever possible. Many people don't realize that the MPAA is actually a voluntary ratings board funded and run by the studios themselves. When you make a film, you sign a contract saying that you will deliver a film with whatever rating the studio feels will be most profitable for that film. If you turn in a violent film, and the MPAA thinks the violence is too excessive for the rating you want, they won't give it to you. They won't tell you exactly what they find wrong with the film, because that would be censorship. So you have to go back to the cutting room and dick with the film until you think you've got it to where it will get the rating you are contractually obligated to deliver.

The problem with this guessing game is that what deserved and “R” rating a few years ago may not be the standards employed today – those standards are extremely fluid and they aren't written down anywhere. So you may have to go back to the MPAA numerous times until you make them happy. In this way they pretty much act as an enforcement arm of the studio's contracts. And your chances of getting something past them will be GREATLY enhanced if you are a big gun and can call up a studio head and twist their arm (although officially they are supposed to have no input). If you are some little guy who made an indie film you will not be allowed nearly as much latitude as someone with a string of box office hits.

Why do I mention all of this? Because the movie business has, to a large extent, been extremely successful in self-regulating, despite the bitching and moaning of people like me who don't like the homogenizing pull of the system. When Natural Born Killers came out, we had to go before the MPAA numerous times, and the stuff we had to pull out (that can be seen in the director's DVD cut) was mostly the stuff we filmed with real prisoners in a simulated riot scene that was eerily real. (And if you don't already know, before you go and do an IMDB search I produced that film.) It was a much better film with that footage in, as most people who have seen both films will attest, but the studio got hinky so the footage was yanked. Quite honestly, it was my sense that the film's indictment of Hollywood for turning violence into entertainment made them more nervous than anything else. But we'll chalk that one up to irony and move on.

Nonetheless, over the course of the next few years more people said they committed murder because they'd seen Natural Born Killers than any other movie in history. And it was always some deranged cracker from Alabama who'd been eating acid for a week and hadn't slept for days who decided to cut off his girlfriend's head. You didn't have to be a rocket scientist to figure out that this guy's 15 minutes would've been up pretty quickly if he hadn't decided to invoke a headline movie title ex post facto.

Yet people like John Grisham (who write extremely gratuitously violent books) decided to advance the argument that we as filmmakers should be responsible for the consequences of our film much like the makers of breast implants should be responsible for silicone leaks, and yours truly wound up in civil (never criminal) court for the next decade. We won every case. Most died on the vine early – the one that went to the supreme court (which they refused to hear) did so only because they advanced the argument that when we made it we INTENDED to incite people to go out and commit such crimes.

But now it seems to be the Democrats who are deciding to pull themselves into the middle of America by agreeing with Mr. Grisham. It sounds like a good argument for about a minute, and then you have to look at the implications. In order to believe that someone commits a violent act based on a video game or a movie you have to overlook a whole lot of social problems that probably put them into a place where committing that act seemed like a good idea – frequently untreated drug addiction, mental illness, lack of parental supervision, poverty, etc. etc. To make Hollywood the target is short sighted and misguided, but it takes legislators off the hook for all kinds of social problems that they are directly responsible for failing to address. I will be the first to indict Hollywood for making stupid, soulless movies that uplift, inspire and challenge almost no-one. But they are making movies to appeal to a population that demands soulless movies. Draw your own conclusions.

And what is the solution that is being proposed? Regulation? The imminent danger of regulating free speech is far more dire than anything Hollywood is going to put out there today, tomorrow or the next day. Just because Middle America is made uncomfortable by Will and Grace is not a reason to start screaming for censorship. And I suspect that the Democrats who are now crowing the loudest don't really want to do anything of the sort – they just want to take a card from the Republican deck of hypocrisy by yelling about “values” and then doing nothing about it.

Digby has a good column today where he talks about strength in being the party of opposition – about holding to your principles so that when the Repugs overplay their hand (and they seem to be doing so with some regularity, as Fearless Leader's approval numbers indicate) you can present people with a meaningful alternative that stands for something, rather than trying to become “Republican lite” over this and other issues. You want better movies, better television, better video games? Vote with your dollars. Stop watching crap. Stop letting your kids watch crap. Or better yet, DIY. Anyone who says there isn't good product out there is just being lazy – it may take some effort to find it, and it may not come shrink-wrapped in a language you already speak, but it's out there and it's rich and it will expand your cultural horizons and make you a wiser person for the effort.