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Scapegoat: Hollywood

Scapegoat: Hollywood

Articles - Cover Story

In early December, President Clinton appealed to Hollywood’s
elite to curb movie violence and "reshape America’s cultural
values." The President, calling himself a moviegoer "almost
to the point of compulsion," said that moviemakers have more
influence over people’s habits than he does, and that the entertainment
industry can change people’s attitudes towards violence as surely
as they have towards smoking, the environment, and AIDS.

In her bad cop role, Attorney General Janet Reno recently
addressed Congress and was much more direct. She said that if the
entertainment industry doesn’t clean up its act, government will.

Earlier this year Jack Valenti, president of the Motion
Picture Association of America, testified before the Senate hearings
on movie and TV violence. Afterwards he said he felt like the man
who thought he was sober but, after being told how drunk he was,
decided he better lay down for a spell just to be on the safe side.
Prudent though he is, Valenti’s critics want him to do more than
sleep it off they believe a 12-step program with closely monitored
follow-ups is more in order. An angry, fearful public needs scapegoats
for troubling violent crime statistics and movies, by their prominence
and ubiquity, are an easy target.

It isn’t the first time the industry has faced the specter
of censorship. Twenty-five years ago, Americans were sickened by
political assassinations, urban rioting, and a general rise in violent
crime (not to mention the war in Southeast Asia.) At the same time,
the Supreme

Court was allowing states to determine what constituted
pornography and filmmakers were straining to break away from the
Production Code’s constraints on sexuality and violence. The potential
backlash prompted newly appointed M.P.A.A. head Jack Valenti to
keep the censors at bay by devising a movie rating system that placated
all but the most rabid moralizers.

Once again Valenti and the entertainment industry are
scrambling to keep the censors from the cutting room door. This
time, however, an ascendant middle class conservatism, in league
with radical feminists and the religious right (the strangest of
political bedfellows), could usher in government censorship of the
movies to rival the notorious Production or "Hays" Code
of an earlier era. Don’t think it can’t happen here. Government
censorship of movies is commonplace in every other liberal democracy
on the planet. In Britain, for instance, Stanley Kubrick’s A
Clockwork Orange
cannot legally be shown anywhere. Indeed, Great
Britain seems on the verge of mass hysteria over the issue of juvenile
violence. The recent case of two ten-year-old boys who abducted
and killed a two-year-old in Liverpool prompted a nation-wide call
for censorship of home videos, (The BBC, government owned, has always
been subject to censorship) even though there was no evidence that
the crime was somehow an imitation of what they had seen in the
media.

"I didn’t intend
to have the audience react with the feeling ‘Yes, do it!’
Let’s go out and kill. The idea was to create a violent catharsis,
so that they’d find themselves saying, ‘Yes, kill," and
then afterwards realize, ‘My God, no’like
some strange California therapy session."

– Martin Scorsese

America seems primed for just such a conflagration of
mass hysteria. And the Clinton Administration, along with the religious
right and the new enemies of free speech-radical feminists- are
providing the kindling. Attorney General Reno, whom some say lost
any moral credibility on the subject when she authorized the Waco
slaughter, told Larry King recently that violence on TV and in the
movies is a "contributing factor to violence in society,"
as if it were an immutable fact. Adding to the farce is the spectacle
of a Congress which took six years to pass the tamest of gun-control
measures (The Brady Bill, by which 22 states weren’t even affected),
making rumblings now of censoring violence in the entertainment
industry. Guns don’t kill people, it would seem, movies with guns
in them do. And there’s more. Andrea Dworkin and other radical feminists
are calling for government censorship of violence in movies because
they believe much of it is directed against women, and thus promotes
abuse of women in general. So much for the First Amendment under
the protection of which pioneering feminists won their epochal battles.
Free speech for me, but not for thee.

For his part, to again keep would-be government censors
placated, Valenti says that he intends to initiate meetings between
moviemakers and studios to better "sensitize" everyone
on the issue and to persuade them to eschew violence if it is not
integral to the storyline. Sounds sensible enough on paper, but
how would it work it practice? Of course you could eliminate a few
dozen kills in a Schwarzenegger movie and not change the storyline
one little girly muscle, but what about the movies of, say, Brian
DePalma and Martin Scorsese? Their films do not titillate with violence
so much as they are cinematic meditations on violence itself. (Which
is not to say that their movies are amoral.   All
of DePalma’s movies, for instance, as Pauline Kael has pointed out,
have a little lifelesson to teach.) "In my films," DePalma
once said, "I think I try for a stylized expressionism that
imparts a sort of grotesque beauty.

That stylized "grotesque beauty" is especially
evident in DePalma’s signature scenes, those scenes that leave you
gasping for breath, enthralled and repelled at the same time. In Carrie it was the prom scene; in Dressed to Kill, the straight
razor glinting in the elevator scene; in Scarface it was-oh,
god, remember?-the chainsaw scene; in Casualties Of War it
was well, the whole damn terrifying movie; in Blow Out it
was the fireworks scene (the most macabre, heart-breaking ending
to a movie since Deborah Kerr fell back, frame left, in Jack Clayton’s The Innocents); in The Untouchables it was De Niro’s
Hillerich & Bradsby demonstration of the Baltimore Chop; and
most recently in Carlito’s Way, it’s the straight razor in
the pool room from hell scene. In most other directors’ hands these
scenes would often be unconscionable exercises in sadism and gratuitous
violence. But with DePalma it’s never as simple as that   Take
away the violence and you take away his art.

Yet despite the fact that DePalma is without doubt a
serious artist, a certain disquiet remains. Referring to Eisenstein’s
theory of montage, DePalma once said, "film ‘is’ violence."
Without knowing the full context, isn’t there a whiff of social
irresponsibility in such a statement? When artists aestheticize
violence to the point that DePalma and Scorsese do, shouldn’t they
be aware of possible social ramifications? More to the point, because
their medium is a form of mass entertainment, shouldn’t they take
into account what influence their movies are having on impressionable
16year-olds in darkened theaters? DePalma has been quoted as saying
that he doesn’t go to "scary" movies at all, and certainly
not to his own movies. What is he afaid of?

Maybe DePalma had heard his buddy Scorsese (to whom
DePalma introduced both Paul Schrader and Robert De Niro) talk about
his experience once when he happened to catch a showing of Taxi
Driver
at a midtown New York City theater: "When I made
it the ending where De Niro (as Travis Bickel) goes on a killing
spree, I didn’t intend to have the audience react with the feeling
‘Yes, do id’ Let’s go out and kill. The idea was to create a violent
catharsis, so that they’d find themselves saying, ‘Yes, kill,’ and
then afterwards realize, ‘My God, no’-like some strange California
therapy session. That was the instinct I went with, but it’s scary
to hear what happens with the audience." Yet shaken as he may
have been, Scorsese nevertheless went on to make Goodfellas-perhaps
the most harrowingly violent movie of them all.

For decades, Frederic Werthan’s books on the subject
of violence in art-Show Of Violence, Dark Legend, Sign of Cain, etc-have made a strong case that artists like
Scorsese and DePalma have a moral duty to censor themselves. A cultured,
erudite man, as well as an experienced clinician in human pathology,
Werthan insists that artists’ claim that their work is just a mirror
of society and not the shaper of it is pure nonsense. We know, he
says, that children certainly imitate what they see, and so do immature
adults. Commenting on violence in art historically, Werthan says
that the violence in Greek plays was never on stage; and that, although
Shakespeare presented 52 deaths on stage and 64 of they were subordinate
to the plots. Even where violence is copious, for example in The
Iliad
, Werthan claims that it is always in service to the plot.
In good literature, Werthan says, "violence is an aberration."

Although Werthan makes a persuasive case for discounting
the therapeutic value of violence in art (for example, that it releases
a would-be criminal’s violent impulses, and therefore prevents crime)
and other what he believes are liberal mare’s-nests, he is not persuasive
when he suggests that artists in the past focused less on violence
in their art than the modems do, nor that it is unnecessary or incidental
to art.

In The Iliad, for instance, the first and many
still believe the greatest work of Western literature, there are
innumerable passages of quite detailed graphic violence. From crushed
skulls to spears through the eyes, the prevalence of blood and mutilation
in The Iliad makes DePalma and Scorsese movies look tame. It is
true that Homer conveys the utter waste and tragedy of the Achean
and Trojan deaths; nevertheless, the violent passages are as explicit
as they are deeply fascinating and even beautiful. In no way can
one say that the violence in The Iliad is somehow an "aberration."
Was the graphic depiction necessary? Maybe, maybe not, but because
no one succeeded in censoring Homer we are able to debate the point
today.

Similarly, there’s little doubt that if he had had cinematic
techniques available to him, Shakespeare would have made full use
of them in depicting the violence in his plays. (He says as much
in the opening lines of Henry V.) And it seems more than
plausible that a 17th century London audience who routinely witnessed
the execution and mutilation of criminals in public squares would
not have objected.

Clearly, violence has always been integral to the meaning
of certain artistic expression. It resides not at the periphery,
but at the center of what that art is about. Violence has always
been present in film, from The Great Train Robbery to Carlito’s
Way
. Should moviemakers temper their portrayals in an effort
to reshape our culture? Perhaps- as long as the individual artist
is free to make that assessment. Perhaps that is not the moviemaker’s
task at all. The fact remains that violent impulses will always
lie latent in every human heart, and denying that denies art itself.
Because real art speaks the truth, and sometimes it has to draw
blood to do it. MM

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