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Filmmakers need free rein to explore sensitive and provocative subjects without censorship

VIOLENCE is nasty, antisocial, and destructive. We don't put up with it in real life. So why should we tolerate it in the movies?

That seems straightforward. But start to think about it, and complications arise.

Relatively speaking, one of the most "nonviolent" media spectacles I've witnessed in recent years was television coverage of the Gulf war.

Smart bombs exploded faraway targets that looked more like video-game blips than real, populated places. Neither the carefully selected images nor the carefully scripted commentaries gave more than vague acknowledgment to the scorchingly violent realities of the situation - the mangled bodies, shattered lives, and tortured hopes suffered by human beings in the tens of thousands.

This may seem unconnected with Hollywood's make-believe, but I think there's an important link.

How much of the American attitude toward warfare has been shaped by John Wayne-style heroics on the movie screen - most of which, until censorship broke down in the 1960s, were filmed with a "taste" and "restraint" that minimized violence and made battlefields more picturesque than horrific?

How much have attitudes toward high-tech warfare been shaped by the "Star Wars" movies and their progeny, whose idea of clean entertainment requires simplistic ethics and bloodless battles?

To put the matter another way: In some areas of experience, the demands of decency may not call for sanitizing and pacifying our depictions of reality, but for just the opposite.

Common sense suggests that brutal films may have a brutalizing effect on audiences, reducing sensitivity and bolstering aggression. Of course! Yet movies that lean too far the other way also raise questions by implying that the problems of human violence are not legitimate subjects for frank cinematic discussion - or that they aren't important enough to offset considerations of gentility and decorum.

Here's an example. The excesses of Martin Scorsese's recent "Cape Fear" are certainly unjustified, being motivated by little more than a desire to put audiences on a wild roller-coaster ride. Yet the excesses of "Taxi Driver," a similar movie by the same filmmaker, serve to make disturbingly insightful points about social dysfunction, the evils of self-righteousness, and the misguided American thirst for media heroes.

To sanitize a "Taxi Driver" would be to sacrifice uncomfortable truths for the sake of "good taste" at its most superficial. It is just as counterproductive to sanitize images of horror in the real world, as with the Gulf coverage.

If the visual media give unrealistic treatment to war, crime, drugs, and other ills, they skew the ability of citizens to make informed judgments about events affecting their society.

By making these points, I'm not whitewashing Hollywood's gratuitous gross-outs. It is true that most movie-screen killings are prompted by the wish for box-office killings. Why have critics so often praised violence-prone filmmakers?

The answer stems largely from past errors in the opposite direction, when unsettling themes and images met with indiscriminate censorship. Many reviewers saw excessive films as needed acts of rebellion against narrow-minded guardians of the public welfare - guardians eager to eradicate not only explicit sex and violence, but also such "immoralities" as interracial romance and candid discussion of issues like abortion and drugs.

On the theory that a vote for permissiveness was a vote against blue noses and blue pencils, critics of the '60s and '70s established a pattern of lauding technical expertise in ultra-violent films while giving less attention to moral questions.

Today, when such conservatives as Sen. Jesse Helms (R) of North Carolina and the Rev. Donald Wildmon have again set their sights on entertainment and the arts, many reviewers remain hesitant to raise morality as an issue - fearing that their words might serve as ammunition for censorious forces more dangerous than the excesses of any individual movie.

Of late, however, a growing number of critics and filmmakers have shown an increasing awareness of the real problems connected with on-screen violence.

The influential New York Times, for instance, has tackled the issue - although by focusing on African-American films like "Juice" and "Boyz N the Hood," the newspaper has shown a questionable tendency to deplore violence primarily in movies aimed at minority groups, as if these audiences were "immature" in ways that white audiences are not.

What's ultimately needed is not a return to censorship and repression, but an awakened sense of responsibility that will find filmmakers turning to violence only when thoughtful exploration - not mindless exploitation - is their aim.

In this way films may help society locate constructive solutions to problems of real-world violence, and a cinema of hope and love may start to flourish on a solid foundation.

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