What kind of movie gets headlines in today's media-conscious world? The answers are not reassuring.
The action drama "Money Train," starring Wesley Snipes and Woody Harrelson, moved from the entertainment section to the news and editorial pages after a New York subway-booth robbery mimicked a couple of similar incidents depicted in the film. Many commentators decried the Columbia Pictures release for inciting evil people to an evil deed. Others noted that numerous such incidents had taken place in New York long before the movie hit the screen.
"Showgirls," a sophomoric MGM melodrama about a Las Vegas dancer who gets involved with prostitution, used a transparent publicity ploy - becoming the first big-studio release to enter theaters with an NC-17 rating - to get its title and theme into news accounts as well as reviews.
"Kids," a docudrama about sex and drug abuse among a loose-knit group of teenagers, earned similar notoriety by depicting hedonistic behavior with unusual candor. Described by the trade paper Variety as "so sexually frank that some feel it is practically the film for which the adult rating was invented," the movie opened to positive reviews from many critics, expressions of outrage from concerned citizens, and little interest from ticket buyers.
"Priest," another movie from Miramax Films, shows a Roman Catholic clergyman wrestling with pastoral problems and his own homosexuality. Industry observers agreed that protests against the film considerably boosted its fame and its grosses.
"Waterworld," an intermittently violent eco-adventure entertainment, gained Page 1 coverage by virtue of its waterlogged budget, close to $200 million by most accounts - much of it lavished on scenes of mindless action and macho heroics.
Why do movies like these gain a lion's share of public attention, rather than clean family entertainments or challenging art films? One answer is that the press itself often has difficulty discussing popular culture without attention-grabbing references to the latest brouhahas, no matter how minor or ephemeral these may prove.
Yet it is undeniable that the content of many movies has become more aggressive, contentious, and troubling than ever before. While societal attitudes have also become more permissive, especially among younger people, there is still often a generational divide over what is acceptable behavior.
In a society where the rights of artists and others to speak their minds is largely protected from government interference, some people feel that filmmakers bear some reponsibility for their choices. Meanwhile, others say filmmakers need the widest possible leeway to practice their art. American society continually grapples with trying to find a balance - to lessen the influence of violence (especially on children) without resorting to censorship. This is what gives politicians, such as presidential contender Bob Dole, material for their electioneering.
Such debates have a long history. Film historian David A. Cook quotes a 1907 editorial in the Chicago Tribune that accused the "Five Cent Theater," or nickelodeon, of "ministering to the lowest passions of children" and being so "hopelessly bad" that it "cannot be defended.... Proper to suppress [it] at once."
While censorship by state and local governments took place on a de facto basis from the film industry's early days, the practice became de jure in a 1915 case involving D.W. Griffith's racist epic "The Birth of a Nation," which led the Supreme Court to rule that motion pictures are "a business pure and simple, originated and conducted for profit." Since movies are like "all other shows and spectacles," the court decided, they do not share the protected status of the press or "organs of public opinion."
Faced with the prospect of federal censorship, the industry opted for self-regulation instead. This took changing forms in years to come: the "Thirteen Points" of 1916, the "Don'ts and Be Carefuls" of 1922, the "Hays Code" implemented by a postmaster-turned-moralist in 1930, the stronger "Production Code" of 1934, and the "rating system" devised in 1968 by the Motion Picture Association of America, still in effect today.
Sex and violence were the chief targets of such codes - the Pennsylvania Board of Censors forbade "prolonged passion," for instance, defining this as one yard of film lasting 36 seconds - but other bugaboos were also proscribed.
Censorship authority Marcia Pally notes that Pennsylvania censors in 1914 listed "women drinking or smoking" among forbidden screen subjects. The later Production Code prohibited surgery, even in silhouette, and sympathetic portrayals of interracial romance.
Hailed by some as the antidote to censorship threats, industry regulations have been derided by others as self-censorship wearing a series of flimsy disguises. Film scholar Charles Lyons points out that regulators had the power to force prerelease changes in such important 1930s productions as "Madame du Barry" and "Gone With the Wind," among many others. Modern filmmakers from Oliver Stone to the late Louis Malle have likewise seen their films altered to obtain the rating deemed most profitable by studios and distributors.
Although many in today's film industry see such pressures as little better than outside censorship, attitudes toward movie content are clearly more permissive now than at any time in the past. The current situation has its roots in the 1950s, when the Supreme Court cleared Roberto Rossellini's classic "The Miracle" of a "sacrilege" charge leveled by New York censors. In this case the court reversed its 1915 decision and placed movies under First Amendment protection. Other pictures made between the middle '50s and late '60s - such as Otto Preminger's comedy "The Moon Is Blue," which sparked an uproar by including the word "virgin" in its dialogue - led to replacement of forthright censorship with the subtler inducements of the rating system.
Of all issues connected with this system, none has proved more intractable than the "adults only" rating meant to exclude youngsters from designated films. Exclusion of children was originally signaled by the X rating, intended only as a parental warning and bestowed on movies as respected as "Midnight Cowboy" and "A Clockwork Orange" in its early years. Some theater chains and newspapers started associating the X with nothing but hard-core pornography, however, and refused to deal with X-rated productions.
Hollywood's response was the NC-17 rating, designed for "serious" movies that happen to include adult material. First attached to the 1990 drama "Henry and June," about author Henry Miller and his love life, the new rating turned out to have much of the same baggage as the X with moviegoers and exhibitors. When threatened with it today, distributors often choose to release their films with no rating at all. "Showgirls" was an exception to this rule, and probably a one-shot, given its subsequent doldrums at the box office.
With censorship-type activities now operating mainly through the indirect rating system, the closest modern-day equivalents to old-fashioned bans and expurgations are outcries raised by pressure groups and politicians.
Widely publicized cases have found Asian-Americans denouncing Peter Ustinov's comedy "Charlie Chan and the Curse of the Dragon Queen"; feminists protesting Brian De Palma's thriller "Dressed To Kill"; homosexual groups decrying William Friedkin's melodrama "Cruising"; and religious groups picketing Martin Scorsese's epic "The Last Temptation of Christ" and Jean-Luc Godard's modernist fable "Hail Mary," among other examples of organized complaint.
On the political front, several current figures have made Hollywood-bashing an electioneering staple. Historically, not only individual politicians but also government agencies have been known to attack movies, as when the US Justice Department tried to make "If You Love This Planet" and two other Canadian documentaries carry a "political propaganda" warning label in the early 1980s.
Another case involved Frederick Wiseman's brilliant documentary "Titicut Follies," revealing the miserable living conditions in a Massachusetts mental hospital. The film was placed under a court order that severely restricted the conditions under which it could be shown, on grounds that it violated the privacy of patients. But others contended that the court was facilitating a coverup of the inhumane situation exposed by the movie.
Such cases serve as reminders that censorship and related practices are weapons with many uses, some of which may be as objectionable as the ills they are presumably meant to cure.
Of all issues connected with the current rating system, none has proved more intractable than the 'adults only' rating.