‘Movie Magic’

As happens so often when reading Jane Hamsher's Firedoglake site we come away with stimulating information and many thought provoking ideas. Copied in it's entirety below is the article Republican Lite which touches on the subjects of the rating game and censorship in the fim industry. Hamsher is a distinguished film producer and industry insider. Seldom do we get a candid view of the politicization of the big business of artistry. Rather than fill up Firedoglake's comments section we respond here because it provides more room to explore at greater length provocative areas of thought brought up in the article. But first read the article:


"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. posted by Jane Hamsher"

Hamsher has been given the dubious distinction of having produced one of the most, if not the most, violent film of recent times, Natural Born Killers. To create an outstanding piece of work and have it savaged for all the wrong reasons is daunting not to mention the horror of becoming the bull's-eye for censorious, righteous, moral thugs who bequeath years of expensive legal battles while the work in question silently becomes a noir classic.

The MPAA, Motion Picture Association of America, and its veiled machinations on rating films is second only to that which governs the selection of Popes in the Vatican. Both organizations exude an absolutist, secretive and highly charged political atmosphere. It must take incredible strength for writers, artists and producers juggling multi million dollar projects to produce significant work and then submit the finely crafted result to a murkey entity behind a veiled curtain pulling levers and sending out smoke screens depending on which way the wind blows. It's a wonder anything of quality escapes the formitable obstacles to secure an enduring place in film history, much less an icon of an American society's essential collective thought.

Hamsher points out the blatant and vaulted hypocrisy of writers like violence meister, John Grisham, who advance the argument that film makers should be responsible for the consequences of their films. Perhaps he assumes that since so few Americans can or do read these days that his genre is immune. This politically charged idee fixe is very popular with millions of moral values voters, who buy into the concept that the only movies to be seen are 'family' films. Therefore, films should be uniformly white bread to fit the lowest level of popular consumption.

Its a tragically flawed argument for apparent reasons and recalls the greatest test of the concept around the brilliant cinematography of Leni Riefenstahl, she of Nazi glory fame. To her dying days Riefenstahl defended her work as art to a skeptical world. As much as we loath Nazi propaganda and political evil raised to the level of art, the fact remains that Riefenstahl's work is exceptional art. We bring up this example because it shows how extremely volatile is the subject of censorship in film media.

Everytime a Columbine massacre occurs the catalyst of origin is traced to violent video games or films. As Hamsher writes, "And it was 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 girlfriends head." Aside from being very funny, the observation is tragically true. It is also true that legals, politicals, and legislators would rather slay the messenger than attend the cause. And, as a result we are in danger of going the way of nations who advance their corruption and decay while destroying their muse. There was once a school of art historical thought that believed objects could be valued along simplistic lines of classical order separate from cultural context. Current thought more correctly argues that a culture's products, particularly its fine arts, are a direct representation of that culture's values.Marxist critique is the exception and a good one. But, having said that it must be reasoned that an art product is not necessarily evil if the society that produced it is evil. Instruments of torture at Abu Graib are the exception. The dilemma reminds us of the old argument of a tree falling in the forest. If no one sees it and it passes away, did it ever happen. Yes, it did, except in certain Zen circles.

That Democrats join forces with Republican's on the issue of censorship and finger pointing simply demonstrates the enfeeblement and desiccation of the once Party of the People. Wishing to hold on to their tiny remaining piece of turf the Democrats are swimming in the same sewer as the moral values extremists and see nothing but shit–no wonder.

The other observation that struck us in reading Republican Lite was the mention of Kowalsky–Stanley of Streetcar Named Desire. In the film made from Tennesse Williams' play comes a specter of violence that speaks to the still overwhelming social complexities that plague American society. With art as a messenger it is far easier for legislators to blame the messenger than do their jobs in a transparent and effective manner. That goes for political machinations via MPAA, which assumes authority for the rest of us–which is unwarranted and fraught with political propaganda aims. One last thought on violence–In Williams' film translation of Suddenly Last Summer comes one of the most stunningly graphic scenes of violence in film history and it was off camera. The scene held a monologue with Catherine Hepburn recalling an incident with her film son, the murdered Sebastian, as they viewed from a yacht off an island in the Galapagos, the hatching of sea turtles and their frantic dash to the sea as swirling gulls dived and rendered them. Sebastian said something to the effect that there "was the true face of God".Sometimes what is both real and true at the same time makes for beautiful art.

Although we can well understand why Hamsher would prefer to keep work separate from her site, Firedoglake, we certainly do appreciate the insiders view of an industry that has become an intimate part of our lives.


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