James M. Wall is Senior Contributing Editor of The Christian Century.
This article appeared in The Christian Century August 2-9, 1995, pp. 731-732. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information for the Century can be found at www.christiancentury.org
We have allowed market forces to control television and the rest of our modem communications media — to such a degree that the lowest common denominator of interest prevails. A free society rises or falls on the exercise of a collective responsibility. When we fail to respond to the needs and vulnerabilities of our citizens, we revert to the law of the jungle, permitting only the powerful to determine how we shall live.
"Lately I haven't had time to read the papers, as I have been building a mouseproof closet against a rain of mice. But sometimes, kindling a fire with last week's Gazette, I glance through the pages and catch up a little with the times." That's how E. B. White opened a short essay in Harper's magazine in October 1938. White predicted with chilling accuracy the way the proliferation of information via television can diminish our lives rather than enrich them. "I believe television is going to be the test of the modern world, and that in this new opportunity to see beyond the range of our vision we shall discover either a new and unbearable disturbance of the general peace or a saving radiance in the sky." A speaker at a recent Nashville conference on media and the family quoted that passage of White's (discovered, I later learned, on an Internet collection of quotations) and suggested that television was rapidly becoming a disturbance.
Television was very much in its infancy when White wrote his essay. He recalled having attended "a television demonstration at which it was shown beyond reasonable doubt that a person sitting in one room could observe the nonsense taking place in another." Nevertheless, the experience was striking enough ("By paying attention I could see the whites of a pretty woman's eyes") to convince White that television was "tremendously important -- more so than the ebb and flow of armies."
We have clearly failed the test that White described. We have allowed market forces to control television and the rest of our modem communications media -- to such a degree that the lowest common denominator of interest prevails. A free society rises or falls on the exercise of a collective responsibility. When we fail to respond to the needs and vulnerabilities of our citizens, we revert to the law of the jungle, permitting only the powerful to determine how we shall live.
Anger over the absence of responsibility surfaced at the Nashville conference, but the usual media industry voices were heard as well, pushing, as is their custom, individual rights over community responsibility. After attending the conference I decided that the obsession with individual rights -- the right to make money or to write, say or do what I please -- should be exposed for what it is: a form of fundamentalism that accepts one worldview as absolute and rejects all others as encroachments on the true faith.
My insight was reinforced when I saw Kids, a movie that follows a group of young teenagers through a day and night of sex, drugs and violence. Kids is director Larry Clark's first movie, but it is not his first venture into depicting the empty hedonism of young teenagers. In 1971 he published a book of photographs of young people in his hometown of Tulsa "shooting up, having sex, messing around, playing tough guys," as one writer describes it. His film continues that theme in a style of a photographer with a convincing script. The picture is unsparing in its depiction of a group of children without any interest other than getting enough sex and drugs to keep them out of touch with reality. (One particularly despairing sequence centers on four young boys who look to be around 11, sitting together on a sofa, smoking dope.)
Telly, a central character, prides himself on his ability to seduce virgins. Two of his conquests are shown at length, complete with a piteous plea from one girl who cries, "It hurts." Jennie, one of Telly's earlier victims, discovers that she is HIV positive. She wanders about the city, looking for Telly to tell him about her condition. At one party she takes pills that leave her barely awake. Stumbling into a bedroom, she finds Telly engaged in his latest conquest. She watches for a time and then falls onto a sofa. The film ends when a friend of Telly's finds her asleep and rapes her.
This is raw stuff when it involves adults, and is ugly and horrifying when it involves children. Which brings us back to the issue of responsibility. The rating board of the Motion Picture Association of America correctly gave the picture an NC-17 rating, the designation for pictures forbidden to anyone under 17. That rating has its economic cost to the filmmakers, since most theaters and major video chains refuse to handle NC-17 films.
Kids, made as an independent production, was first shown at the Sun ance Film Festival, where it elicited some praise and some disgust. Miramax Films, a subsidiary of the Disney company, obtained distribution 'rights to Kids, fully aware that it would probably be rated NC-17 and thus be unreleasable by Miramax since Disney will not distribute an NC- 1 7 picture.
Harvey and Bob Weinstein, who run Miramax, entered Kids in the prestigious Cannes Film Festival and began an extensive campaign to convince critics that Kids is an important work of art that should be given the more profitable R rating, which allows parents to take their youngsters to the film and also opens up the video and cable television markets. (R-rated films on cable's various movie channels are easily available to children of any age who know how to program their VCRs, or whose parents don't care what they watch on cable.)
Critic Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun Times, a cohost of a popular television movie review program, emerged as a major supporter of Kids after interviewing director Larry Clark at Cannes. Before the film opened in Chicago, Ebert wrote that Kids is "a blunt warning for kids engaging in risky behavior, and a wakeup call for their parents ... Watching Kids is fascinating, yet depressing. The movie has an unstudied authenticity that convinces you it knows exactly what it's talking about."
True, it is a well-made film. But what responsibility does the community have to prevent this graphic film from being available to children? Ebert quotes Clark: "It's not for all kids under 17, but it's for some kids under 17. I want people to see the movie. I want parents to go with their kids. But the kids have to be able to get in. Because this movie shows things that are a reality in this world." To which I must respond, "Get real, Larry." A rating doesn't distinguish between "some" and "all- kids. Ebert made no effort to challenge Clark's notion that "some" kids will see his movie with their understanding parents who will then take them down the street for a milkshake and a heart-to-heart chat about AIDS.
Ebert and Clark seem to feel that Kids is a training film for kids -- that it will discourage them from misconduct. I haven't heard that argument used for movies since the early days of pornography when hard-core pictures were preceded by a warning from a man wearing a doctor's smock about the terrible things viewers were about to witness.
Miramax made a final effort to move Kids out of the NC-17 category through a screening before the appeals board (made up of industry representatives and two religious advisers). High-priced defense attorney Alan Dershowitz was brought in to argue that children would benefit from seeing Kids, but the appeals board upheld the original rating.
In defiance of the system under which Miramax had sought the R rating, the Weinstein brothers have refused to accept the NC-17 rating, and have released the film through a company they formed for the sole purpose of distributing Kids. The company is called Excalibur (to evoke King Arthur, a longtime Disney favorite?). Then, in a final bit of cynicism, ads for the film carry the line: "Warning: No one under 18 will be admitted without a parent or legal guardian." To the casual observer this may look like corporate concern for the young, especially with that ominous use of "warning," but it is in fact the same limitation (with a year's difference in age) the MPAA provides for the Restricted rating which the MPAA refused to give to Miramax.
In England the government runs the rating system, which has specific age levels as to suitability and is backed up by local police enforcement. The U.S. system of industry self-regulation is preferable to the English system, but a voluntary regulation system can survive only if its participants act in a responsible manner and abide by the rules they set for themselves.