The New Yorker
By Mark Danner
November 25, 1996
A spectator of the culture wars writes: For a while there, Bob Dole had me worried. Back in those halcyon days when his campaign was young, Dole denounced the entertainment industry for promoting "casual violence and even more casual sex" and for producingwell, "nightmares of depravity." Even though he seemed to forget about the nightmares of depravity almost as soon as the words were out of his mouth, they've haunted me ever since.
Lately, though, I've begun to feel a bit better. No, not the election. It's what I call the guardians of dreams. I've taken to reading the entertainment trade papers, and it was there that I discovered them. They've been around for a while, but they seem to be growing ever more protective.
One of the guardians is Ted Turner. A while back, Mr. Turner protected us by deciding not to let one of his many entertainment companies release Anjelica Huston's directorial debut, a TV movie called "Bastard Out of Carolina," based on the novel by Dorothy Allison, because it gave him -- this is the word in Hollywood -- "incest concerns." More recently, Mr. Turner attempted to block the U.S. release of "Crash," a film by David Cronenberg, based on a J. G. Ballard novel, about the bizarre eroticism of car crashes. The film had won a jury prize at the Cannes Film Festival and been No. 1 at the box office not only in France but in Canada, where it opened last month.
Mr. Turner declared, "I personally was appalled and am appalled
by it. The people with
warped minds are going to love this movie -- I worry about the first teens that try it."
Mr. Turner didn't mention that most teens wouldn't be able to try "Crash," since the movie has been rated NC-17. Of course, the rating system was, in a sense, our original guardian, having been created largely to protect the country from the nightmares. But it hasn't quite worked out that way. I called up the depraved Mr. Cronenberg, who told me, "The assumption now seems to be that every movie made should be watchable by a kid, that is, should be rated R" -- which allows children to be admitted when accompanied by a parent or guardian. "So the pressure on anyone who wants to make a grownup movie is enormous. NC-17" -- which bars entry to children under seventeen----"has become like an X. Blockbuster Video won't even stock NC-17."
Happy about his movie's success in France, Mr. Cronenberg began doing publicity junkets to prepare for the film's scheduled October 4th release date in the United States. And then something funny happened. "I was on my way to New York," he said, "when my assistant tells me, 'You know, it's very strange, but Fine Line --the U.S. distributor -- 'is not returning my calls anymore.' Finally, I got a phone call from the marketing guy, saying they'd decided to hold, off release until next year. I said, 'You must be kidding. How will we keep the momentum? Immediately there were all these rumors. Then someone said, 'You know, I bet it's Ted. This had never occurred to me. Finally, someone admitted it was 'a Turner problem' -- that essentially he had made it clear that he would be very displeased to see the film released. And, as an executive Put it to me, 'if you are approached on this level, it is a real-world problem, and you can't go running to the contracts to save you."' (Fine Line insists that postponement was strictly a marketing decision.)
A guardian had struck, and Mr. Cronenberg found himself with few options.
"At first, we said, Well, let's just take it away from Fine Line
and give it to someplace else.' In the old days, the obvious place would
have been Miramax, but now they're owned by Disney and so they have Disney's
'No NC-17' problem. There's October Films and a couple of other places,
but they're much, much smaller. There was no place else to go."
A good deal of the guardians' power, as Mr. Cronenberg discovered, derives from the increasing concentration of the entertainment business. For instance, Blockbuster -- which is part of the Viacom entertainment empirerents twenty-five per cent of all videos in this country, and Wal-Mart sells about eight per cent of all compact disks. Because Wal-Mart refuses to sell any disks with "warning labels," bands are now omitting certain songs from their albums. bleeping out or changing words that might be objectionable, and even airbrushing details off album covers. . I can't help wondering where all this diligence is carrying us. Can you truly have a "marketplace of ideas" when the number of
shops seems to be steadily shrinking and the remaining merchants are growing ever more powerful?
The more powerfuiI the guardians are, the more fickle they can be. Turner recently announced that "Crash" would open after all, in March, insisting, according to the L.A. Times, that "the decision was made above me" (without specifying who he meant by that).
I'm also worried about whats rumored to be happening with the new movie version of Nabokovs "Lolita." The film has a big director, Adrian Lyne ("Fatal Attraction"), pretty big stars (Jeremy Irons, Melanie Griffith), a famous story, a fortymillion-dollar budget -- and so far has no American distributor. I called the press agent, who denied that there was a problem. But I wasn't convinced, so I called an old friend in Hollywood -- a wily producer. I was advised to calm down. "Yes," she said, the climate is different -- you could certainly argue that today's audience is more bluestocking, very sensitive to the exploitation of minors. But, frankly, perverts have never been a huge factor in opening a movie.
She went on to speculate that the real reason "Lolita" hasn't yet found an American distributor is that "dirty movies don't work -- they don't 'open.' l mean, look at the record: 'Showgirls' tanked, 'Striptease' tanked -- and that had Demi Moore. And whats Adrian got? An unknown fifteen-year-old girl. Believe me, if some distributor was convinced 'Lolita' would open, they'd be all over it."
The problem is an unknown fifteenyear-old girl? I couldn't help but wonder what Nabokov would say to that. After all, he saw himself in the tradition of Dante and Poe, taking on a perennial subject of art-obsessive love. I think he would have just shaken his head and smiled.