Tuesday, May 3, 2005



Hollywood groans with pain, thanks to new DVD players with built-in editing features that can cut out scenes from a movie that might be deemed obscene and inappropriate for family viewing. Democratisation of digital technology is taking away the artistic control from movie directors and producers. Once again art and letters might become communal, as they were in the age of orality when stories evolved through communal sharing.

Consider Titanic, a great disaster epic and a most riveting love story, which seemed like a family entertainment; but many parents who took their children with them to theatres felt embarrassed to see a nude shot of Kate Winslet and a sexually explicit scene between Leonardo Dicaprio and her. Today many companies such as CleanFlick and CleanFilms sell cleaner versions of movies, without sex, violence and profanities.
As conservative Americans push family values to the forefront, they want to protect their kids from Hollywood’s toxic ideas. They argue that Hollywood, the land of Sodom and Gomorrah, has been responsible for a steep decline in moral values on which the USA was founded. The Hollywood movie rating system from general (G) to restricted (R) was developed by the Motion Picture Association of America in 1968 to regulate itself to avoid outside censorship.

But in the course of time the rating system, meant to provide viewers with informed choices, became porous, and sex, violence and foul language have been creeping into family oriented G-rated movies. It is called category creep. Besides, movie theatres don’t enforce rating restrictions since teenagers are most of the moviegoers and fill their coffers.

Since ratings have become an unreliable indicator of movie contents, conservatives now have the technology to re-edit movies on DVDs and make them suitable for children. In the pre-digital era, parents had no choice but to accept what Hollywood gave them. Empowered by digital technology, they believe that moviemakers and artistes would have to share control with the audience. The tyranny of Hollywood, its cultural hegemony, is over.

The Republican-controlled Congress recently passed the Family Movie Act, which legalises the sale of DVD players that can be programmed to edit obscenities and gory images of violence and rape, and in fact much more. Congressman Lamar Smith, a Texas Republican, who sponsored the Bill in the House, said, “It’s about families and parents and the rights of parents to raise their children the way they see fit.”
A recent documentary “Bleep! Censoring Hollywood?” explored the issue of editing the artistic work of movie producers without their permission versus parents’ right to control what their kids watch at home on DVDs. The movie industry, some say, driven by greed of global profits, has been giving a short shrift to its social and ethical responsibilities. Box office has been pushing the movie rating system down to the gutters, conservative Americans say.

Marshall Herskovitz, a well-known Hollywood film producer and director, whose credits include Troy and Traffic, wrote a piece in the Tallahassee Democrat in which he made a very valid point regarding the integrity of a work of art in a free society. “The great artistic works of our civilisation are littered with objectionable material: the nude sculpture David, the brutal murder in Crime and Punishment, the horrific blinding in King Lear, and on and on and on. And none of those great works would have been produced without their societies’ commitment to the integrity of the artist.Free of censorship. Free of editing. Free of the distortion of the original work. David was not sculpted with a loin cloth, and one can imagine Michelangelo being less than pleased at such a revision of his masterwork.”

That’s true but no one is asking Hollywood to stop making movies like Sin City, The Passion of the Christ, Saving Private Ryan, and other such movies where every fleeting emotion, passion and desire is visualised and nothing is left to viewers’ imagination.

But if a company buys a DVD of The Passion and cuts out long drawn out scenes of masochistic violence and torture, what is the harm done, especially if the sale of original DVDs is not adversely affected? The artistic integrity of the original movie remains untouched. In fact, taking out what is objectionable from a movie makes it more value-added in the economic sense since more people would be able to buy the sanitised version. Those who want to buy the uncut version could still buy it.

In the past too many works of arts were sanitised, and yet no lasting harm came to them. In 1807, Thomas Bowdler published a four-volume expurgated edition of Shakespeare’s work simply by deleting words and phrases that he thought were improper for performance in the presence of women and children; and so we had the expression “bowdlerize”, though now we call it sanitised. In a sanitised version of King Lear, Cordelia survives and marries Kent in the final Act. We go to museums to see original works of art, but a parody of Mona Lisa does not prevent us from admiring the original. Hollywood does make family-friendly versions of movies for primetime network television, movies that were originally made for the box office, but studios cry foul when some companies do it for the home market.

Movie sanitisation, apart from movie sharing over the Internet, is the greatest challenge that is shaping the future of Hollywood. When Hollywood gets into trouble, can Bollywood, the biggest moviemaker in the world, be left far behind?


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