Jack Valenti's Ass

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This catastrophe was confirmedby last week's letter from a majority of the New York Film Critics Circleto Warner Bros. about the Motion Picture Association of America (the organizationthat administers movie ratings) requiring that Stanley Kubrick's EyesWide Shut be altered to qualify for an R rating. The letter charged theratings board had "become a punitive and restrictive force, effectivelytrampling the freedom of American filmmakers...creat[ing] its own zone of kneejerkPuritanism." Jack Valenti, MPAA chairman,answered a similar, previous letter from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association(signed by only half its membership). He described a "small band of constantwhiners" who "talk to each other, write for each other, opine witheach other and view with lacerating contempt the rubes who live Out There, westof Manhattan and east of the San Andreas Fault." Valenti adroitly targetedthe elite insularity besetting mainstream criticism; it has, indeed, alienatedmost of the fourth estate from hard thought and independent motivation. Boththe L.A. and New York letters were ill-advised and petulant; they ignore theeconomic imperatives that have made a muddle of movie culture, dissolving sensibledistinctions between teenage and adult films. Critics coast to coast now agree:nothing should stand in the way of any movie being a blockbuster. One New York Circle memberprivately admitted the protest was "like pissing in the wind." Butworse than that, this EWS "controversy" (i.e., a mess createdby the media elite but not actually felt by anyone in the civilian world) isanother example of the industry-think that's already obsessing critics.(And that's easier to deal with than esthetic issues and the politics withinesthetics.) Although it's encouragingto see critics acting according to their consciences (rather than accordingto "am-I-hip?" trepidation), they pick strange, arbitrary occasionsto talk back to the industry. No critics group came to Charles Burnett'said when his The Glass Shield was being recut and rescored by Miramax.(In fact, there are many instances when studios mandate cuts and revisions;EWS is simply one of the few times critics are aware of such interference.)Taking up this issue is outside the purview of criticism?especially whenthose critics who praised EWS did so shallowly, in cliche terms thatshowed no penetration or appreciation of Kubrick's art effort. This protestcrosses the line from one kind of uselessness to another, familiar kind?fromcriticism to pseudo proactive punditry. Kneejerking "Puritanism"?anincessant liberal bugaboo?contradicts the letter's supposed practicality.(Interestingly, it conflates corporate reflexes with puritanism.) Critics haveforgotten EWS is a product that Kubrick contractually diplomatically?agreedto supply Time Warner. As owners, Time Warner has every right to shape its productas they please (plus, we all know the full version will eventually be releasedon videotape, a less restricted format). Critics actually have nogrounds to argue artistic freedom?especially given their severe selectivity.Complaining that "The process by which this bowdlerized edition of Kubrick'sfinal film came into being has been shrouded in vagueness and misinformation"once more obviates the critical task of interpretation. It seeks the insidergossip that has, too frequently, become confused with artistic discussion andexegesis. The letter grumbles that "a serious movie about human sexuality,made by one of the world's master filmmakers, cannot be seen by Americanadults in its intended form." Yet critics rarely discuss movies in adultterms. EWS reviews that carp about plausibility haven't a clue aboutartistic intention, except the bowdlerized notion of art reviewers learn fromHollywood. (They want plausibility, not poetry.) For sheer missing of thepoint, this critical uproar was exemplary. "I didn't agreewith it, but I signed on anyway," a colleague said. "But if you didn'tagree, you shouldn't have signed on," I countered. These would-be defendersof Kubrick are not defenders of the faith. Those who hail American Pieone week aren't credible in their speculative defense of EWS. Criticswho praise Blair Witch Project for what's "not seen" should,to be consistent, applaud Warner Bros.' digital censoring for making theorgies in EWS "not seen." (The most ludicrous critical statementso far this year was The New Yorker snubbing EWS, then quicklycalling BWP "a rough masterpiece.") Now the "obscenity"question has exposed the liberal pieties driving the two critics groups as theyargue for a licentious marketplace. Yes, the same critics who praised Seven,Silence of the Lambs, Terminator 2, Pulp Fiction and TheFugitive now grouse about "the apparent double standard the MPAA continuesto maintain when it comes to sexual and violent movie content" (from theL.A. letter). Lacking any standard for what constitutes adult content, theyessentially see sex and violence as equivalent dangerous stimuli?suitablefor any audience with disposable cash. (Perhaps that's why the Times'lead critic went on the record to say that EWS, after digital editing,"remains the same"?to ensure its box-office chances.) Disregarding artistic standardsfor commercial ones, critics have pitted themselves against the MPAA. But they'rewrong. The problem isn't the ratings board, it's Warner's peculiarinsistence on a soft?dare I say, American? Box-office-friendly??versionof the movie. The way the MPAA board and the studios?the MPAA's funders?coexist,there is still the prerogative for any studio to go ahead and release an NC-17movie. As Valenti has suggested in the past, NC-17 is a good, workable rating.Valenti can count its 1990 implementation a tactical triumph. Critics shoulddefend NC-17, welcoming any distinction between serious films from kid stuff.And studios with big ad budgets have the clout to force the few repressive newspapersand media outlets that refuse ads for NC-17 fare to change their policies. Likewisethose theater chains that refuse to exhibit an NC-17, giving it the stigma ofpornography. Yet critics, ever-protective of box-office potential, ignore thiscapitalist safety net. They're as misinformed as Terry Semel, cochairmanof Warner Bros., who said "We're not in the NC-17 business...NC-17is a whole industry. It includes triple-X-rated porno films. So to us that'sjust not a business that we're in. Never have been." The New York Timesturned Semel's incongruous quote against him, using his defensiveness tohelp make the critics' point. It was a spurious tactic. Biased journalism.But Valenti understands the facts of business, art and ethics in ways liberaljournalists don't. Studios never guarantee artistic content and only rarelydo they care about it. Masking EWS was less detrimental than Kubrick'sconceptual errors (Tom Cruise!). The masking was a nonartistic decision. Itwas not insensitive but plainly commercial?an ambition critics usuallypraise. Fact is, Mr. Semel, 28 yearsago Warner Bros. released Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange with an Xrating?it was a hit, as was the X-rated Midnight Cowboy in 1969and the X-rated Last Tango in Paris in 1973. Since then, only the forthrightnessof studio heads and journalists has foundered. Controversy should not be aboutratings, but about studio greed and our contemporary cultural hypocrisy. (Distributionpatterns in the 1990s insist that every movie open wide?to teens as wellas adults. That's why the studios no longer nurture prestige adult films;everything is marketed as mass entertainment.) If NC-17 has been neuteredit's not the MPAA's fault, but that of a combination of studio avarice,the National Association of Theater Owners' apathy (they stall on a pro-NC-17policy) and misguided critics. A proper letter would have chided Warner Bros.for not supporting the MPAA and Kubrick. Individually, some criticsmight be thoughtful, intelligent. As a group, the sheep mentality takes over(some warped, early-movie sense of populism). The disinclination to think clearlyand the tendency to bow to political and cultural hegemony have done much toencourage conformity and dumbness in audiences and filmmakers. They also destroythe provocative potential of film criticism. There are industry/critics issuethat critics groups should act upon in order to improve conditions forwatching and evaluating films. But instead, week by week, screening by screening,the group acquiesces to studio manipulation and abuse. They could create a unitedfront to keep the studios from treating critics as just an adjunct of their publicity departments?renouncing the embargo placed on prerelease reviewsfor everyone but high-readership newsweeklies; refusing to be herded into nighttimescreenings with coercive, unprofessional audiences ("sweeteners" asmarket researchers call them). This is what keeps the treadmill revolving insanely. A Circle member confessed,"if it is indeed true (as I think it is) that we critics now focus fartoo exclusively on big-budget-movie issues, it may be less out of laziness thanthe fact that, in the media-industrial complex, that's just about the onlypractical way of being heard. (What a sad situation, but that's anotherstory.)"
Actually,it's the same story. For critics, "being heard" means jumpingon the Kubrick bandwagon (to appear topical). Big-budget films don't needany more critical support; it's the small ones that do. (Amy Taubin atleast showed genuine indie spirit when using the EWS issue to publicizea small filmmaker's travails.) What would the inept Blair Witch Projectbe without media complicity? Journalists stuck in the system (the "media-industrialcomplex") feel there's nothing to be done about it. But I'm waryof critics waking up only for big-budget issues. Our best effort is to makethe system bend to aid singular artists and unique films, not to act continuallyas if only big-budget movies matter. Critics have lost "power" bygiving in to the treadmill, regularly behaving as satisfied components in a"media-industrial complex." These Eyes Wide Shut letters givemore hype to another already overhyped super-production. Yet even an aggregateof film critics is impotent. Just ask Patch Adams.
Clipped ThoseWho Love Me Can Take the Train byPatrice Chereau is probably the film of the year. One amazing scene after another;fascinating characters dealing with love and death; plus a convulsive, wingedview of life. Don't miss it?or my defense of it next week.

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