By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 26, 2005
"Bleep! Censoring Hollywood" deserves not two thumbs up but two fingers in the eyes. (Get the Three Stooges in here!) If this namby-pamby documentary were 10 times as good as it is, it still wouldn't achieve mediocrity. But the galling irony of the thing is that a documentary questioning the wisdom of movie censorship is showing on a channel that censors its movies routinely, all the time, yet claims it's devoted to people who love film.
That channel, AMC, was American Movie Classics when it started, and cable systems that signed up for it were promised it would be commercial-free and would not show films made more recently than, say, 10 or 20 years ago. But within the past few years AMC has flooded its schedule not only with much more recent films, many of them the farthest thing from classics, but also with commercials -- and during films, not just between them, contrary to an AMC promise.
Its censorship standards are about the same as a local station in the Bible Belt; "National Lampoon's Animal House," which depends for much of its hilarity on the misbehavior of gross-out college goofs, was put through first a meat grinder and then a paper shredder before its AMC showing.
So it goes night after night, with the occasional interruption such as this tepid documentary, produced for AMC by ABC News.
According to the report, tonight at 10, small independent companies are making handsome profits for themselves by laundering DVD versions of Hollywood movies so that parents will feel confident about showing the films to their children. This doesn't seem like the worst idea ever -- certainly not as bad as the regional video distributor who, in the early days of the home video biz, managed to sell commercial time in the brief blank "leader" tape preceding the movie.
A friend of mine was watching "Mrs. Doubtfire" on his local Fox station one night and laughing frequently. I asked whether the movie would be suitable for my young godchildren, and he said there was nothing at all offensive. I bought them the film on DVD and was very embarrassed by some of the language and action. It turns out my friend had been watching a "Doubtfire" edited for broadcast by Fox.
The MPAA has been no help with its PG-13 rating, because kids think that a PG-13 is virtually the same as a PG and that therefore they should be able to watch it. But PG-13s can contain large amounts of sexual humor and even occasional spoken obscenities. And censoring them for kids hardly seems an outrage; these are blatant and sometimes pandering commercial movies, not works of art. Taking out the dirty stuff -- as long as it's not the government that does the taking out -- seems harmless.
But Hollywood is in a fury fighting the entrepreneurs -- outfits with names like CleanFlicks and Family Flix -- on the grounds that they are tampering with artistic endeavors and intellectual property of professional filmmakers and so on, yada yada yada and bleep bleep bleep. In fact the moralistic editors seem less interested in bleeping words than in excising images of brutal violence and of sexy sex, though one censor puts a shot of Tina Fey wearing a bra (from the credits for "Mean Girls") in the latter category.
If their standards are going to be that absurd, they'll have to go back to the '30s and make sure that Jean Harlow's nipples can't be seen through her silk gown in "Dinner at Eight."
Among those representing Hollywood are directors Steven Soderbergh, Taylor Hackford, Marshall Herskovitz, Michael Apted and Irwin Winkler. They have their points to make, but one is tempted to respond with a dismissive "Indignation duly noted," à la Robert Duvall in "Network." Once edited for content, the films are clearly labeled as altered versions, and the original versions without cuts are still available in stores.
The directors say the censors, in their excessive zeal, are cutting films that were never intended for children's eyes in the first place. There they have a point. Clearly, when you start taking the violence out of "Saving Private Ryan," you are not only tampering with a central and artfully made point of the film, but you risk reducing the movie's running time to 10 minutes.
One always hates to side with censors, because censorship is almost always evil. The "V-chip" is an idea made wretched and untenable largely by the fact that the federal government mandated it. For some odd reason, the program doesn't get into the V-chip and the mentality behind it, even though this is sometimes the same mentality behind the movie remodeling.
They would be less anxiety-inducing if these folks were just in it for the money. But Sandy Teraci, an executive with Family Flix -- identified as the most fanatical of the censors -- sounds as if she loves her work a little too much. "We are on a mission, most definitely," she says from under a fluffy cloud of blond hair. "The moral fabric of our society -- you can see it. It's going downhill!"
Actually, the way AMC has betrayed and double-crossed its viewers seems a better example of that than does an innocuous shot of Tina Fey in her bra, but one doubts Ms. Teraci would see it that way. God save us from people who say they are "on a mission."
Bleep! Censoring Hollywood (one hour) premieres tonight at 10 on AMC and will be repeated at 1:30 a.m. and Sunday at 11:30 a.m.