The film industry launched a full-scale attack on the videocassette business early this week, with Motion Picture Association of America president Jack Valenti leading the charge and a determined Clint Eastwood riding shotgun.

The occasion was three days of preliminary hearings held by the House of Representatives' subcommittee on courts, civil liberties and the administration of justice. They convened to consider a bill that would add a levy on all blank videotapes and tape recorders, and split the proceeds among the owners of the copyrighted material those machines duplicate--i.e., motion pictures and the film studios that own their copyrights. UCLA Law School has seldom looked so show-bizzy: half a dozen limos were parked outside the hearings, along with a similar number of celebrity photographers and a few TV crews. Speaking in front of an overflow audience, Valenti was in especially flashy form as he lit into "the videocassette recorder and its Tonto, the blank tape."

To Valenti, the battle is us versus them--or, to be more precise, U.S. versus them. "American films . . . dominate the screens of the world, and that didn't just happen," said Valenti. "The American movie is the one U.S.-made product that even the Japanese, skilled beyond all comparison in their conquest of world trade, are unable to compete with, displace or clone . . . It's a piece of sardonic irony that what the Japanese are unable to duplicate, they can destroy with the VCR." Unless Congress acts to compensate copyright owners, he claims, consumers will tape films off the air, damage the television and cable markets and that could lead to less profit for American filmmakers and more for Japanese manufacturers. Eventually, he says, "We're gonna be exporting our jobs." (The next day, Charles Ferris, speaking for the Home Recording Rights Coalition, strenuously objected to this characterization: "Such companies as RCA, Pfizer and duPont are not Japanese, but international," he said.)

Valenti made the future seem dire indeed to an industry in which the average film costs $20 million, and in which only 20 percent of those make money in their original theatrical release, and only 40 percent ever break even. "This is growing exponentially," said Valenti. "Pretty soon you'll have 40 million of those bloody machines out there--and then you'll have a whole new universe."

While the subcommittee members present seemed impressed by Valenti's razzle-dazzle 45-minute speech, committee chairman Robert W. Kastenmeier (D-Wis.) posed one pertinent question to Valenti, who had studded his speech with examples of home taping drawn from his own household: "Do you consider yourself and your family infringers?" He had to ask it twice before Valenti finally answered with, "Yes, I do. I know darn well I'm infringing."