Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

Custom Search

© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

The devil’s playground?

It is fair to ask after my last diatribe whether my argument—that the latest round of politicians’ criticism of sex and violence from Hollywood is nothing more than meaningless posturing—isn’t fatally undermined by entertainment executives’ own words before the U.S. Congress last week.

Specifically, the president of Sony (parent of Columbia Pictures) more or less apologized for test marketing Luc Besson’s sci-fi film The Fifth Element to audiences that included children as young as 9 years old. I wonder if any of the senators who self-righteously decried this as an example of morally depraved Hollywood run amok have actually seen The Fifth Element, a Bruce Willis vehicle featuring Besson’s wife Milla Jovovich that seemed like it was conceived specifically by and for nine-year-olds. Sure, there was lots of violence, but (and this is an important distinction) it was cartoon-style violence. The film had no more basis in reality than a standard Road Runner cartoon. Is test marketing a PG-13 rated film to 9-year-olds a good idea? Probably not, but it’s not quite the same as showing them an R or NC-17 rated movie.

Other movies allegedly test marketed before young audiences include Sylvester Stallone’s Judge Dredd and the teen thriller Disturbing Behavior. Also, 50 children between the ages of 9 and 11 were supposedly consulted on concepts for the sequel to I Know What You Did Last Summer. I don’t know about you, but I find that last bit of information very enlightening. At least now we definitely know where they get the ideas for teen slasher movies. I am surprised, but only because I would have guessed that they consulted 7-year-olds.

There was a time that madmen-killing-teenagers movies were meant to be scary, but these days they are mainly comedies. That doesn’t mean that they can’t be frightening or disturbing, but mainly in a let’s-get-goosebumps-around-the-campfire sort of way. This sort of childhood entertainment has a long history. Movies make the bogeyman stories more literal and realistic than ever before, but is this a bad thing? Probably not.

What about violence that isn’t comical or cartoon-like? What about violence depicted on the screen that is extremely realistic, true-to-life and brutal? Well, that’s usually called “the evening news.” But it can be disturbing to young children and maybe even some adults. But anything can be disturbing to someone, particularly a child. That is why people who know a child (e.g. the parents) should be monitoring what that child can or should handle and guide his or her entertainment activities accordingly. Government-imposed cookie cutter solutions for the whole country just aren’t going to work.

Someone who isn’t so sanguine about traditional teenage-style gross-out horror comedy is apparently vice-presidential candidate Joe Lieberman. Internet gossip columnist Matt Drudge alleged a few weeks ago that Lieberman personally intervened with Sony in an attempt to prevent the release of the movie Idle Hands (which tells the charming tale of a young man who, through a comical series of misadventures, slaughters his family and friends) in the immediate aftermath of the Columbine High School tragedy in April 1999. If this is true, then I guess Joe just didn’t trust the American public, because the movie was released anyway and, for whatever reason, no one went to see it. Well, okay, I did.

The movie and the timing of its release may have been in bad taste, but exhibiting bad taste is a long and revered tradition in the film world and, indeed, in the art world in general. As to whether the movie somehow endangered public safety and needed to be censored, definitely not. People who want to restrict the entertainment industry are operating on the same kind of flawed, fuzzy logic as people who use a tragedy like Columbine to justify new gun legislation. Restricting or outlawing handguns or other weapons may be a great idea, but using a singular event in which many existing gun (and other) laws were violated isn’t going to convince the opposition that more such laws are needed. And it’s probably not meant to. Rather, it fires up the emotionalism of those who already believe in the cause and, not incidentally, get them to send in more money. Same goes for the calls to “clean up” Hollywood.

There is much to decry about the entertainment industry, and I like to be right in the front of the queue when it comes to pointing out its numerous shortcomings. But that’s a far cry from politicians trying to use government influence to impose censorship (self-imposed or otherwise) in a free society. If we’re relying on the politicians to make us a better and more moral society, God help us all.

-S.L., 5 October 2000

If you would like to respond to this commentary or to anything else on this web site, please send a message to Messages sent to this address will be considered for publishing on the Feedback Page without attribution. (That means your name, email address or anything else that might identify you won’t be included.) Messages published will be at my discretion and subject to editing. But I promise not to leave something out just because it’s unflattering.

If you would like to send me a message but not have it considered for publishing, you can send it to

Commentaries Archive