Beauty and the Censors

BEN WATTENBERG

March 18, 1992|By BEN WATTENBERG

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- Have they no shame? It's Academy Award time. And those licentious folks in Hollywood may choose as Best Picture a movie that features violence and sexuality, including potential carnality between a lovely young lady in bondage and a vicious animal!

Yes, the favorite is ''Beauty and The Beast.''

I have been sensitized, having just moderated a conference on ''The New Global Popular Culture,'' sponsored by the American Enterprise Institute (my home base). Some learned scholars, conservatives and liberals, denounced the ugly state of American pop culture. Some pined for the days when the movie industry was rigidly self-censored. Luckily, others disagreed.

The anti-case is that movies are worse than ever, reveling in obscenity, nudity and brutality, often with an anti-American, anti-establishment, anti-religious subtext. Television, they say, is just as bad. Popular music may be worse because it can also be racist, misogynist, satanic and druggy. All this, it is said, is more pervasive than ever. From VCR to MTV to boom box, our children are being corrupted.

It is a serious issue. Our cultural situation, broadly seen, may indeed be at the root of our problems, including economic ones. Just consider the costs of crime, drugs and out-of-wedlock birth.

Are we corrupting our youth? It is useful to try to measure first. Let's look at the movies.

A.D. Murphy, box office analyst for Variety, confirms the pervasiveness. He says ''More Americans watch more movies, more often, in more ways, than ever.'' When television arrived, movie admissions fell from $4 billion (1946) to about a $1 billion (1961), where it has remained. But at-home markets boosted total viewership sky-high.

If movies are more pervasive than ever, so what? Are they bad stuff?

The dozen biggest hits released in the 1980s were ''E.T.,'' ''The Return of the Jedi,'' ''Batman,'' ''The Empire Strikes Back,'' ''Ghostbusters,'' three ''Indiana Jones'' movies, ''Beverly Hills Cop,'' ''Back to the Future,'' ''Tootsie'' and ''Rain Man.'' This is not exactly your run-of-the-mill, dirty dozen of pornographic violence.

So too in 1991. Mr. Murphy says half of all admissions go to the top 30 films. Looking at the top 30 gives a flavor of what people are seeing.

''Home Alone'' was in first place. ''Terminator II'' was second. I loved its campy, stylized violence; it could have starred Donald Duck rather than Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Of the remaining top 30 movies, I saw ''Dances With Wolves'' ''City Slickers,'' ''Doc Hollywood,'' ''Awakenings,'' ''Thelma and Louise,'' ''Hook'' and ''Beauty and the Beast.'' My 7-year-old daughter saw ''Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.''

I still hope to see these, probably on cassette: ''The Silence of the Lambs,'' ''Robin Hood,'' ''Sleeping With The Enemy,'' ''Addams Family'' and ''Boyz N the Hood.''

And so on. Yes, there is some violence and some sex there; yes, there is some political subtext, rarely conservative. But mostly these are enjoyable, well-made stories, just like in the good old days.

Moderate problems deserve moderate remedies. Before letting war break out between First Amendment purists and Prohibitionists, some distinctions ought to be made. There is a difference between public and private entertainment and between censorship and sensitivity.

Movies are seen in private theaters. Their previews are rated; raunchy ones are not seen when family movies are showing. Age limits are imposed. So hands off the movies, although it would be nice to see more traditional themes. Recorded music is privately purchased in private stores. Hands off, although record companies ought to voluntarily put rating labels on their grossest material, some of which is disgusting. (Remember: Boycotting and picketing are also constitutional.)

Television is different; it comes into your home over publicly franchised air waves. Television programmers should keep blatantly sexual promos for later, adult shows off the air during kiddie-time programming. The National Endowment for the Arts is also public: Cut the blasphemy, or lose the NEA.

Public pressure and moderate reform can yield a little more beauty and a little less beast.

Ben Wattenberg is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

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