Candidate for czar

Russell Baker

October 28, 1993|By Russell Baker

JANET Reno was vague in her congressional testimony last week about how the government might go about censoring violence in movies and television. I think they will need a czar.

Writing law to cover every conceivable form of violence to be banned is obviously impossible. Screenwriters' imaginations will always be 10 miles ahead of the plodding congressman.

Until young men began copying a nutty movie stunt by lying down in traffic to prove their manhood, who would have thought to fatten a kinder-gentler-entertainment law by forbidding movies to show scenes of people supine on the highway?

Having missed the movie containing this scene, I had not realized that this was yet another way to exult in my masculinity until I read it in the paper.

The newspaper was weak on details about how to do it, but the TC TV news ran a little of the movie scene that evening, probably so others who had missed the movie could see how to do it in case they wanted to try.

Watching 18-wheelers thunder overhead did not appeal to me, even though it was obviously a much faster way to show manhood than my present technique, which requires wasting six hours every Sunday glued to televised football.

After deciding to stick with the football, I realized that any sane censorship of violence would have had to crack down on the TV news show that ran the nasty highway scene.

Clamping down on the crowd in La-La Land may be good sport, at least for lawmakers who don't get their fair share of campaign money from Hollywood, but cracking down on TV news is dynamite.

The news industry is as tetchy about the First Amendment as the gun lobby is about the Second. Both resist the mildest appeal for moderated zeal on ground that the slightest concession will open the door to barbarians eager to deprive the honest huntsman of his rifle and the upright citizen of information published without fear or favor.

As you can tell, I have been thinking deeply about all this. Why? First, because I believe the only way to deal with violence in entertainment is to pass a law creating an all-powerful czar to do the censoring. Second, because I would like to be that czar.

At one time the czar was a sort of ex officio American institution. When confronted by a terrible mess or a terrible problem that was too much for standard institutions to handle, the country called in a czar.

In World War II we had czars in charge of getting war production geared up. Long before, organized baseball made Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis the czar of baseball to save it from odium after gamblers fixed the 1919 World Series. Czars have long been out of style, and look at the mess the country is in.

A czar could help the entertainment world shake its violence addiction by showing this market-driven industry that there are other ways to rake in the billions. I refer specifically to sex, which, except in disreputable pornographic films, has never been represented as graphically, intimately and clinically as violence on either the movie or TV screen.

It is a mystery why an industry willing to devote its skills to revolting depictions of the human body being destroyed by explosives, automobiles, bayonets, car crushers, salami slicers, carnivorous fish, grotesque beasts, tank treads, axes, impaling spikes, vats of boiling acids -- well, the mystery is why so much ingenuity should be lavished on the human body being made to feel wretched, and so little on the human body being made to feel good.

Surely young people who make up so much of the audience for violence would turn out for sex, too, if it were presented with the same loving detail now given to violence.

All we ever see of sex at present is an embarrassed-little-boy banality involving a brief instant of female frontal nudity and the usual boring glimpse of bare male buttocks.

With films producing material that celebrates life rather than death, a violence czar would not have to risk outraging the press by forbidding TV news people to replay scenes of movie violence. There wouldn't be any.

Bluenoses and prigs, I suppose, would soon start complaining that sex in movies and television TV sex was rotting the country's moral fabric. That's not the violence czar's problem, is it? If Congress really believes it, let it create a sex czar.

Russell Baker is a columnist for the New York Times.

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