Essay: I know which films you won't be seeing this summer ...
... Because Hollywood has now decided that it's had enough of screen violence.
Sunday 13 June 1999
For the first time since the McCarthyite anti-Communist witch-hunt of half a century ago, there is a very real prospect of government investigators ordering the seizure of confidential studio documents and congressional committees grilling senior executives about their strategies and motives. As momentum builds, the industry is rushing to stave off government action by preemptively striking at itself. Release schedules are being frantically shuffled and titles reworked, re-edited, retitled, or dropped altogether.
Miramax is busy toning down the latest instalment in the Scream series ahead of an autumn release, and has altered the title of the forthcoming Killing Mrs Tingle, directed by Scream's Kevin Williamson, to the more innocuous Teaching Mrs Tingle. A whole slew of teenage horror films is said to have been cancelled by 20th Century-Fox, which is worrying about the timing of this summer's The Fight Club, the new film by David Fincher, who directed the macabre thriller Seven. Disney, meanwhile, has banished guns from all its film trailers. On television, Warner Brothers yanked the season finale of the teenage cult series Buffy the Vampire Slayer because it featured an attack on a high school. CBS pulled a new mafia serial off its autumn schedule. And even Jerry Springer has been told that the flying fists, profanities and ripped clothing responsible for his sky-high ratings will have to stop.
Such are the opening gambits in a cultural war that is likely to be protracted and messy. And it is a war that does not just pit Hollywood against the establishment in Washington. In many ways, the real war is between American society and its own teenagers - a war that is going on in the entertainment industry just as much as anywhere else.
If the Columbine High School shootings brought home the unnerving power of the mass media, it was in part because the events themselves were so graphically and so immediately brought home to American households and offices on real-time network television. But they also spooked the country for what they suggested about the American Dream. Here were two suburban middle-class white kids with no material worries and everything in the world to hope for, who nevertheless turned to savage, utterly unforeseen acts of violence. What could have motivated them? Who fuelled their imaginations with such dark, destructive thoughts?
The pat answer - that it's all the fault of music, movies and video games - does not differ significantly in its cultural prejudices from the view in the 1950s that leather jackets and long hair were signs of moral delinquency or, a decade later, that rock'n'roll was the music of the devil. The real fear, both then and now, is of teenagers themselves - their secret thoughts, their secret worlds and, above all, their struggle to establish their independence. This generational tension has been at the core of American youth culture for decades, and the subject of countless novels, movies and pop songs. On the one hand, teenagers and young adults are the motors of change and innovation in this most mobile and progressive of societies. On the other, they threaten to subvert the established order with their uncouth manners, their wilful refusal to toe the line and their occasional, terrifying flashes of irrational behaviour.
For much of its existence, and certainly since the Second World War, America has been chronically uncertain whether to embrace youth culture or to try frantically to control it. The scowling, existentially wracked face of James Dean in East of Eden and Rebel Without a Cause, a face at once unsettling and immeasurably attractive, was the perfect embodiment of that ambivalence back in the repressive 1950s. The Vietnam War and the hippie era unleashed a new surge of youthful energy in the 1960s and 1970s, an energy that the older generation may not have understood but could not help being impressed by.
Hollywood enjoyed a new Golden Age thanks to the frenetic, often subversive talents of Coppola, Altman, Scorsese and the rest who thrived almost in spite of the studio system. Peter Fonda once described how the executives at Columbia, realising that Easy Rider was turning into a hit, "stopped shaking their heads in incomprehension and began nodding their heads in incomprehension".
But the 1980s and 1990s have seen an unmistakable swing back to the controlling impulse. The industry itself has become more controlling, with big corporate conglomerates buying out the old family-run studios, piling pressure on writers and directors to come up with smash-hit blockbusters that blow audiences away on their first weekend.
The corporate free-market ethic has created a world in which demographics, not aesthetics, reign supreme. Teenagers and twentysomethings are the main market for film and television and, increasingly, the age group drawn upon to write, direct and star in small-screen serials and big- screen "niche" films - horror, buddy flicks, macho action or capers set in high school or college.
Violence inevitably looms large. It may not be remotely meaningful or well-considered, but market economics dictate that - depending on the genre - big explosions, grisly murders and furious duels reliably rack up the dollars at the box office. Hence, outside the elite purview of a few annual prestige projects, the overwhelming profusion of violent trash.
There are some delicious ironies and blatant contradictions to appreciate here. The same politicians who most ardently preach the virtues of the free market are the very same ones who are now railing against its trashy consequences for the entertainment industry. The "youth culture" being fostered on film and on television is largely a corporate construct springing from a deeply conformist agenda, with nothing to offer young people at all except perhaps a thrillingly excessive dose of sex, weaponry, sadism and death.
The violence is not in itself the issue. It is a lack of imaginative diversity. Everything about the Columbine shootings suggests that the school suffered from a stifling sense of conformity, one that had no room for rebels or freaks and pushed them to extreme despair. In response to the shootings, the entertainment industry is making the same mistake, seeking to eradicate its freakiest elements in an attempt to become even more homogeneous and mainstream.
Without diversity, either in life or the movies, what chance is there of nurturing the teenage imagination? Violence on the screen may not be nearly as big a threat as its root cause - irredeemable crassness, dictated by amoral corporate values. And that's something we all need to watch out for.
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