Candidates stay silent as latest film nasty tops US box office

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The Independent US

In his speech accepting the Democratic vice-presidential nomination last week, Joseph Lieberman made one of his customary swipes at the gratuitous sex and violence coming out of Hollywood. "In many Americans," he told delegates to the party convention in Los Angeles, "there is a swelling sense that our standards of decency and civility have eroded."

In his speech accepting the Democratic vice-presidential nomination last week, Joseph Lieberman made one of his customary swipes at the gratuitous sex and violence coming out of Hollywood. "In many Americans," he told delegates to the party convention in Los Angeles, "there is a swelling sense that our standards of decency and civility have eroded."

Well, Senator Lieberman's worst nightmare has just come to life. In one of those coincidences that are simply too good to have been manufactured, the film topping the US box office is a veritable orgy of grotesque imagery, stomach-churning violence, scenes of torture for torture's sake, rape, child abuse and serial murder.

Called The Cell, it purports to be a phantasmagorical exploration of the mind of a vicious killer, a bit like The Silence of the Lambs. Instead of the suave, urbane, psychologically terrifying Hannibal Lecter, however, we have Carl Stargher, played by Vincent D'Onofrio, who appears to have no redeeming social skills at all.

His favourite pastime is to kidnap women and imprison them in a plexiglass cell in the Mojave desert, where their slow death by drowning is captured on videotape. Stargher then plays back the video and masturbates while suspending himself from the ceiling with chains attached to 14 steel rings embedded in his back.

And that's just the start of it. Most of the film actually takes place inside Stargher's head, where FBI agents played by Vince Vaughn and Jennifer Lopez are transported by the wonders of modern technology - I kid you not - only to watch a horse being sliced and diced into Damien Hirst-like transverse sections. In one particularly unpleasant sequence, they have their own guts ripped out with a pair of scissors and twisted on a barbecue spit.

The Cell is the debut feature of a former commercials director, Tarsem Singh, who is previously best known for making the video for the REM song "Losing My Religion". Incredibly, Singh doesn't think that there is anything particularly violent about his movie. "It's graphic," the director said last week, "but not violent."

To anyone unimpressed by claims of "arty" production design or modish preoccupation with the bleakness of the human spirit, this film looks like the best argument for censorship the anti-Hollywood faction in Washington DC ever had. Not only is it nasty, it is shamelessly directed at teenagers.

Rated R rather than NC17 (which means children can, to all intents and purposes, get in with little trouble), it made most of last weekend's $17.2m (£11.8m) take from adolescent boys in search of the latest celluloid thrill - exactly the market, and the material, that got Hollywood into such trouble after the Columbine High School shootings last year.

Indeed, if this were the only film Mr Lieberman or his Republican counterpart in the morality crusades, Bill Bennett, got to see this decade, there's a fair bet the film industry would go the way of the big tobacco firms and be hit with billion-dollar lawsuits for threatening the health and sanity of the nation's children. But the cultural warriors have been remarkably silent about The Cell. Film critics have certainly vented their disgust: the Los Angeles Times called it "nauseating", the sort of film you are sorry you ever saw. But from the politicians, nothing.

Two words explain their reticence: presidential election. The Republicans have never gained any mileage from Hollywood-bashing on the campaign trail, and know better now than to shoot their mouths off and risk losing votes. As for the Democrats, both Mr Lieberman and Al Gore may have expressed concern in the past about sex, violence and profanity in the entertainment industry, but they have their own constituencies to think about.

Mr Gore raised a record-breaking $5m in direct campaign contributions from Hollywood last week, and can hardly afford now to bite the hand that fed him. As for Mr Lieberman, he agreed as part of the price of admission to the presidential ticket to drop his more confrontational rhetoric. For example, the Silver Sewer awards, which he and Mr Bennett doled out each year to products just like The Cell, have been put on hold on the grounds that they are not "vice-presidential".

And so Hollywood is home free, and looking remarkably cocky given that a special Federal Trade Commission report on the marketing of violence to children is about to be released to Congress. The self-flagellating promises the industry made to police its own exploitative excesses in the wake of Columbine now appear to be forgotten. Instead, gore is in vogue once again - and not the Gore the Democrats might have hoped for.

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