Tuesday, May 15, 2001

Why Senator Joseph Lieberman's MPAA crusade is counter-productive.

They say that no good deed goes unpunished. Well, according to certain members of Congress, the people who contribute the most should be punished, while the people who do nothing should not. Apparently, we can add to the list those who willingly and voluntarily give information regarding the content of their products to parents who are trying to find appropriate entertainment for their children. Introduced about one month ago, a new bill by Joseph Lieberman would financially penalize movie studios that allegedly market material deemed recommended for adults to kids. At a cost of $11,000 per day to the studios, the new bill is the latest attempt by Mr. Lieberman to prove that he really does know what is best for all of us. Specifically, it targets the MPAA ratings system (as well as the voluntary ratings system of the music industry and the video-game industry), which he claims often markets films rated “R” to an audience under the age of seventeen. In the general sense, he is correct in this finding, but he is missing the point.

The MPAA ratings system, implemented in 1968, is and always has been voluntary. It is not law, nor is it enforced on a greater level than a theater-by-theater basis. It is not a law and thus should not be held up as one, with the same penalties that come with violating laws. The system is primarily a tool for parents to decide what movies should or should not be viewed by their children. Under that banner, it is a most effective system. Sure, it has its problems (big studios get lighter treatment than the independents, sex is considered far worse than violence, etc), but as an informational system, it accomplishes its mission: to let a parent know more or less what to expect from a movie.

According to Lieberman, to market a product rated “R” to a teenager a false and deceptive business practice. The problem is, an “R” rated film, under the system, is not considered inappropriate for children. The wording specifically states: “No one under seventeen permitted without a parent or guardian.” Never has anyone in the business implied that all R-rated films are inappropriate for children. And considering that the bill sets no definitive standards for what “marketing to the young” would imply, the legislation would operate under a purely subjective banner of what is or is not an appropriate marketing strategy for a film with adult subject manner (“Better not make that explosion in the trailer too exciting! Better not use that music from that popular mainstream artist! Better not advertise during a time when kids MIGHT be watching!”). Aside from the subjective nature of the bill, this would-be law actually punishes the people who willingly provide ratings and information and holds them to a higher standard than companies that do not.

“By essentially punishing those who adopt voluntary guidelines,” Cary Sherman, general counsel of the Recording Industry Association of America, stated, “the legislation would have the unintentional result of discouraging participation in the successful parental advisory program.” Furthermore, if movie companies are prevented from freely advertising R-rated films and thus lose money as a result (which has already started to happen), they will simply find ways to allow more and more “objectionable” material into PG-13 rated films to attempt to by-pass the law. If Lieberman really wishes to prevent the flow of violence and sex into our children’s heads, he should get behind a new rating, an “A”, that would be given to purely adult films (but not pornography). And, to avoid the NC-17 debacle (which was supposed to be for true adult films but soon became as stigmatized as the X it replaced), Lieberman should encourage studios to release films, major theaters to carry films, and major media outlets to accept advertising for films under this new rating. If filmmakers are not afraid to make truly adult films, then studios will not force them to pigeon-hole adult content in greater quantities into their mainstream product in order to scrape by with that precious R or PG-13.

Preventing a company from advertising their art prevents that company from making such art, which constitutes de-facto government censorship. Shooting the messengers never solved anything. If the mighty Lieberman really wants to clean up Hollywood, he should encourage Hollywood to make films that are for adults, by adults, rather than forcing the studios to force-feed adult content into general entertainments.

Scott Mendelson

Thursday, May 3, 2001

Less than Meets the Eye: more thoughts on Memento.

In regards to the backwards structure of this film, I will be referring to the order of the events as they occur in the film, rather than how they occur chronologically. Thus, the “beginning” is what happens when the film starts and the “climax” is what occurs around the 107-minute mark. And, if it needs to be stated, SPOILER WARNING from here on out.

Whenever someone asks a question relating to the meaning or point of life itself, the number 42 can be uttered in response as a cheap joke. If someone nearby laughs, then they obviously have read at least one part of the late Douglas Adams’ classic six-part Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy trilogy (no, that’s not a typo). * Set immediately after the Earth was blown up to clear space for intergalactic construction, the epic satirical saga dealt with the ultimate question and the ultimate answer. The big joke, of course, was that the answer to life, 42, was revealed about halfway through the first book. For the next four novels (and one short story), our intrepid explorers charted about the galaxy hunting down the question of life.

Friday, February 9, 2001

Review: Hannibal (2001)

127 min.
R (for occasional graphic violence, brief nudity, profanity)

by Scott Mendelson

Well, it’s official: Peter Jackson’s Dead Alive has completely desensitized me to any amount of gore any R-rated American horror flick can offer. Imported from New Zealand in 1993, Jackson’s zombie-filled horror-comedy classic contains perhaps more gore, blood, and guts than any movie ever made. When you’ve see a movie that climaxes with at least 40 minutes of zombies being graphically and creatively beheaded, getting their rib cages ripped out, being skinned, disemboweled, dismembered, and all other matters of jolly good fun, a throat slitting, a disembowelment, and a couple shots of man-eating boars eating men (among other bits) just doesn’t do it for ya.

This lack of grimy going-ons wouldn’t be a problem if Hannibal did not put so much stock in attempting to shock and repulse the audience with flashy gore. Alas, where Manhunter and The Silence of the Lambs (which isn’t nearly as violent or gory as you might remember it being) were character-driven suspense pieces where the violence was grimly realistic and the shocks came from what you did not see, Hannibal is basically a gross-out pic that aims merely to gross you out with over-the-top gore set-pieces. While Thomas Harris, author of the novels from which these films are based, used this operatic pop-comedy tone and over-the-top plotting to ridicule audiences who genuinely admired the murderous Hannibal Lecter, the filmmakers apply the same story yet still try to maintain that this is a serious work of art. Obviously, director Ridley Scott and co. didn’t get the joke.

The Silence of the Lambs, released almost ten years ago to the day, holds a place as one of my favorite movies of all time. It grossed $131 million, became only the third film in history to win the top-five Oscars (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Screenplay), helped jump-start the genre of adult horror films, which had been in flux since Halloween positioned the horror film as a teen-based genre back in 1978. Alas, where Silence of the Lambs left its mark due to its myth-like quality (it’s often been called a great modern fairy tale), Hannibal tries for the same renascence but is constantly pulled back by the pulpy satirical qualities of the original novel. The filmmakers either should have been faithful to the tone of the book, or less faithful to the plot.

The plot is generally a three-pronged story that occasionally overlaps. The first thirty minutes sets up our heroine, Clarice Starling (played by Julianne Moore this time, but given little to do but sit in her basement office), as the fall-person for an FBI drug raid gone wrong (this is sloppy writing as there are several witnesses who can attest that other parties are completely at fault). To keep her under wraps while the media fries her, she is assigned to look into a new lead on Dr. Hannibal Lecter (again played by Anthony Hopkins, but unfortunately stripped of all malevolent cunning that made him so creepy, now becoming simply another intelligent movie predator), who has been hiding in Venice, Italy as an art scholar. Meanwhile, Lecter’s only surviving victim, Mason Verger: a wealthy, wheelchair-bound, facially disfigured (VERY disfigured) pedophile has offered a $3 million reward for his live capture so that Lecter can be slowly fed to several genetically mutated hogs. The unbilled and unrecognizable Gary Oldman, who plays Verger, has a ball chewing up the scenery oozing sleaze and bitterness, and the film makes an error in making him less of a major character than in the book, leaving the film without a major villain.

After a local Florence detective (played by Giancarlo Giannini in the film’s best performance) recognizes Lecter, he decides to make a play for Verger’s bounty. This pursuit through the streets of Venice takes up the entire second act and is the best portion of the film. This hour long passage nearly redeems what comes before and almost makes up for what follows. Dear Clarice spends the entire first two acts in her basement office listening to recordings of her past conversations with Lecter. A big tactical error is made is having Moore re-dub her own voice over Jodie Foster’s for these recordings, as it instantly reminds us that Moore is simply a replacement Clarice, and a much less compelling one. One can certainly understand why Foster passed on this one. It wasn’t the book’s ghoulish violence, or the wicked, “extended middle-finger” of an ending (which is slightly changed for the movie). The problem is that Hannibal’s Clarice is basically a one-dimensional agitated victim of a patriarchal government system. While Foster’s Clarice suffered (in a much subtler, effective manner) from the same system, Starling’s obvious intelligence, sharp instincts, and strong empathy is all but absent from Moore’s interpretation. If one had not seen The Silence of the Lambs, one would not have a clue as to why Lecter finds her so fascinating.

So, in the end, you have a gore-fest without the requisite gore, a thriller with few thrills (although a brief chase between a pickpocket and Lecter is genuinely gripping), and a character study with two-dimensional characters (save for Giancarlo Giannini’s Inspector Pazzi, as a man who’s fate occurs not out of greed, but out of duty and personal responsibility). Despite a terrific second act, winning performances by Giannini and Oldman, and a surprisingly subtle piano score by Hans Zimmer, Hannibal is just a big-budget slasher flick, without the required high body count and gory goodness. A slasher flick with big stars, an $80 million budget, beautiful scenery, and various references to the European arts is still a slasher film. Thomas Harris’ novel was a sick gag, a practical joke to all those who made Hannibal Lecter a heroic icon in the early 1990s. Unfortunately, Ridley Scott tries to trick us into thinking we are seeing something that is important, a deep, philosophical mediation on the nature of evil. Maybe Scott should have read the cliff notes too.

Grade: C


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