MotherJones JA93: Passing the buck in Tinseltown

For seven years, Michael Krasny hosted a successful West Coast radio talk show widely recognized for discussing serious issues and showing respect for callers. Krasny left his commercial program to move to public radio in February 1993. Many saw Krasny's departure from commercial radio as symbolic of the industry trend toward sensationalism and controversy--and away from public trust and responsibility.

Mother Jones commissioned Krasny to explore the trend toward excess, particularly excess violence, in the entertainment industry. Film and TV producers, directors, and writers claim that they want to create works of artistic and social value, yet too often what we--and our children--see is only blood and gore. How can we reconcile the First Amendment with the cost to society of viewing such violence? And to what extent are these individuals responsible for the repercussions of their violent movies and television shows? Krasny asked a few players for their thoughts:

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BRIAN GRAZER, Ron Howard's partner, has produced more than twenty movies. "Most of my films have been sweet-spirited: Parenthood. Splash. My Girl. I'm proud of them. Others I'm not so proud of. I learned a big lesson with Kindergarten Cop. No one objected to the violent confrontation scene, and there was no problem with it in our focus groups. Then I showed it to my five-year-old, and all of a sudden, reflexively, I put my hand over his eyes. I knew at that point that we'd made a mistake. It was too late to cut the scene, but I would cut it now.

"Usually bad movies aren't hits. I don't see Freddy Krueger [Nightmare on Elm Street] movies, and I wouldn't want my kids to see them. I don't know why people make such movies. They're sick."

BOB SHAYE, chief executive officer of New Line Cinema, is responsible for the Nightmare on Elm Street horror films. "There's an almost sardonic or dour humor to Freddy Krueger [the Elm Street killer], especially to fantasy horror buffs. The tales are useful and cautionary. They suggest that evil and harm are everywhere and that we need to be prepared. They're not intended for kids.

"We create a product. People buy it or they don't. It pains my aesthetic judgment, but I often feel a good movie is one that makes money. My interest is in entertaining people. The Killers and Batman? Too much for kids. I can draw my lines. Not everyone can."

SAM HAMM shares screenwriting credit for Batman and Batman Returns. "It was probably a bad idea to excite small children to see Batman Returns. The tie-in to McDonald's was the idea of marketing people.

"But I'm ambivalent about all of this. I can remember being scared as a kid at horror films and developing a craving for that sort of thing, but that's what may form imagination in a strong way and that's what creates narrative and inner life. It teaches you to look for stuff that's not safe in the art you enjoy later on.

"I'm not arguing to expose kids to Friday the 13th movies or porno, but I feel there's too much caution about what kids see. Gravitating toward the forbidden is a natural part of growing up.

"I'm dubious of stimulation and effect, wary of speaking of anyone's experience but my own. I knew as a kid very clearly the distinction between real violence and cartoon or film violence. I'm waiting for the legions of those affected by what they see to give testimony."

VIVIENNE VERDON-ROE directed the documentary film Women For America, For The World. "I can't go to most popular movies without checking them out with friends first, because I can't physically sit through [violent ones]. My body will not allow it. People really ought to think about the effects. They may not faint like I do, but they're getting desensitized to violence, and it contributes to the social violence of gangs and the like.

"It's incredibly difficult when there are so few alternatives. Teens go to movies because there's often nothing else for them to do, and if they are gruesome or bad movies, no one in society seems to be saying so.

"I'm not an insider. I'm not living down there. But I know enough. It's all money. Everything's money. It's horrible."

RICHARD DONNER directed the Lethal Weapon movies, Superman, The Omen, and The Goonies, among others. "If people see gratuitous violence in any of the Lethal Weapon movies, I wonder if they've seen the same movie. It's entertainment. That's my obligation. I brought social issues into the Lethal Weapon movies, like when Danny Glover's family comes down on him for eating tuna, or the 'Stamp out the NRA' sign up in the LA police station. In the last one the daughter wears a pro- choice T-shirt.

"You've got to prove [a connection between film violence and real violence] to me. Movies do provoke. I won't do gratuitous or animal violence. We went a little too far in the first Lethal Weapon, but I wanted to move more after that toward a less real and more comic-book effect, despite the great reaction we had.

"Public trust comes into filmmaking. The filmmaker is ultimately accountable. I can defend my own work only on personal grounds. If I'm a provocateur of anything, I hope it's good emotion and humor. Censorship is in the ratings system. It works."

CALLIE KHOURI won an Academy Award for her screenplay of Thelma and Louise. "I have a hard time with violence just to entertain, but I believe it can be very effective in getting a point across. I resorted to it in my film, but there was a conscience to it. Thelma and Louise felt they had done something wrong, and there were big consequences-- including psychic consequences.

"Outlaw movies have always been a catharsis for men, but denied to women. I was extremely frustrated with the literal interpretation of Thelma and Louise. Doesn't anyone read anymore or understand metaphor? The film was supposed to be complex, without easy answers, and with flawed characters. I thought when Louise shot that guy that there'd be dead silence in the theater. That scene was written carefully: it was an attempted rape, and I wanted to make what she did wrong. And yet people cheered. I was stunned."

LESLIE MOONVES is head of Lorimar Studios, often called the fifth network, which produced the TV movies "Jack the Ripper" and "Deliberate Strangers" (about serial killer Ted Bundy), as well as shows that Moonves has considerably more pride in, such as "I'll Fly Away" and "Home Front." "I'd love to do another 'I'll Fly Away,' but the corporate bosses won't let me. When you get burned with quality programming you get gun-shy--you feel you need to stick to the shows that make money. You know what the problem is? Network change. Somebody like Bill Paley [former chairman of CBS] used to say that he didn't care if he got a twelve share, because there was a public trust and social responsibility to put on an 'I'll Fly Away.' GE buys a network, and you've got a different agenda.

"Network presidents don't keep their jobs based on the number of Emmy awards. Let's face it: there is more sensation and violence because it works. The movie of the week has become the killer of the week story.

"Do we have a responsibility to our public? Of course. I honestly don't know what to do about it. How's that for an answer?"

JOE ESZTERHAS has written the scripts for such major Hollywood films as Betrayal, Jagged Edge, Basic Instinct, and Sliver. His work has been criticized as sexist and homophobic. "I don't like to be a Monday morning quarterback on my own work."

DAWN STEEL became the first woman to head a major studio when she was made president of Columbia Pictures in 1987. During her career, she has worked on such films as Top Gun, Beverly Hills Cop II, Casualties of War, When Harry Met Sally, and Look Who's Talking. She now runs her own production company. "I believe I've never made a movie in bad taste or with excessive violence. But for profit, I've had to make movies not from my soul. If I want to make a film for passion, I have to make it for less money.

"I'm more cynical about the violence in LA than about violence in our business. It's unanswerable whether movies reflect the culture or vice versa. I monitor my kid's movies and won't let her see what's not appropriate for her. There's no way you can censor any movie in this country that's being made. That's our First Amendment."

MATT GROENING is creator and executive producer of the TV hit "The Simpsons." "Anytime you visualize something, it's difficult not to glorify it. Every antiwar film is pro-war, because its violence is stylized and an audience can be removed from it and enjoy it. Stylistically, violence is almost invariably glorified, even when you have an antiviolent point of view. Look at Platoon. Violence is invariably used in movies and TV as punctuation, and it does have a numbing effect on people after a time.

"Most TV, most movies, really, are less pernicious than tedious and boring. What's bad for kids is bad storytelling. Tell better stories."

BARRY DILLER, ex-chief executive officer and chairman of Fox and Matt Groening's former boss, now heads QVC Network. He couldn't disagree more with Groening about television's being mostly bad. "I can't imagine why he would say that. Pound for pound, the hour and half-hour television series are very good. There's a lot of junk, but much more in the movie business, the record business, even legitimate theater. It's snobbery to call a show like 'Roseanne' lowbrow or vulgar. It's funny and interesting and has a good moral value and tone.

"TV movies are crummy. 'Hard Copy' is a lying, thieving, lowlife program of hideous, cynical purpose. It's not serious television. There are only a few tabloid shows, but they speak loudly.

"I think you look at society, and you see what is reflected on television in terms of violent action. Absolutely, [there is too much violence]. But we can be thoughtful and reasonable and change that, reduce it. I think plans over the last few years will help. Senator Simon's work with the networks will help."

PHILIP KAUFMAN co-wrote and directed The Wanderers, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, and Henry and June, and wrote and directed The Right Stuff. "There is a fascist edge to a lot of the violence we see. I'm in favor of pushing the envelope, but when you push it in romance or eroticism you get an NC-17 rating. It's easier to get an R rating if you use senseless violence, because the ratings board is largely conservative and embraces violence before sex."

JOSH BRAND, along with his partner, has produced the TV hits "St. Elsewhere" and "Northern Exposure." "If something gets a high rating, say, 'The Amy Fisher Story,' then advertisers pay more money. Now, did the networks create the audience for it, or do they pander to what the audience wanted? Is it okay to pollute the emotional and spiritual environment?

"Now there are studies [that show] that violent images don't affect people, just as the tobacco industry has studies showing that cigarette smoking doesn't cause cancer. And they use the First Amendment to evoke their rights and get into this study versus that study, and the whole thing becomes a wash, a miasma of moral mud. But I think that there is absolutely no question that the profusion of these kinds of images has a negative effect, not only on children but on human beings in general.

"But regulations are dangerous, particularly when dealing with the free expression of ideas. I do believe that some of those ideas are like pollutants, but there isn't one thing you can do. A panacea doesn't exist."

Although there may be no panacea, we must still look for solutions. How would you resolve the conflict between excessive violence in entertainment and the protections guaranteed under the First Amendment?

Write to Mother Jones, 1663 Mission St., 2nd Floor, San Francisco, CA 94103. Or fax us at (415) 863-5136.

Michael Krasny is currently the host of San Francisco radio station KQED's "Forum," a weekday talk show. Priscilla Yamin of Mother Jones and Karen Daar contributed research to these interviews.