No Dear, I Think That Was A 'Heck'

The next time you find yourself at a movie, any movie, try a little experiment. Instead of watching the film for the plot, or the characters, or even for the director's vision, watch it for details. And not just any details. Watch for bad language, for blasphemy, for violence, and for any evidence of sexual contact. Watch carefully, and diligently record the celluloid offenses right there in the theater. (If you're keeping a notepad on your lap, you might want to tell your aisle-mates in advance; many moviegoers are still edgy about that Pee-wee Herman thing.)

Consider this exercise an aptitude examination. If you find it nonsensical and without merit, if in fact it even begins to repulse you, do not persist. Prolonged exposure to heartless parsing may result in permanent damage to the soul. If, on the other hand, you belong to the tiny minority that achieves pleasure through relentless statistical cataloguing, then a job may be waiting for you at the Entertainment Research Report. Just don't tell them we sent you.

Published by the Boca Raton-based Entertainment Research Group, the Entertainment Research Report is America's only bimonthly journal devoted exclusively to movie content. In each issue, its editors print content reports for approximately a dozen of the newest film releases. After an objective plot summary and cast list, the entries move on to a comprehensive account of the work's contents -- listings of all violent or sexual situations, tallies of potentially offensive terms, and brief notation of potentially questionable relationships or conduct. This is the only show in town if you want to find out how many breast-fondles spiced up Steven Seagal's Out for Justice (just one), how often in the French Paper Wedding characters opined that Satan was the source of man's freedom of choice (again, just once), and how many times the word "fuck" was uttered in Madonna's Truth or Dare (a robust 31). Those die-hard anal retainers have even taken care to divide the 31 fucks into two subcategories, expletives (23) and references to copulation (8). The Entertainment Research Report is responsibly divided into sections devoted to foul language, sexual content, violence, and questionable relationships and conduct.

If all this smacks of obsession to you, welcome to the consensus. But the founders and operators of the Entertainment Research Report insist they're merely concerned citizens who have decided to plug a conspicuous gap in contemporary life. "The whole concept evolved when one of the partners went to a movie with his wife," explains editor David Winston, who also operates a landscaping firm in the Boca Raton area. "He took her to see Ferris Bueller's Day Off. He's in the construction industry so he is quite familiar with foul language, but he was upset with some of the language in the film. Especially with his wife there. So we got to talking, and we wondered why there was no source for that information, why there was no publication that gave moviegoers some hint of what they might be subjecting themselves to in a film."

Within months Winston and his partners had invested start-up funds ($20,000-$30,000, Winston estimates), contacted studios about the possibility of advance screenings (most were happy to comply), hired USC film grad students to perform the actual tabulation, and sent their first issue to press. Today, after extensive coverage from national media and the torrid publicity surrounding the ratings controversy, the report goes out to almost 1500 private subscribers at a rate of $39.95 per year, as well as a large number of media contacts who, thankfully, don't have to pay a red cent.

In its infancy, the publication attracted the attention of watchful eyes up and down the political spectrum. Liberals singled out its regressive morality as an example of American acceptance of borderline censorship; conservatives held aloft its findings as further evidence of the erosion of family values. But what all the jawing and counter-jawing has overlooked is the newsletter's ecstatic comedy. To subscribe to Entertainment Research Report is to enter a wondrous world of stilted prose and blank-faced exposition, where profanities are referred to by prim approximations, and the scenes tagged for careful parental consideration are often laughably inoffensive. What can you say of a publication (written by adults, no less) that tracks repetitions of the "F-word," the "S-word," "H-ll," "D-mn," and "B-tch," except that someone desperately needs to buy a vowel? Relentless in its pursuit of moral alertness, the report earmarks with a delicious, sometimes surreal, arbitrariness. In one potentially objectionable scene from Bill Murray's psychiatry-comedy What About Bob?, "[a] character comically lies about having committed suicide." And in Stanley Kubrick's overwrought classic Spartacus, "Gladiators are sparsely dressed." My word, Martha, avert your eyes. It's a toga!

With a flair for the pointless, and the wrist-slapping skills of a dominatrix -- the baseball film Talent for the Game, starring Edward James Olmos, is cited twice in the violence category for "Car window accidentally broken by baseball" -- the report often lurches into the lurid despite itself. Take, for example, Pastime, an unasssuming film starring William Russ and Glenn Plummer that explores the relationship between a young black fireballer and a middle-age relief pitcher. Pastime passes the bad language and violence checkpoints with a bare minimum of static and sails unscathed through Adult Situations. Sounds like a real kitchen sponge of a movie, no? But wait! In the final section of the report, buried under still more didactic whining about depiction of drinking, the secret charm of the film shines through. "Considerable use of chewing tobacco complete with bulging cheeks and streams of brown spit." How lyrical. Streams of brown spit. They'll probably use that as the title when they give the film European release.

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