By Chuck Strouse
By Scott Fishman
By Terrence McCoy
By Ryan Yousefi
By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
By Pepe Billete
By Ryan Yousefi
By Kyle Swenson
The strategy of taking a work of art and pulverizing it into objective shrapnel has always had its advocates (cf. the Geneva school of the Forties and Fifties), but the Entertainment Research Report shows up the folly of this lust for listing. Think of what would happen if other artworks were reduced to skeletal recipes: Picasso's Demoiselles D'Avignon (Breasts: 5; Thighs: 7) would sound like a big night at Kentucky Fried Chicken.
But aesthetic dispute is hardly the whole of the problem. Far more unsettling is the Entertainment Research Group's denial of any ulterior agenda. "We're not telling you either to go or not to go," insists Winston. "Basically we're trying to provide Mom and Dad and Concerned Joe a way to know what's in a film before they shell out six or seven bucks." And that's true, but only as long as Mom and Dad are middle-class, white, and God fearing. (This Concerned Joe we're not too sure about. We think he may have designs on Mom.) Promotional literature for the newsletter claims it's just a simple matter of ingredients. In a world in which consumers can obtain detailed information about the contents of a cereal, films should receive the same attention. But films are creative products, subject to interpretation. Cereals, with the possible exception of Count Chocula, are not.
Disclaimers will be disclaimers, and there may not be a firm religious agenda in the endeavor, but you can bet the collection plate on this: From the soles of its feet to the top of its pointy little head, the Entertainment Research Report is wrapped tight in transparent family supremacy. Consensual homosexual relationships are subjected to scrutiny, while consensual heterosexual relationships are not. Provocatively sensual women are treated like whores -- in its listing for Truth or Dare, the report notes that "Madonna `jokes' about having sex with her father," adding quotation marks around "jokes" as if to throw the truth of the remark into question. And any step near Christian toes trip the alarm, whether it's Sylvester Stallone's "Snaps" Provolone in Oscar leaning "against [a] mantle [sic] as though on a cross to depict suggested martyrdom" or a character in The Commitments placing "Elvis's picture above the Pope's." Threats to other cultures and religions are often ignored; the presence of Nazis in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade is not flagged as objectionable, not to mention the entire theme of archaeological grave-robbery that provides the foundation for the Raiders of the Lost Ark trilogy.
While they're perfectly willing to attempt the lofty task of protecting such hallowed institutions as religion and traditional Western marriage, the editors of the Report don't have time for more piddling tasks, such as the operation of simple thematic machinery. Their world is one where all deviations from the norm are equal, and equally offensive. Irony? Satire? Thanks but no thanks. For the Entertainment Research Group, the hilarious Swedish-porno-theater scene in Taxi Driver should be taken at face value. No matter that screenwriter Paul Schrader and director Martin Scorsese use the scene to illustrate Travis Bickle's sociopathic tendencies. We're in the land of the scared and repressed, and analysis -- which might show that something "offensive" is actually morally instructive, or at least morally interesting -- is merely a liability.
But why dwell on the past? Take a fresh specimen -- James Cameron's summer megablast Terminator 2: Judgment Day. As a result of Cameron's concerns about escalating impersonal violence in films, T2 was overt about its opposition to pointless bloodshed, almost embarrassingly so. At the request of his young charge John Connor (Edward Furlong), the Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) pledges not to kill gratuitously. And he doesn't. For the balance of the two-hour film, Cameron virtually assaults the audience with the cyborg's newfound respect for human life. In an amazing stroke of willful ignorance, the Entertainment Research Report makes no mention of the restraint. Why? Well, it has something to do with moral evaluation. "Would a statement like that [the Terminator's pledge] make the man good?" muses Winston. "If a mafia guy said, `I've had enough,' that probably wouldn't show up either. On the other hand if he had sacrificed his life to save someone else that would show up in the `Relationships/Conduct' section." But the Terminator did sacrifice his life to save someone else. "Actually," says Winston, backpedaling shrewdly, "I haven't seen the film."
Isn't that always the way, that those who challenge the value of artworks are the last ones to actually view them? How many of those who picketed Last Temptation of Christ had actually seen Scorsese's film? (Few, probably, since most of the protests occurred on opening day.) How many of those who denounced Robert Mapplethorpe's photos as pornographic stood in line for the X, Y, and Z portfolios? Whatever their lip service, the Entertainment Research Group is clearly asking parents to make decisions for their children (or husbands to make decisions for their wives, if you can believe such noxious paternalism still exists) without first-hand knowledge of the material. "Granted, we don't tell the whole story," Winston concedes. "If something is ironized, we won't assume that. People have to decide that for themselves. For instance, in this movie The Pope Must Die, the themes are mostly fairly negative things. They make light of the Catholic Church, show that they're corrupted. Maybe our report is the next best thing so that people don't have to personally go see the movie."