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.
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."
Or, for that matter, personally understand it. For all its obsessive tics and irksome myopia, the report is most severely disadvantaged by the utter lack of insight on the part of its editors. Now batting: Spike Lee.
"Let me read the `Relationships/Conduct' section of Jungle Fever," says Winston warily, as if steeling himself. "`Adulterous relationships depicted, neither condoned nor condemned. Negative effects of drugs shown, though wine is depicted as socially acceptable. Stereotyping of Italian-Americans and Christians.' I haven't seen this movie, but it sounds like it's more of an exploratory movie asking how a black man and an Italian woman get along, one of those fringe movies out there that nobody seems to know how it's going to be accepted by the community at large. Is a guy wrong in making that movie? I don't know. But the F-word is used 144 times, and the nudity is pretty graphic. I would find it hard to believe that somebody would expose themselves to that much violence or that much nudity.
"If this movie was made twenty years ago, it probably would have been railroaded," Winston continues, neglecting to mention that people just like his devoted subscribers, pumped full of righteous anger over the needless, savage repetition of the feared F-word, would have been driving the train. "Now, we're numb. What's one more movie with a guy and a girl in bed? Perhaps somewhere in there this director tries to address the issues of race relations, but it seems like it's taken a back seat to the sex and the drugs and the violence. I mean, it's not every day that guys get killed over drugs." Wait a second. Spike Lee dilutes his discussion of race dynamics? Hollywood films overstate America's inner-city drug problem? Let us know when you want to book passage for the real world, Dave.
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Whatever its stance toward race and drugs, Jungle Fever is part of a much larger problem, that of rampant bad language. In the nearsighted eyes of the Entertainment Research Group's smut squad, some of the most famous lines in movie history -- Gone with the Wind's "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn," Network's "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it any more," and, of course, The Terminator's "Fuck you, asshole" -- are reduced to sanctimonious hash marks. "The repetition can dull the senses," Winston warns. "It has happened to me. I'll get engrossed in the movie to the point where I don't realize what I'm hearing or seeing. I don't think people realize subconsciously what they're being bombarded with, especially with swear words, and after a while you become numb and eventually you want more. We have people who have written in and said, `Thanks, now I can forget the dull movies and go to the dirty ones.' But they're one in a million." More than nine hundred cramped, thwarted prudes per thousand? It's a scary thought.
And it's getting scarier. If its present success continues -- the publication is nearing the break-even point -- the Entertainment Research Group plans to expand beyond the cinema. "We're working on the best way for a video version. We'll provide either a catalogue or some service in a video store. It could even be an 800 number. Eventually we'd like to get into television also." Winston won't give any projected start-up date for the television edition, but remember: a detailed content report for network TV is one of the first signs of Armageddon.
"Relationships/Conduct: Lisa fondles saxophone; Homer bears powerful resemblance to penis. Scrotal five o'clock shadow visible."