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Artistic expression and commercial needs. A poet, whether starving in a garret or enjoying the comforts of a tenured professorship, composes what the spirit dictates and abilities permit. A court poet may be required to compose a paean of praise for the ruler on a ceremonial occasion, but the general rule is that creative expression must well from the heart. In our commercial culture this rule has not altogether lost its appeal, but it is commonly subordinated to worldly demands. Curiously, a recurring theme in self-examining Hollywood films (like Barton Fink) is the conflict between a novice scriptwriter's innocent pursuit of his muse and the voracious demands of the studio system to which he has sold his soul. (It is always a male scriptwriter who faces this dilemma. Female actresses never seem to confront this spiritual conflict.)
An independent force always at work is the desire of the people who create films, programs, games, and recordings to express their own beliefs and feelings. But those private impulses must almost always be subordinated to the financial goals of the enterprises that use their skills. A studio may indulge a star director's desire to produce an "art" film that is destined to lose money, just as a book publisher may allow a prizewinning poet's volume of verse to creep onto the list. This is done with the same steely realism with which a department store introduces a "loss leader" to attract customers who may go on to buy more expensive merchandise.
In the jargon of the industry, media executives speak of "monetizing" what they produce. In a media system geared to produce profits rather than excellence, market forces-or predictions about market forces-determine what is worth doing and what is not. Media content is modified to conform to the best assessment of the size and characteristics of its consumers.
The preoccupation with youth has become more intense in recent years as the mass media have seized upon young people as their primary target. This is true for music and video games as well as in film and its television offspring. These last two media are intertwined, in their ownership, their production facilities, and their talent pool. But their pursuit of young audiences has come about for different reasons.
Media and society. We are addicted to the media but sometimes worry about what they say to us and especially to our children. Apart from sleep and work, the mass media occupy more of America's time than any other activity. (I should not say "apart from work" because radio and television are a presence in many workplaces, and the use of the internet for work purposes often shifts into its use for personal reasons.) All this has happened since the beginnings of broadcasting in the 1920s. Before then, reading had been a main source of diversion, and film and musical recordings had entered the scene, but all these occupied less time than conversation, play, and avocational pursuits. As a shorter work week afforded more leisure, the time available for media continued to expand.
Television news and public affairs programming have had great political consequences through their influence on public opinion, electoral choices, and legislative agendas. But the content and presentation style of television news and talk shows have been modified to fit the model of entertaining viewers rather than informing them, just as the character of professional sports has been altered to accommodate the needs of broadcasters' scheduling and advertising requirements. A large proportion of news programming is in fact devoted to talk about the personalities of show business.
Whatever its political influence, television is overwhelmingly devoted to entertainment, and most of that entertainment is fictional in character: either the original dramas of daytime serials and evening police series or the airing of feature films. Fantasy is at the core of even such formats as quiz and game shows or "reality" programs, which place carefully selected "everyday" people into abnormal situations. Americans devote a substantial part of their waking hours swathed in a cocoon of make-believe.
The model for TV's fictional fantasy is to be found in Hollywood, where a high proportion of network and syndicated programming is produced. Motion pictures, with their enormous budgets, their brilliantly publicized stars, and their relative freedom from advertising pressures, have led the way for changes in the subjects and styles that television presents.
Films in the theater retain a unique importance because they are seen in the dark without commercial interruptions, because they are taken seriously in reviews and news reports, and because their stars, familiarized through promotion, are idolized for their fame, wealth, and good looks (though seldom for their talent). Films that generate interest (or "excitement," in the industry's parlance) in the weekend after they are released become "events" that may outweigh real news happenings in the public's attention and discussion. Yet theater showings represent a minor part of the public's total exposure to feature films; they are surpassed by showings on television and on videocassettes and DVDs.
What are the consequences of this massive immersion of the public psyche in the realm of the unreal? Is it "escapism" from the ugly and intractable realities of the news of an increasingly and unavoidably interconnected world? Is it a mechanism for coping with those realities by permitting a release of the anxieties and hostilities they evoke? Or is it simply a way of passing the time, of avoiding the boredom of workaday existence? All these forces are at play with different force for different content and different audiences.
People take refuge in entertainment when they are beset by unpleasant realities at times of stress like the Great Depression and World War II. (Movie attendance rose from 3.1 billion in 1940 to 4.3 billion in 1943. In the first half of 2002, movie attendance was a fifth higher than in the preceding year, before the terrorist attacks of 9/11, 2001). During the 2003 war with Iraq, film comedies did well at the box office while war-related films did poorly.
More and more media content departs from the rules that once governed popular entertainment. Because people are so deeply engaged with this content, it affects and alters the way they behave and relate to one another in the world away from the theater and the home entertainment center. While the vivid pictorial character of audiovisual media now fills the public's dreams, the barriers of self-control (or self-censorship) were initially breached in print. Deeper cultural forces are at work than those introduced by the media of the twentieth century or their more recent electronic successors. But it is those nineteenth-century inventions, films and musical recordings, that have done most to change the rules of the media game.
What television has changed. From childhood on, all human beings have private thoughts, emotions, and activities they do not show to others, not even to those closest to them. Private behavior has always been distinct from the public sphere in which, with varying degrees of guardedness, we present ourselves to society.
The very frequency of human contact forces people to set up invisible walls to protect their private selves, as astute social commentators like Sigmund Freud and Georg Simmel observed a century ago in describing the effects of urbanization. Television, from its start, reduced the amount of time formerly spent interacting face-to-face with family and friends and thus accelerated this tendency toward impersonality in human relationships.
Television has had other important effects on the national psyche, apart from the way people relate to one another in more or less public situations. Its endless succession of commercial messages has homogenized and heightened aspirations to consume, and transformed what were once seen as extravagant luxuries into familiar everyday commodities. The bombardment of viewers with images of plenty has built their awareness of what is beyond their reach. Comparing oneself to more fortunate others may create as much bitterness and anxiety as real deprivation of the necessities of life. Television, with its gorgeous models and performers, has raised the public's consciousness of physical beauty at the same time that poor diet and growing obesity have removed many people farther and farther from that ideal appearance. Most important, television has altered perceptions of the social norms, the accepted ways of dealing with our fellows.
Beyond the edge. As a more permissive outlook infused the culture, it was fortified by increasingly powerful commercial interests.
The people who shape the content of mass entertainment constantly use the term "edgy" to describe what they think attracts audiences to their products. The adjective probably derives from the expression "cutting edge," used as a synonym for "innovative" and "fresh." But as currently used it signifies a defiance of convention, an ability to shock, an aggressive rejection of traditional proprieties. These allusions apply especially to the use of language and to the display of intimate behavior.
I asked an ad agency media director who uses the term to define "edgy." His answer: "Controversial, dealing with violence, sex, homosexuality, subjects that used to be forbidden. Stuff that's not appropriate for a family medium."
Violence is rarely called "edgy"; sex is. Yet fictional violence and sex cannot easily be separated. Both have been used as devices that appeal to a part of the public that producers consider of the greatest commercial value.
A feature of Hollywood films from their beginnings has been mortal combat-fights to the death between cowboys and Indians, cops and robbers, humans and malevolent invaders from outer space. These battles have in the past been stylized and orchestrated, always leaving the audience with the comfortable knowledge that the dead will nonchalantly arise to shower and dress after the cameras are packed away. Impersonal and antiseptic killing has now been largely replaced with bloody and often gruesome imagery, matched by furious grimaces in the accompanying drama. It may be done in the black-humored spirit of Grand Guignol, as in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre; more often it is presented in all seriousness, as in Sam Peckinpah's Straw Dogs.
Film violence escalated as digitization opened up a whole new set of special effects that permitted unprecedented depictions of mutilation and of awful natural events (earthquakes, volcano eruptions, floods, plagues) or barbaric forces terrorizing humanity. "When we created weather, fire, and smoke," says Jeff Gaeta, a Time Warner executive, "we wanted it to move not realistically but impressionistically." This transformation of plausible reality into fantasy has been demonstrated in such blockbuster films as Star Wars, The Matrix, The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and countless other Hollywood spectacles in which violence is visualized on a gigantic scale.
It is easy to identify examples of content that most of the American public might consider "over the edge" by viewing the brutal "coming attractions" trailers in any movie theater. Graphic violence is only a part of what many people may find objectionable. Other examples may be found on websites and internet chat groups where pedophiles make contact with children; in the steamy and convoluted couplings portrayed on daytime television; in the blatherings of radio "shock jocks." The political obscenity of rabid talk-show hosts is matched by the studied vulgarities of personalities like the radio star Howard Stern, who in spite of fines and other attempts at censure have thrived on the notoriety produced by their freedom from inhibitions of language.
I interrupt my writing to see a freshly released film, prompted by a highly favorable newspaper review. The film depicts thugs spraying bullets wantonly at revelers in a jammed night club, their killing and burning in a car doused with gasoline, a conventional car chase through crowded streets, with a police car overturned and countless other vehicles smashed in the process. The hero-detective, who has three divorces behind him and several children who are mentioned but otherwise apparently entirely absent from his thoughts, is asked by his buddy, "When did you last get laid?" and is soon thereafter shown in bed with the wife of another member of the L.A.P.D. His buddy, meanwhile, finds a casual female acquaintance, whose name he can't recall, awaiting him nude in a conveniently placed hot tub; naturally he dives right in. Throughout, the dialogue is laced with vulgarity, including the sardonic witticism, "Fuck you very much!" All of this is totally extraneous to the plot, such as it is. The film is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America, meaning that parental guidance is advised for those under the age of thirteen. Within the theater a number of children probably ten to twelve periodically run up and down the aisle.
Another recent release said to be especially popular with young moviegoers was Quentin Tarantino's film Kill Bill: Vol. 1. It depicts a woman knifed before her young daughter, a pregnant woman beaten and shot on her wedding day, the decapitation of another woman, a man's tongue pulled out, and limbs being sliced off. It makes free use of the foul language with which the director liberally enlivens his own private conversation.
Television has not lagged far behind in such imagery. Dan Rattiner, a Long Island newspaper editor, sat down to watch TV one October evening in 1993 and recorded what he saw:
On CNN, a high school boy is paralyzed after lying down on the double yellow line in the middle of a highway, as he had seen done in the Walt Disney movie The Program.
On Showtime, Anthony Perkins in Psycho IV, finds the fully dressed skeleton of his dead mother.
On Cinemax, a Bruce Willis film shows a policeman asking the driver of a parked car if anything is wrong. "'As a matter of fact there is, officer.... There are too many bullets in this gun.' He whips out a pistol and fires two shots at the officer. Camera cuts to officer. We see a bloody hole appear in his cheek, another between his eyes."
On the movie channel, a fully clothed man is told by a woman to walk out on a diving board and jump. He does, into an empty swimming pool. "He is lying on his stomach in a small pool of water at the bottom of the pool, which begins to turn pink. The woman is still smiling."
On the Fox Channel, a replay of a moment in a football game in which a player has just dislocated his hip. "'Just like that, the end of a playing career,' the announcer says."
On HBO, a cinema verite program shows a seven-year-old girl with schoolbooks in one hand and a needle and syringe in the other, walking past a sign saying, "This is a drug-free zone."
On Bravo, "a severed hand moves slowly across the screen."
On MTV, Beavis and Butthead put a dog into a washing machine and turn it on.
Critics and observers of television cite many other examples of content that defies old conventions of propriety. In a Fox comedy, "Action," four-letter words, used profusely, are bleeped out but can easily be lip-read. In one scene a hooker puts her hand down the pants of a film star; in another a father tells his young daughter about the size of his penis. Bill Carter and Lawrie Mifflin describe other TV episodes: a teenager masturbating into a pie; a talk show host vomiting; "a character sipping from a beverage made of excrement"; two actors urinating in the direction of the Statue of Liberty; animated characters representing children "spewing torrents of foul language"; "a comedian stopping women of all ages in the street and asking them if they will have sex with him."
Excerpted from Over the Edge by Leo Bogart Copyright © 2005 by Leo Bogart.
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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|1||The exceptional enters the mainstream||3|
|2||The mutability of mores||21|
|3||The pursuit of youth||46|
|4||The wisdom of wooing young consumers||78|
|5||Protecting the innocent||100|
|8||The business effects of TV labeling||209|
|9||Labeling other media||231|
|10||Back to the edge?||264|