Ethics and the Movies, Part I

THE OPEN MIND
Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Dale M. Pollock
Title: Ethics and The Movies
VTR: 10/20/00

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind, where earlier the Chairman of the Federal Trade Commission joined me to discuss a Presidential assignment Bill Clinton had given the FTC after the Columbine School killings to determine whether firms in the movie, music recording and video game industries are marketing violent materials to young people. Of course one could have thought of television, the cable industry and the internet itself along with these likely suspects.

Well, later when a clearly indignant John McCain read the Commission’s report, filled as it is with detailed and rather shocking references to marketing practices purposefully used to lure our youngsters into becoming consumers of harshly violent media content, his Commerce Committee of the United States Senate held hearings indicating clearly that now the fat is very much in the fire and that media fat cats are not as likely as in the past to put out the fire without getting burned themselves, no matter how desperately industry flakes and lobbyists try to hose it down, along with the rest of us.

In parsing the FTC report titled “The Marketing of Violent Entertainment to Children”, Senator McCain quoted its conclusion that “individual companies in each industry routinely market to children the very products that have the companies’ own parental warnings or ratings with age restrictions due to their violent content. The Senator wasn’t happy with the FTC revelations, neither were most of his Congressional colleagues. All of them thoroughly and appropriately rejected any suggestion of censorship with which media lobbyists nevertheless sought to tar them. But there is widespread and ever increasing concern among public figures as well as parents about violent media content that is so purposefully pushed almost like drugs on our young children. And we are far from having heard the last of the matter.

In fact I was brought together with my guest today after not having seen him for many, many years just because Dateline NBC and its chief correspondent, Josh Mankiewicz, chose to interview each of us for a Dateline segment related to the FTC Report and the John McCain hearings. I, because from 1974 to 1994 commuted to Hollywood as Chairman of the film rating board and am writing a critical book on the idea that anything goes in the media as long as it’s rated. A book based on my detailed record of that experience incorporated in a Columbia University Oral History of my Hollywood years.

And my guest today, Dale Pollock who I knew in Hollywood when he worked at Variety, the movie business bible and then at the Los Angeles Times as its chief entertainment correspondent because he later became an accomplished film producer and executive himself. Finally turning the academy, however, where he is now Dean of the School of Filmmaking at the North Carolina School of the Arts, and where even as we record this program, his staff is putting together the final details for Cinethics, the first national film ethics conference which some, he knows, will consider a contradiction in terms.

But now, let me ask Dean Pollock to explain what lies behind Cinethics, oxymoron though it may be. What does lie behind it? How come you did this, or are doing it?

POLLOCK: Well, I did it because I had done a small version of this when I taught at the American Film Institute and was sort of staggered by the reaction of the students. I had the same experience when I taught a class in film ethics. I think the first class of its kind taught in the country, last Spring to our first year students and they were hungry to talk about and debate these issues. To talk about the idea of limits to the artistic creative process. And the idea of taking responsibility for the images that an artist creates. And I found they were hungry to discuss these issues. So I think it’s the right time and the right setting and what we’re doing, which is a little different is, we’re bringing in representatives from the top twenty film programs in the country. An administrator, a faculty member and a student. And the real goal of this Conference is to see how we can integrate the kind of discussions we will hold into the curriculum of film programs across the country.

HEFFNER: But now, in a personal way … you know, I’ve had a chance to read the article that you wrote recently for the Lost Angeles Times about the origin of your concerns, about this matter of “ethics and filmmaking”.

POLLOCK: Well, I had always, as you know, in my reporting, been really interested in the idea of ratings and what ratings were all about, and where ratings the best way to protect the industry, or did they exert a more invidious sort of influence in terms of the studies and what was acceptable, what could be a PG, what could be an R. And how you couldn’t under any circumstances have what used to be an X rating and now is an NC-17. So I was always interested on a theoretical level, in a philosophical level. But it became very personal to me when I made a film in 1996 called “Set It Off”. A film I’m very proud of artistically … it was about four Black women who end up robbing banks. They have dead-end jobs, blue collar iind of work in terms of cleaning office building, they barely had a high school education, they had no prospects, the only avenue they saw to get up to what they considered to be the rest of the American lifestyle, was to start committing bank robberies. And initially they’re very successful and of course, as in most … bank robbery movies “Crime Doesn’t Pay”; Three of them end up dying horrible violent deaths, and the fourth gets away, but really has nothing but bitter memories to take with her. Again, I’m proud of the movie. I think it’s well made, it deals with a subject in a group of people who are rarely honestly depicted on screen … worked with a very talented young African-American filmmaker named F. Gary Gray. And a film that I felt artistically achieved what we set out to. However, on the opening weekend, there were several incidents across the country outside theaters playing “Set It Off” but clearly the audience of “Set It Off” being the participants in these real life dramas that resulted in several shootings and one individual being killed on the opening weekend. And the following weekend two more individuals being killed. Whatever pleasure I received from the box office success of “Set It Off”, it made $11 million dollars on its opening weekend, the kind of numbers you pray for, when you’re a producer, was completely undone by the rather sickening personal realization, that I felt, that if I hadn’t made this film, if I hadn’t spent five years pedaling the script around town, getting rejected because people found it too dangerous, too unmarketable, because it was four women with guns and who would go see that film? No one had ever objected to it on moral grounds, of course, only in terms of box office projections. But for me to realize that had I not made this film, would these people still be alive? Did my making a movie inadvertently result in the deaths … in clearly one case of an innocent by-stander who simply happened to be walking through a parking lot when she was hit by a stray bullet. That really gave me pause for thought. It made me begin to think about “what am I doing?”. “What are the messages that I’m putting out with the movies I’m making and should I be more concerned on how these movies are marketed, distributed and exhibited. New Line put guards inside the theater playing “Set It Off”, but should I have insisted that guards be placed outside also. Should I have been more conscious that all of our advertising featured women firing guns. Did that bring in an audience that brought guns to the theater themselves? To what degree was I culpable? If not in a legal sense, in a moral sense? And these are internal conversations that I don’t think take place within Hollywood very often and I think we might see a better group of films out in release right now if they did take place more often. And ultimately the only way that I can think of to begin to change the way filmmakers think and create and act is to do when they’re in their formative stage. And we have a great opportunity because an increasing number of directors, writers, producers, cinematographers, production designers, editors come out of film schools and film programs and film academies and almost every young film maker coming into the business today has taken a workshop or a film class or gone to a film school. And I think if we can get film students thinking and talking and analyzing their own beliefs, their own actions, their own creative output, you know, I think in five or seven or ten years we might be able to see a real change in the kind of films being made.

HEFFNER: It’s interesting to me, Dale, that you say you don’t believe that the kind of inner conversation that you had with yourself after this incident takes place very much in Hollywood.

POLLOCK: No, I don’t think it does and it’s … it doesn’t mean that I’m a particularly perceptive person, or that I have some saintly aspect that others don’t share. I think it’s simply that I had an event happen to me that made me think about … I don’t know how I could have avoided thinking about the repercussions of the work I did under the circumstances that it was released in.

HEFFNER: But usually when something happens, and I don’t mean something as direct as the story you relate, when something happens as at Columbine, as in the instances of many, many, many violent actions that take place in this country with young children who obviously have been exposed to much violence in the media and continue to be so exposed … isn’t there time then for people in the industry to hold those inner conversations?

POLLOCK: Well, I feel those inner conversations aren’t being held for several reasons. First of all I feel there’s a disconnect between a filmmaker who does a project that he or she might be passionate about, may truly believe in or does it just for … as a job … to get the money. They seem to feel that their moral responsibility ends when they hand the picture over to the studio. At that point what they’ve created is mass entertainment, and no one bears responsibility for mass entertainment. You’ve given the audience, on one level, what they want. And on another level you’re trying to make an artistic statement, but you’re not there to be a social policeman. You’re not there to be a social or moral arbiter, and I think a lot of people check their conscience at the studio door.

HEFFNER: You say they’re not there to be social or moral arbiters. What I’ve heard is “I’m not a nanny. I’m not a teacher. I don’t teach, I entertain. I’m not going to take care of your kids or any one else’s kids. I may not let my children see what it is I or my colleagues produce, but that’s not my job”. And you’re saying, in a sense, that it is their job.

POLLOCK: Well, it is their job. I mean, you know, the idea of creative authorship is a very important one in Hollywood. The Guilds fight over it all the time. Directors want a ‘film by” credit, writers don’t want them to have that credit. Producers always feel underappreciated. And yet no one is really willing to take responsibility for the sort of moral consequences of the work they create. We deal here in the most powerful medium ever created by man. It affects us biochemically. It affects us … our sensory nerves … to a remarkable degree. And I think what’s really changed in the last 20 years since you started working on the ratings board and I began my career as a journalist, is the advance in visual and auditory effects has become so sophisticated that these elements are assaulting us on an aural level that is almost impossible to resist. And I think we really underestimate the new power of the medium and the fact that it penetrates the world’s cultural market instantaneously and these days simultaneously.

HEFFNER: Now, what would you say if somebody were to disagree with you. Not that the power is there, but on the assumption that if the power were recognized by the people who you feel and I feel wield the power, that there would be anything different that would have been done. That they do recognize the power they have. They always say, as the journalists say when they sit at this table, Dale, “Nobody in here but us chickens. We don’t have that kind of power. Don’t be ridiculous”. You say they do. I feel strongly that they do. Where I disagree with you is that I think they do know that they do. But it would be a mistake to admit it.

POLLOCK: I think a mistake maybe to admit it to themselves. I, I see this ultimately as the most personal of decisions. Whether you really embrace the concept or not of the power that your work has to affect people in emotional ways and sometimes in physical ways. But when I see a movie like “The Cell”, or I see a movie like “American Psycho”, and I see films that I can’t see any reason for the actions being depicted on screen other than the basest, the most … the lowest common denominator of violence and torture. And I’m thinking … “The Cell” is a beautifully photographed film. The images are stunning. But put to this purpose. And, you know, I grew up as an ardent defender, as I think I remain, of the First Amendment, and I feel you should be allowed to say what you want and if you can get someone to finance your vision, go ahead and make it. But you better be aware of the impact it’s going have on an audience because ultimately you should be held accountable for that, if nothing else on artistic and creative terms.

HEFFNER: Who is the author, the famous author who was going to sue .. I believe it was Oliver Stone for what he believed was the impact of one of his stronger films because this author’s friend had been killed by two kids who saw this Oliver Stone film, I think 17 times on their way across country and ended up killing the writer’s friend. He didn’t sue ultimately, I guess because he knew that the First Amendment would make it impossible. But, let me understand you correctly, you’re saying that there is no way of limiting the production of films, writing, producing, distributing films that you feel do lead to violence in our lives. Is that correct?

POLLOCK: I feel the only way is if individuals begin to accept some personal responsibility for what they create. And to me, it’s not that I feel films causally incite violence. I don’t believe that. I think … there may be a time and effect … there were copycat robberies based on “Set It Off”. There I can see a causal relationship. But what I think many films do today … in films like “Natural Born Killers” or films like “The Cell”, or “American Psycho” is they really desensitize the audience. When you see this over and over again, it ceases to be shocking, it ceases to be upsetting, it ceases to be nauseating. And what that means is you become accustomed to it. And as you ramp up your ability to absorb more and more of this supposedly disturbing imagery and content and it doesn’t bother you anymore, you begin to lose part of what defined you as a person. And I think that is the most egregious offense that the industry is guilty of these days. And that’s desensitizing popular culture in terms of violence and to, I think a far lesser degree, sex. And the language issue has almost faded into the past. But I think violence because of computer generated imagery, extremely advanced special effects is so realistic now, it’s super-realistic.

HEFFNER: Well, you remember that when I … in those years when I was chair of the system, I was considered a dirty old man because I guess, as you suggest, violence … sexuality isn’t, and nudity aren’t as much of a danger to the maintenance of the public safety, the public weal, but violence is. But Dale, let me go back to the question of … if you understand this, and some others do, how can you assume that the people in the industry don’t understand perfectly well, but what interferes with them is the bottom line. The bottom line is the bottom line.

POLLOCK: Well, the bottom line will always be the bottom line. But does that mean that we have public executions. Of course not. There are always some moral standards that a society enforces. Now I would imagine you could get an audience who would pay for public executions. And, indeed, in past human society it was very common.

HEFFNER: But you say that society enforces … you say that now. But you have been talking about the responsibility of the individual writer, director, producer and you’re hopeful that if you bring moral matters to the attention of film students that in a decade they will be bringing those same sensibilities and sensitivities to their creative work. And I’m just asking the question whether those people who are making the decisions now haven’t gotten just as much awareness as you have … as I trust I have … but that exercising that responsibility is not going to take place within a marketplace system.

POLLOCK: But I don’t feel the market place can be the justification for a lack of personal accountability. And I think I agree with you, the people we’re talking about are very intelligent people who certainly have the same intellectual capacity to understand the issues that you and I possess. They choose not to.

HEFFNER: Why?

POLLOCK: They choose to turn the other way … because it makes them uncomfortable to think about the consequences. It makes them uncomfortable to think that because “Mortal Kombat” is made some kids in a high school in Colorado are going to start shooting up the school. They don’t like to think about that so they dismiss it. They say, “No, there’s no relationship. We’re artists, we’re creating entertainment and there’s no relationship between what we do and what a kid in Littleton, Colorado does”.

HEFFNER: You’re saying you think this is because of their consciences and I’m saying I guess because I think it’s because of their pocketbooks, which don’t allow their consciences to function.

POLLOCK: Well, I think what you see is that there can be interesting movies. And I think actually the crop of films that came out last year from “Being John Malkovich” to “American Beauty” to “Three Kings” to “The Straight Story” was a very interesting group of artistic, intellectually stimulating and provocative films, that weren’t filled with violence.

HEFFNER: “Three Kings”, not filmed with violence

POLLOCK: Well I would say “Three Kings” doesn’t come close to some of the other … I mean it’s a war picture, you’re going to have some violence in a war picture.

HEFFNER: Oh, come on, Dale, “it’s a war picture”. We know that there are war pictures like “Saving …

POLLOCK: Private Ryan” which if you go by the people who sit and tabulate incidence of violence, and the thing is the most violent film of the last 30 years …

HEFFNER: Right. And we’re …

POLLOCK: … but we know …

HEFFNER: … not talking about that …

POLLOCK: … we’re not talking about that. Because that comes from a moral point of view. I mean I do believe Steven Spielberg presents a moral point of view with that story. Now he’s certainly using all the techniques at his disposal, in terms of sound and image. He slows down the image, he bleaches out the color, he does a … the sounds in a realistic way that’s never been heard before. Is it that different than what David Russell’s doing in “Three Kings”. I don’t think so. But the point is you’re not seeing … what I think is there are films that can be very commercial successful. And not deal with extreme, stomach churning violence.

HEFFNER: But doesn’t that require … don’t those films require a kind of continuing genius, a continuing ability … a writer’s ability, a director’s ability, a producer’s ability … while the more violent films can by and large, given the visual devices that you talk about now, then by and large can just wrap up the, the blood and the guts and get their audiences that way.

POLLOCK: And they do and the depressing thing, of course, about contemporary culture is those films succeed. But if they weren’t being made, the audience would be forced to look for something else.

HEFFNER: Aha … if they weren’t being made. So what remains for us, the small question that remains for us is how to find the means by which they will not be made.
POLLOCK: Right. And I think that comes from changing the kind of films that filmmakers are enthusiastic about creating. And I think what that comes from is an increased awareness of the impact of your medium on your audience.

HEFFNER: How do you think that comes about, Dale. How do you get the people in the industry to think about … I think they know … but ;you want them to be aware of the impact of what they do.

POLLOCK: You know, Dick, you and I both know that the one thing people in Hollywood rarely do is ever go to the movies. They go to screenings, they go to premieres, they very rarely go into a neighborhood theater and see a film that they don’t have a direct interest in. I think if they did that more often, they might gain a slightly different perspective.

HEFFNER: You mean they’d hear the audience reaction.

POLLOCK: They’s hear the audience reaction. And sometimes it might horrify them.

HEFFNER: You’re, you’re … you know, it’s funny. Here you are, the Dean of the school … and I think of you as an innocent, still. Because I knew you when we were both a lot younger, but that meant that you were very young. You really believe in the potential for making these people aware of what they’re doing. And that that will lead them to change their ways.

POLLOCK: I see it because I see my students and one of the reasons I took the job in North Carolina is because the film school wasn’t based in Los Angeles or New York, and what I found is my students, and I don’t mean, again, to paint them in angelic terms here, but there is a greater purity about what they’re trying to do because they’re less career oriented than students who are trying to break into the business in New York and Los Angeles. There’s more of an emphasis on regional story-telling, there’s more of an emphasis on different kinds of stories. Now, of course, I have students who come and want to use every four letter word, I have a number of first year scripts I just read that have students slitting each other’s throats, hanging each other. I mean, you know, you see these impulses play out. It’s also interesting in North Carolina we have a series …

HEFFNER: Wait a minute, I want to hear you finish that sentence … but our time is up, so stay where you are … we’ll say good-bye to the audience and we’ll continue in the next program. Okay?

POLLOCK: Okay. Thank you.

HEFFNER: Thanks, Dale Pollock.
HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. If you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send four dollars in check or money order to: The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, F.D.R. Station, New York, New York 10150

Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.

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