Ethics and the Movies, Part II
VTR Date: October 20, 2000
Guest: Pollock, Dale
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THE OPEN MIND
Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Dale Pollock
Title: Ethics and The Movies, Part II
I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And this is the second of two programs with Dale Pollock, Dean of the School of Filmmaking at the North Carolina School of the Arts. Well, I first met Dean Pollock during the twenty years I commuted to Hollywood as Chairman of the film rating system and he worked at Variety, the movie business “bible”, then at the Los Angeles Times as its Chief Entertainment Correspondent. Finally becoming an accomplished film producer and executive himself. Now my guest is an academic, with whom I have been brought together after many years because Dateline NBC chose to interview each of us for a television segment related to an angry John McCain’s controversial Senate hearings on a Federal Trade Commission Report entitled, “The Marketing of Violent Entertainment to Children”.
Of particular interest is the fact that even as we record this program, Dean Pollock’s North Carolina staff is putting together the final details of Cinethics, the first national film ethics conference which some, he knows, will consider a veritable contradiction in terms.
Now, Dean Pollock, when we ended our first program you were saying something that I interrupted … let me …
POLLOCK: it was about my students in North Carolina, we have 220 young filmmakers, 60% of them come from our state. They’re making different kinds of stories than I saw film students in New York and Los Angeles make. And again, of course, they have to get some of the juvenile impulses out of their system … the ones to use every four letter word or to have students slitting each other’s throats or hanging each other. But what I’ve also found is last year, on our fourth year films, we didn’t have any films that had particularly violent content. And I think that’s because we approach it in a different way. We really make our students question what they’re saying and how they’re saying it. Now what helps us in a way … and I think it’s a challenge for them, is North Carolina has extremely restrictive laws concerning the depiction of sex, nudity and violence. And in fact, North Carolina is one of the only states where it is illegal for someone under the age of 18 to go see an R-rated film.
HEFFNER: You know …
POLLOCK: It’s a state law.
HEFFNER: I didn’t know that existed. I thought the MPAA had managed to …
HEFFNER: … void those laws.
POLLOCK: There is a state law in North Carolina, and that’s the one place that I’ve seen where theater admissions are really restricted. You have to show them an ID and it doesn’t matter if you’re there with a friend whose 21 or over 18, you have to be there with a parent. They’re quite strict about that. But because we’re a state institution, we’re particularly bound by the rules concerning the portrayal of sexual activity, nudity, violence and weapons. And I enforce those rules for my students rigorously because I want them to be forced to think of another way to present a scene. Another way to tell a story. Another way to introduce a character other than using the easy ways of showing somebody blowing someone away or some gratuitous sexual activity.
HEFFNER: What happens to your First Amendment advocate friends when they learn about North Carolina’s penchant for limitation.
POLLOCK: Well, try, how about our First Amendment-minded students who chafe at these restrictions. And I say, “Look, when you get out of here you may choose not to make films in North Carolina where you won’t be bound by these regulations. I say, “But also, you may be a better, smarter, more adept filmmaker from having to learn different ways of telling a story. And I think that’s really what a lot of this is about. It’s very easy now to throw in the visual effects of the special effects and the long gun battle, because then you don’t have to worry about dramatic and character development and good dialogue because the dialogue is the sound of punctuating fire works. I really feel that there are so many easy way outs now that artists aren’t nearly as challenged as they were. Go back and you look at the classic films from the 1930s and ‘40s and early ‘50s and you see a very different kind of story telling. Where it’s all about character, and it’s all about what characters are doing and what they’re saying, not who’s shooting at them.
HEFFNER: Now, if I understood our first program together, after all of these years of not seeing each other, you were saying that you believe that teaching film ethics … set aside all the puns about oxymorons, etc., that by teaching students, film students and you make the very interesting point that increasing people who are involved in the industry are people who have make a stop, an important stop at a film school. That if the film schools can … I was going to say “introduce” and I know you don’t mean “introduce” the idea of ethics in filmmaking, but push that concept, that when these people make their films, they will be better, more responsible filmmakers. Is that the thesis?
POLLOCK: That’s the hope. Now will that happen? Can you really change human behavior, can you change the creative current that flows through the industry at a given time or not. I’m not sure. But I think it’s only healthy for filmmakers to have examined these issues in the past and hopefully, if they find they grow from that experience, they continue that self-examination.
HEFFNER: Well, I wasn’t so much thinking about the “current of creativity”. I wasn’t so much thinking about the creative urge that may, in some instances lead to the kind of mayhem on the screen that, that we’ve become accustomed to. I was thinking about something else. I was thinking that the filmmaker is not an independent being. He is responding to what is going to be marketable because he’ll not get the funds to make the film he wants to make unless the people who own and run the studios have decided that this is going to make money. And if they believe that harsh violence, that harsh content is more likely in the long run, when you can’t count on the talent you want to train, you want to develop … it’s more likely to make money. When they’ve made that decision, what chance does the filmmaker you’re teaching have?
POLLOCK: The filmmaker has every chance, because the filmmaker is the creative force. Remember that all the studio executives are essentially reactive. They reactive to what comes out on the “spec” screen play market every week. They react to what new script has a lot of heat and a lot of buzz on it and those scripts tend to be the ones that are well written or have a high concept. There are lots of things that determine that in today’s market place. But the reason that “American Beauty” got made is because the script was superb. Now that doesn’t fit into the usual studio formula of what’s a marketable, sell-able movie. But it was an enormous financial success and it won the Academy Award for Best Picture. And why? Because it was an outstanding script. The studios are reactive to material. If good material of a different nature results in well-made films that are successful at the box office, that creative current shifts and we’ve seen it happen over and over again.
HEFFNER: Dale, my understanding, which is very limited and perhaps mistaken was that in the long run, when you have to think in terms of putting out a number of films a year, and when it’s so difficult to identify the truly creative, talent ridden film or script … the “American Beauty” script, that you hedge your bets by betting on those films that, because they’re “excessive”, whatever that means, because they’ve got strong content, sexual, in terms of language, but particularly in terms of violence are going to titillate the audiences and get good box office. Not the best box office, but in the long run you’re better off in betting on the non-creative, let’s depend upon ratcheting up violence film or films.
POLLOCK: I think there’s clearly always going to be “Mission Impossible 2″ is going to be the dominant film. Now do I feel that was an extreme case of violence? No. It’s a big, stupid movie. But big, stupid movies are always going to do well in, in the summer. What I think is important is that filmmakers begin to realize there are other stories to tell, there are other ways to tell stories, and if you do a really good job of that you will find an audience. And an increasing number of slightly off-beat, out of the box kind of movies are making it. They don’t all make, “Almost Famous” which is, I think, a lovely little film that’s out right now is considered a failure. It cost $60 million, it’s only made $27 million. So not every film is going to do what “American Beauty” did, or “What Being John Malkovich” did. But the point is when you think and you come at it from a different way, audiences will respond if the quality is there. And isn’t this where we should be putting our creative energies? Not into making effects that make blood curdling stomach-wrenching violence more assaultive, but into trying to create some stories. It’s not about just up-lifting the human spirit. That’s not what I’m calling for. It’s not … but what I am saying is, is that “wait a minute, let’s think about the message you’re putting out”. You know most artists like to sign their name to their work. And filmmakers love to put it on the beginning of a movie. But I’m not sure they always want the audience walking out remembering that they’re the people responsible for this mess you just saw for the last two hours.
HEFFNER: Then why was it, Dale, that in the rating system I so often came up against, had to come up against, creative people who were saying “you can’t do this to me. You caught me with a harsh rating for my harsh film, but that’s because of my harsh studio that calls for harsher and harsher content”. What are you calling for? A renaissance of morality and of awareness first and then of a strong moral stand on the part of the film creator?
POLLOCK: Well, I would only hope for a renaissance. But, yes, it is some sort of … first, I think, it’s got to start with the individual who creates the work. And I’m sorry, I don’t believe that studios dictate as much as creators blame them for. I, I essentially see studios and financiers as reactive. I don’t think they’re saying “give me a script on that, give me a script on that”. They’re reacting to what’s created. Now once they see what’s created, they may try to push it one way or another and if you have a film that has a certain amount of violence, the studio realizes “well, if we make this a hard R, that young male audience will really go to it, so let’s push it this way, and we’ll give ;you another $5 million dollars for effects”. How may filmmakers are going to say, “No, no, no. I don’t want another $5 million for my budget”.
HEFFNER: Will your students, having come through you conference on movie ethics say, “No, no, no, don’t give me the extra $5 million”. Is that what your hope is/
POLLOCK: Well, when I show “Natural Born Killers” and a number of my students say, “That film shouldn’t have been made”, I am somewhat encouraged. When I show a film like “In The Company of Men”, the film about two guys essentially torturing a deaf girl by both pretending to fall in love with her. And I say to my students, “You seen anything wrong with this film?”. What if they were doing it to an African-American? What if they were doing it to a Jew? And all of a sudden they begin to see films in a different way, then I think I’m accomplishing something.
HEFFNER: Well, you know perfectly well that I hope that you are. What’s your guess, as you send students to the Hollywood mill, to the commercial film mill, whether it’s Hollywood or wherever else it might be, that they are going to become more aware of their social responsibility …
POLLOCK: I think in …
HEFFNER: … for each individual creation
POLLOCK: … I hope that in a world that is increasingly shrinking culturally, and therefore the impact of the message you put out is going to come back to you much faster now. It used to be that if you did a film, it was a few months after you delivered it before it was released, then it was a longer period before it went from the first run theaters to the second run theaters, then maybe eventually to network TV. Now your movies’ on cable three months after it’s out. It’s on pay-per-view three weeks after it’s out. It’s going to be released all over the world very shortly in simultaneous fashion to reduce film piracy. So you’re seeing that things are boomeranging around much faster now. And I think the impact is faster and the message comes back to you faster. So I think that will have an impact on how filmmakers approach their work. But I think the time is drawing near were if the industry … the industry’s creative people don’t hold themselves accountable, somebody else will.
HEFFNER: What do you mean by that?
POLLOCK: Oh, I think the idea of government regulation is going to become increasingly popular if the kind of violent content that we’re seeing continues unchecked.
HEFFNER: Do you think that you see signs of that effectively now … not just noise … not just posturing. Do you see signs of that now?
POLLOCK: I see it now in the Gore/Lieberman campaign which I think is shocking to a lot of people in Hollywood because they’ve supported Democratic candidates for so long because they feel they’re going to back them up when it comes down to these battles, and all of a sudden you’ve got two politicians who are slamming them around.
HEFFNER: You know, it’s interesting that you mention that. Our program, taped today, toward the end of October won’t be seen for some time. But in this morning’s Variety, Daily Variety, the statistics are that the difference between the contributions to the Republicans and the Democrats is not all that great. Yes, more goes … more of Hollywood money goes to the Democrats; more of media money goes to the Democrats. But a very, very sizeable amount goes to the Republicans. So that’s playing both sides …
HEFFNER: … of the aisle. But the question I really raise for you is … well, you know in the McCain Hearings, when Senator Hollings of South Carolina, your neighboring state had his chance, he said, in that wonderful accent of his, he said, “You know this has been going on …” and he had this book in front of him, he said “there were hearings that we held in the fifties and then in the sixties and in the seventies and in the eighties and in the nineties and here it is in the year 2000 and we’re continuing to hold hearings about violence in the media and we don’t do anything about it.”
POLLOCK: Well, popular culture is always the whipping boy for whatever ails society. And I think we saw this … it used to be comic books, then it was rock music, then it was television, then it was movies in the late sixties and early seventies. But I think one factor has really changed here. And that is the assaultive power of visual and auditory effects.
HEFFNER: And you think that will change the, the effect of this material upon political action.
POLLOCK: I think in the same way it amplifies the effect on film-goers, it will amplify the effect in Congress.
HEFFNER: You know, for whatever it’s worth, I totally agree with you. It’s the thing that I fear the most. It was the thing that supposedly led to the rating system. And yet the violence has gone up and up and up because our ratings are based upon what the public will accept, not what’s right or wrong. And so …
POLLOCK: And, of course, right or wrong is very … are very difficult words to use when you’re talking about art. You know about creativity. And it’s why I, you know, I stop short of saying there are wrong movies to be made, and they should never be made … I don’t believe in that. But I really do believe that if you make one of those films you’d better be ready to stand four-square behind it and be prepared to defend why you did what you did. Because I think that’s part of being an artist. You have to be able to be accountable for your work, good or bad. People want the good, they don’t ever want to deal with the bad.
HEFFNER: Dale, have you ever found a filmmaker who didn’t stand behind his work and say “Gratuitous violence? I don’t know what gratuitous means. Every moment in that film was absolutely necessary”.
HEFFNER: “And those so-and-so’s in the rating system are telling me therefore it’s an X or an NC-17. Off with their heads”.
POLLOCK: I made a film called “SFW … So Effing What” and we used the f-word so many times in that film, I think Entertainment Weekly said we held the record … 187 times. Now I look back … am I proud that I made that film? I’m not. I’m embarrassed by it. And I wish I had been more embarrassed at the time. Because I don’t think ultimately that the film was worth the effort and time and energy that we put into it. Now, it didn’t do much at the box office, it’s become a cult item among teenagers now, which I find even more unsettling. But I have to bear responsibility, that was my idea turning that book into a movie.
HEFFNER: Yeah, but you’re personal conscience seems to be a little more active …
HEFFNER: … than that of most of your former colleagues …
POLLOCK: Well …
HEFFNER: … in the industry.
POLLOCK: … well the reflective life encourages that. And academic does encourage you to sort of look inward. But I think that if I can train filmmakers now to begin that process earlier in life and have it be a joint process with … at the same time you analyze how you did creatively, you try to sort of judge on how you did morally. And again, the idea is not to go back and let’s just film Bible stories, even though those may be more violent than anything else …
POLLOCK: … we’ve talked about.
HEFFNER: If done with the modern techniques, yes.
POLLOCK: [Laughter] But I do think that you have to have a dual track of how you look at your work. And on one track you’re looking at have you succeeded artistically in what you set out to do. And the other track has to be, what’s your own moral judgment on what you’ve created?
HEFFNER: Dale, I’m always reminded of a very … now very famous actor … who did very well and produced his own film and directed it and acted in … and it was a horror in many ways for its sexual violence … combination of the two, not just one alone. And we gave the film an X and he was so honest when he came to appeal our X and he lost the appeal, but he was so honest, he got up and said, “I was taught that a man’s worth is measured by his wealth. You can’t give me this X because you are taking away my money, you are taking away my material goods”. And we seem increasingly to be living in a materialistic world. Why do you think that these nice young people, when the leave your school aren’t going to, as they move into the marketplace pick up the values, or non-values of the marketplace?
POLLOCK: They probably will do so, they may well do so. But hopefully underneath that there is now a strata of self-questioning. A strata of asking yourself “Am I doing something unethical?”. “Am I making a morally reprehensible choice in the story, or the way I’m choosing to tell that story?”. If we have that nagging at the back of their minds, if we have these pricks of conscience, then I feel on some level we’ve made a step forward over what’s happening today, which is to me a total disconnect between what we create and the impact it has on people sitting in the dark.
HEFFNER: You know what’s going to be the result of that? We’re all going to come knocking at your door and say, “Move over, Dean, the only place to be is in the academic world or outside of the marketplace”.
POLLOCK: Well, I hope that by training young filmmakers we’ll prove that’s not the case.
HEFFNER: Okay, let me, let me … we’re near the end of our program, let me ask you about the legislation we just touched on a moment ago … the possibility of regulation. How realistic is that?
POLLOCK: I hope it’s not realistic. I think it would be a very, very sad and frightening day if this country stepped in for the first time to regulate intellectual content. I think it’s a dangerous precedent, I think it has no business under our Constitution. The First Amendment proves for the free expression of ideas.
HEFFNER: Are these ideas?
POLLOCK: Oh, I think they are ideas, it’s how they’re executed that becomes morally questionable.
HEFFNER: You say, they are ideas, it’s how they are executed. The … I guess the question is … are we ever going to find a time when, in this area, as in so many other areas of American life marketplace values have been subordinated to the public interest and the public good. And we’ve moved in so many other areas from a “buyer beware” to a “seller beware” philosophy, and I wondered whether we might not be moving in that direction, too, in this, I would call it, pseudo idea area.
POLLOCK: I, I think there’s truth to what you’re saying, but I also think the same dynamic exists that has existed for the last 100 years, which is the lights go down in a room filled with strangers and something magical happens up on a screen. That is a process, that I think, needs to be left untouched. That dynamic is something wonderful. Now the question is, what do you do with the images that are projected through that light. And are those images that are going to delight and entrance and enlighten and inform? Or are those images that are going to denigrate, destroy and make things ugly. And although I feel there’s room for both voices, it seems that we’re headed down a certain path that is going to lead to an increasing exploitation of people and character and drama.
HEFFNER: Are you concerned only for the exposure of young people, youngsters, our children to that kind of material?
POLLOCK: Absolutely not. I think this is something that has a deleterious effect on the entire audience, and on our culture as a whole. And I think it cheapens and degrades it. And to me that’s at cross purposes with art’s intrinsic nature.
HEFFNER: Why is that at cross-purposes with art’s intrinsic …
POLLOCK: Because I think art is ultimately about in some way growing the human spirit. Not diminishing it. I think it’s … in some way, enlightening us to emotions, incidents, people that we otherwise may … would remain closed to. I think that’s the inherent purpose of art, is to expand, not to contract, not to diminish.
HEFFNER: And there never was a pornographer or a maker of violent materials who didn’t claim, insist that he was expanding the human spirit by what he did.
POLLOCK: Well, our capacity for self-rationalization knows no bounds
HEFFNER: That’s a good point in which to end our program. Thank you Dean Pollock for joining me today on The Open Mind.
POLLOCK: Thanks, Dick.
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.