Bringing Art to Court

The new censors


Rose Dyson wouldn't quite cop to being a censor. She had bragged about how her group, Canadians Concerned About Violence in Entertainment, had helped keep Howard Stern off the air in part of her country; she had endorsed the V-chip, though she felt it would be "only 10 percent of the solution"; she wanted to sue filmmakers whose movies may have prompted copycat crimes. She even admitted to supporting the old "Suicide Solution" case from the '80s, in which a father took Ozzy Osbourne to court over the song he was convinced had driven his son to kill himself.

But the word censor has negative connotations, and whenever I told Dyson that she sounded like one to me, she'd say, "I think we need to redefine censorship." She never offered an alternative definition.

We were sitting in a bar in Athens, Ohio, where we were both attending a conference of media critics. I was there because I wanted the media to be more open. She was there because she wanted them to be more peaceful.

Video violence, she told me, was a "cheap industrial pollutant," and she didn't mean that metaphorically. The companies that "manufacture" violent movies, she explained, should be as responsible for their products' effects as a factory that spits real poisons into the air or water. Nor did it matter what the filmmakers' intentions were: While she didn't buy the argument that Natural Born Killers was an invective against media violence (implying that she either hadn't seen the movie or wasn't very bright), it wouldn't matter to her if it was. "Artistic merit," she said, "should not be a defense."

That was the one point where we agreed, since I figure the First Amendment protects bad art as well as good.

I had brought up Natural Born Killers because it is the target of an increasingly notorious lawsuit. Four years ago in Louisiana, 19-year-old Sarah Edmondson shot and paralyzed a convenience store clerk, Patsy Byers, as part of a multi-state crime spree. Byers' husband responded by suing Time Warner for releasing the film and Oliver Stone for directing it, arguing that the movie had incited the crime. (Edmondson and her boyfriend say they watched it more than 20 times before they started their spree.) Despite the case's obvious First Amendment problems, the trial judge agreed to hear it, citing a similar suit against Paladin Press as a precedent (see "The Day They Came to Sue the Book," page 59). Now the Stone case itself is a precedent: With it moving forward, no one has stopped a similar suit blaming the film The Basketball Diaries–along with several other cultural artifacts, including some violent video games and two nudie Web sites–for the shooting deaths of three girls in Kentucky.

The lawsuits have been endorsed by the usual alliance of social conservatives and liberal social engineers, the same combination that's made war on cinematic speech since the New Dealers and the National Legion of Decency united behind the Hays Office and its infamous Production Code. But this is uncharted territory. As bad as the old censorship was, it did not require artists and entertainers to measure in advance every possible effect their work could have on every possible person in their audience.

Slowly, a debate about art has degenerated into a debate about externalities. And that's very dangerous indeed. After all, culture consists of nothing but spillover effects.

The threshold for censorship used to be "redeeming social merit": Any positive effect was, in theory, enough to let a book be. The Dyson standard turns this on its head: It says any negative effect is sufficient to snuff something out.

In other words, it outlaws art itself. From Hamlet to Huck Finn to Happiness, most great works of art (and a lot of lesser efforts) are ambiguous, or at least open-ended; they invite debate, demanding different responses from the audience. Any really interesting movie about violence is going to leave some issues open, if only because so many of the questions it will pose will not lend themselves to pat answers. Some find this insightful; for the Dyson crowd, it's inciteful.

Is True Lies a mindless action movie, a parody of mindless action movies, or a corrosive satire of the American family? Is Fargo a satire of bourgeois virtues or a defense of them? In the Godfather trilogy, is the Mafia admirable or repulsive? In each case the answer is "all of the above," by the filmmakers' deliberate design.

And even if only one answer is correct–even if the director has a pat point to make–what then? Natural Born Killers is obviously opposed to violence, yet it nonetheless may have inspired some violent behavior. Nasty Nazi movies like The Eternal Jew were made to foment anti-Semitism, but they're sometimes shown today to fan fears of bigotry.

You never know to what uses your work will one day be put: When the good folks at CBS created The Bob Newhart Show, they never dreamed they were also inventing a drinking game. (How many people have been killed by drivers inebriated by a round of "Hi, Bob"? Should their families be allowed to sue Newhart?)

Some audiences impose weird new meanings onto books and movies, drawing them into elaborate personal mythologies. In Crumb, Terry Zwigoff's documentary about the cartoonist R. Crumb and his family, one of the artist's brothers discusses the weird, vaguely sexual fantasies he projected onto Byron Haskin's film of Treasure Island as a boy, filling notebooks with his take on the story and bullying his siblings into re-enacting key scenes.

No one at Disney could have imagined that their movie would have inspired such a reaction, any more than the makers of Star Trek could have foreseen that their series would inspire a new genre of fan pornography, centered on the potential liaisons between Spock and Kirk. Two years ago, a crank book called The Bible Code became a best-seller because it allowed readers a new way to engage in the ancient art of finding whatever meanings they pleased in the Bible. God, presumably, is turning in his Nietzschean grave.

There are plenty of good reasons to be against the Natural Born Killers and Basketball Diaries lawsuits, from their chilling effect on free speech to their willingness to let criminals disavow responsibility for their acts. But the suits are wrong on their own terms, too. Sure, art can be an influence for ill, just as it can do good. Courts do not award extra dollars to entertainers for the unforeseen positive byproducts of their work. Why penalize them for the less fortunate consequences of what they do?