Friday, November 12, 2004


Loath as I am to side with Sinclair Broadcasting or post-Nipplegate-FCC-fearful prudes, especially against a man I admire as much as Steven Spielberg, I’m afraid that in this case I do (or did, seeing as how it’s all moot now).

The fact of the matter is, Saving Private Ryan – in its pure, unedited format – is not appropriate for all audiences. Nobody would argue with that. In fact, many people (myself included) believe that the film deserved an NC-17 from the MPAA (certainly more so than sixty seconds of puppet porn). Its brutality is what makes it such a powerful film. I wouldn’t want to see that violence watered down in any way… but nobody’s forcing anybody to show this movie on network TV. Maybe, just maybe, some movies aren’t meant to be seen on network TV (interrupted by plenty of peppy commercials, no less)? Especially when the horribly graphic first 24 minutes air during the eight o’clock (seven o’clock central/mountain time) family hour. If you want to see the all-guts, all-glory edition, get off your cheap, lazy ass and rent the DVD.

And I wouldn’t even be so quick to hop into bed with Sinclair and company if it were just the bloody mutilation that remained intact. But I see no reason why the “adult language” in Private Ryan is necessary to preserve the integrity of the film (at least not any more necessary than in countless adult-oriented movies that have been butchered for mass consumption – have you ever seen the TV-friendly cut of Pulp Fiction – although you might think it’d be comically short, it’s actually unbearably long). Why should this film get a pass on the use of the unholy “F-bomb” just because it’s subject matter is important?

The reason: Spielberg. The man has power (which I won’t begrudge him at all – he’s earned every ounce of it). If he says “jump,” a network will say “how high can we bid?” He (and he alone) can demand “uncut” as a make-or-break part of his broadcast licensing – and actually get it. But to paraphrase Jurassic Park, just because he can doesn’t mean he should. Unfortunately, like his pal Bill Clinton, I think maybe he does it because he can.

He did the same thing with Schindler’s List. In Malaysia, the notoriously strict national censors wouldn’t allow nudity in any films. They wanted to show the film with everything except the sex scene, but Spielberg refused to cut it. I understand preserving the artist’s integrity (particularly with a bona fide masterpiece), but if the subject matter and message is so important (as I believe it is), shouldn’t he have been more concerned with getting it seen by as many people as possible at all costs (short of diluting the depiction of the Holocaust’s atrocities, which cutting the bedroom scene would not have done in the slightest)?

He also made the same “uncensored” contractual agreement for Schindler’s List with NBC as he made with ABC for Saving Private Ryan (though for NBC, there was the added incentive of getting the rights to Jurassic Park). This broadcast also resulted in a small amount of controversy, and again, I have to somewhat agree with some critics I’d rather not. In this instance, two of the most unsavory politicians out there (both, coincidentally, recent U.S. Senate candidates): Tom Coburn and Dr. Alan Keyes.

I didn’t become aware of this controversy until about a month ago when I saw Coburn (who has since been elected Senator by Oklahoma) debate his opponent, Brad Carson, on Meet The Press. In the midst of a series of allegations, Carson charged that Coburn had said “that Schindler's List is an obscene movie that pollutes young children's minds...”

Now, this caught my attention. I figured only a Holocaust-denier like Hutton Gibson would describe Schindler’s List, as a whole, “obscene.” So I decided to do some Googling to see if there was some context for this statement. It turns out, Carson (along with many others back in 1997) made a rather damning oversimplification of Coburn’s fairly rational point [which isn’t to say that Coburn hasn’t made his share of asinine comments – check out this, or this, or hell – all of these].

What Coburn actually said back in 1997 was this:

"I cringe when I realize that there were children all across this nation watching this program. They were exposed to the violence of multiple gunshot head wounds, vile language, full frontal nudity and irresponsible sexual activity."
First of all, he was talking about the NBC broadcast of the film, not the film itself (there is a difference). I could find no record of him calling the film itself “obscene.” Is he fundamentally wrong for thinking those things? Wasn’t Schindler’s List rated R for a reason? Now, he may have gone overboard in the intensity of some of his rhetoric (I’m not sure that in a world where Chevy Chase’s talk show aired for six weeks you could reasonably say that NBC’s broadcast of Schindler’s List brought television “to an all-time low”), but were his points not valid?

Not if you asked such raging liberals as Jack Kemp, William Bennett and then-Republcian Senator Alfonse D’Amato, who had this to say: “To equate the nudity of Holocaust victims in the concentration camps with any sexual connotation is outrageous and offensive.”

Um, my memory may be a bit fuzzy because I haven’t seen Schindler’s List since it was released in theaters, but wasn’t there a sex scene that included a shot of a naked breast (as a thirteen year-old boy at the time, that’s not the sort of thing I would’ve forgotten – though it may be the sort of thing I’d have invented) independent of the nudity in the concentration camp shower scene?

Edie Roodman, director of the Jewish Federation of Oklahoma City, went a step further than Senator D’Amato in logical incoherence, stating: "To equate nudity in the Holocaust to nudity does not make sense. It proves that we have not done enough education." It certainly does, Edie. It certainly does.

In light of all this criticism, Coburn backed down and apologized: "My intentions were good, but I've obviously made an error in judgment in how I've gone about saying what I wanted to say." Certainly if a Democrat made a similar error in judgment in the way he spoke, Republicans would be quick to forgive and not harp on endlessly about it… right?

I'm sorry, back to 1997… So with all this bi-partisan attacking of Coburn, who leapt to his defense? Alan Keyes. If you read his defense, the first paragraph actually makes some good points. Then the next three paragraphs are completely off-base and reveal that this is all about cynically smearing Hollywood and the motives behind Schindler’s List. But that first paragraph is pretty good.

What that whole storm of controversy (and to some extent, this most recent brouhaha over Saving Private Ryan) indicates to me is that we need to separate a movie from its subject matter when it comes to criticism. Somebody should be allowed to attack Schindler’s List – whether for its use of nudity or its alleged schmaltzy, overhandedness – without being deemed as anti-Semitic, just as somebody should be allowed to slam Malcolm X without being labeled a racist or Philadelphia without being called a homophobe. In the end, these are all just movies (however powerful, moving and meaningful they may be to many), not sacred texts. People also need to remember that there’s a difference between public airwaves and cable/home video/movie theaters, and that there’s a difference between government censorship (wrong) and corporate censorship (a responsibility) – something that critics of Disney’s decision not to handle the political hot potato that was Fahrenheit 9/11 lost sight of.

* * * * *

That would be all I had to say about that, based on the initial reasons I was seeing for some ABC affiliates not showing Saving Private Ryan

But then I started seeing new excuses, and now I’m turning into a conspiracy nut, sniffing out ulterior motives.

It’s interesting that there was none of this uproar when ABC aired the same uncensored film in the pre-Nipplegate years of 2001 and 2002. However, rather than Janet’s slip of the nip or Bono’s slip of the tongue marking the difference between those simpler times and now, it seems there may be another important distinction between the last time Private Ryan was broadcast and this time: We weren’t in the middle of an unpopular, Republican president-led war back then.

Take a look at this quote:

"Now, after much concern and discussion about family viewing over past months, and with Americans at war across the world, it is the vivid depiction of violence combined with graphic language proposed to begin airing at 8 p.m. that has forced our decision," said Lee Armstrong, the station's vice president and general manager.
What should “Americans at war across the world” have to do with preempting a film that has never been accused of anything less than honoring our soldiers?

That, coupled with the discovery that Sinclair stations are among those preempting the broadcast, reminded me of their preemption of Nightline in April (because Ted Koppel wanted to demean our troops by naming all the casualties). Now, I don’t want to sound like Michael Moore here, but is it possible that this isn’t about the “F-bomb” at all, but rather the “B.O.B.” (“Bombs Over Baghdad” for all you Outkast illiterates)? Are these conservative outlets so afraid of anything that might make war look like the hell that it is (even a war that’s nearly-universally regarded as one of this nation’s greatest moments) that they would banish a film that’s being broadcast on November 11 as a tribute to our veterans under the smoke and mirrors excuse of “moral values?” I honestly don’t know and can’t presume. But all of a sudden, Sinclair’s passing-the-buck, legalese explanation rings a little less sincere:

Accordingly, although we do not personally believe that this movie isindecent in any manner, we believe the FCC guidelines and ABC's refusal to delay the broadcast require us to preempt the movie. It is unfortunate that we felt compelled to take this action, particularly in light of the need to honor the memory of this country's fallen heroes on Veteran's Day. It is similarly unfortunate, however, that the actions by a small but vocal group of individuals in the past have influenced the FCC to the extent that broadcasters are fearful of exercising their First Amendment rights, lest they result in fines by the FCC or action being taken against their licenses. We ask that our viewers join with us in letting the FCC and our elected officials know that censorship is dangerous and that the current rules have gone too far.

Happy Veterans’ Day!


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