It was so obvious that no one thought of it until now. Reacting to Washington's stepped-up scrutiny of Hollywood's contribution to teen violence, the National Association of Theater Owners, which represents about two-thirds of the nation's movie screens, last week announced a firm policy requiring theaters to card unaccompanied minors attempting to enter R-rated movies. The Video Software Dealers Association, a leading home-video organization, subsequently endorsed the same type of enforcement for R-rated video rentals. Following the Senate's passage of the Juvenile Crime Bill (which allocates $2 million to investigating the creative practices of entertainment companies), and the chorus of criticism emanating from Clinton as well as Republicans seeking to steer the debate away from gun control, the theater owners' pseudo-concession is Hollywood's way of saying "Look, I don't want any trouble."
As empty gestures go, there's a strategy behind this latest industry response to the scapegoating of Hollywood in the aftermath of Littleton. By promising to do something they were supposed to do anyway (enforce the voluntary ratings system), theater owners hope to ward off more coercive legislationlike making it a federal crime to sell a ticket to a minor. At the same time, this latest industry countermove could shift scrutiny away from the supposedly mind-warping content of R-rated films to the narrower issue of denying underage access to the mind-warping content. (This would please both industry insiders and Beltway money hunters seeking more Hollywood cash; back in 1996, three top Democratic fundraisers raised more than $8 million from the entertainment industry for Clinton's reelection campaign.)
But all of these calculations assume a systematic response to this issue. Instead, the post-Littleton blame game strictly adheres to the obsessive-compulsive pattern of most self-cleansing rituals. Right now, any symbolic gesture or hard-line posturing that promotes "healing" and/or teen exorcism gets airplay, be it carding teens at movie theaters, changing film titles (Killing Mrs. Tingle has become Teaching Mrs. Tingle), or mentoring wayward goths. Yet, even as Band-Aid of the week, this latest call for box-office vigilance has somewhat perverse implications. Following the logic of the argument, if teens exposed to violent films will commit violent acts, does stricter enforcement simply imply "wait until you're 17 to kill people"? Or does the hypnotic, mimicry-inducing effect of film violence suddenly wear off when one is legally allowed to see an R-rated movie?
Then there's the challenge of policing teens bent on seeing Eyes Wide Shut this summer. In the labyrinthine world of the multiplex, where boys and girls roam with a Vietcong-like mastery, point-of-purchase is one thing, point-of-access another. Unless there's a way to rouse the popcorn-dispensing dude to a heightened sense of the moral dimensions of his $6.50-an-hour job, it's doubtful theater owners have the muscle to squelch the pervasive teen scheme of buying PG-13 tickets and then ducking into R-rated movies. As James Edwards III, president and CEO of the 725-screen Edwards Theatres Circuit, told Daily Variety, "Short of putting up barbed wire and armed guards, I'm not sure how you can completely eradicate the problem."
Indeed, sneaking into R-rated movies is a rite of passage for every American teenager, and stricter enforcement simply heightens the transgressive rush. Today's media-savvy teens are even hip to the short- attention-span pattern of all public policy debates. Thirteen-year-old Jason Salmon, who last summer glided with ease from Godzilla to R-rated Bulworth in a Brooklyn multiplex, seemed blasé about the new restrictions: "They'll enforce it for a while," he shrugged, "and then everyone will forget about it."
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