restricted access 2. Retreating from the World of Revolution: Controversies over Screen Violence at the Dawn of the Reagan Era
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53 2 retreating from the world of revolution controversies over screen violence at the dawn of the reagan era movies have always been battlegrounds on which various cultural wars have been waged, but in the 1980s those wars sharply increased in terms of both their tenor and their public visibility. More important, the skirmishes over movie content that erupted into public protest and media coverage reflected an increasingly aggressive sensibility on both sides of the political spectrum. That is, conservatives and liberals openly waged war against various films in an effort to influence cinematic representation and thereby lay claim to its influence. While the two groups tended to protest against the same films for decidedly different reasons—conservatives argued on traditional religious/moral grounds while liberals argued against the negative representations of historically marginalized groups—the simple fact that so many films became lightning rods for public controversy during the 1980s is testament to their perceived importance in defining the culture. The year 1980 alone saw a number of films that drew various levels of public controversy, including Windows, a critically panned thriller about a woman (Talia Shire) who becomes her lesbian neighbor’s object of obsession, and Monty Python’s Life of Brian, a religious parody from the well-known British comedy troupe. However, this chapter will consider three specific case studies of films produced in the early 1980s that were controversial specifically because of their use of screen violence: Cruising, directed by William Friedkin; Dressed to Kill, directed by Brian De Palma; and White Dog, directed by Sam Fuller. These films and their attendant controversies were crucial to the changing nature of Hollywood in the early years of the 1980s because each drew attention to the downside Kendrick Ch2.indd 53 2/5/09 7:43:22 AM RETREATING FROM THE WORLD OF REVOLUTION 54 of public controversy in response to screen violence, thus encouraging studios to steer clear of such projects in favor of more conservative and audience-friendly—though not necessarily less violent—action films. In some way, each of these films was aesthetically and ideologically in tune with the previous decade and therefore ran into myriad problems and controversies in marketing and theatrical distribution in the more conservative era of the 1980s. Because of the manner in which Cruising, Dressed to Kill, and White Dog drew attention to the relationships among the Hollywood industry, its audiences, and various social groups, each of these films can be defined as a “focusing event,” a concept that derives from political science, particularly the study of policy-making and the means through which significant legislative change occurs. It has also been used in the study of mass communication , particularly in terms of agenda setting. Thomas Birkland defines a potential focusing event as “an event that is sudden, relatively rare, can be reasonably defined as harmful or revealing the possibility of potentially greater future harms, inflicts harms or suggests potential harms that are or could be concentrated on a definable geographic area or community of interest, and that is known to policy makers and the public virtually simultaneously” (22). As this definition suggests, focusing events are usually catastrophic happenings such as natural disasters, nuclear accidents, or terrorist attacks that demand attention and some kind of change in existing policy or the creation of new policy. However, focusing events are not “uniform or similar; they occur in a variety of contexts with quite different consequences” (Worrall 323). Cruising, Dressed to Kill, and White Dog functioned as focusing events that forced the major studios to reevaluate the kinds of projects they were funding and distributing. As events, the releases of these three films differ somewhat from Birkland’s definition in that they were not necessarily “sudden,” as the production of a feature-length motion picture is a long, intensive process, often years in the making. However, they were “rare” in the sense that these films were more in tune with filmmaking of the previous decade than they were of the typical mainstream films being produced in the Reagan era. Also, they were certainly considered “harmful ” in two senses: Significant (and vocal) segments of the public viewed them as harmful in terms of their salacious content, which they believed was detrimental to the impressionable minds of viewers, and the studios viewed them as harmful from a public relations standpoint, namely that they would make...