Guest Column

When movies are like a toxic waste dump

Bob Levin September 8 1997
Guest Column

When movies are like a toxic waste dump

Bob Levin September 8 1997

When movies are like a toxic waste dump

Guest Column

Bob Levin

Saw Spawn the other day. Saw an entire airport obliterated before the opening credits. Saw a man lit like a barbecue and consumed in flames, screaming his wife’s name, only to return as the hell-bent, avenging Spawn with a very bad complexion. Saw a fat, flatulent clown transformed into an ill-tempered computermonster before having his head lopped off and melt on the floor like the Wicked Witch of the West. “I’m gonna nail that dirtbag,” is the sort of things these characters say, and “You’re a soulless corpse”—which is a fair description of the movie. And I saw all this in a theatre full of kids as young as five and six years old, who were no doubt relieved that, at least for now (the narrator threatened a sequel), Spawn has saved the world from doom. Or has he?

And here comes the truly treacherous part.

Start talking about kids and pop culture— movies, TV, music—and the next thing you sound like Dan Quayle or some slick-haired Bible Belter spouting hellfire-and-damnation.

You mount your pulpit or your soapbox and out comes the assertion that, far from saving civilization, Spawn—or the brains behind him, two fine Canadian boys, by-the-by— have, in their own modest way, contributed to its demise.

And then you think (or someone tells you),

Geez, lighten up. It’s just a stupid comic-book horror flick, OK? Superman, Spiderman—we used to read them by flashlight, remember?

And violence? How about The Three Stooges, even The Road Runner—did they turn a whole generation into sadistic tricksters and eyepokers? So what if kids get their jollies watching Jim Carrey squeeze out of a fake rhino’s butt. We survived Jerry Lewis, didn’t we?

And yet... and yet. And yet I wonder, here at the close of another summer movie season, what we’re doing to our kids.

I wonder about the endless bombardment of aliens, monsters, mayhem, explosions, punch-ups, profanities and all-around rotten attitude that we allow—nay, pay good money—to be rammed into our children’s heads. Video-violence, the experts tell us, makes kids more aggressive, less empathetic, more frightened of the world. And the standards keep slipping—remember the debate, a mere three years back, about whether the father lion’s death would be too upsetting for pint-sized viewers of The Lion King? How quaint.

I wonder, too, about the movie industry’s explanation. Studio bigwigs told The New York Times recently that they’re simply catching up to what kids and their parents want, that with more sophisticated fare on TV and the Internet—not to mention the reality of broken homes and domestic violence—children are growing up faster and

Allan Fotheringham is on assignment.

Bob Levin is Executive Editor of Maclean’s.

Aliens, monsters, mayhem, punchups, profanities and an all-around rotten attitude: so what’s a parent to do?

families are demanding more adult entertainment. ‘Today’s eightyear-olds are yesterday’s 12-year-olds,” said a man from Disney, which has seen animated smashes like Aladdin and The Lion King give way to disappointments like Pocahontas and Hercules.

Hey, you can’t argue with the marketplace, right? The kids’ wish, Hollywood’s command. So blow away some bad guys, unleash the killer dinos, crank up the special effects and the marketing machine. If parents have qualms—if they wish to resist the siren song of the TV trailer and the cereal-box tie-in—well, that’s what the P is for in Parental Guidance, the A in Adult Accompaniment. (Yeah, and that’s what the age restriction is for on cigarette sales and gosh, no, Joe Camel hasn’t tried to turn teens into teen smokers.)

And so kids plead to see the latest Lost World, Batman and Robin, Men in Black, Spawn. And mostly we take them—eager to please, happy to have things to do together in busy, disjointed lives. And sometimes it’s OK Men in Black may not be that good, but it’s the best of an otherwise bad lot, witty and amiable, with violence cartoony enough to keep it light. A certain eightyear-old gave it a thumbs-up, although in the midst of it one of his friends twice leaned over to ask the time.

Which, it says here, is precisely the point. Others have doubtless had different experiences, but mine tell me this: forget what the studio execs say. In fact, greet what your own kids say afterward with a certain skepticism. But watch them in the theatre: the tense, benumbed faces during the Batmans and Blacks', the amused, engaged looks during some nice, corny movie like, say, Alaska or Air Bud. Or Toy Story, which got the big-budget hype but was wonderful anyway, not because of its neat computer animation but because—as David Macfarlane noted in The Globe and Mail, responding to the Times piece—it was a toy story. Appealing characters, intriguing situations: what a concept. (Has it ever occurred to the Disney folks that Aladdin is simply a better movie than Pocahontas?) Even grown-up flicks can work—I’ve rarely seen more rapt faces, or answered more urgent and pertinent questions, than during Apollo 13.

So what’s a parent to do? The obvious: take care, check out what kids see, talk to them after. (None of which is easy, of course: adults have enough trouble finding a half-decent movie to see themselves—whaddaya think, honey, Stallone with a gut or Demi with a buzz cut?) And, sometimes, say no. No to the vile and valueless, to the exploitative—no for the same reason you wouldn’t take your family for a casual stroll through a toxic waste dump: it’s not healthy.

Terribly unhip sentiments, I’m afraid, the sort Spawn and its ilk would gleefully ridicule. “Are you done with this Hallmark moment?” the clown asks at the slightest hint of actual human feeling. “Because I can’t take any more of this sentimental crap.”

I can. Please: less Spawn, more sentimental crap.