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Jewish World Review March 3, 2000 /26 Adar I, 5760

Michael Medved

Michael Medved
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Family friendly video versions would provide choice, not censorship --
FOR FILM-GOING FAMILIES, there's good news and bad news in the acclaimed new movie, "Topsy-Turvy."

The good news is that this British import, voted Best Film of 1999 by the New York Film Critics Circle, provides a funny and touching view of the immortal words-and-music collaboration of Gilbert and Sullivan.

The bad news is that despite the film's fascinating focus on the creative process behind "The Mikado"-- a jolly operetta that's delighted both children and adults for more than a hundred years-- the movie actively discourages today's kids from going to see it. "Topsy-Turvy" bears the restrictive "R" rating, which means that audience members below 17 won't be admitted unless accompanied by adults. Accordingly, many discerning parents will rule out the film as appropriate fare for their children not only in its theatrical run, but even after it's released on video.

What, one may reasonably wonder, could possibly earn the story behind "Mikado" a racy "R" rating?

No, director Mike Leigh does not portray the comical Lord High Executioner grimly discharging his duties by chopping off heads with graphic and bloodstained specificity. What gives his film its restrictive classification is, rather, an odd sequence barely two minutes long, showing the great musician Sir Arthur Sullivan visiting a Paris bordello. Several semi-nude employees of this establishment entertain him with bawdy versions of giggly music hall numbers. Additional dark references in the film to drug abuse and abortion would have probably earned it a PG-13 rating, but without the one scene of ditties and titties the picture never would have crossed the border into "R" territory.

Perhaps Mike Leigh, as an independent-minded Englishman, doesn't understand the commercial price his project will pay for these fleeting images. All available statistics on box-office performance show that movies bearing the scarlet letter "R" average far smaller audiences than titles released as PG-13, PG or G (has anyone checked the recent box office returns for "Toy Story 2" or "Stuart Little"?). In the specific case of "Topsy-Turvy," surely my own three children aren't the only kids in the country who love Gilbert & Sullivan, but who won't be going to the theatre to see the film under these circumstances.

Of course, the filmmakers may feel that their adults-only approach represents some sort of artistic imperative. After all, part of the film goes to great lengths to stress that all the gaiety and charm of Gilbert and Sullivan productions actually emerged from harsh and somewhat troubled lives. It's easy to understand why Leigh and his colleagues might insist on their brief brothel scene when displaying their labor of love at the local multiplex.

But what about its eternal afterlife on video? Wouldn't this film, like so many others, benefit from an alternate video version, slightly (and lightly) edited for more general audiences? This "family friendly" edition need not replace the original "R"-rated version. It would find its place alongside the unaltered "director's cut" in all video stores-offering consumers expanded choice, not censorship.

This concept of special, appropriately designated "PG" video editions of popular or important films is neither novel nor radical. After all, Hollywood already edits major titles for airline viewing. For nearly three decades, the studios have sanctioned the removal of a few four-letter words or glimpses of nudity or images of bloody mutilation, so that no midair passengers need feel assaulted or offended. Why not make these slightly sanitized airline versions available as a video alternative for those consumers who would prefer them?

The Dove Foundation in Grand Rapids, Michigan and several other media monitoring organizations have repeatedly pressed the entertainment establishment to offer such alternatives. Despite letters, petitions, and even high level meetings, the pop culture potentates refuse to budge. In fact, they've reacted angrily to any entrepreneurs who attempt to serve this obvious and untapped market. In 1998, a small-town video store in Utah offered a special service for customers after they had purchased their own copies of "Titanic"-snipping out a few seconds of nudity to produce a toned-down "PG" version of this wildly popular "PG-13" blockbuster. Rather than applauding the store's initiative, the studios threatened to punish this initiative with legal action.

Hollywood may claim that the underlying issue is one of artistic integrity, or the inviolable nature of the filmmaker's vision, but how then can you explain the existence of the carefully altered airline versions - not to mention occasional edits for broadcast on network TV? A similar flexibility in the video store would obviously serve the entertainment industry's self interest.. Providing supplementary family editions of key titles would generate new revenue in sales and rentals, without in any way interfering with the enjoyment of those who prefer unexpurgated originals. This stubborn refusal to make extra money in a harmless bid to appease a long-standing public demand represents the sort of logical anomaly that W.S. Gilbert himself might have decried:

. How quaint the ways of paradox
At common sense she gaily mocks!

When a mighty industry purportedly dedicated to maximizing profit refuses to do so, pointlessly alienating family audiences from enjoying any version of their product, then the entertainment world has indeed been turned topsy turvy.

JWR contributor, author and film critic Michael Medved hosts a daily three-hour radio talk show broadcast in more than 120 cities throughout the United States. His latest book, written together with his wife, is Saving Childhood : Protecting Our Children from the National Assault on Innocence . You may contact him by clicking here.


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11/03/99: Religion is unfairly blamed for the world's wars
10/06/99: Hollywood again makes drug use seem hip
08/25/99: NAACP attacks the wrong TV target
08/16/99: Government declares we're in a post-marriage age?

© 2000, Michael Medved