For art's sake

Dallas congressman Bryant moves to bar 'defacement' of movies

Dallas congressman John Bryant had felt a lot of conflicting emotions watching Frank Capra's classic 1946 tearjerker It's a Wonderful Life, but he'd never numbered anger among them. Then one Christmas a few years ago, as the Democratic legislator sat in his living room watching the film on TV for the umpteenth time, he became absolutely livid.

The film, which is often hailed by critics as one of the finest examples of black-and-white photography in Hollywood history, had been drastically altered, "colorized" in bright, blotchy hues by Turner Entertainment, which pioneered the process--ostensibly to make black-and-white films more accessible to a modern audience.

Bryant had been hearing about colorization for months but had never seen an example of it. "I thought it was obscene," Bryant recalls. "This great movie had been painted over with these cartoonlike pastel colors that completely distorted the great work the filmmakers did with shadows and textures and the gray scale. The film had been defaced."

Moved to action, Bryant joined with U.S. Rep. Bob Mrazek (D-N.Y.) and others, attaching his name to bills that would prevent colorization and other forms of technical alteration from ever taking place without the consent of filmmakers.

Their efforts ultimately failed. But the controversy raised a national stir, bringing some of old Hollywood's legendary stars (including James Stewart and a terminally ill John Huston) and some of its brightest modern lights (Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen, Meryl Streep, Robert Redford) to Capitol Hill, where their pleas on behalf of respecting moviemakers' original intentions gained a worldwide audience.

This congressional session, Bryant is entering the artists' rights fray one more time. His name is attached to two new pieces of legislation designed to fix "noneconomic authorship rights," or "moral rights," into federal law.

According to Bryant, the term refers to the rights of the "authors" of a movie (designated in the bill as the director, the cinematographer, and the screenwriter) to protect the ideal, finished, agreed-upon version of their work--meaning the cut of a movie that plays in first-run theaters.

The bills take some of their language from similar legislation that's been in place in various European countries for decades. They are intended to establish an artist's right to decide the visual and technical circumstances under which an average citizen views his work. They fly in the face of the cherished American notion that if you buy something--be it a parcel of land, an antique dresser, or a major motion picture--you can do whatever the hell you please with it. And they would substantially weaken a key portion of U.S. copyright law dealing with motion pictures--the portion that stipulates that for legal purposes, a movie studio is the "author" of a film.

Although few people besides film buffs usually notice such things, when movies leave the sanctity of first-run theaters and are exhibited in other forms--from rented videotapes to TV network and cable broadcasts to exhibition on airlines--movie studios nearly always permit them to be altered from their original form. The alterations can be as obvious as removing "objectionable" scenes of sex, violence, or harsh language for broadcast on NBC. They can also take subtler forms, from cropping the sides of widescreen movies to better fit the square dimensions of TV to electronically speeding up films to suit the constraints of commercial-packed network time slots. (The latter process is achieved by electronically snipping out every sixth or seventh frame of a movie--which, in case you were wondering, may explain why bulky menopausal action star William Shatner seemed to move so much more quickly the last time you watched Star Trek V on network television.)

Two separate bills are circulating on Capitol Hill to prevent such alterations.

One, simultaneously introduced in the House and Senate by Bryant and Wyoming Republican Senator Alan Simpson. It requires that any party who plans to show a film after its first theatrical run contact the "authors" of the film and provide a detailed list of any alterations they have made. Under the bill, if one or more of the film's "authors" object to any proposed changes, the altered movie must carry a disclaimer at the beginning listing each specific objection.

If producers fail to heed this new law, the "authors" of a movie could sue them in court.

The second bill has much sharper teeth. Co-sponsored by Bryant and Massachusetts congressman Barney Frank, this bill also would require would-be alterers to notify a film's "authors" of any changes they plan to make. But it would also permit the authors of a motion picture to seek a federal injunction to prevent objectionable changes from being made--provided the artists could prove that proposed changes to their movie would "substantially degrade" its artistic value.

This provision is intended as a last resort for filmmakers who believe their work has been mangled so badly that it no longer represents their original intent. To legally halt anyone from changing a movie, a movie's authors would have to "prove that the changes are so radical that they would harm the reputation of the artist." It is purposefully worded in extreme terms, says Bryant, because, "That's a serious charge, and it ought to be a very tough burden to prove."

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