For art's sake

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."

But some folks in Hollywood aren't reassured by Bryant's caveat.
At a convention in Los Angeles last month organized by the Artists' Rights Foundation--an entity created to protect artists' visions from alteration--the congressman found himself embroiled in a nasty public debate with Jack Valenti, the pugnacious president of the Motion Picture Association of America. Besides overseeing the industry's voluntary ratings board, the MPAA is also the most financially and politically powerful advocate of the rights of producers, studio heads, network bosses, and others with a financial stake in altering motion pictures. Valenti told Bryant he thought his two bills represent unwarranted government interference in the industry.

An associate of the MPAA president, who declined comment for this article, faxed the Observer a statement of Valenti's position.

"Videocassettes, broadcast TV, cable TV, satellite TV, and the airlines' in-flight movies give millions of Americans the chance to see movies they might have missed in the theaters," writes Valenti. "For decades, movie producers have used various technologies to adapt their films to video. The adaptations are made by skilled professionals using state-of-the-art technology. Now some directors are saying that producers should not have the freedom to make necessary adaptations using technologies that have been customary in the industry for many years. They want to control any changes to a complete work through a European body of laws known as 'moral rights.'"

Valenti's statement defends the members of the MPAA, stating, "MPAA member companies are movie lovers--they do not deface their films."

It also declares that "moral rights" issues should be decided through collective bargaining, not legislation, and claims that any labels that reveal an artist's objections to changes "disparage the film."

Valenti also points out that since October 1993, some distribution entities--primarily videotape companies--have attached voluntary labels at the beginnings of films listing major alterations. These labels usually reveal that a movie has been cut to receive an "R" rather than an "NC-17" rating, or that a cinematographer's images have been cropped or compressed to fit more readily inside the square boundaries of a TV screen. Such labels, Valenti says, "are informative and consumer-friendly, but do not harshly criticize the film...It seems inappropriate for the Congress to take time away from pressing national matters to pass a federal law that adds a sentence or two to voluntary labels already on the screen."

Neither bill has even reached the hearing stage yet, but Bryant says he's expecting a bruising fight--not just because of the Republican-fueled antiregulatory fever on Capitol Hill, but also because so many members of the MPAA loathe the bills on general principle.

"The MPAA is completely, vociferously against this legislation," says Bryant. "And of course they'd be against it. They represent producers.

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Matt Zoller Seitz