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Randy Lewis

Filth or Art, They Both Sell Tickets

November 29, 1987|Randy Lewis

The great thing about life in college--other than getting student discounts at the movies--is that everything about the academic atmosphere encourages contemplation of big issues like Truth, Beauty, Love and Death.

You know, all those matters we never have to think about in real life. Once outside the ivy-covered walls, most working folks spend more time pondering the truth of this month's long-distance bill or the beauty of a new garbage disposal than the essence of the human condition.

Maybe that's why some things considered banal, even crass, on the street can assume a lofty intellectualism when they occur on the college campus.

Take adult films.

Over in Irvine last weekend, with little to-do, the Associated Students of UCI wound up their fall series of "Cinema for the Senses" with the "Hollywood Erotic Film Festival," a collection of independently made short subjects that were risque, provocative and occasionally sexually explicit.

Operators of the X-rated Mitchell Brothers Santa Ana Theatre had to fight city officials for more than 10 years before finally being left alone to show what their telephone recording claims to be: "adult entertainment at its finest."

The apparent message: In a commercial theater, it's filth. On campus, it's art.

As it turns out, though, there are some important differences in the content of the films UCI was showing and those found at the Mitchell Brothers.

There are also some parallels.

In both cases, changing economic conditions prompted the move away from major studio releases. And in both cases, those showing the films found sexually frank movies to be the most profitable alternative.

At UCI, competition from nearby commercial theaters and the explosion of home video in recent years prompted the shift to "cult classics and more controversial-type films," according to Lance MacLean, the ASUCI's director of programming services. (The "Cinema for the Senses" series also included John Waters' notorious "Polyester," filmed in "Odorama," and the '50s sci-fi classic "The Creature From the Black Lagoon," in 3-D).

"We're not showing real hard-core things in the 'Hollywood Erotic Festival,' " MacLean said. "Two pieces are pretty explicit, but most are no worse than most R-rated films you see today. But these are more art oriented. We're more after the art and erotic side of (sex) than things of an 'X' nature."

Arty or not, UCI's program attracted a young, predominantly male crowd that frequently let loose neanderthal-like grunts and hoots far more offensive than the politely silent audience in the Mitchells' theater.

MacLean said his group received a few complaints about showing erotic films on campus, but because no student money was used to pay for the series--it's self supporting from ticket sales--no one could allege misuse of university funds.

"We realize that there are some things controversial on campus," MacLean said. " We're not trying convince anyone to become a pervert (by showing the 'Erotic Film Festival'). The bottom line is that you don't have to go if don't want to see it."

Likewise, United Artists' theater division leased out its Santa Ana building to the Mitchells in the mid-'70s because it was doing poorly as a mainstream commercial film house.

The Mitchells found a lucrative audience for X-rated movies--at one point they estimated attendance at 150,000 per year--but also found plenty of outraged neighbors. Responding to the years of bad publicity, UA officials announced earlier this year that they won't renew the Mitchells' lease when it comes up in 1990.

On a philosophical level (it's the old university student in me), I came down on the side of freedom of speech and freedom of choice in agreeing with those who argued to let the Mitchell theater go about its way.

But on a more practical level, in the three years that I lived a couple of blocks away from the theater, I never detected any deleterious impact on my pastoral Santa Ana street.

(The neighbor I was more concerned about was the Orange County Jail, a concern that proved justified one day in 1986 when sheriff's deputies came house to house around our block circulating pictures of a gnarly-looking guy who turned out to be escaped murderer Ivan Von Staich.)

So as a homeowner and taxpayer, I was never particularly incensed by the presence of the Mitchell Brothers. But as the diligent investigative journalist, I needed to see whether there was really any difference between the sex films that ASUCI was screening and those at a typical adult theater.

After sitting through about an hour at each place--well, someone's got to--I found three major distinctions in the cinematic approaches to sex: intelligence, humor and depiction of consequences. The arty shorts in Irvine had all three; the garden variety porno flicks had none.

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