ANTELOPE VALLEY — Four Blockbuster video rental stores in the Antelope Valley decided to pull the Oscar-winning 1979 film "The Tin Drum" from their shelves last month after the movie was declared obscene in Oklahoma City.
But on Wednesday, following inquiries by The Times, the stores abruptly scrapped the ban.
The Oklahoma City action is being fought in court by the American Civil Liberties Union as unconstitutional.
The four Blockbuster stores--three in Lancaster and one in Palmdale--are franchises owned by Nevada-based Video Entertainment Inc. and had stocked the film for years, according to one of the store's managers. The move was prompted by the Oklahoma City controversy and accusations that the film contained "child pornography," the manager said.
Mike Elliot, manager of the Avenue J Blockbuster store in Lancaster, said he had contacted Paul Heroy, supervisor of the four stores, to inform him about The Times' inquiry. According to Elliot, Heroy said that a "mistake was made" and "Tin Drum," which won the Academy Award for best foreign film, "should be returned to the store's shelves."
Heroy did not return repeated phone calls from The Times.
"We will wait to see what [parent company] Blockbuster Entertainment Group advises us to do," Elliot said. "But until we hear from them, we will make the movie available for rental."
For its part, Blockbuster Entertainment Group, which owns more than 5,000 stores, says it has little control over what the franchise owners deem obscene. "Who are we to say that they have to rent a particular video?" said Blockbuster spokesman Jonathon Baskin.
He said that by the same token, Blockbuster, which is owned by Viacom, has no plans to remove "The Tin Drum" from the non-franchise stores it operates directly. Blockbuster's policy is to rent any video that has not received an NC-17 or X rating from the Motion Picture Assn. of America, he said.
The controversy was touched off June 25, when Oklahoma City police seized copies of "Tin Drum" from six Blockbuster stores and from the home of ACLU employee Michael Camfield. Last Thursday, the ACLU filed a lawsuit against Oklahoma City, claiming that police, the district attorney's office and United States District Court Judge Richard Freemon violated Camfield's 1st Amendment rights.
Freeman had viewed the tapes at the police department's request and concluded that the film violated Oklahoma obscenity laws.
Based on Gunter Grass' 1959 anti-Nazi novel of the same title, "Tin Drum" is the story of a young boy living under Nazi occupation who protests the atrocities he sees around him by willing himself not to grow up. According to a copy of the ACLU lawsuit, the story is an allegory, or "realistic fantasy."
In one scene, Oskar, the film's hero--who is portrayed by an actor who looks about 6 or 7 but whose character is meant to be older--is depicted as having oral sex with a teenage girl in a bathhouse. Oklahoma law states that any depiction of a person under 18--or anyone portraying someone under 18--having sex is obscene.
"This is certainly not pornography," Stephen Rohde, a member of the ACLU's board of directors in Southern California, said Wednesday. "You must judge the film as a whole. Films are protected even if they have offensive material as long as they possess artistic, literary, political or satirical values too.
"Video stores are entitled to choose what they rent, but when they do it as a form of self-censorship, then the real losers are the American people."
Police in Oklahoma City asked the judge to declare the movie obscene at the request of an anti-pornography group that was upset that the film was available at a public library.
The film was highly regarded when it was released 18 years ago. The year it won the Academy Award for best foreign film, it was the co-winner--with "Apocalypse Now"--of the grand prize at the Cannes Film Festival.