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Values Judgment : O.C. Professor Believes His Content-Based Movie Guide Will Assist Parents Where the Ratings System Fails

September 01, 1997|DAVE WIELENGA | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

COSTA MESA — If the road to ruin for America's children really does go past the box office at the multiplex or the checkout counter at the video store, it's also going to have to get past H. Arthur Taussig.

Responding to what he calls the film industry's contribution to the country's "moral darkness," Taussig has written and published "Film Values/Family Values: A Parents' Guide," which outlines and analyzes the content of more than 300 movies.

"I'm not a Hollywood basher," asserts Taussig, 56, who has been teaching film and photography courses at Orange Coast College for 25 years. "But I believe in empowering parents."

Nervously crunching a mouthful of ice, his receding gray hair pulled into a short ponytail, Taussig talks about his belief that the media, especially TV and movies, are transmitting images and messages that pass along destructive values and morals to the young.

"My book teaches parents how to fight for their children's recovery from moral disintegration by using the very media that seem to cause so much of the problem," said Taussig, sitting in the den of his Costa Mesa condo, which doubles as a screening room and features a red boomerang couch and a kidney-shaped coffee table adorned with the little plastic movie figures that fast-food places sell during cross-promotions.

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Taussig intends his book as a reference manual that can be consulted alongside the newspaper's listings of films and movies on TV or brought along to the video store. He also hopes parents will use it as a basis for discussion about movies with their children. The collection of 500-word summaries address the way each film presents such subjects as violence, crime, morals and values, and sex and gender issues. Taussig then recommends whether the film is suitable for children of various ages. He also grades how watchable it is for adults.

"I have no political or religious agenda," Taussig says. "Many books have been written from those perspectives about how terrible films are. I feel my job is to make the parent aware of what is in the film. It is then the parents' job to make the decision of whether that is good or bad for their children."

The current film ratings system is useless, Taussig says, because it doesn't address content.

"So a PG-13 means a movie is appropriate for a 13-year-old? Which 13-year-old?" he asks. "Any parent who has more than one kid knows that one 13-year-old is completely different from another. Kids have different developmental clocks. They're mature in one aspect and babies in another. And they change from day to day."

Taussig's book comes at a time of rising clamor on the issue. Under such pressure, television executives agreed this year to a movie-style ratings system, then recently enhanced it to include content. Taussig says he didn't originally intend to be part of this crowd--he's been working on his book for five years--but he's not complaining.

"The timing is pretty good, isn't it?" he says, smiling. "Content analysis is suddenly the big rage on TV, and this is the first book on the content analysis of film. I hope there are enough responsible parents out there willing to use it."

Taussig's professorial air pervades his book. He dispatches his sociological analyses and moral judgments of films with lecture-hall confidence, although many of his assessments are surprising.

Taussig is a big fan of Disney's series of "Ernest" movies, going so far as to draw a parallel between the humor of Jim Varney and Buster Keaton.

However, when one of the "Care Bears" movies portrayed heaven as a place of ice cream sundaes and cakes, Taussig found it "rather shocking."

Eddie Murphy's remake of "The Nutty Professor" is lauded. "How many films can you name that have a black man who is a college professor and a brilliant scientist and gets the girl despite being obese, because she likes him for who he is, not what he looks like?" Taussig asks.

But "Bambi"?

Taussig agrees the movie is a classic, but is troubled by the fawn's absent father.

"Bambi's dad never participates in the raising of his child," he says, "which I think is a bad example, a bad model of parents."

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Taussig is evasive about most of his personal background--"It's irrelevant," he says--and hazy about whether he oversaw what his own two children watched when they were growing up.

"Yes and no. We were separated, and stuff like that," he says quietly. "But I've had thousands of kids teaching college. Those are my children."

Taussig's formal education is in the hard sciences, but he said film has always been his love. He has a bachelor's degree in physics from UC Berkeley, and a master's degree in biological chemistry and a doctorate in biophysics from UCLA.

"Film Values/Family Values" is inspired by one of Taussig's classes on contemporary film at Orange Coast College, in which he teaches people how to watch films rather than how to make them.

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