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Facing Up to the Question of Morality

A former Times reporter confronts thorny ethical issues from his years as a film producer.

October 22, 2000|DALE POLLOCK | Former journalist, movie executive and producer Dale Pollock is currently dean of the School of Filmmaking at the North Carolina School of the Arts in Winston-Salem where the conference on ethics in filmmaking will take place next month

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — It feels very strange to be writing a piece for The Los Angeles Times. I was a reporter in the Calendar section from 1980 to 1985, when I left to become a development executive for David Geffen's film company. Now I'm the dean of a film school that's part of the North Carolina School of the Arts, a unique, publicly supported arts conservatory. And here I am, sitting at a computer, tapping away again.

What brings me back to these pages is the strange, circuitous journey I've taken in relation to one of the loves of my life--the movies. I started out reporting about them, I spent 12 years producing them, and now I help train young filmmakers to make (hopefully) better and different ones. Those are three very different perspectives, and I've learned greatly from all of them. Above all, I've come to realize what a powerful and on some level ineffable medium film really is.

With such power comes responsibility, the idea of accepting authorship in the truest sense of the term. If film and television artists took personal and moral responsibility for their creative output, we might all be talking about a different set of movies right now. And people are talking. There's a new Babel of opinions on movie content, ratings, marketing and audiences. Much of this is clearly preelection pandering to suburban women and undecided voters, the swing group in this year's presidential race. But there is also clearly a feeling in the country outside of the media centers (where I now live) that images and sound are spinning out of control.

I can see their point. Previously unimaginable computer-generated visual effects and tremendous strides in audio engineering have created images more visceral in their one-two punch; nothing man has previously created has had this kind of impact on our biochemical sensory pathways. The argument that today's film fare is no more crude or brutal than popular entertainment across the ages, from medieval Punch and Judy shows to 19th century Gothic melodrama, is disingenuous at best.

When I reported on the film industry, first for Daily Variety in the late 1970s and then for The Times in the early '80s, the studios were still fiercely individualistic. Disney, Paramount, Warner Bros. and Fox produced and released films that reflected the taste and opinions of the studio bosses running the lots. That era has clearly passed, and now the releases of one studio or another are interchangeably and depressingly alike. In an era of ownership by multinational conglomerates, the financial bottom line is increasingly all-important, and the dispiriting results are currently on display at your neighborhood multiplex.

Still, given the traditional blandness corporate ownership encourages, Hollywood should feel proud of itself for the most part. Last year really did showcase the most diverse group of interesting films, from "American Beauty" to "Three Kings," that I remember across all three of my careers.

As a former producer, I know how hard creative artists labor to make stories resonate with an audience. In films I produced such as "The Beast," "A Midnight Clear" and "Set It Off," I feel I contributed in some way to the telling of interesting, interpersonal stories. I had my share of clunkers too; the less said about them the better.

Of the 12 films I helped get made, only one was an unqualified commercial success, but at a heavy price. "Set It Off," released in 1996, was No. 2 at the box office on its opening weekend. It was No. 1 though on the homicide chart, with several gang-related shootings outside theaters playing the film; one person was killed and several others were injured in the first week the film was released. The following week saw more parking-lot gun battles.

I am proud of "Set It Off." While its violence and language are raw and real (fully deserving of its R rating), so are the lives of the four working-class black women it portrays. I would make it again. So why do these violent incidents weigh so heavily on me to this day? Should I have spoken up louder when we discussed buying TV ads on the teen-appeal show "Moesha"? Should I have insisted that we station security guards outside the theaters playing the film as well as inside?

I've come to the realization that I have to accept moral responsibility for the works I helped create. And now that I'm a film school dean, I spend a lot of my time trying to balance the need for artistic freedom with a sense of social responsibility.

North Carolina, where our program is located, has very restrictive state laws about the portrayal of sex, nudity, drug use and violence. As a state-funded institution, we must follow the rules particularly carefully, since our funding comes from the state Legislature. But this shouldn't stop us from thinking about what kinds of stories we want to tell, and how best to tell them. There is all too little thought given by Hollywood to the impact of film stories on worldwide popular culture.

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