Sunday, June 17, 2001

Esquire mishandled film cut

Owner's 'apology' misses many points

        Gary Goldman said he was sorry, give him that much.

        It was his decision to nip a sexually explicit bit from Wayne Wang's steamy drama The Center of The World. Distributor Artisan Entertainment took back the print after someone familiar with the film reported the tampering.

        Mr. Goldman, an attorney by profession, is president of Theatre Management Corp., which operates The Esquire and Mariemont theaters, and an officer of the separate corporate entities that own the two theaters. He ordered the movie cut before it opened on May 25, and never publicly acknowledged what he had done until June 8, four days after the film disappeared.

    Statement from Gary Goldman, president of Theatre Management Corp.
    I deeply regret the controversial issues surrounding The Center of the World and accept the ultimate responsibility for the approximately three seconds of film that were edited therefrom during its recent exhibition at the Esquire.
    As operator of the Esquire Theatre I have a great appreciation and a sincere respect for the arts. I felt that this film deserved to be shown to residents of our community. The Esquire has always prided itself with exhibiting “cutting edge” films.
    In this case, the Esquire edited approximately three seconds of a much-overrated scene. The scene depicted a woman acting as a striptease dancer. (He describes a sexual act the character performs.) I found this act to be both degrading to women and most likely violative of community standards. I could not risk Cincinnati's "Jewel' (the Esquire) over this three-second scene. It is my sincere belief that the three-second edit in no way altered this film's artistic integrity. I still chose to exhibit the film, however, because I did not want to be censored by intimidation. Risk of prosecution in Hamilton County increases every day as increasingly challenging films are produced. Only the community can change that.
    I can assure all moviegoers that this is the first (and last) time that a film showing at one of our theatres has ever been intentionally altered. Obviously, I exercised bad judgment and should have chosen instead not to play the film. For that I apologize. My only wish is that this film would have received this same degree of attention as this controversy while it was showing at the Esquire.
    To contact Theatre Management Corp., write 7 W. Seventh St., Suite 1800, Cincinnati 45202, phone 723-1180.
        “I can assure all moviegoers that this was the first (and last) time that a film showing at one of our theatres has ever been intentionally altered,” he wrote. “Obviously, I exercised bad judgment and should have chosen instead not to play the film. For that, I apologize.”

        Is this statement supposed to rebuild confidence among his customers? Note that he does not say he should or could have shown the movie as it was made.

        The Esquire is a private business, and its owners are entitled to operate it as they see fit. But its customers also are entitled to demand extraordinary standards from a unique cultural institution.

        Surely, they are entitled to ask the theater to repay their loyalty with commitment to artistic freedom. If any organization has the clout to stand up for access to serious film art, it is the Esquire.

        Do not forget that this business owes its existence to an unstinting grassroots preservation campaign by the Clifton community, not to mention a $100,000 loan from the city of Cincinnati. It has reaped healthy financial rewards by catering to a curious, open-minded clientele.

        Those are exactly the clients who should be worried about what Mr. Goldman had to say after this embarrassing and dangerous episode. His formal statment, which he has declined to discuss or clarify, is a woozy combination of defensiveness, rationalization, blame-shifting and outright contradiction.

        • He regrets “the controversial issues surrounding The Center of the World” — as if the issues were something other than the expectation of artists that middlemen won't fool around with their creations, and the expectation of customers that they will get what they pay for when they buy a ticket to see a film.

        • The scene was “overrated” — as if quality were relevant.

        • The scene degraded women — as if scores of the “cutting edge” films he prides himself on showing don't degrade someone.

        • Cutting the scene didn't hurt the film — as if that were his judgment to make.

        Clearly those points are all immaterial. He hits the mark when he asserts that the excised frames were "most likely violative of community standards' — in other words, legally obscene.

        Then he makes his most tortured assertion, that by showing a censored version of the movie he was taking a stand against censorship: “I did not want to be censored by intimidation.”

        Intimidation requires an external force, as opposed to an internal condition of garden-variety cowardice. And Mr. Goldman is prepared to offer up a villain:

        “Risk of prosecution in Hamilton County increases every day as increasingly challenging films are produced.”

        Never mind that because juries consistently refuse to convict even purveyors of sleazy XXX-rated videos, the risk of prosecution of the Esquire is next to nil. Mr. Goldman needs the threat to get to his final target:

        “Only the community can change that.”

        Did you get that? The whole thing is YOUR fault.

        And that — aside from carping that the movie didn't do more business — is all he had to say.

        Where is the pledge to keep exhibiting challenging films? Where is the promise to resist censorship, real or imagined? Where is the invitation to the customers to be heard?

        Esquire patrons are a sophisticated lot who count on the theater to show a vast range of movies. Over the years, they have supported difficult, risky, demanding films, films that test the limits of the art form, films that burrow down to the nerve, films that dissect taboos. They also have dropped a lot of greenbacks in the cash register to make the theater what it is today, and in return the Esquire owes them respect.

        It is the customers who should set the agenda and demand that the Esquire management and shareholders show some backbone. The only other choice is to stay home and save your money for a good DVD collection.

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