Just when you thought it was safe to rent a library tape or watch a movie co-funded by the National Endowment For the Arts, "community standards" are becoming a problem again.
The fate of the NEA is once more in question, and one of the reasons, Philadelphia filmmaker Cheryl Dunye's "The Watermelon Woman," opens here Friday at the Varsity.
Dunye's feature-length film, which received $31,500 of NEA money, kicked off another debate over funding last year, when The Washington Times informed conservative politicians that its heroine is a twentysomething black lesbian. The movie was condemned as an "outrage" in the U.S. House of Representives.
A few weeks ago, a videotape of Volker Schlondorff's 1979 film of the Gunter Grass novel, "The Tin Drum" - which won the first foreign-language Oscar ever awarded to a German movie - was banned in Oklahoma City.
District Judge Richard Freeman, claiming the movie is "obscene" under Oklahoma law, said he was responding to a complaint by Oklahomans for Children and Families, an anti-pornography group that puts it in the same category as kiddie porn. Tapes were confiscated from a local library, six video stores and the home of Michael Camfield, development director for the American Civil Liberties Union in Oklahoma.
Dunye's film is considered offensive because it features, however briefly, a lesbian sex scene. "The Tin Drum" has been cited because it includes a sex scene between a small boy and a teenage girl. Theoretically, the same law could be used to ban Stanley Kubrick's film of "Lolita" (1962) and Franco Zeffirelli's 1968 version of "Romeo and Juliet," which shows two nude, under-age actors in bed together.
"Of course, Gunter Grass' novel should be seized, too, in all public libraries as well as in all private homes worldwide," said Schlondorff in a prepared statement. "David Bennent, the boy who was 11 when we were shooting the incriminating scenes, is 29 years old. So why not put him on trial, too?"
As Schlondorff's facetious comments suggest, there is another community that enforces entirely different standards about these films.
"The Tin Drum" won not only an Oscar but the Grand Prize at the Cannes Film Festival, and it landed on many year-end 10-best lists. Its admirers regard the sex scene, which is discreetly handled, as essential to the story of a boy who sees the rise of the Nazis from a unique point of view: he decides to stop growing at the age of 3.
During the past year, "The Watermelon Woman" has received awards from film festivals in Berlin, Los Angeles and Paris. The New York Times' Frank Rich called it "a charming, talented mock documentary." The Los Angeles Times' Kevin Thomas found it a "wry and exhilarating comedy, at once romantic and sharply observant."
One of Dunye's defenders, Terry Lawyler, a former director of development at Women Make Movies, thinks that targeting gay black filmmakers such as Dunye and the late Marlon Riggs (whose "Tongues Untied" got a similar Congressional roasting five years ago) is "picking on the most isolated people in the country. The smallest minority with the least kind of support."
When Dunye applied for the NEA grant, she promised that "with your support, I can be one of the first African-American lesbian filmmakers who promotes our rarely seen lifestyles and histories."
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, a Democrat from Texas, took up Dunye's cause in the Congressional debate, informing House members that "I've seen the film, and I think Cheryl Dunye is doing a wonderful job. Can we just say we have a difference of opinion?"
Of course, for Dunye and the distributor of "The Tin Drum," this kind of publicity can't be bought.
When Todd Haynes' "Poison" ran into a similar NEA boondoggle several years ago, he was for a time the hottest filmmaker on the festival circuit. "The Watermelon Woman" was well-attended at festivals in Seattle and Olympia this spring, while "The Tin Drum" hasn't been this popular in years.
"We've received orders for 800 extra copies," said Jessica Rosner of Kino on Video, which handles tape and theatrical distribution of the film. "We had a packed screening at the University of Oklahoma, which is just outside the county where it was banned, with more than 100 people standing through the whole thing - and this is a 2 1/2-hour film."
The Oklahoma case will be keeping the courts busy well into next year, when the ACLU expects to overturn the decision. In the meantime, it's illegal to watch "The Tin Drum" in Oklahoma County.
Camfield filed his lawsuit alleging that the Oklahoma City Police Department illegally confiscated his copy of the movie. After checking the rental records of several video stores, they found him in his home, where they interrupted him as he was midway through watching the tape.
Even though Camfield had rented the tape in anticipation of a legal battle - it had already been removed from the Oklahoma City Metropolitan Library System - he said he couldn't have predicted this particular action.
"One of life's sweet ironies is that they chose my door," he said.
Another Oklahoma man whose tape was confiscated by police chose not to join Camfield in the lawsuit. He did call the video store the next day to ask if there would be a late fee.
"That's my favorite story," said Rosner last weekend. "But this isn't all that funny. One theater in Oklahoma that's scheduled to play it has had a bomb threat."
Last week, several anti-censorship groups, including the National Campaign for Free Expression, the Freedom to Read Foundation and the American Booksellers Foundation For Free Expression, denounced the Oklahoma City authorities.
"The police seem to be under the impression that Oklahomans For Children and Families represents the community," said Joan E. Bertin, executive director of the National Coalition Against Censorship. "They are wrong: our Oklahoma supporters are telling us they want to decide for themselves what they can see, read and hear."