This week, I took a giant personal step towards Libertarianism and nearly got busted when I injected myself into a fracas between an out-of-control megaplex manager, a harried working mom and five geek kids trying to see "South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut."
When it comes to violence, morality and the young, we're the Idiot Nation, the laughingstock not only of the civilized world but of the highly-wired generation of kids we're supposedly trying to protect. (Adults apparently need protection too. Only Europeans can see the sex scenes in Stanley Kubrick's "Eyes Wide Shut," cut out for Americans to avoid an NC-17 rating.)
Perhaps without noticing, you may have seen evidence of this new Ticket Booth Morals Squad, out to protect our allegedly vulnerable kids from dirty words and images. (Violent slaughter is, of course, fine anytime.) Signs posted all over theaters warn that rating policies will be strictly enforced. In some chains, even 17-year-olds aren't permitted in "R" rated movies. And Blockbuster Video announced last week that 17-year-olds can't rent "R" rated movies anymore either.
Adults are being grilled at the box office, informed that they must stay with the children for the duration of an "R" movie, or asked if they understand that the movie might be sexually explicit.
Of course, since most movie chains are owned by corporate fatcats but operated by diffident teenagers seething in their crummy, low-paying jobs, these Draconian rules merely pit kids against kids and sputtering adults. Teenagers are suddenly responsible for the moral policing of kids and films. Loopy but true.
The cultural lives of America's kids have long been uncensorable, anyway. Anything produceable in print or video is available on the Net or the Web.
Kids turned away at the box office will simply watch their movies and TV shows on a smaller screen, as the producers of "Buffy The Vampire Slayer" learned last month when they cravenly cancelled the season finale (which featured a giant serpent at a high school graduation) to appease post-Columbine hysterics in politics and journalism.
The decision about what movies kids ought to see is clearly a decision for their parents to make, not Hollywood ratings boards, the video-store managers, discount retailing chains (like Wal-Mart) or movie-theater operators. If a parent thinks that "South Park" - available in bleeped form on cable every week - is appropriate for his her kid to see solo, that should be the end of the discussion.
It's not, though. Now, it's just the beginning.
I knew we were going to have trouble at the theater when the ticketseller refused to allow a dad to buy five tickets for a later showing because one of the kids hadn't shown up yet. "I just want to save him a ticket," the man objected.
"If I sell you an extra ticket, you might give it to some kid who will come in without a parent," huffed the teen behind the glass, in an encounter eerily similar to one in the movie itself.
So the guy gave up and a woman came up to the booth to buy five "South Park" tickets. Her son and four of his friends, all 14 or 15 --- regular viewers of the TV version - clustered eagerly behind her.
"You going in?," a the ticket-seller demanded; he couldn't have been 19 himself.
"No," said the mother truthfully. "I have to get to work. I'm giving them permission to see it, and I'll pick them up during my coffee break. " She stopped herself mid-explanation.
"Wait a minute!," she said suddenly. "Why am I telling you this? I'm their mom. It's okay by me for them to see the movie. What's it your business whether I'm there or not?"
The kid in the booth shook his head. "Can't sell you the tickets," he snapped. "You have to stay there the whole time, too. We have ushers watching for parents who try to leave."
The mother, nervously glancing at her watch, asked to see the manager, who was even more rigid and arrogant.
"It's our policy, lady," he said. "You got a problem? Call the company." He pointed to the General Cinema toll-free number on the wall.
I stepped up to the booth, intending to buy a ticket for "Eyes Wide Shut" - I'd already seen "South Park" twice - listening to this surreally pious claptrap and marveling at how American corporations - Wal-Mart, Blockbuster, the WB TV network, Loews, General Cinema - have mastered the art of appearing pious while being dependably greedy and manipulative.
I said I'd take the kids in. How reassuring, I thought, to know that these companies are making sure that Columbines will never happen again by keeping kids out of "American Pie" because it has some sex scenes.
"Wait! He's not with them," said the kid in the booth to the manager. Meaning me.
"Yes, I am. I'm the pastor of our local church. I'm here to show them "South Park" as an example of evil and immorality in the world. How can we fight Satan if we don't know him and can't see him? I hear he's in the movie. I hope you're not planning to interfere with religious teaching!"
The manager hesitated, said no, then yes, then went to make a phone call. Maybe I wasn't convincing as a pastor. In a minute, a cop sidled up and asked me if there was any trouble. "No sir," I said, "just the eternal battle between good and evil. We are trying to save some souls here."
He blinked, then stepped back. "Well, you have to move along," he muttered, bored. "Otherwise I'll have to ticket you for being disorderly."
I pictured calling my wife and telling her I'd been busted over "South Park;" could she bail me out? The idea kind of grew on me, although I wasn't certain she would bail me out.
The stymied manager and his moral aide conferred briefly. The ticket line was growing longer, the rumblings about the theater chain's intrusive and hypocritical policy getting louder. "Let the kids see the goddamned movie," thundered an enormous man from the back of the line. "Fox News is a lot worse!"
"I've already got the movie off the Net," one of the kids whispered to his friend's mother. "I just wanted to see it on the big screen. We can watch it at home if we have to."
I wasn't budging. The cop didn't seem anxious to get too involved with this particular kind of law enforcement. The manager, flushed, relented. "You can take them in, but you have to stay with them the whole time," he told me.
"Can I go to the bathroom?" I asked. "Is it okay with you if I stretch my legs? Can I come out for popcorn. Can I call my sick mom in Boise?"
The mother's jaw was open, but then she smiled, said thanks. "I've got to get to work," she said. I was going to reassure her, tell her that I watched "Beavis & Butt-head" with my daughter when she was eight or nine, both of us howling with laughter, but I thought better of it. "Good luck," she said. "Kids, call me if you can't get in or something happens."
So I marched in with the five boys, who were looking at me warily, hoping I wasn't actually some preacher. A teenaged usher followed us inside and stood nearby with folded arms. When I got up to go see my movie (I'd bought tickets to both), she stepped in front of me. "You have to stay," she said.
"I've got a rare kidney disease," I told her. "I have to go to the bathroom a lot. You can come with me if you want, but it takes a while. Is that okay with you? Do you want a note from my doctor?"
She didn't really know what to say, and we both knew she wasn't doing this voluntarily. She smiled and sat down, and I sent to see "Eyes Wide Shut." Every fifteen minutes or so, I popped back to check on the kids, at one point catching the great "Uncle Fucker" song. They were convulsed, but seemed other unchanged, morally speaking.
But this was a small and temporal victory. It's time to start fighting back against Ticket Booth Fascism. Who put these arrogant movie chain execs and clerks in charge of our movie-making decisions? What gives them the right to interfere with our ability to decide what our kids can see? How can movie chains - of all institutions -- buy into the profoundly stupid and demonstrably false idea that movies featuring explicit language and sex contribute to tragedies like Columbine?
In practical terms, don't they grasp that they are simply teaching a whole generation how to get their movies on the Net and the Web - something that will be quite simple in a year or so for millions of Americans -- rather than go to theaters and subject themselves to patronizing, humiliating - and completely pointless - hassles? Haven't theater chains ever ever heard the term "MP3?"
Monday, Part Two: a proposal: Take a Geek Kid To A Restricted Movie Day.