Tuesday, December 31, 2002
LOS ANGELES -- A former production manager in Hollywood, Peter Livingston, is taking three major studios to U.S. federal court in San Francisco because they refused him permission to incorporate clips from their films in an antiwar documentary he has made.
He embarked on the project when he discovered a disturbing, even weird attitude towards death and killing in Hollywood, as exhibited in the 25 most popular films of all time. Only four had no humans killed at all, 16 showed dead people being resurrected, just two showed natural deaths, only one had a birth in which the baby survived, and some portrayed mass killing to such an extent the total came to nine-billion corpses, Livingston calculated, although not all the killings were shown on screen.
He may then have made a tactical error by showing the completed 83-minute film to the studios.
Fox, Sony-Columbia, and Universal threatened to sue him, and one demanded that his film be destroyed.
In his court case filed on Dec. 5, he asks a judge to make a legal declaration entitling him to screen his documentary, called Over Nine Billion Dead Served,whether or not Hollywood objects.
All 10 of the studios he asked declined permission for usage, despite what has been known since 1841 as the "fair use doctrine." This decrees that copyrighted material is available if it is not intended primarily for profit, but for criticism or education -- precisely Livingston's objective. The studios offered no reasons and the three named declined to discuss the case.
Copyrighted material can be used for legitimate purposes even without the owners' permission, but their imprimatur is usually required in fact. Livingston, of Richmond, Calif., believed that the best way to launch his documentary was on the film-festival circuit, but this required a guarantee that his material was not liable in any lawsuit. "So I had to spend most of the year seeking permission," he recalled.
The documentary is mostly composed of excerpts from the 25 most-watched movies as listed in 1997 (the last year films were available for high-quality computerized copying). At No. 1 was 1977's Star Wars, followed by E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial in 1982; Jurassic Park, 1993; Forrest Gump, 1994; the cartoon The Lion King, 1994; Return of the Jedi, 1983; Independence Day,1996; The Empire Strikes Back, 1980; Home Alone, 1990; and Jaws, 1975. The next 15 included Batman, 1989; Beverly Hills Cop, 1984; Ghostbusters, 1984; Terminator 2, 1991; and Dances With Wolves, 1990.
Only two, Mrs. Doubtfire, 1993, and Home Alone, had no killings at all, although Livingston, a vegetarian, squeamishly pointed out that Robin Williams, as the Scottish housekeeper, boiled alive five lobsters. In Home Alone, the eight-year-old would in reality probably have killed the burglars. In Toy Story, 1995, and No. 23, scores of toys bite the dust, and The Lion King sees multiple anthropomorphized animal deaths.
As he analyzed the 25 movies, Livingston, who worked on Jurassic Park and for Star Wars' George Lucas, was appalled at the obsession with carefree mass death and violence. In Batman, for instance, the Joker (Jack Nicholson) laughs as he routinely kills people; and remorseless murders appear time and again. "Basically these films ignore the real dead, and the only ones mourned are brought back to life," he observes.
Although he has a doctorate in psychology, Livingston was mystified by the fascination with resurrection, an almost constant theme -- even in Jaws, when an apparently dead shark victim reappears right at the end. "Is resurrection a reward for mourning, or just a way of selling popcorn, or an easy plot device?" he asks.
He justifies his figure of nine-billion Hollywood dead from just two movies. In Star Wars,a blue and white planet is vaporized and although it is called Alderaan, Livingston argues that out of 109 planets known to astronomy only one contains humans and the people in the film refer to it as "home." Given Earth's population, "that is six-billion dead right there," he says.
Then in Terminator 2,a character explicitly states, "three-billion people are killed," and that provides his total, even without an extrapolated 427 million more murdered in the science-fiction blockbuster, Independence Day, Livingston's candidate for Hollywood at its worst. "Lion King is pretty disturbing but it's animals and a cartoon, but in Independence Day many of the favourite stereotypes appear. Earth is invaded by black, ugly illegal aliens from outer space who apparently just want to kill people without any explanation."
In his film, he outlines 11 suppositions about Hollywood and its obsessional stereotypes. As well as demonizing blacks and Arabs, and less often Asians, and exploiting Nazi figures for more carnage, he notes that more men are killed than women, and natural death and the renewal of life is almost ignored. Only one in the 25 has a birth with a surviving baby, and that film appeared in 1939 -- the classic, Gone With the Wind.
That film also shows one of only two natural deaths, heroine Scarlett O'Hara's mother. The other is Forrest Gump, in which the hero's mother and girlfriend die without being resurrected. (In Return of the Jedi, the non-human Yoda dies naturally aged 900 but then briefly returns.)
Some of the images are startling in our post-Sept. 11 awareness. Raiders of the Lost Ark (No. 12) has a tall, grey-bearded, robed and smiling Arab who brandishes a sword at the hero (Harrison Ford) from a distance of about 15 metres -- and is promptly shot dead by Ford. In 1985's adolescent sci-fi comedy, Back to the Future (No. 19), two dark-skinned Libyan terrorists are searching for radioactive material to make a bomb. In reality, the U.S. bombed Libya in 1986 as its then targeted terrorist nation.
Livingston's lawsuit has "a good chance of a favourable verdict" says Duke University law professor David Lange, an expert on intellectual property. But do not expect applause for the documentary from Hollywood's studio moguls.