"No Limits" on
Mapplethorpe Film and
Brit-inspired Gay TV Series on Showtime
Photo: courtesy of Showtime
Ben Patrick Johnson
LOS ANGELES, 26 May 2000 - Do
the photographs of the late Robert Mapplethorpe appeal to prurient
interests? Are they lacking in serious literary, artistic, political or
scientific value? Is his work patently offensive to community standards?
These three questions were put to a Cincinnati, Ohio jury in
1990 in the first-ever American criminal trial for obscenity involving a
museum and its director. Offered as evidence were seven images in an
exhibition of Mapplethorpe's uvre, known for its unapologetic
depiction of gay sex, sado-masochistic acts, and nude studies of
The Cincinnati Contemporary Arts Center's ill-fated
exhibition, the trial, and the public fallout are the subject of the new
film Dirty Pictures produced by Showtime Networks and MGM
The film stars James Woods as Dennis Barrie, the
museum director who found himself caught up in a firestorm of
free-speech controversy. Intercut with dramatic sequences is commentary
from both sides of the issue, including that of William F. Buckley Jr.,
Salman Rushdie, choreographer Bill T. Jones, and Jesse McBride, who was
photographed by Mapplethorpe as a child. Also included are interviews
conducted with Robert Mapplethorpe before his death.
Dirty Pictures itself went through a battle after the M.P.A.A.
American ratings board initially issued the finished film an NC-17
rating which, in addition to potentially restricting Showtime's ability
to air it, put the film in the same category as soft-core pornography.
An appeal succeeded in having the film assigned a more-acceptable R
rating. Now, in the same week that Dirty Pictures is set to
debut, the Supreme Court has ruled in a 5-4 decision to strike down a
law that barred sexually-explicit programming on cable outside the hours
of ten p.m. to six a.m. The majority argued that the First Amendment
protection of free speech outweighs the goal of protecting children from
pornography. The court said upholding free expression often means
defending "speech that many citizens find shabby, offensive, even
Concurrent with Showtime's media publicity effort
for Dirty Pictures comes word that the network has completed a
five-month negotiation for rights to the controversial British
gay-themed series Queer as Folk. Originally broadcast last
season on the U.K.'s Channel 4, the dramatic comedy stunned Britons with
its graphic depictions of sex and frank dialogue about the gay cultural
scene. (By the end of the first season, the critically-lauded show had
become a hit in Great Britain and throughout much of Europe.)
to Showtime, the new version will be set in a working-class eastern
American city. Its characters will be "American Cousins" of
their British counterparts, with decidedly Yankee backgrounds,
experiences, and styles of expression.
With Dirty Pictures
and Queer as Folk, Showtime seems to be demonstrating more than
passing acknowledgement of its self-challenging slogan "No Limits".
Dirty Pictures debuts on Showtime May 27th. Queer
as Folk is slated to appear as part of the network's fall 2000
Ben Patrick Johnson is
a journalist and novelist based in Los Angeles. His next book is about
American Bible-belt missionaries in the former Belgian Congo.
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