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"No Limits" on Mapplethorpe Film and
Brit-inspired Gay TV Series on Showtime

Robert Mapplethorpe
James Woods

Photo: courtesy of Showtime

By 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 œuvre, known for its unapologetic depiction of gay sex, sado-masochistic acts, and nude studies of children.

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 Television.

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.

Ironically, 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 ugly."

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.)

According 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 lineup.

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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