Crime and punishment

Thanks to 'creative sentencing,' bad art finally has some redeeming social value

Published March 24, 1999 8:00PM (EST)

According to Jeffrey Abramson's March 11 New York Times op-ed piece about the trend toward "smart sentencing," a judge in North Carolina "sentenced a man who rammed his truck into a car driven by an interracial couple to watch the movie 'Mississippi Burning.'" It just so happens that I have seen "Mississippi Burning," a film that, while morally just, is cinematically flat. Telling the story of the investigation of the murder of civil rights workers (including two Jews who are weirdly costumed as ringers for the cartoon beatnik from "Dobie Gillis"), it kind of plods.

But maybe that was the judge's point. It wouldn't be a punishment if he made the racist watch a good movie, would it? With this line of reasoning in mind, as an act of civic good will, I offer my expertise as an arts and entertainment critic to the burgeoning industry of wacky sentencing. Now that 1.8 million Americans are in jail, there's not much room for new offenders. Better to unload the bad guys into multiplexes, art museums, record stores and other cultural institutions. A list of crimes and their sentences appears below. Just remember: Bad art = good punishment.

Drunk drivers: People convicted of driving under the influence of alcohol will be forced to watch every episode of the Fox television series "Party of Five." The five young Salingers were orphaned, you'll recall, when a drunk driver killed both of their parents. The series -- think the Book of Job unfolding in San Francisco's Pacific Heights -- chronicles their bottomless pit of bad luck. The rehabilitative effect this should have on the alcoholic offender would be sobering indeed, leading to the conclusion that if the drunk driver on the show (who, it's worth remembering, shows up at Bailey Salinger's AA meetings after Bailey himself becomes a drunk) had simply taken a cab home that fateful night, eldest daughter Julia wouldn't be a divorcee by freshman year; oldest son Charlie might not have knocked up a stripper; and, most important, youngest daughter Claudia would now have a mother around to tell her to wipe off all that makeup, giving her kindly, maternal advice along the lines of "Honey, you look like a whore."

Jaywalkers: Probably the pettiest criminals with the most hubris, jaywalkers believe those bossy "WALK/DON'T WALK" lights are meant for other people. Because this offense has been elevated to an art form on the island of Manhattan, daily bus tours will depart from the Port Authority to Frank Lloyd Wright's building "Falling Water" in Pennsylvania. Since recent structural tests reveal that due to Wright's egocentric flouting of architectural support (the rules of gravity don't apply to me!), the entire landmark is about to fall down. Jaywalkers will be asked to observe the slippage through holes in the floor, walk to the farthest, shakiest cantilevered edge and repeat the mantra "My egocentric actions contribute to the crumbling of civilization" 500 times.

Traitors: Specifically,those caught selling nuclear secrets to China will be placed in solitary confinement with "Little Buddha," that bomb where the Buddha was played by Keanu Reeves, and await execution by MSG poisoning.

Drug pushers: Once these freelance capitalists are convicted of selling opium to the masses, they'll be issued a radio whose dial is jammed in place at evangelical stations with call letters like WGOD. Repeat offenders, and those caught selling to children, will be issued a Walkman, along with tapes from Bob Dylan's Christian period, especially "Slow Train Coming." Guards will periodically lift the headphones and scream into their ears, "How does it feeeeeeeeeeeeeel?"

Litterbugs: For their disregard for public beauty, these lazy pariahs will be taken to the Milwaukee Museum of Art, home of the Ugliest Painting Ever Made -- an Alex Katz portrait of '70s-era modern dancers wearing red pants. They will be dressed in replicas of the red pants (men will be issued wigs with ponytails) and made to re-create the pretentious hokeypokey on the canvas.

Public nudity, drunk and disorderly conduct, disturbing the peace: Loudmouths who can't keep their shirts on will be assigned to read the collected works of Elizabeth Wurtzel. Stomaching the self-revelations of the author of "Prozac Nation" and "Bitch" -- especially the part in the former in which she's shamelessly making out with the guy from Butthole Surfers -- will likely inspire even the most obnoxious perps to revere the virtues of modesty, reserve and the keeping of secrets. Judges who find the Wurtzel sentence too harsh will remand peace disturbers to Burbank for a live taping of "The Nanny."

Plagiarists will come to understand that their thievery isn't just wrong but creepy by spending a weekend watching the E! network's "Talk Soup," in which the squirmy host channels the already squirmy Jim Carrey; the oeuvre of Christian Slater; the Milli Vanilli episode of VH1's "Behind the Music"; and "Single White Female." This punishment will take place, of course, in the country that also can't come up with original material, i.e., Canada.

Muggers will be assigned to hold the hat for street singers, who will perform from an official repertoire, including "Margaritaville," "Mr. Tambourine Man" (in which the mugger will be made, at knifepoint if necessary, to play backbeats on guess which auxiliary percussion instrument), "Yellow Submarine," "Send in the Clowns" (a cappella) and the theme from "Rocky" (harmonica solo).

George Stephanopoulos: This rat, whose fame (and sales for his new snitchography, "All Too Human") depends on selling out his former friends, should be locked into a screening room to take a good long look at "High Noon" -- frame by frame. Technically, this is a great film, but the point of it is to make you feel bad. It is just about the most depressing movie ever made in the facial expressions category, the way it follows Gary Cooper's sighing eyes as his entire town abandons him to fend off the bad guys alone.

By Sarah Vowell

Sarah Vowell is the author of "Radio On: A Listener's Diary" (St. Martin's Press, 1996) and "Take the Cannoli" (Simon & Schuster, 2000) and is a regular commentator on PRI's "This American Life." Her column appears every other Wednesday in Salon. For more columns by Vowell, visit her column archive.

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