Media's mean streak A critic thinks hard times bring out the dark side in movies and television

February 08, 1991|By Linell Smith | Linell Smith,Evening Sun Staff

A HARSH economy and increased competition for audiences are leading films and television shows to develop stories which appeal to the dark side of human nature, says media critic Mark Crispin Miller.

When he watched a recent episode of "Cop Rock," Miller was shocked by the sadism of a police officer who forced a handcuffed suspect to drink cup after cup of coffee while ignoring his desperate pleas to let him use the bathroom.

In the hit film "Pretty Woman," the critic found that the only mean-spirited character was the Jewish lawyer who tried to sabotage Richard Gere's transformation into a charitable tycoon.

Author of "Boxed In: The Culture of TV," editor of "Seeing Through Movies," a collection of essays, and a regular contributor to such magazines as The Atlantic, Miller studies the underlying meaning of images in films, television and advertising. He deals in the difficult business of telling people that what they have just seen may mean a lot more than they realize.

The Johns Hopkins University professor looks for cultural stereotypes and biases that influence viewers -- usually without their knowledge -- in the same way that gender-biased stories continue to teach children that philosophers and physicians are male.

He has found that images in film and video form subtle subtexts which remain with viewers longer than actual plots. One long-time cultural bias operating in films, for instance, says that "bad guys" are swarthy, urban and ethnic. Another uses different accents to impart various levels of intelligence; stupid characters often have working-class or New York accents.

"There's a complementary phenomenon that sees Jews as the bad apples in the system," Miller says. "It appeals to the same kind of bias that sees blacks and Hispanics as biologically

criminal and given to excessive emotionalism much more than white people."

The critic believes that the savings and loan crisis, stock market crash and recession have created an angry, fearful climate which make people ready to fix blame on such cultural stereotypes.

"People distrust the system now, they hate the system, they respond to attacks on the system," he says. "Times of economic upheaval in this country have always entailed revivals of various kinds of anti-Semitism and xenophobia . . . The Jew in the anti-Semitic mythology always embodies the most destructive impulses in capitalism."

And if film writers are developing a mass audience "feel-good" film during rocky economic times, Miller says, they may reach unconsciously for familiar scapegoats.

"When all you're trying to do is get people to nod in agreement, you will sort of mindlessly insert all kinds of things into your work that are really questionable, but that you don't notice.

"I think the filmmakers of "Pretty Woman" said, 'Let's make this one character really sleazy.' And sleaze automatically is best expressed by a short, loudly dressed, balding man with kinky black hair who is a lawyer -- as opposed to a tall, fair-haired, blue-eyed grade-school teacher or doctor.

"I'm not like the Anti-Defamation League of the B'nai B'rith, but I think this is interesting because it points up how far Hollywood will go to appeal to a large audience."

Likewise, the critic blames the violence, brutality and sadism he sees in prime-time television shows on the networks' attempts to win numbers.

"Networks have to break through to the bulk of their audience. The only way they can do that, apparently, is to become as titillating as possible, as viciously titillating as possible. They can't do full frontal nudity, but they can show what sort of takes the place of erotic activity: Brutality and abuse."

The critic was horrified by the opening scene in a recent segment of "Knots Landing": One character shattered a reformed alcoholic's arm with a baseball bat, then kicked and jabbed his arm in an attempt to make the sobbing man drink whiskey. He scoffs at the notion that the show "Twin Peaks" is satirical, instead calling it misogynistic and perverse.

"TV has become unbelievably sadistic. It's gross, it's shocking. Although I don't particularly like Madonna's video -- I think it's soft porn, a tease -- it's a lot less worrisome than these other things."

Miller began to consider the possibility of a trend of anti-Semitism in films when Spike Lee's "Mo' Better Blues" stirred up public debate with the negative portrayal of its Jewish characters.

"There was an interview wherein Spike Lee said there were limits on his freedom as a filmmaker. He said 'I couldn't make an anti-Semitic film, for instance, because Hollywood is run by Jews.' Hollywood is run by Jews, he's right. But that obviously has not meant that you can't make an anti-Semitic film, because a lot of films are."

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