Angry rhetoric attempts to trash American films

November 01, 1992|By Emily Leventhal

HOLLYWOOD VS. AMERICA:

POPULAR CULTURE

# AND THE WAR AGAINST

TRADITIONAL VALUES.

Michael Medved.

HarperCollins.

416 pages. $20.

7/8 Ever since the first screening of "The Great Train Robbery" in 1903, when unsuspecting viewers fled the theater at the sight of a gun pointed directly at the camera, concerned citizens and public officials have looked at the movies with a skeptical eye. Back then, the most vocal cabal was the Legion of Decency, whose pressure helped enact the Production Code of 1934.

In recent days we've heard from the vice president, the archbishop of Los Angeles and now Michael Medved, whose book, "Hollywood Vs. America" is the latest entry in the Great Family Values Debate. As co-host of the PBS series "Sneak Previews," along with partner Jeffrey Lyons, Mr. Medved has witnessed about 800 movies over the last few years. His conclusion: Hollywood has reached an all-time low.

It seems the trouble began in 1968, when Jack Valenti replaced the Code with the current ratings system, and the old guard gave way to a radical new breed of mogul with a different agenda. Mr. Medved contends the "entertainment elite" thumbed its collective nose at conventional morality via a calculated effort to supplant the heartwarming fare of the Golden Age with a "dark and disturbing" national cinema. And it still is.

But Mr. Medved has his own agenda. Over the years, his status as a kind of insider put him in contact with those he would condemn. As such, he's most persuasive when his mode is anecdotal rather than analytical. The strategy revealed by a producer of the big-budget flop "King David" sounds as if it were lifted from the screenplay of "The Player": "We could have gone ** the easy way and played to the Bible Belt . . . but we wanted to make a film with guts.We don't see David as some kind of Holy Joe, some praise-the-Lord kind of guy. We wanted to make him a richer, deeper character."

But if the explanation of one misguided soul in Malibu seems more than a little shallow, then so, unfortunately do most of Mr. Medved's. The readings he imposes on a batch of recent releases amount to little more than feeble plot summaries in search of a sound bite. Thus, "The Godfather Part III" is anti-religion, since our sympathy is directed toward the Mafia and not the Vatican. Likewise "Nuns on the Run," whose small-time hit men dress in drag and ridicule the concept of the Trinity. (In the print I saw, the two "hoods" donate their ill-gotten loot to the convent's drug rehab center.)

Even a national institution such as "Home Alone" doesn't escape unmolested. Recall the premise of that subversive film: Mom and Dad whisk themselves off to Europe and leave Kevin to fight off the "bad guys" all by himself. Its predecessor, "E.T.," gets tossed in the anti-parental bin since the adults must learn from Elliot the proper way to treat a house guest. "The Hand That Rocks the Cradle," on the other hand, passes the test. After all, it's the nanny, and not the mommy, playing the psycho. Finally, "The Little Mermaid" is dismissed as an immoral piece of filth, extolling as it does the "human-mermaid intermarriage."

What motivates all the hand-wringing is a deep-seated hostility to popular culture that goes a long way toward explaining all the fire-and-brimstone rhetoric. Even the movies he endorses -- such as "The Grapes of Wrath" and "Chariots of Fire" -- are never more than "wholesome" or "touching." To Mr. Medved, film is an inherently inferior vehicle for artistic expression, one that cannot and should not aspire to the realm of art.

He pleads for "kinder, gentler" entertainment, not works of vision that probe ambiguities for genuine sources of meaning. Mr. Medved is particularly hard on films that resist his need to reduce complex moral issues to a simple struggle between good and evil: "Blade Runner" is mean-spirited, not to mention anti-American, since it expresses ambivalence toward a future dominated by technology. This same rigidity causes him to view all violence as gratuitous, all profanity as an attack on propriety. It never occurs to him that violence can serve as a metaphor for more subtle forms of oppression, or that profanity may be an effective way to dramatize panic or frustration.

The irony in all this is that the Hollywood ideal Mr. Medved envisions is a lot like the one we've already got. As brand names encroach upon their narrative content, movies are looking more and more like feature-length commercials. In this context, it's easy to imagine what a Michael Medved film might look like. It is a 90-minute snapshot of a happy family, in which the home has a warm, yellow glow, full cupboards and overstuffed armchairs courtesy of Ethan Allen. The message, of course, is "Be like Mike."

Ms. Leventhal is a writer living in New York.

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