Politicians talk of a perfect past that never was

FILMS UNDER FIRE

June 18, 1995|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

There you go again.

The "you" happens to be Bob Dole, the Republican senator from Kansas who is running for president. But it could have been President Clinton, who's sounded similar notes in times past. Or Tipper Gore. Or anyone and everyone on back to the Catholic Legion of Decency in the '50s to the Hays Office in the '20s and '30s to the original blue-nose Anthony Comstock and his war on "September Morn," which he managed to turn into the most famous painting of the early 20th century.

The charges are familiar. Dole's variant is only remarkable because he is the Senate majority leader as well as the Republican front-runner, because he has not spoken on this issue before and because his famous speech, though woodenly delivered, was brilliantly written by someone other than Bob Dole:

"Society pays a price when the entertainment industry poisons the minds of our young people. We must hold Hollywood accountable for putting profit ahead of common decency."

The thrust is that in some inchoate, unquantifiable but troubling way, the violence that permeates screen culture has numbed and brutalized those who pay to witness it, making them more prone to expressing themselves with a gun or a knife than might otherwise be the case. Moreover, and perhaps more troublingly, the sexuality that oozes from the screen has led to a breakdown in values, as witness the surge of one-parent families, illegitimate births and attendant social pathologies. Hollywood: guilty, guilty, guilty.

"A line has been crossed -- not just of taste but of human dignity and decency," said the senator. He cited two films specifically, -- Oliver Stone's "Natural Born Killers" and Tony Scott's "True Romance," from a screenplay by Quentin Tarantino. They "revel in mindless violence and loveless sex," he charged.

It is not for me to point out the hypocrisies, real and imagined, behind the senator's assault; that's what pundits are for. Nor is it for me to inveigh hoity-toitily against him on constitutional grounds: The First Amendment, it seems to me, should apply to senators from Kansas like Dole as fully as it does to left-wing filmmakers from Los Angeles like Oliver Stone.

Even less is it for me to take a position on the violence issue, as that would be media hypocrisy of the highest nature. I am also a novelist, and Hollywood currently owns and is "developing" (whatever that means) two of my books. Both books and the movies that may spawn from them are, and necessarily will be, extremely violent; I specialize in natural born killers. Thus, it could be argued, if Hollywood insists on ignoring Dole and persists in businessas usual, I stand to make more than a few bucks. It could further be argued that if I argue against Dole, I have a secret agenda: I am advancing my own financial fortunes.

What remains, however, are certain issues of film history, certain charges that play the "good" movies of the past against the "bad" movies of today, which it seem to me are rooted more in political expedience and rhetoric than in reality.

The senator wants moviemakers -- artists, in general -- to be good citizens first and artists second, exemplars of the now famous "family values." He quotes a movie executive, Mark Canton, in calling for more PG films. He infers that the five "blockbusters" of the last year are "friendly to the family," but it becomes instantaneously clear that he has probably not seen any of them and has certainly not seen "True Lies" in particular, which besides being mega-violent has a gratuitous subplot.

As my favorite film critic noted at the time: " . . . [director James] Cameron (who also wrote) stops the film and turns it into a somewhat bizarrely configured Hepburn-Tracy number. The frustrated [Jamie Lee] Curtis becomes the object d'amour of a sleazy used car salesman (Bill Paxton) whose method of seduction is to tell his targets he's a secret agent; that, in fact, he's her husband Harry [Arnold Schwarzenegger]! But Harry, who has no appreciation for irony, finds out about it and utilizes the full force of his agency to squash the affair and the little man. Then, ickily, he further twists his power to play an elaborate and extremely sadistic prank on his poor wife, blackmailing her (through a secret guise) into taking on the role and performing some of the degrading acts of a prostitute. Jim, it's not very '90s! What it is, is very kinky stuff."

But that's not axiomatically bad. Cameron -- very much like Stone and Tarantino in the two films that so aroused Dole's ire -- was trying to subvert expectations and give his story unique life by twisting it in a new direction. He made a conscious decision to portray the family unit, and particularly the sexual tension between husband and wife, as unusually twisted.

Far from the white-bread fantasy of "Ozzie and Harriet," this was a troubled, dysfunctional and exceedingly disturbing relationship that, liberated by passion, turned into something ugly.

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