Beating the Hollywood Dole-Drums

Let me see if I've got this straight: Guns don't kill people, movies do. Specifically, movies like Priest.

As Clint Eastwood said without regard to anachronism in Unforgiven, "Say, what?"

Let's give Senator Bob Dole this much: Had he not fired this latest shot in the culture war, a national debate on the influence of popular art and culture on society would not have been so quickly joined. His speech may have been poorly prepared (he hadn't seen the movies he condemned) and his motives cynical (he desperately needs to shore up his right flank), but he at least got the national conversation started.

Actually, we're only continuing an argument initiated in the last presidential campaign, the one in which Vice President Quayle blamed the breakdown of the family on shows like Murphy Brown, which he said promote single parenthood. In the intervening years, the flames have been fanned by criminal charges and scandals associated with well-known rap artists like Snoop Doggy Dogg and Tupac Shakur, and the release of movies like Natural Born Killers and Pulp Fiction.

Dole's attack was as broad an assault on the entertainment industry as any that have been recently leveled. Broader than those by Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, Pat Buchanan, and others, who have tended to aim for specific personalities or programs. And few would argue that the film component of the entertainment empire doesn't need savaging. Mainstream American films are, on the whole, worse than they have been in the 20 years this observer has been on the job. The quest for the $100 million blockbuster - an increasing Hollywood appetite after the successes of Jaws and Star Wars - has marginalized the kind of bold, original filmmaking that held the industry in thrall from roughly 1967 to 1975, years that gave us Francis Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen, William Friedkin, Peter Bogdanovich, Mike Nichols, Milos Forman, and many others.

But Dole's complaint is not that Hollywood is producing dull, predictable, soft-edged, unimaginative, pandering, phonily optimistic, unoriginal, demographically engineered, sentimental mush. His complaint is that too much of this mush corrupts our values with gratuitous sex and violence.

Don't get me wrong - it is time to talk about the effect of entertainment on society. Before Dole's comments, there has been a kind of backdrop discussion going on about the general coarsening of American life. It usually includes observations about the diminishing use of "please" and "thank you," how the social graces of young children have ratcheted downward precipitously from a generation ago, how a door held open for a stranger produces, as often as not, nothing but eyes straight ahead. The influence of movies and music may belong in there somewhere, although I don't see how Pulp Fiction can be held responsible for the guy who flips you off after you've pulled in front of him even though nobody in that lane is going to arrive at his/her terminus appreciably before anyone else.

That entertainment influences behavior to some degree, however anecdotally, is a given. Witness the story about a person who was killed while re-enacting a scene from a movie in which a character laid down on the center strip of a highway. But it is truly difficult to accept the notion that movies and song lyrics, by themselves, corrupt behavior in any profound way. We boomers grew up with a lot of violence in Westerns and cop shows, but that didn't turn us into a society of lawless hoodlums. As Clint Eastwood said, "I don't think the public is that stupid."

Movies and music reflect culture. The factors that shape culture are education and parenting, and there is widespread agreement that these institutions, as currently practiced in American life, suck. Informal polls of moviegoers reported in the press indicate that the consumers of popular entertainment - those most likely to be adversely affected by the stuff they're paying for - believe that family breakdown, not moviemakers and recording
artists, are at the root of social problems.

But if we were to assume that Dole and his kind are correct, that movies do have a direct and immediate effect on people, we then have to decide which movies give offense. Libby Dole says one of them is Priest, because it depicts the problems of one priest who is gay and another who is heterosexually active. Viewed myopically, Priest is "about" sex. What it's really about is standing up for what is right, about finding renewed passion for a life devoted to care for others.

Too many of our cultural hall monitors mistake depiction for promotion. I've heard it said that The Bridges of Madison County promotes infidelity. If that's so, then Dirty Harry promotes tweed jackets. Please, people, let's not conclude that a depicted act of violence is a call to violence.

The good news is that we, the people, will benefit from this debate, even if it remains for the most part politically motivated and superficial. I think that when real thought is given to the issue, it will be determined that while movies and music contribute somewhat to bad behavior, the root causes go much deeper and have to do with child-rearing, religion, and education. I tend to agree with acerbic comedian Dennis Miller, who flatly says the problem is not media, but education. Improve that, he says, then our kids won't have to pass through metal detectors to get an F-minus in wood shop.

"Don't censor Hollywood; it's supposed to be shitty trash!" No, the issue deserves more serious consideration than that. But for now, I'm not about to let Dole or Quayle or any of a dozen other assault-weapons-loving, Schwarzenegger-excusing Republicans tell me which movies are good for me. n

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