Mr. Dole Goes to Hollywood

The Road to Washington

There he goes again. Last week presidential candidate Bob Dole delivered his second speech to the entertainment industry on values and the corrosive influence of certain movies and musical styles on American culture.

His first "Hollywood Address," given many months earlier, had been a huge hit, stirring a national debate about the place of film, television, and music in shaping the behavior of American children. Included in Dole's attack on an industry he views as primarily debasing rather than enlightening us was a direct attack on entertainment and media giant Time Warner. Dole was in the news for days as pundits from both sides, entertainment executives, religious groups, and civil libertarians debated his remarks on the television roundtables.

What I remember most about that first speech, apart from his quite direct assault on certain song lyrics on the Warner Bros. label, was his holding up the film True Lies as an example of what is good, right, and moral in American filmmaking.

Hmmm.

True Lies has its fans and foes, and the truth is, I thought it was a pretty good thriller -- an action film that included a James Bond-like opening sequence that was superior to most of those in the Bond films, and cheery performances by lead players Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jamie Lee Curtis, and Tom Arnold. There was that weird middle section, in which Arnold and Arnold engaged in a kind of psychological torture of Curtis' character -- a strange interlude that threatened to derail the film.

But the really weird part was Dole's choosing it as an exemplar. The film is abundantly violent and not devoid of the profanity that he claims to find so objectionable.

So like me, you may have winced several days ago when, just before he was to give his second Hollywood speech, Dole emerged from a screening of Independence Day and gave it a thumbs-up. "Great. American. Leadership. Good versus evil..." said the Save the Taciturn poster boy.

The next day, when he delivered his actual speech, Independence Day had disappeared from his "10 best" list. Reading from prepared text, he cited a much more sensible group of films for fostering optimism, hope, civility, and the American can-do attitude. These included Schindler's List, Apollo 13, Forrest Gump, and (he almost got my vote for this one, Australian though its origins) Babe.

It's easy to see what's happening here: On his own, Dole likes movies like True Lies and Independence Day -- "guy" movies in which manly men perform manly duties in a manly way. Leadership. Good versus evil. Attended by handlers and speechwriters, he likes Babe and Schindler's List. Quite simply, he doesn't know what he's talking about, and that's because he rarely sees movies. This is a generational thing, I suspect, and a person weaned on the profanity- and sex-free films of the 1940s might have trouble with today's movies. (My parents, for example, didn't see a single film between Around the World in 80 Days in 1956 and Deliverance in 1972. Needless to say, they never went back.)

We know, of course, that Dole's second Hollywood speech was programmed in an attempt to revive a presidential campaign that is beyond moribund. It was expected that he would once again be in the news, and the Sunday talk shows would bring Sam and George and Cokie together with guests like Ralph Reed and Joe Eszterhas to debate whether declining standards of civility are a direct result of violent, sexy films and songs with snarling lyrics.

Instead, his softball speech barely made the television and print news. Other issues dominate, of course: welfare reform, and America's recent emergence as the number-one target of terrorism. But Dole's flop on values comes in part because the press and public know that, even though Dole blames Hollywood, it is we the people who are responsible for shaping up and teaching our children to be worthwhile citizens. There's no small irony in Dole representing a political culture that preaches personal responsibility, and blaming our sorrows on a godless, greedy (and thriving) entertainment industry.

Likewise, it is commonly agreed that Hollywood films are what they are because the film business, like any other, follows the market. (As with politicians, we get the movies we deserve.) Odd then, for a good free-enterprise Republican like Dole to tell Hollywood to ignore market realities. "Don't tell us `the market made me do it,' you're free to do anything you want," Dole said.

There's a certain nobility in this last statement, and it sounds vaguely like the plaints of environmentalists and liberal social activists, who for decades have petitioned corporate interests to sacrifice a portion of the bottom line for the common good. He is asking the industry to temper its successful exploitation of the market with some higher thinking about its effect on society.

I can't speak for the music industry, but the Hollywood film giants have not been totally irresponsible here. Forrest Gump and Schindler's List became big hits, but not because they were high-concept films with a built-in audience, like True Lies. A movie like Gump is an expensive gamble.

And the industry has slowly but surely come to embrace the wave of independents setting up boutique studios for the distribution of such films as The Brothers McMullen and Reservoir Dogs. This has been motivated more by economics than moral high-roading, but the effect has been very beneficial.

One wishes that Dole would use his bully pulpit in a different way, attacking not sexy and violent films but mean-spirited and stupid ones. (My first target: Independence Day.) Dole would likely put in his cross-hairs films like Clockers or Menace II Society, films brimming with pessimism, and profanity, and violence. But to dismiss them is to ignore their value as societal snapshots and cautionary tales.

Why not go after movies like Grumpier Old Men, Kazaam, or Phenomenon? These tasteless confections are engineered specifically around the appeal of their stars, and the waste of talent and money expended on such projects is shameful. This waste is at least as morally objectionable as the rudeness and foul language Dole places at the center of his agenda.

n

Of all the fine and enduring women who served the screen across the decades, Claudette Colbert was easily among the most admirable. On screen, she projected a rich combination of desirable qualities: intelligence, femininity, self-assurance, sophistication and easy, unforced charm. Her personal grace was such that when a young film critic who chanced to meet her 24 years ago declared his admiration for It Happened One Night, she responded as if she had never been praised for that extraordinary performance before.n

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