Common Wisdom: One Thumb Up

An astonishing thing happened in April. I found myself in a room with five hundred people who agreed with me. Obviously, this was not an assembly of Catholics.

Quarreling Catholics are the lacerating reality of my adult years. This was a secular mix. But in conversation, as well as from conference speakers, about challenges facing this country the opinions expressed were my own. I walked away heartened and optimistic.

William Bennett laced his penetrating and sensible address with predictable wit. One memorable anecdote involved his publisher’s suggestion that Bennett change the working title “Book of Virtues” to “Book of Values.” Bennett resisted. “Book of Values,” he said, is the Sears catalogue.

The distinction is sound. Virtue precedes value and informs it. The absence of virtue, or its distortion, is responsible for much that has gone wrong in our culture. Nowhere is this so nakedly revealed as in the sensational and unhealthy direction taken by the entertainment industry. That is why the highlight of the conference for me was the presence of a media critic who, almost singly, confronts the deviant and smug milieu which labeled Dan Quayle a buffoon for his comments about family values vis-a-vis “Murphy Brown.”

Film critic Michael Medved knows, and does not shrink from pointing out, that Hollywood’s values do not represent those of most Americans. He refuses to tow the party line, aiming his slingshot at Goliath. In Hollywood, his is an unpopular stance, tolerance having definite limits. Some views are consigned to the closet. Medved continues to shout through the door, speaking for the disenfranchised.

I am one of the alienated, and I resent it. I grew up a movie fan. Each Saturday my friend and I walked downtown to the matinees. After the double feature we returned books to the library, selecting others. The routine lasted for years with no parental objections. The epidemic of sleaze, violence, and profanity in film was decades away. Movies and books, the synergistic relationship. Long before I swooned over Tyrone Power in “Captain from Castile” I had devoured Samuel Shellabarger’s book, and “Song of Bernadette” with Jennifer Jones sent me searching the library for Franz Werfel.

I’ve more or less given up on current fiction, filled as it is with rudderless protagonists floundering in a moral bouillabaisse. And I’ve almost abandoned my seat on the aisle. Lingering attachment to film survives in my reading countless reviews of movies, and interviews with people who make them. But the usual caveat following almost every review summarizes why I am not in the theater: sexually explicit, violent, profane. These are now the sine qua non in contemporary films. The Hollywood of my childhood and teen years has deteriorated into a cesspool where shockmeisters hold sway. Virtue is compromised or redefined, moral relativism rules, and dialogue fills the lull between violent acts, littered with the garbage of gratuitous profanity.

Remarkable technological progress in making movies has been accompanied by creative descent into aberrational portraits of human behavior reflecting not the morals of moviegoers but those of the film colony itself. The bias is clear. Ignored is Sam Goldwyn’s admonition, “If you want to send a message call Western Union.” Hollywood not only sends messages, it uses film as a bully pulpit; its manners and mores are uniform; it has an agenda. Bad guys no longer wear black hats, they wear three piece suits, military garb, or clerical collars.

Medved disputed my notion that money is the bottom line. He mentioned a succession of box office flops which, however, advanced Hollywood orthodoxy. The prime motivation, he said, is respect from peers, and the need to rebel. Hollywood suffers from a collective hunger for “they love me, they really love me,” and defiance perceived as courageous against the perceived status quo. This is responsible, or so it seems to me, for Hollywood’s antagonism to authority, making instant targets of clergy (hypocrites), the military (crazed), and the government (conspiratorial). These are recurring themes rife with caricature.

The ongoing competition is to push the envelope. Witness the stir this March at Oscar time, not about Forrest Gump, which delighted audiences and reaped huge profits, but about Pulp Fiction, purportedly a parody but boasting all the requisite cliches. Forrest Gump won, but Pulp Fiction was the darling of the elites. The disparity between Hollywood’s appetite and that of the public was no better stated than by a letter writer to (appropriately enough) People magazine, who remarked “the Oscar landslide for the heartfelt Forrest Gump and the virtual shutout of the viciously violent Pulp Fiction restores one’s faith. Maybe the film industry’s terminal hip will begin to accept that life affirming films are ultimately superior to those that denigrate the quality and value of life.” Maybe.

The intriguing aspect about the Gump sweep was the stunning naivete by those accepting its Oscars, who gave no evidence of understanding its success. Previous Oscar winners dilated tendentiously on the message of their films. None acknowledged the essence of Gump which made it unique. This is a story about a decent man. Far from a sentimental heart tugger, labeled by critics who nonetheless gave it grudging praise, Forrest Gump was a tribute to one man’s triumph over adversity. In reference to the film, Medved observed that in today’s climate Gump could easily qualify for victim status. But he wasn’t a crybaby. Disadvantaged with slight retardation, Gump nevertheless forged on. He honored his mother, with her endless aphorisms; he was courageous in battle, devoted to friends, resilient in the face of death and disappointment; he loved a woman but wanted to consummate that love in marriage. In other words, Gump was the antithesis of the Hollywood hero. Here, although they didn’t know it, was Hollywood’s ultimate shocker.

I miss the movies. My children let me know when there is a good film not riddled with offensive material. Like the rest of young adults they are conditioned and desensitized. Hollywood has coarsened an entire generation. Film dialogue is so commonly polluted it is no longer perceived as objectionable. Obscenity not heard in the home is inescapably heard at the movies. It doesn’t take a Mensa member to correlate a barrage of expletives in film and the increasing vulgarity of ordinary speech. Rich children and poor, educated or illiterate, city children, country children — whatever their differences, all have one thing in common. All go to movies. In time, the cumulative, erosive, particular ethos portrayed becomes accepted as normal.

Manipulation by Hollywood is not confined to moviegoers. Consider the paucity of celebrities who do not subscribe to that community’s political and social creed. I can name five. Michael Medved cited one more, a huge box office star who did speak out against abortion and made negative comments about homosexuality. He took such heat that he was essentially silenced. He needs to work in that town, to support his family. His private convictions will not again be publicly aired. The industry supports a number of charitable causes, but some are proscribed. It’s compassionate chic to show up at an AIDS benefit, a pro-life rally risks death to a career.

Extracting itself from its long, moral malaise challenges the entertainment industry. After witnessing the astonishing collapse of the Berlin Wall and its salubrious repercussions, however, one has to believe in miracles. We shall have to wait, and prayerfully watch previews of coming attractions.

By

B. F. Smith is a freelance writer and former contributing editor to Crisis Magazine.

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