Hollywood, Enemy of the People

The Press, July 3, 1994

Denis Dutton


Hollywood vs. America, by Michael Medved. New York: HarperCollins, 386 pp. $24.95 (paperback).

What’s wrong with the movies? Everthing you can imagine, says film critic Michael Medved. Hollywood’s offerings have become a cesspit of crude violence, instant sex, profanity, and myriad forms of “irredeemable awfulness.” The great dream factory, he claims, has become a poison factory.

Michael Medved

In page after depressing page of detailed summary, Medved shows how contemporary films glorify the most debased or perverted violence, encourage irresponsible sexual adventurism, celebrate vulgarity, and ridicule marriage and family life. It is not a pretty read, but if you’ve missed many films over the last decade, you’ll find satisfaction in the time and money saved. Medved’s lurid prose matches the films and videos it describes: Michael Jackson pulling at his crotch before attacking a car with a crowbar, a drunk rolling in his own vomit in some Ken Russell ditty, and endless examples of brains spattered or human flesh eaten — all for the sheer fun of it.

Medved, who as a critic has been seeing five or six films per week for years, piles on an impressive list of examples, and I had not realized just how much urination, defecation, interspecies sex, sadism, and masturbation is seen of what used to be called the silver screen. But Medved is less satisfactory in explaining why it’s all happened. He claims that Hollywood has lost touch with its audience, and this must be true ito some extent, else Sony Corporation would not have lost so many of millions of dollars on The Last Action Hero.

Yet his diatribe contains a paradox. Either he is right that violence and vulgarity is not really what the movie-going public wants, or he is wrong. If he is right, then Hollywood will soon find out and doesn’t need to read this book. If he is wrong, then most of his argument is obviated. If people want to see rivers of blood, then that is what they will keep on paying for.

A possible key to the issue is found in a remark he quotes from the director Alan Pakula: “Movie violence is like eating salt. The more you eat, the more you need to eat to taste it at all. People are becoming immune to effects: the death counts have quadrupled, the blast power is increasing by the megaton, and they’re becoming deaf to it. They’ve developed and insatiability for raw sensation.” If this is true, then the process may soon run itself out anyway, just as some ex-punk rockers have recently turned to Gregorian chants.

In any event, it’s difficult to know what to do about the situation, so Medved waxes rhetorical and persuasive, trying everything short of the censorship-advocacy to push Hollywood in a more a more elevated and responsible direction. It is at this promotional end of the argument, rather than in his disgusting descriptions, that I began to feel queasy. For instance, he not only includes the attack on the family among Hollywood’s sins, but its attitude toward religion. Medved is a synagog-going Jew, but he admires Christianity and gives glowing account of the good works of religious organisations in trying to set Hollywood on the path of wholesomeness. The Los Angeles Film Studies Center sends “promising” students from Bible colleges to Hollywood learn production and “explore” a Christian perspective on film-making. I await the first Hollywood epic featuring an evil Darwinian scientist who tries to hide from an unsuspecting world decisive evidence for Biblical creation. A clean-cut creationist and his lovely, chaste fiancee will (with the help of either Lassie or the Holy Spirit) foil the plot and save the world from evolution.

Religion is a big issue for Medved. The epic treatment of missionaries and Amazonian Indians, At Play in the Fields of the Lord, is described by him as an “offensive” film, “the most ambitious all-out attack Hollywood has ever launched on organised religion.” This movie (an expensive box-office failure for Universal) “equates Christianity with the superstitions of the naked and painted jungle dwellers,” and “treats the native religions with far more respect than it accords any Western faith.” Quite so; the film also shows with deep insight how well-meaning but myopic Christian jungle reps can destroy stone-age cultures they encounter in the Amazon. It does not generalise about every missionary, but its portrayal of differences between relatively benign Catholic and overtly destructive Christian fundamentalist missionaries accords perfectly with what I have seen for myself in New Guinea.

At Play in the Fields of the Lord is a haunting and wonderful film, a tragedy of good intentions, and by disparaging it Medved asks for the replacement of political correctness by religious correctness. How much more socially valuable this would be than rolling in vomit is not certain. One of the most admirable qualities of Hollywood films in the last generation is their tendency to debunk that pretensions of single religions and cultural groups to possess monopolies on righteousness. This is not so much against religion, as against the exclusive claims of individual religions to unique, revealed truth. Considering Bosnia, Northern Ireland, and the Middle East, maybe it’s not such a bad idea. If Hollywood ever did decide to take up high-toned religious and moral instruction, we might yet pine for the days the good ol’ splatter-flick.

Perhaps Medved’s general argument could have profited from some cool economic analysis. Time was when it was big news that a movie costs a million dollars to produce. Today, a million might buy you a promising script or pay for a couple of special effects sequences, but not much else. The stakes have become so high that only proven formulae will get past the studio accountants. Risky experiments are out, unless they are undertaken by directors such a Steven Spielberg who are thought to possess paranormal abilities to attract money.

In the face of such economic realities, it is hard to imagine that Hollywood vs. America will make any difference to the state of the movie industry. MGM recently paid $500,000 for the rights to a script in which the President of the United States goes back to his farm-boy roots by having sex with a cow. Coming to a theatre near you!