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Hollywood versus America? The gospel according to Michael Medved.

In the following two articles, we examine the recent attack on the film industry mode by Michael Medved in his book, Hollywood vs. America: Popular Culture and the War on Traditional Values

For people of sound moral breeding - the gentry who hew proudly to those oft-bespoke "traditional values" - it's a harsh world out there. Popular culture seems to mock all that these people hold dear. The vandal hordes have forced their way into the ancestral manor, and they are now stealing the china, smashing all the sacred icons, and staining the delicately woven rugs with their muddy proletariat boots.

But hark! - there's a watchdog in the house. Michael Medved, self-appointed cultural arbiter of the reactionary right, has reared up on his hind legs to yap all the anti-"family values" meanies into submission.

If this seems rather an unkind critical stance to take toward Medved, it's not undeserved. His newly published screed, Hollywood vs. America: Popular Culture and the War on Traditional Values, is scurrilous - disingenuously argued, ineptly written, and reeking of the shameless opportunism that has marked Medved's entire career. While it's safe to say the book won't be taken seriously by any informed consumer of popular culture, that's not who Medved is writing for. Hollywood vs. America is not meant to persuade or to educate but, rather, to provide fresh ammo in the fierce cultural war currently raging in the United States - at its most fundamental level, a war against freedom of speech and artistic expression. It doesn't matter how ill-nourished Medved's arguments are, because his book won't be the primary vehicle for delivering them. Like recent works by Dinesh D'Souza and Camille Paglia, Hollywood vs. America is basically a prop to be waved in the air by Medved as he appears on talk shows and in print interviews from coast to coast, delivering soundbites of his assertions - thus giving them a subliminal but wholly unearned validity that few will take the time to investigate. These must be serious and well-documented charges, the unwary observer is led to infer; after all, they're in a book. Hardcover, yet.

Medved first made a name for himself as the coauthor (with his younger brother Harry) of several books that made fun of low-budget movies: The Golden Turkey Awards, The Hollywood Hall of Shame, and Son of Golden Turkey Awards. (It was an early mark of Medved's intellectual courage that he wrote most of an earlier book credited to Harry, The Fifty Worst Movies Ever Made, but kept his name off it because, as an aspiring scriptwriter, he was afraid of making enemies in Hollywood.)

Bad movies were certainly an easy target for cheap laughs - made even easier by the fact that the Medveds obviously hadn't seen many of the movies they so gleefully lampooned. For Medved and his brother, writing in the days before home video (when these obscurities were all but impossible to see), accuracy probably seemed a relatively minor consideration; so, too, was a degree of charity toward filmmakers whose honest efforts were unblessed by talent. One such unfortunate was a director interviewed by the Medveds but apparently unaware of the contumelious nature of the book they were planning. He talked to them candidly about the tacky films he had made in the 1950s; when he later saw the way his words had been twisted in print to make him look foolish, he bitterly refused to be interviewed by any other writer for the remaining years of his life.

From that shining moment on, Medved's sights were set on mainstream success. Although he had never worked as a print journalist, he was hired with Jeffrey Lyons to cohost PBS's "Sneak Previews" after Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert moved on to the greener pastures of syndication. Medved quickly caught on to the secret of success in the field of broadcast punditry: obsequious praise of movies with fat advertising budgets will land your name in big, splashy ads carried in newspapers across the country. And if it's a film no reputable critic has the stomach to endorse, even better - that just cuts down on the competition for space. No matter that discerning filmgoers quickly learned to avoid movies recommended only by the likes of Medved; in the world of soundbite journalism, if people see your name in print often enough, they subconsciously begin to assume that you must be someone important.

Over the past few years, television and popular magazines have become saturated with Lite Journalists of Medved's ilk, so it was inevitable that Medved himself would strike out for bigger and better things. Not surprisingly, he's gravitated to the booming field of reactionary cultural criticism - an area wide open to a hack of his limited critical skills. But having set up shop as a pop-culture pundit, Medved is not content merely with analyzing various examples of popular entertainment - primarily Hollywood films - and showing how they derogate "traditional values." Given the sheer volume of movies produced these days for theaters, home video, and cable TV, as well as Medved's "Ozzie and Harriet" definition of traditional values, such a task wouldn't have been too difficult; it also wouldn't have assured him much controversy.

So, in Hollywood vs. America, Medved has devised a conspiracy theory, and it's a real lollapalooza: the entire entertainment industry, under the control of the "militant secular humanists" who run it, is zealously - even monomaniacally - devoted to the destruction of family values. In the gospel according to Medved, producers, directors, and actors are motivated not by the desire for fame and fortune but by an irrational, burning need to advocate their own "loony" worldview, even in the face of "overwhelming" evidence that such movies are guaranteed to lose millions of dollars by offending the morals of decent Americans.

This argument is so fatuous that it's hard to know where to attack it first. At the very least, all 250 million Americans obviously do not share a single morality. And the huge entertainment industry is so decentralized that the notion of a dominant cabal is preposterous. While there are relatively few major corporations distributing the bulk of the entertainment product, the creative forces are largely independent. And to suggest that the distributors are motivated by anything less than money is, if Medved really believes it, an act of extreme self-delusion; like lotteries, the slim but real potential for enormous profits is what drives the entire industry.

What proof does Medved provide to back up his indictment? Precious little. While he claims to have talked to numerous people in Hollywood (and to be conversant with the industry as a whole), he offers only isolated conversations with unnamed subjects which reveal nothing more shocking than that film-industry people, as a whole, attend church less regularly than do "the mass of Americans" or "the public at large" (Medved is fond of covering up the weakness of his arguments with populist rhetoric like this.)

In his frenetic prosecution of the secular-humanist entertainment complex, Medved bludgeons his readers with supposedly exhaustive amounts of statistical data. But, even aside from their questionable validity, his manipulation of these stats is fundamentally illogical. Medved generally argues the old line that depictions of anti-social behavior in the media produce similar behavior in real life: TV violence begets riots in the streets, sexual immorality in the movies leads to teen pregnancies, and so on. But at the same time, in trying to argue that Americans really don't want to see characters and situations that differ from their own lives (an absurd assertion), Medved piles on the statistics to indicate a steady increase over the past two decades in church attendance, monogamy, and other "traditional family values" So which is it? If Americans are becoming much more conservative, the effect of all this nasty popular culture must be minimal. Or if movies and television do have a pernicious effect, then his statistics must be wrong. (They are, in any event, carefully selected and manipulated to suit Medved's ideological purposes at any given moment.)

Medved's standard line of argument consists of endorsing some element of the "traditional values" canon, finding a handful of movies that seem to disparage it, and deducing malicious intent on Hollywood's part. With approximately 500 movies made every year in this country, you could use that method to prove almost anything. For instance, Medved "proves" the movie industry's "outrageous and inane obsession with cannibalism" by pointing to the following films, all made between 1988 and 1992: Silence of the Lambs; Cape Fear; Fried Green Tomatoes; The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover; Parents; Out Cold; Auntie Lee's Meat Pies; Lucky Stiff, Consuming Passions; Society; Eat the Rich; and The People Under the Stairs. To lump all 12 of these very different films together as movies "obsessed" with cannibalism is ridiculous - and misleading (especially Cape Fear, which does not contain a single instance of cannibalism). Can Medved really see no difference between Silence of the Lambs, featuring Hannibal "the Cannibal" Lector, and Fried Green Tomatoes or Out Cold, movies that include - as a minor element of the story - characters disposing of a dead body in, respectively, a diner and a butcher shop? Auntie Lee's Meat Pies is a made-for-video obscurity that Medved apparently hasn't seen, since all he does is quote the advertising copy. He certainly hasn't seen The People Under the Stairs, which he describes as the story of a "cannibalistic clan who ... slaughter, dismember, slice open, and gobble up their victims out of sheer, uncontrollable lust for the joy of consuming human flesh" - an outrageously false description. The other films are either broad satires or black comedies in which the theme of cannibalism (never actually depicted except in The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover, in which a villainous lout who fancies himself a gourmet is forced to take a bite of a man he has had murdered) is used as a metaphor to critique modern consumer society.

What should be obvious to any viewer, but somehow escapes the ideologically blinkered Medved, is that none of these films promotes or advocates cannibalism. Nor do any of them depict it as anything but outrageous, aberrant behavior; for the most part, it isn't even a voluntary act. At best, even if you grant Medved all 12 of his slippery examples and assume that the mere mention of cannibalism in a film is an egregious slap in the face of public morals, Medved has identified only a dozen movies out of more than 2,000 produced in the last five years. That's barely one-half of one percent - hardly evidence of any substantial trend, particularly given the obscurity of most of them.

Medved goes on:

The baleful box office performance of the bulk of these

pictures, despite their well-advertised artistic aspects

and the presence of some well-known stars, indicates

that there is hardly an overwhelming public demand

for movies about the consumption of corpses. The industry's

cannibalism compulsion reflects its ongoing

(and idiotic) efforts to shock its audience and to

obliterate all remaining taboos, rather than a commercially

motivated attempt to exploit some hot new trend.

In other words, Medved would be more favorably disposed to films about cannibalism if there was a "legitimate" public demand for them. Ironically, however, the mainstream movies on his list - Cape Fear, Fried Green Tomatoes, and The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover - all sold more than their share of tickets, while Silence of the Lambs was one of the most popular films of the last few years. If anything, Medved's "evidence" and ragged reasoning could as easily point to wild public enthusiasm for movies about cannibals.

Medved's entire book is this fuzzy; everything he says seems to have been made up on the spot, in complete disregard for anything else he has said or will say in other parts of the book. (Don't they have editors anymore at HarperCollins? Or did those poor souls simply throw up their hands at the enormity of their task?) To show that Driving Miss Daisy, Chariots of Fire, Tender Mercies, and Places in the Heart - films with religious elements, however minor - were universally loved and critically adored, Medved notes the number of Academy Awards they received, as if an Oscar were an irrefutable indicator of merit, etched on a stone tablet by the finger of God. Yet a few pages later, he condemns the record number of Oscars won by Silence of the Lambs (a movie he particularly despises) as proof of "the Hollywood establishment['s] ... enthusiastic embrace of ugliness." He also goes on to chide the "elitist" notion of giving out awards like the Oscars on the basis of artistic merit, preferring instead the criterion of popularity as indicated by box-office receipts. (Which still would have given Silence of the Lambs a fistful of Oscars.)

Although Medved tries to prove throughout Hollywood vs. America that the Hollywood elite is actively hostile toward the religious beliefs of average Americans, what the book actually proves is Medved's own intolerance toward those who don't fit into his narrowly defined "Judeo-Christian majority." He inevitably brings up Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ, probably hoping to hit a hot button with those who remember the fuss at the time of the film's 1988 release. Medved extols the efforts of fundamentalist protestors - who hadn't actually seen the film and knew little about it - to pressure Universal Pictures into shelving it. He makes the predictable, snide remarks about the movie's "laughable dialogue and unbearably bad acting." And he asserts that reviewers who praised the film as an honest expression of faith (Scorsese, after all, is a devout Catholic) did so only out of anti-religious prejudice.

What Medved doesn't do is justify (or even explain) why the film was so "dangerous" in the first place. He passingly refers to a list of some 20 items that (unnamed) "Christian leaders" found offensive, specifying only two of them: a scene in which Jesus watches Mary Magdalene having sex, and Paul's statement "I've created truth out of what people needed and believed." Catholicism somehow survived these savage blows.) Medved even quotes himself at the time saying, "In my opinion, the controversy about this picture is a lot more interesting than the film itself." In fact, he all but admits that The Last Temptation of Christ, while unlikely to appeal to fans of Ben Hur or The Robe, was not fundamentally sacrilegious. Yet he still applauds the efforts of those people who fought to prevent anyone (including themselves) from seeing the film, and he scolds Universal Pictures for refusing to give in to their uninformed demands. Seldom do you get to see an argument for prior restraint so nakedly - and frighteningly - presented.

Unable to score points with the loaded example of The Last Temptation of Christ, Medved scrapes the bottom of the interpretive barrel searching for anti-religious bias in other films. I'll bet you didn't know that Misery, Edward Scissorhands, and The Blob (at least the 1988 remake) were all subtle works of anti-religious propaganda. At his most disturbingly paranoid, Medved even suggests that, in remaking the 1963 thriller Cape Fear, director Martin Scorsese and Universal Pictures took "revenge on the born-again believers who had so passionately protested" The Last Temptation of Christ. How? By having the central character, Max Cady - a vengeful rapist and killer - profess to be an evangelical who was "born again" in prison. The obvious fact that this device, which is at least as old as 1950's Night of the Hunter, is nothing more than a cheap way of intensifying a character's evilness, offering a stark contrast between his words and his actions, is far too subtle for Medved. (He also must be the only media observer in the country not to know that Scorsese was brought onto Cape Fear reluctantly by star Robert Deniro, the real driving force behind the project.)

Medved's biases are clear and loud. Though he claims to speak for middle America, he relentlessly propagandizes for the far right. His summary of the most treasured American values lists "hard work, traditional family life, a strong national defense, and material acquisition." He criticizes the abundance of violence in movies and on television yet complains that there aren't more "feel-good" war movies. He also complains (often) about Holly-wood's "fixation" on the Vietnam War. Never mind that the war was the defining event of the entire enormous "baby boom" generation; Medved explains that the only reason there are so many Vietnam War movies is because, as the only war we ever lost (actually, we didn't do too hot in 1812 or Korea, either), it gives producers a chance to make America look bad.

Medved's overall views on art and society are truly alarming. Like any good Fascist, he defines "good art" as that which "respect[s] convention, including representational painting, rhyming poetry, melodic music, [land] life-affirming movies." He shamelessly argues that producers should pander to the lowest common denominator, that it is arrogant for a filmmaker (or any other artist) to produce work that prods us to think or examine the state of the world or the nature of our lives. It causes him no end of bother that there are (according to his questionable statistics) more happily married couples, more churchgoers, and more virgins in real life than in the movies. Someone should break the news to him that the reason most of us go to the movies in the first place is to see something more interesting than our own humdrum lives. At the very least, he might give us credit for being something more than moral idiots who uncritically absorb everything we see depicted in movies. (I spent much of my childhood soaking up every horror movie I could find; yet, despite witnessing plentiful examples of grotesque carnage, I've never so much as felt an urge to take an axe and eviscerate those who annoy me. Not even Medved.)

Compounding Medved's first deadly sin - ceaseless propagandizing in place of analysis - is his utter ineptitude as a writer. His love of adjectives far exceeds his under, standing of them (perhaps a result of working so hard to be quotable in his TV reviews), and his annoying penchant for alliteration brings back queasy memories of that literary stylist Spiro T. Agnew. Moreover, Medved's status as a cultural critic is severely endangered by inane descriptions (he calls "Let's Spend the Night Together," one of the Rolling Stones' most uptempo rockers, a "ballad") and blatant goofs (he scorns REM's huge hit "Losing My Religion" solely on the basis of its title, not realizing that the song has nothing at all to do with religion but is, in fact, a metaphor for unrequited love). And the smirking, petty tone of his preaching to the choir makes this book a test of endurance for any open-minded reader.

Unfortunately, Medved's apparent goal of becoming the pet entertainment-basher of the far right seems to be paying off. Already he's begun to pop up on talk shows when the call goes out for someone to "balance" speakers who favor constitutional freedoms. He also serves as a spokesperson for the Dove Foundation, an organization that rates movies on the basis of "traditional Judeo-Christian values." Along with publishing lists of "Dove-approved films," the foundation wants video distributors to provide alternate edited versions of movies suitable for the whole family (which is to say, suitable for young children). As most video stores are limited in the number of new tapes they can purchase, an obvious result of this policy would be to reduce the number of "non-family" (that is, uncensored) versions of movies on video, the medium on which most people now see films. By seeking to foist his narrow-minded and philistine beliefs on the rest of us, Medved proves that, far from being beneath contempt, he deserves every bit of contempt we can muster.

M. Faust is a freelance writer who has reviewed thousands of films for the books Video Movie Guide (Ballantine), Movies on TV (Bantam), and The Complete Guide to Videocassette Movies (Holt). He contributes to Video magazine and the Buffalo News.
COPYRIGHT 1993 American Humanist Association
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Copyright 1993, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:discussion of values in the mass media
Author:Faust, M.
Publication:The Humanist
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Jan 1, 1993
Words:3349
Previous Article:Power to the people.
Next Article:Hollywood Vs. America: Popular Culture and the War on Traditional Values.
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