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Movies, morality and conservative complaints.

There has been renewed discourse lately about Hollywood's moral obligations to the public and the extent to which the sex and violence of feature films does violence to existing social mores. The most notable feature of the largely unremarkable debate is its lack of timeliness. Had it occurred at the heyday of Reaganism, when Jerry Falwell, Jimmy Swaggart, and their ilk were riding high in the media spectacle (and the nation was enjoying a bizarre somnambulism), these condemnations would be of a piece with the reaction of the 1980s. Neoconservative culture has not left the scene with the closing of the Reagan/Bush era, but the recent complaints about Hollywood's sins, particularly given the forward-looking Clinton moment, seem hopelessly anachronistic.

The renewed hand-wringing about movie morality has at its base a theory of communication enunciated more than 50 years ago by Harold Lasswell, who suggested a "hypodermic" notion of media, wherein communication processes are seen as something an individual or agency does to someone else. Like "impact" theories of art, this idea proceeds on the assumption that the public is a kind of tabula rasa (clean slate) upon which is inscribed all social, cultural, economic, political, and moral ideas. Such theories pay little attention to the role media have in reflecting ideas already circulating in society. According to this notion, "Hill Street Blues" and "Miami Vice" were different from "Dragnet" not because 1980s television necessarily reflected 1980s culture, but because TV producers decided to sabotage the time-honored and unshakable style and ideology of Jack Webb.

When John Hinckley shot Ronald Reagan, a few critics immediately seized on the assailant's preoccupation with the film "Taxi Driver." Such a focus exempts us from a more complex discourse about the root causes of violence or other anti-social conduct. When Ted Bundy blamed horror movies and pornography for his crimes, the New Right jumped on a bandwagon that a sociopath and pathological liar propped up for them, failing to notice that horror films and porn were rather tame when Bundy began his murderous career, and those things that impact a sociopath, abused from childhood, might have negligible effect on the rest of society.

The conservative criticism of cinema is and always has been involved in the pursuit of scapegoats. This criticism is little interested in systemic issues that very well may be involved in both the dominant ideology and moral code, as well as their built-in self-destruction. These critiques also look back to a halcyon, innocent age, a common inclination these days given the amount of nostalgia for the 1950s that saturates cultural production. Yearning for the innocence of childhood, always a cultural fixation, may be particularly difficult to overcome when our view of this golden age of serene suburban households constantly is returned to us through the prisms of the media, through "Father Knows Best" and the whipped-cream image of America in which Hollywood specialized during its overly sentimentalized studio system epoch.

Very often, criticism of the films Hollywood produces is combined with that of the behavior of its producers. A large bluenose alarmist faction became very upset in the 1920s with the Fatty Arbuckle scandal and similar tales of Hollywood Babylon, which had almost as much to do with the effectuation of the Hays Office censorship code as did the actual content of movies. Although we continue to thrive on scandal more than we revile it, similar processes occur in our reception of cultural products. Madonna!s success as sex goddess, heir to Marilyn Monroe, etc., is as much involved in the minute off-screen chronicling of her antics and the promotion of various books, CDs, videos, and films. The quality, even the shock value, of these products is almost uniformly mediocre, leading to some very essential questions: If the show biz world is so out of step with American values and if, in fact, Hollywood is conspiring to rot our moral fiber, why do we keep buying? If the image of sexuality in "Basic Instinct" and "Body of Evidence" is so distant from audiences' tastes, why do they keep coming back for more?

I would agree with the neoconservatives that we could do with far fewer films along the lines of "Basic Instinct," although my position is that they simply are bad art with a retrograde view of gender relations; far too absurd, in my judgment, to have much consequence for human behavior. Hollywood, like the rest of our cultural outlets, feeds us rancid bowls of Fruit Loops because it is easy and safe to do so since we have become accustomed to such junk food and have failed, for a century or more, to ask anything else of our culture.

If the cinema is to be accused of anything, it is anesthetizing us, but here again, the blame lies squarely and solely with the consumer. It is not in the interest of the commercial media to do anything but move product in the quickest and most efficient way possible. Consequently, everything that might be termed "art" thoroughly is marginalized and moved to venues off the average consumer's beaten path. If Hollywood product seems more nihilistic and amoral, we might take note that Vietnam, Watergate, the Reagan/Bush years, and the relegation of the U.S. to debtor status with the collapse of its economy have given this nation a considerably more jaded palate than it had, say, in the 1950s. Accordingly, the culture mills must add more hot sauce, horseradish, and red pepper to such overcooked, leftover stews. It's time to look for new recipes, rather than lynch the woebegone, ignorant chef.
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Author:Sherrett, Christopher
Publication:USA Today (Magazine)
Article Type:Column
Date:Sep 1, 1993
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