East Hampton, New York. -- I walked out of "Batman Returns" an angry man, thinking, a bit irrationally, about what a jerk Dan Quayle is. Our boy vice president thinks the country is in trouble because of its dread "cultural elite."
Wrong, Hoosier; we're in trouble because we don't have a cultural elite.
If there were such an elite, it would be someplace around here. They're all on the beach or in the woods or pawing the kiwis and endive at "The Barefoot Contessa." On the weekend, a lot of the men and women who write the songs and books and make the movies the whole world sings, reads and sees were at the six-screener on Main Street paying seven bucks a head to expose their children to what the nation's film critics assured us is high art.
Art or not, "Batman Returns" is obscure, boring, violent -- and sick. Not "weird," the word the critics I read used as a synonym for "profound" (led by those working for the magazines of Time-Warner, which also produced the movie), but "sick"!
So, what is it in America that made me, along with other usually sensible summering elitist wannabes, walk into the theater with my 7-year-old daughter?
McDonald's. McDonald's made me do it.
Now we are getting close to the answer to the question of what passes for cultural elitism in the U.S.A. today. McDonald's. Happy Meals.
Happy Meals are a way of life for the fathers of young children -- mothers, too, I imagine -- who are charged with the care and feeding of their young on busy workdays. Slaving away on a hot laptop all day tends to discourage slaving away in the kitchen. You ask the kid if she wants to go out, and she says, "Happy Meal!"
You go to McDonald's and for $3.33, you get a bag filled with a burger or six McNuggets, some fries, a small Coke and some kind of little toy -- theme toys, usually promoting movies.
One month it's Looney Tunes or Beauty and the Beast, then Batman. Fiona, my daughter, got the Batmobile; the kid next door, here only a year from Thailand, got the Catmobile. TTC Merchandising, it is called. Perhaps that is our real culture.
At the same time, it seems, commercials for the movie were running every couple of minutes or so on the channels and programs most watched by children, little children. So, the pleadings began. When I gave in, my wife said, "You're crazy." My wife was right.
But I was hardly the only one. With Fiona and her friend Molly in tow -- Molly's mother also asked if I was sure I knew what I was doing -- I arrived at the six-screener to find a Manhattan-length line. More than half the people there were about 4 feet tall.
What fools we fathers be. The film, after all, did carry a PG-13 rating, which means that even the percentage-of-the-gross sleazebags in Hollywood were saying this is not for little kids. Or for aspiring cultural elitists, I might add.
But if daddies should have known what they were doing, the people at McDonald's had to know exactly what they were doing. Sleazebags of a high order, that bunch.
I don't think that the movie affected Fiona as much as it did me or Molly, who, as black blood began spilling from Danny DeVito's mouth, said, "This is gross." (I am not entertaining questions here from anyone but other fathers of small daughters about why I didn't pick up the kids and walk out.)
I worry now about how numbed my own may be from the usual dosage of violent cartoons and surreptitious watching of the 30 channels we get at home. For those who don't know: It is exceedingly difficult to ban television or rock at home because a child cannot relate to her peers without generational and cultural touchstones -- there is a fine line between protecting your kids and making them elitist freaks.
So, Mr. Vice President, fellow father, I would hope you consider building up, not tearing down a true cultural elite, not to reinforce the McDonald's culture you seem to admire or to ban movies or burn books, but to have the credibility to attack the trash merchants and their merchandisers.
As for the biggest merchandiser, McDonald's, I expect that archaeologists will dig up golden arches across the globe one day and conclude they were religious symbols -- and wonder if the priests practiced human sacrifice and if their decadence brought the society down.
Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.