One Critic's War Michael Medved attacks Hollywood's 'assault' on traditional values

THE BALTIMORE SUN

For Michael Medved, the film that broke the critic's back was "The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover," a Peter Greenaway movie he screened in the spring of 1990.

It wasn't just the variety of disgusting actions that appear in the film -- all cataloged in Mr. Medved's book "Hollywood vs. America: Popular Culture and the War on Traditional Values" (HarperCollins, 1992) -- it was that his fellow critics lauded it with words like "splendid" and "profound."

Mr. Medved, who gives his critiques on PBS' "Sneak Previews," thought it was time to say that the emperor had no clothes. In his view, his fellow critics were rallying around "The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover" because it had been threatened with an X-rating and the de facto censorship that brings.

What they missed, or at least were afraid to admit seeing, was a revolting assault on the senses. Indeed, Mr. Medved contends that critics and Hollywood continue to miss the entertainment industry's assault on religion, family, morality, fatherhood, parenthood, good language, America, and, indeed, beauty itself.

That's the position he takes in "Hollywood vs. America," and he's not at all surprised at the controversy it has caused.

"It's a polemic, not a carefully phrased argument" he said during a Washington stop on his book tour. "It was meant to hit Hollywood in the face with a two-by-four."

To make his case, in his book Mr. Medved welcomes as bedfellows everyone from fundamentalist Christian the Rev. Donald Wildmon, famed for his attacks on the TV networks, to rogue intellectual Allan Bloom, whose book "The Closing of the American Mind" argues for a strict hierarchy of culture, putting such popular genres as rock music down at the bottom.

As such, many in the entertainment world have dismissed Mr. Medved as just another one of "them," the would-be censors who seek to impose their narrow-minded views of correctness on the public.

No conspiracy theory

"A lot of what I said has been misinterpreted," Mr. Medved says. "Politically, I consider myself a liberal Democrat. I go to great lengths in the book to distance myself from those who say a homosexual or Jewish conspiracy is responsible for these films. And, I'm not saying no R-rated films should be made, I'm just saying that they shouldn't dominate all releases the way they do now."

He claims, for instance, that the first paragraph of his book has been misquoted in reviews. "What I've read is that I say that the entertainment industry is 'an all-powerful industry, an alien force that assaults our most cherished values and corrupts our children.' But if you read the paragraph, what it actually says is that 'Tens of millions of Americans now see the entertainment industry' as that. And I don't think anyone can argue with that."

In the book's chapters on Hollywood's assault on religion, when Mr. Medved takes on Martin Scorcese's controversial 1988 movie of Nikos Kazantzakis' book "The Last Temptation of Christ" -- which Mr. Medved says he has read and admires -- he says it is not the movie he is attacking, but the response of the entertainment community to criticism of the film, its failure to take seriously the objections of religious groups, to give the millions that they represent the same credence it would give to dozens of others who protest movie contents though their constituencies are much smaller.

Mr. Medved does, however, give his fellow critics a shot for their good reviews of the movie which, he claims, many found boring and silly but praised lest they be lumped with those who demonstrated against the film.

Such circling-of-the-wagons mentality is what Mr. Medved says constantly goes on in Hollywood, ironically -- and stupidly, he argues -- to the industry's detriment. In the book's most persuasive sections, he demonstrates that box office receipts have plummeted since the late '60s as the films have gotten more violent, more profane, sexier and, as the euphemism goes, more adult-oriented, as the Oscars started honoring "Midnight Cowboy" instead of "The Sound of Music."

"I used to think that money was the only thing that counted in the entertainment industry until I researched this book," Mr. Medved says. "I think the real problem is that Hollywood is just cut off

from most of society.

"For example, I conducted my own experiment, back when I used to get invited to Hollywood parties. I would ask people in the industry what percentage of people in the country attended church or synagogue regularly.

"Invariably -- and I did this about a dozen times -- I would get an answer of about 5, or at most, 10 percent. When I told them that polls showed that 45 to 50 percent of people said that they attended regularly, the reaction was always that those polls must be wrong, there was no way that could be true.

"So, you have to look at these people as products of their environment, just like every creative person is a product of his or her environment. They write about what they know, they make movies about what they know. And in the world that they know, people don't go to church, so they assume no one does."

Anti-religious losers

Within this environment, it is not surprising, he argues, that writers and directors turn out anti-religious movies even though one after another -- "Monsignor" (1983), "The Penitent," (1988), "Nuns on the Run" (1990), "The Pope Must Die" (1991) -- have lost money.

"Like everyone, people in the film industry want to be taken seriously, and the one topic that everyone everywhere takes seriously is religion," Mr. Medved says. "So they make films about religion, and when they do, they make them from their skewed viewpoint."

But, he points out that a film like "Ghost" (1990), which showed something of a traditional religious view of life after death in that good people were rewarded and bad ones taken off by demons, made tons of money.

"And I wish 'Sister Act' had come out in time for the book," he says. "It illustrates my argument perfectly. It provided a positive view of the Catholic church and it was a surprise hit.

"This is a film that people who believe in traditional religion could watch in complete comfort, and it was still entertaining to those who don't. Yet it's been well-documented that its star, Whoopi Goldberg, argued to include off-color language in it to make it more realistic or something. I guarantee you it wouldn't have been as big a hit if she had won that argument."

Mr. Medved points to another film that came out after his book's deadline to illustrate the absurdity of one of Hollywood's arguments against taking issues like this seriously -- that films and television shows don't have any effect on people's behavior.

"They contradict themselves on this all the time," he said of movie makers. "There was something in 'Dr. Giggles,' a [1992] slasher film that wasn't around for long, that I wish I had been able to get into the book.

"Two young things are about to have sex, and the girl asks about protection. The boy says he doesn't have anything. The girl says, 'But I do,' and proceeds to pull out a condom, which is displayed on the screen for all to see.

"They they start to go at it before they are sliced and diced and disemboweled and whatever. The point is that these Hollywood types pat themselves on the back for delivering a safe-sex message about the use of condoms, assuming that showing them in use will affect people, but then claim that the horrible violence that follows will have no effect.

"You can see the same type of thing in 'Lethal Weapon 3' [1992]. Someone actually said this movie will save many lives because the main characters wear their seat belts. Meanwhile, it has a body count of about 105 or something."

Mr. Medved contends that the violence in films, on television, in music videos, and in rock and rap lyrics is often the act of individuals out for their own causes, not the type of violence you saw in war movies of previous generations, when people of all types came together for a common goal and the common good.

Such individual violence does have an effect on society's attitudes, he argues, pointing not only to the rising levels of mayhem on the country's streets but also to studies that show that these media images make people afraid to go out, to participate in their communities, because they perceive a higher level of danger than actually exists.

One point that Mr. Medved wants to make clear is that just because a film is used to illustrate a negative point in "Hollywood vs. America" does not mean that he thinks it is a bad film. Much has been made over his criticism of "The Little Mermaid" for delivering an anti-family message as it glorifies a daughter -- the mermaid -- disobeying her father.

"Let me put it this way," he said. "Was Hollywood racist in the 1930s? Of course it was. Were those attitudes on display in 'Gone With the Wind'? Yes, they were, clearly. Does that mean that 'Gone With the Wind' was a bad film? No, it doesn't. It was a great film. And I loved 'The Little Mermaid,' too."

What else does Mr. Medved like? He praises "Glory," the Civil War film directed by Ed Zwick, as well as Mr. Zwick's TV series "thirtysomething." He likes "Parenthood" and almost all the films Steve Martin has been involved with. He likes films that entertain adults but that don't make parents squirm if they take their kids to them.

"Actually, I wrote this book in self-defense," he says. "My wife refuses to go to movies that have any violence so she can hardly ever come to screenings to with me. She has a busy practice as a psychologist. If they would make more movies we could go to together, we could see more of each other."

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