FILMS UNDER FIRE Politicians talk of a perfect past that never was


There you go again.

The "you" happens to be Bob Dole, the Republican senator from Kansas who is running for president. But it could have been President Clinton, who's sounded similar notes in times past. Or Tipper Gore. Or anyone and everyone on back to the Catholic Legion of Decency in the '50s to the Hays Office in the '20s and '30s to the original blue-nose Anthony Comstock and his war on "September Morn," which he managed to turn into the most famous painting of the early 20th century.

The charges are familiar. Dole's variant is only remarkable because he is the Senate majority leader as well as the Republican front-runner, because he has not spoken on this issue before and because his famous speech, though woodenly delivered, was brilliantly written by someone other than Bob Dole:

"Society pays a price when the entertainment industry poisons the minds of our young people. We must hold Hollywood accountable for putting profit ahead of common decency."

The thrust is that in some inchoate, unquantifiable but troubling way, the violence that permeates screen culture has numbed and brutalized those who pay to witness it, making them more prone to expressing themselves with a gun or a knife than might otherwise be the case. Moreover, and perhaps more troublingly, the sexuality that oozes from the screen has led to a breakdown in values, as witness the surge of one-parent families, illegitimate births and attendant social pathologies. Hollywood: guilty, guilty, guilty.

"A line has been crossed -- not just of taste but of human dignity and decency," said the senator. He cited two films specifically, -- Oliver Stone's "Natural Born Killers" and Tony Scott's "True Romance," from a screenplay by Quentin Tarantino. They "revel in mindless violence and loveless sex," he charged.

It is not for me to point out the hypocrisies, real and imagined, behind the senator's assault; that's what pundits are for. Nor is it for me to inveigh hoity-toitily against him on constitutional grounds: The First Amendment, it seems to me, should apply to senators from Kansas like Dole as fully as it does to left-wing filmmakers from Los Angeles like Oliver Stone.

Even less is it for me to take a position on the violence issue, as that would be media hypocrisy of the highest nature. I am also a novelist, and Hollywood currently owns and is "developing" (whatever that means) two of my books. Both books and the movies that may spawn from them are, and necessarily will be, extremely violent; I specialize in natural born killers. Thus, it could be argued, if Hollywood insists on ignoring Dole and persists in businessas usual, I stand to make more than a few bucks. It could further be argued that if I argue against Dole, I have a secret agenda: I am advancing my own financial fortunes.

What remains, however, are certain issues of film history, certain charges that play the "good" movies of the past against the "bad" movies of today, which it seem to me are rooted more in political expedience and rhetoric than in reality.

The senator wants moviemakers -- artists, in general -- to be good citizens first and artists second, exemplars of the now famous "family values." He quotes a movie executive, Mark Canton, in calling for more PG films. He infers that the five "blockbusters" of the last year are "friendly to the family," but it becomes instantaneously clear that he has probably not seen any of them and has certainly not seen "True Lies" in particular, which besides being mega-violent has a gratuitous subplot.

As my favorite film critic noted at the time: " . . . [director James] Cameron (who also wrote) stops the film and turns it into a somewhat bizarrely configured Hepburn-Tracy number. The frustrated [Jamie Lee] Curtis becomes the object d'amour of a sleazy used car salesman (Bill Paxton) whose method of seduction is to tell his targets he's a secret agent; that, in fact, he's her husband Harry [Arnold Schwarzenegger]! But Harry, who has no appreciation for irony, finds out about it and utilizes the full force of his agency to squash the affair and the little man. Then, ickily, he further twists his power to play an elaborate and extremely sadistic prank on his poor wife, blackmailing her (through a secret guise) into taking on the role and performing some of the degrading acts of a prostitute. Jim, it's not very '90s! What it is, is very kinky stuff."

But that's not axiomatically bad. Cameron -- very much like Stone and Tarantino in the two films that so aroused Dole's ire -- was trying to subvert expectations and give his story unique life by twisting it in a new direction. He made a conscious decision to portray the family unit, and particularly the sexual tension between husband and wife, as unusually twisted.

Far from the white-bread fantasy of "Ozzie and Harriet," this was a troubled, dysfunctional and exceedingly disturbing relationship that, liberated by passion, turned into something ugly.

In film terms, it doesn't work, just as "Natural Born Killers" and "True Romance" don't work, either. The point is, however, that not everything works. But what definitely doesn't work is what the senator seems to prefer: that exact kind of "family friendly" fantasy of storybook lives, of perfect neighborhoods, of happy -- families.

Dysfunctional fantasy

Dole should remember that the most beloved of all Hollywood family-friendly films is actually about a dysfunctional family, a family where the nuclear unit has been replaced by extended members (an aunt and uncle), where the menial laborers on the estate are forced to function as siblings, where the child herself is so distraught that she takes refuge in a dreamworld that involves casting all her neuroses in fantasy terms: Where? Why, somewhere over the rainbow, in 1939's "The Wizard of Oz."

Dole says, "In the 1930s, [Warner Bros.] made a series of movies, including 'G-Men,' for the purpose of restoring 'dignity and public confidence in the police.' It made movies to help the war effort in the early 1940s. Its company slogan put on a billboard across from the studio was 'Good Citizenship with Good Picture Making.' "

Hollywood may have said that, but was it ever really so?

Or is the senator remembering the movie past the way the movies remember the South -- through a patina of yearning and nostalgia, through a prism of romance and selectivity?

The answer is complex. Indeed, one can look at film history and cite family-friendly films like the Andy Hardy series and the Ma and Pa Kettle films and the Little Rascal films and the Disney films, and see a whole litany of happy-happy. One can look at crime dramas where justice always triumphed, where the cops always got their man. One can look at war films where the industry was part of the home front and made movies that got with the spirit of teamwork and victory.

But at the same time, the American movie has persisted in running through cycles where it was as subversive as it was supportive, where it inverted the "official" values of society or at the very least subjected them to ferocious critique.

Pride, patriotism, kitsch

Look at the war films, for example. As Dole points out, it was a matter of pride and patriotism in the early part of the Second World War for Hollywood to join the team. But the films that hail from the early years of the war, while possibly the most unified and patriotic and government-friendly ever made, have receded into utter kitsch now.

To see a film like "Bataan," with stalwart Robert Taylor -- 100 percent pure American hardwood, mowing down the Japanese on a dry-ice shrouded back lot paper jungle, calling them "monkeys" while he fires -- is to laugh. Such ludicrous heroics might have briefly lifted the spirits of the home folks, but they said very little about the true nature of war and the true level of heroism and sacrifice demanded of and delivered by American troops off in real jungles -- as Dole himself would know. Now they seem almost obscene with their antic bloodthirstiness and their racism and their cartoon-like portrayals of good (us) and evil (them).

Late in the war and immediately after, the war movies turned more realistic and seethed with fatigue, terror, bitterness and confusion. They were hardly inspirational. Look, for example, at William Wellman's superb 1949 "Battleground," an invocation of ground combat as experienced by the 101st Airborne in the Battle of the Bulge. It portrays battle as something far more squalid and terrifying than Taylor's glorious martyrdom. Its heroes are tired men, numbly, in James Jones' great words, doing the necessary. There's an overall sense of waste and loss, of precious youth exiled for an uncertain future -- not quite the patriotic we-can-do-it pieties that Dole would seem to prefer.

Then there's the extremely troubling issue of "glorifying violence," which the senator invokes, again tacitly comparing today's seemingly value-free pictures with the strict code of justice and morality that informed the past's films. Again, it seems true on the face of it, but if examined carefully one can see that the reality is more complex.

Under the influence of the Hays Office -- officially, the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors Inc., under the direction of former Postmaster Will H. Hays, which took control of movie morality in 1922 after a spate of suggestive movies and movie scandals -- it was mandatory that justice always prevail.

This led to absurd circumlocutions. As late as 1956 (11 years after the office itself closed), when Mervyn LeRoy turned Maxwell Anderson's haunting meditation on the nature of evil, "The Bad Seed," into a film, he was obligated by the still extant Code to give it an ending that pushed the just-desserts line. Thus, when chilling child psycho Patty McCormack is left alive on Broadway to continue her evil ways, protected by a mantle of presumed childish innocence, in the movie version a cosmic blast of lightning from the Man himself flashes earthward to punish her. I would have loved to have attended the story conference that came up with that stroke of genius!

Allure of evil

Still, audiences must have enjoyed the subversive power of the story and particularly the chilling intensity of McCormack's Oscar-winning performance. The new ending was the least persuasive thing in the movie; literally unbelievable. Sophisticated viewers would have seen right through it.

In fact, the allure of evil is one of the key components of movies made during the beloved heyday that Dole pretends was so socially positive. It's no surprise that three of America's most dynamic stars of the age -- Humphrey Bogart, Jimmy Cagney and Edward G. Robinson -- achieved their renown in portraits of deviance. You can say that at the end of "Petrified Forrest," "Public Enemy" and "Little Caesar," each man gets what he deserves, but that was only after titillating audiences for two hours with the power and majesty of the criminal's life, his pleasures, his ruthlessness, his utter contempt for the square Johns of the law and the daytime world.

"Mother of God, is this the end of Rico?" asks Edward G., perforated with police bullets. The answer, of course, was no, this is the start of Rico, because Rico -- the charismatic gangster whose seductive lifestyle transfigures the young and triumphs over any imposed moral message from grown-ups -- was about to begin a run that to this day finds its way into gangsta rap and "Godfather" movies, good and bad.

What we have here, essentially, is a conflict between a politician's concept of artist as servant of society and an artist's conceit of himself as irreverent critic of that society, revealing its secret lusts and values. Why can't you get on the team? Dole is asking, as politicians have asked for generations. Because if I get on the team, the artist answers, I lose my soul.

Reason vs. instinct

The deeper truth is that art and society don't obey the same laws. In some sense it feels like a combat between the rational and the instinctive parts of the brain. In society, the rational brain commands, order is everything; we need to cooperate, show tolerance and patience, respect authority, play by the rules. But at the same time, the instinctive part of the brain replies, we cannot deny our attraction to those who won't play by the rules, who assert themselves above the rules and who take their

pleasure and their identity from defying the rules.

Can the two ever come together? The track record is dismal. At the time of the Russian revolution, a generation of artists, assurgent with hope for the future, liberated their imaginations to turn out a decade's worth of works that were both: a) masterpieces, and b) works in support of the state. It couldn't last; it didn't. Stalin and his apparatchiks took over, and soon enough, artistic criticism in the Soviet Union consisted not of mildly snippy speeches before fat cats in a hotel ballroom but a bullet behind the ear.

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