Films with a bad attitude; Michael Medved takes on Hollywood – Editorial

James M. Wall

MICHAEL AND DIANE MEDVED agreed when they got married that their home would not have a television set. It may seem strange for one of the nations most visible film critics to live without television, especially since his own public television program, “Sneak Previews,” draws consistently high ratings. But after you spend some time with Michael Medved, as I did recently on one of his twice-monthly visits to Chicago to tape “Sneak Previews,” you soon discover that a keystone in his life is discipline. Keep the set out of the house and neither children nor adults are tempted to waste time on trivial viewing pursuits.

“Sneak Previews” began with Chicago newspaper critics Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel. When they shifted to commercial syndication, PBS tried several combinations and finally settled on the team of Medved and Jeffrey Lyons. Lyons, who also works as a critic for WNBC-TV in New York, has been the better known of the pair, but Medveds book Hollywood vs. America: Popular Culture and the War on Traditional Values (HarperCollins) has attracted wide comment, much of it venomous.

From the fury of the attacks on his book (already in its second printing), one would think he wants to establish a national censorship board run by Donald Wildmon and Pat Buchanan. Peter Biskind, for example, wrote: “There would be no point in discussing a book as repellent and ill-argued as Michael Medveds were it not the fact that it is getting so much attention” (“Kulturkampf,” Premiere, December). But the attacks do not appear to have undermined Medveds upbeat approach, which contrasts nicely with Lyonss more worldly and at times cynical style.

The chemistry between Medved and Lyons explains some of the programs success. They both obviously share a love for film, as was evident in their fast-paced conversation on the ride to the airport. Lyons challenged me to name the actors who played in Twelve Angry Men. Henry Fonda and Lee J. Cobb are easy, he said; to qualify as a film buff you must know the others. Lyons was in a hurry to get back to New York. Medved was anxious to reach Los Angeles before the start of the Sabbath.

Medved is an observant Jew. He is also a student of the Torah and a firm believer in traditional religious values, values he is convinced the film industry hates and demeans. Medved laughs at the charge that he favors censorship, and a reading of his book reveals that the charge is unjust. Medved wants the First Amendment to prevail, but he thinks the film industry has an attitude problem– a deep hostility to traditional values.

In his attacks on the film industry Medved likes to disarm liberal critics with this three-part question: Was racism routine in the movies of the 1930s? (Yes.) Was Gone with the Wind an example of this racism? (Yes.) Is Gone with the Wind a bad movie? (No.) The issue, he insists, is not quality, but attitude. More than 50 years after GWTW presented a host of cliches about blacks, the industry still conveys images of bigotry and it consistently undermines values. Given the option of making “uplifting” films or degrading ones, the industry chooses degradation.

Medved has gained the industry’s attention because, unlike most religious conservatives who attack movies, he is an insider. His recognition of the difference between artistic and exploitative films leads him to argue that a film like Silence of the Lambs, while “dazzling” and “artfully executed,” with “brilliant and intense” acting, is a lurid freak show.

I told Medved that some of us have worked for years to convince religious people that movies, while commercial products, have enormous potential, as art, to probe reality and to be receptive to moments of grace. I told him that (as I have argued before) the garbage that exists in the film world is the price we pay for artistic freedom. Medved responded by saying he is primarily interested in addressing an industry that has exploited its freedom and become a “poison factory.”

Medved has the zeal of a prophet, and he is driven by a strong religious faith. Though Orthodox in conviction, in deference to the secular environment in which he works he keeps his yarmulke in his coat pocket, available for special occasions. If he were to wear the yarmulke during his program, he noted, “everything I say would be interpreted as an officially religious point of view.”

According to Medved, five times as many Americans attend church as attend movies. Hence an an accurate rendering of American culture would acknowledge the importance of religion in peoples lives. He calls attention to three “big-budget medical melodramas–Dying Young (with Julia Roberts), The Doctor (with William Hurt) and Regarding Henry (with Harrison Ford)”–that feature protagonists facing “dire illnesses and long hospitalizations, with life and death hanging dramatically in the balance.” At no point in any of these films, he complains, is there a reference to prayer, to God, or even to the possibility that when people are {aced with life-threatening illnesses, religion could be a source of support. What is behind this omission? Medved thinks it is the film industrys contempt for traditional values.

Furthermore, Medved contends, the industry’s attitude is costly to itself, because people are staying away from the kind of films that Hollywood produces. Medved’s critics have challenged his data on this point, citing the box-office success of some of the films he decries and arguing that the industry is primarily motivated by the need to sell tickets, not by its attitude toward traditional values. But Medved thinks the industry is willing to lose money in order to attack religion and the family, to glorify ugliness and to indulge in (to use some of his catchy chapter headings) “the urge to offend,” “the infatuation with foul language,” “the addiction to violence, …. hostility to heroes” and “bashing America.”

Two recent films seem to bolster his case. Whoopie Goldberg’s light comedy, Sister Act, contains very little sex, violence or profanity, and it has made money. Goldberg plays a gangsters mistress who hides out as a nun after witnessing a murder. The movie has an upbeat ending when Goldberg’s church choir sings Motown-style hymns for the pope. Goldberg, Medred says, wanted her character to use more profanity so as to have a harder “edge.” The Disney studio refused, and as a result she, Disney and audiences gained a successful film that comes about as close to a general-audience picture as one is likely to find these days.

Hero, a film with Dustin Hoffman, was not so wise. Hoffman insisted on considerable profanity in order to “realize” his character. Medved thinks this undercut the pictures potential to be a modern-day Frank Capra film. “Dustin’s insistence on 12 ‘f’ and ‘s’ words cost that picture $10 million at the box office.”

Such counting of words and sex scenes appears to place Medved in the camp with Wildmon and a moralism that has no regard for aesthetic context. And the sweeping nature of some of his condemnations undermines his case. He doesn’t even spare The Little Mermaid, for example, arguing that an otherwise charming childrens animated film shows children as smarter than adults and undermines the teaching authority of the family. He is more on target with his condemnation of Home Alone Two, a film that is little more than a series of incidents of cruelty to dumb adults.

Medved is also open to the charge of Wildmonism in the way his attacks on films that deal with the afterlife make no distinction between the clearly exploitative films and the ones that are thoughtfully made. His keen sense of film aesthetics and history, evident on his television program, is brushed aside in his zealous attack on the industry.

Confronted with this charge, Medved insists that the overall context of a film does concern him. He praises The Lover, for example, which in depicting the teen-age romance of French author Marguerite Duras conrains strong sexual content. “Yes, this is a graphic film, but it is never pornographic; it emphasizes tenderness.” Such nuances are ignored by those who dismiss Medved as a prude.

Medved’s crusade against Hollywood has fulfilled a prophecy a friend made when he confided his plans to write the book: “If you insist on going forward with something like this, you are going to become the most hated man in Hollywood.” He doesn’t mind the risk, he writes, “if the ensuing controversy will serve to open minds, and to encourage both producers and consumers of popular entertainment to examine its content with fresh eyes.”

Since Hollywood is a profit-driven industry, short on forgiveness for those who interfere with that goal, Medved pays a price for his crusade. But he can’t help himself. He is angry at the film industry for misusing an artistic and entertainment medium he loves. Catch him on “Sneak Previews.” He is the one with the mustache and the yarmulke tucked out of sight.

COPYRIGHT 1993 The Christian Century Foundation

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

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