BOSTON — THE way other film critics are firing shots at Michael Medved's ideas, you would think he is Terminator II gone berserk, or at least a daffy Gary Cooper facing a hopeless showdown in "High Noon."
Mr. Medved is the normally cheerful co-host of "Sneak Previews" on PBS. His new book, "Hollywood vs. America," has been excoriated by a number of his fellow critics because Medved heretically concludes that the movie industry is deliberately trying to "poison" America with too many excessively violent and sexually explicit films.
While most of America lives by family and traditional values, claims Medved, Hollywood no longer "reflects or respects these values."
"Bosh," say some of the critics, ignoring the arsenal of studies, reports, and surveys done by reputable organizations and institutions over the last 20 years that corroborate Medved's argument.
In the New Republic, David Denby wrote that Medved's book "is the stupidest book about popular culture that I have read to the end." And in the New York Times, critic Christopher Lehman-Haupt delighted in nailing Medved for what he regards as twisted logic in contending that movies have enormous influence, but at the same time are losing their influence because audiences are declining.
The problem Medved presents is hardly faulty reasoning; it is the definition of art as it lives and breathes in the context of social responsibility. Medved, alarmed by the degree of gore and sex, alarmed by what he sees as irresponsible corporations offering gore and sex, calls for restraint because of the cumulative effect of movies and TV on impressionable young people, the ones who see the most movies.
His critics would rather place their trust in the marketplace, and the inviolate right of the artist to do what he or she wants.
Medved, who lives in Los Angeles, has three young daughters, and confessed rather quietly in an interview that he doesn't own a TV. He also said his wife, a clinical psychologist, has stopped going to movies with him because she simply didn't want to see so much violence.
The following are excerpts from an interview with Michael Medved at the Monitor.
Other film critics have been highly critical of your book. Are they willing to applaud the direction movies are taking toward more and more explicitness?
I've been debating this stuff now for several weeks [on tour], and I haven't yet heard someone say, `Yeah, I think movies are pretty good today,' or `I think TV is very responsible.' I've never taken a deterministic view that America is totally shaped by the mass media. I say specifically that I don't believe that the popular culture causes our social problems, but I do believe that it contributes to them ... how could anyone suggest that movies and the mass media haven't made a contribution? Can anyone say that a media culture that drenches our young people in sexuality has no role in influencing kids, that we haven't been sending the message to kids for a long time that you're a loser unless you have sexual intercourse at a very young age?
The point is that there has to be a line; the question is where that line is going to be drawn by responsible corporations. I'm suggesting that they have to be a bit more responsive in drawing the line. It's appropriate for some films to have violence and sexuality, but [to me] those elements now find their way into too much of the overall product; the movie mix is wrong, it is unresponsive and irresponsible ... the atmosphere in Hollywood now is primarily one of fear; the audience [for films] is static at best, but really shrinking. Many people there are saying, `We have to go further and shock people more,' and others are saying, `We have to rein it in a little.'
I'm glad my book is controversial because I would hope it would contribute to the readjustment that is going to be necessary to save the medium. What Hollywood needs to do is recapture the confidence of the audience.
Would you want to see censorship of any kind?
I oppose censorship of any kind, partially because whenever you begin talking about censorship you end up translating a discussion that should rightly be about values and responsibility into a discussion of rights. A screenwriter or a musician or an actor has the right to do any kind of work that he or she chooses without interference by any government entity.
What film would you cite as one that would be unacceptable to you?
It seems to me "Cape Fear" is a clear example of anti-religious bigotry. Imagine for a moment that the Robert DeNiro character, this slavering, vicious rapist and murderer, instead of having a cross tattooed on his back, had a Star of David there, and instead of carrying a New Testament under one arm, had a yamalka on his head. Do you think the Jewish community would protest? Of course we would. It would be horribly anti-Semitic. When [an interviewer] challenged me on this, I said, `If that's anti-Semiti c, then why isn't it anti-Christian, and anti-religious as it is?' He said, `Because if you put a Star of David on his back it would be totally unbelievable, no connection to reality.' So, I said, `You're saying Jews would not be capable of this, but Christians are?'
You see, in Hollywood there is a hostility to Christian believers, particularly evangelicals. I've had private conversations with film people who say evangelical Christians are nuts and dangerous. It's a genuine, heartfelt, sincere bigotry.
But why make films with anti-religious messages if the public is basically religious, according to surveys?
These are people who want desperately to be taken seriously as artists. They don't want to be written off merely as entertainers or performers. They want the world to look upon them as daring artists who are doing something worthwhile. Since they believe in their hearts that religion is some kind of menace, they can't let it alone even when they risk huge fortunes in the enterprise.
You would agree that Michael Cimino's "The Deerhunter" was a superbly made film. Yet research has proven that it was directly responsible for the deaths of 26 young men who fatally duplicated the Russian roulette scene in the film. Why shouldn't Cimino be held responsible in the same way we hold a bartender responsible for selling drinks to a drunk who then kills someone while driving?
My answer is that it's a mistake to hold the bartender responsible. I'm one who suggests that the central problem with contemporary liberalism is the refusal of that approach to emphasize individual responsibility. You are responsible for your own life....
There is no question that when somebody creates a disgusting film with a lavishly irresponsible message, he can be contributing to someone's destruction. But he never forced the guy to see it. For the sake of our social contract and the integrity of the whole Judeo-Christian tradition, we have to protect the notion that a person is ultimately responsible for his own choices.
* `Hollywood vs. America,' Popular Culture and the War on Traditional Values was published by Harper-Collins and Zondervan in October 1992.