LOS ANGELES — Homemaker Kristy Veal doesn't go to "R-rated" movies, primarily because of the "bad language" they contain. When she rented "The Nutty Professor," she couldn't finish it for all the "foul words." She wishes others would help hold the line against what she regards as a growing attack on decency.
On the other end of the spectrum, Alexis, a teenager, goes to movies (the more mature rating, the better) precisely to hear both the newest and nastiest words used by her favorite young stars.
The contrast between these two moviegoers raises questions in the minds of many observers: Is Hollywood leading this country into an abyss of bad language and general boorishness, exploiting the attraction of the young for the new and irreverent? Or is this an unresolvable clash, as old as Plato and Aristotle, who disagreed thousands of years ago over the role of art in society?
Interviews with parents, artists, media watchdog groups, and scholars show that a fresh concern over the coarsening of American life is encouraging the realization that more sensitivity and responsibility are urgently needed on all sides.
Many in the creative community are uncomfortable discussing art (or commerce, for that matter) solely in terms of the language it contains. Indeed, when contacted the Disney Co. indicated that the chairman of Walt Disney Studios, Joe Roth, would be "the only appropriate spokesman on that issue." But he was "on vacation and unavailable." Twentieth Century Fox also was unable to find the right person to discuss the topic.
But longtime media guru George Gerbner, dean emeritus of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, says language is one of the most important tools we have. "It both reflects and guides us as a culture."
The elder statesman of media studies points out that both the film and television industries have always been aware of the power of language.
"Coarse and vulgar language started as a marketing tool" to reach new demographic groups. The effect in today's youth-obsessed world, says this grandfather of five, is what he calls "cultural slumming."
"The leading edge of the new targets are relatively uneducated, lower-income segments of the population," he explains. These are targeted by films and subsequently television, which follows the cinema's lead. Mr. Gerbner says a new peer language that is increasingly "coarse and uncivil" is the inevitable result.
The "Scooby-Doo" effect, behavior modeled on the cartoon character, is what Mark Honig of the Parents Television Council prefers to call it. He says teachers have told Mr. Honig they dread coming to school the day after TV networks air "The Simpsons" and "South Park" because "the language and attitudes are so scatological and juvenile that the classes become uncontrollable."
Honig explains that kids watch these shows and learn to think that "it's not cool to be intelligent." He says parents are very concerned about "this dumbing-down of popular discourse." He dubs it the triumph of an adolescent culture, with disastrous effects for society.
Former '60s radical-turned-conservative author David Horowitz of the Center for the Study of Popular Culture in Los Angeles agrees and says the problems are deeper than this generation.
These are the children of the baby boomers, he points out, and now we are seeing the effects of parenting by people "who came of age in the '60s and still don't want to grow up," a view echoed recently in poet Robert Bly's book, "The Sibling Society."
The issue of the coarsening of language in films is really a manifestation of the changes wrought three decades ago when the social membrane of society was ripped apart - and left unrepaired by the baby boomers.
Underlining media guru Gerbner's point that films reflect as much as they guide, Jack Valenti of the Motion Picture Association of America turns this social tumult in defense of the film industry. "Our entire society has undergone radical change in the past 30 years or so. It's too much to ask that the most creative of all art forms be immune to those changes."
Beyond that, he says, films are not meant to replace parents. Mr. Valenti recalls seeing parents with young children at violent R-rated films with strong language. "I have no patience with parents who complain about the coarsening of American films, and then they patronize the very films they complain about."
The director of the 1984 critically acclaimed "The Killing Fields," Roland Joffe, agrees, saying that art must be free to explore the human condition, not play parent. "Is the purpose of art to be the moral administration of society or to show off the glory and extraordinariness of human behavior?" he asks. Mr. Joffe maintains that greater artistic freedom was the most important legacy of the '60s to the creative industry.
As a filmmaker, Joffe observes, "I have to go for the truth." A properly used expletive can have enormous power. However, he acknowledges that the lofty standards of art can be corrupted by the demands of commerce. "It's in the nature of commerce to exploit what sells," he says.
It is this sort of exploitation that groups such as the Christian Film and TV Commission (a nonprofit organization funded by a wide range of denominations) are set up to mitigate. President Ted Baehr points to an impending trend as a perfect example: Although the past decade had seen an increase in family films, he says the "baby boomlet," referred to by Mr. Horowitz, is making its marketing impact felt in what he calls "soft-porn, horny boy" movies such as "Wild Things" and "Scream 2." He consults regularly with the likes of DreamWorks, Disney, NBC, and CBS in an effort to communicate a larger public concern about such films.
In support of his view, Dr. Baehr points to a September 1997 Los Angeles Times poll that showed 70 percent of the respondents felt that the entertainment industry does not reflect their values. Baehr says the most important shift he would like to see is a greater sensitivity from the entertainment industry to the average moviegoer's concerns.
Baehr adds that ratings are not much help in this struggle. Whereas the old Hollywood code (see story, left) actually helped guide movie content, ratings label films after the fact.
"Ratings only give parents the illusion of protection against offensive content," he says. The burden is now on the consumer to know and respond.
The Huntington Beach, Calif., mother of two, Kristy Veal, agrees. "We need to let them know what we want," she says, but she doesn't believe in legislation to solve the problem. "The only way to effect real change is to make people care," even people in Hollywood. Once you touch a person's heart, she adds, the right actions will follow.