SALT LAKE CITY — One positive consequence of our current national crisis may be at least a temporary dent in Hollywood's culture of violence.
Fearful of offending audiences in the wake of the terrorist attack, some moviemakers have postponed the release of films with terrorist themes, such as "Collateral Damage," "Bad Company," "Big Trouble," and others of the Arnold Schwarzenegger genre.
Television writers are shelving or delaying scripts with warlike and terrorist scenarios. It is probably good thinking. My local video store tells me nobody is checking out "Towering Inferno" or other such "disaster" movies. Says the manager: "Currently, people want comedy. They want an escape from stories about violence and terrorism." Similarly, in the music business there's a run on patriotic and inspirational tapes and CDs.
According to The New York Times, the self-scrutiny among these czars of mass-entertainment taste is unprecedented in scale, sweeping aside hundreds of millions of dollars in projects that no longer seem appropriate. A reasonable concern is that this might be a short-term phenomenon. Once life returns to something more normal, will Hollywood return to its bad old ways? The Times offers a glimmer of hope. The industry's titans, it suggests, are grappling with much more difficult, long-range questions of what the public will want once the initial shock from the terrorist attacks wears off.
"Many in the industry," says the Times, "admit they do not know where the boundaries of taste and consumer tolerance now lie."
This is an opportunity for some of us to suggest to Hollywood where that boundary of consumer tolerance is. Especially those of us who have not yet convinced Hollywood to cease its descent into ever-lower levels of desensitization of our young.
In pushing the envelope of tastelessness as far as they can, the barons of the entertainment world use several specious arguments. One is that their torrent of violence, pornography, and profanity is no more than what American audiences demand. Another is that what they dish out is simply a reflection of life as it actually is. Then finally, the guilt trip: Those who seek to stem this tide are stifling Hollywood's artistic freedom.
As the Columbia Journalism Review pointed out, even some journalists have fallen for this. Marshall Mathers, otherwise known as Eminem, spills out some of the most disgusting and perverted lyrics in the modern music business. But an entertainment critic of even such a distinguished newspaper as the Los Angeles Times found him "simply exercising his creative impulses." The Arizona Republic called him "mean-spirited, profane, shocking - and actually quite entertaining." Which prompted a Detroit News commentator to chide media intellectuals "who sanction garbage as art, expletives as entertainment, and violent perversion as lyrical poetry."
Over the years, political leaders have tried to reform the entertainment industry. Dan Quayle took up the cudgels, but ran into a media storm. Tipper Gore once inveighed against pornographic rock lyrics, but lost her zeal when her husband's presidential campaign needed Hollywood's endorsement. After the school massacre in Littleton, Colo., President Clinton urged his Hollywood supporters to dilute their violence, but with little effect.
The nonprofit, nonpartisan Parents Television Council, which monitors the quality of TV programming, says in its latest report that today's TV shows are more laced than ever with vulgarities, sexual immorality, crudities, violence, and foul language. The traditional family hour between 8 p.m. and 9 p.m., when the networks used to offer programs for the entire family, has disappeared. The problem, says the council glumly, looks like it will get worse.
That certainly looked to be the case before the Sept. 11 assault. One pre-attack New York Times story reported that TV producers were crusading for scripts that "include every crude word imaginable," including using the Lord's name in vain, in the new fall season. The struggles between network censors and producers, according to the report, were "growing more strident." Producers like Aaron Sorkin of "The West Wing" planned to keep pushing hard. He was quoted as saying: "There's absolutely no reason why we can't use the language of adulthood in programs that are about adults."
My guess is that a lot of adults who've stayed with this column so far don't use the language Mr. Sorkin wants to use, and don't enjoy having their children hear it. At this moment of crisis in our nation's history, thought has become more contemplative, prayerful, and spiritual. It may be the time to tell the entertainment industry that we want not a temporary pause in the flow of tastelessness, but a long-term cleanup.
John Hughes is a former editor of the Monitor, and currently editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret News.