It's Not a Wonderful Book
Hollywood vs. America, by Michael Medved, New York: HarperCollins, 386 pages, $20.00
So you think Hollywood should make more movies like Home Alone. It was entertaining to both children and adults. There were few four-letter words. The violence was minimal and more cartoonish than realistic. It affirmed a family's love for one another. And it was one of the few recent films to show the lead character actually going to church. Home Alone, you say, was a good family film.
Not so fast, says Michael Medved. You're overlooking the destructive images and values that the movie conveys to children. Young Kevin is actually depicted as doing quite well without his family. He fends off a couple of burglars and helps his neighbor reconcile with his estranged children and grandchildren. "The young moviegoers who so eagerly consumed this appealingly packaged concoction inevitably admired Kevin and learned from his self-reliant example that contemporary kids need adults only for one purpose: comic relief," writes Medved in his book Hollywood vs. America. Medved similarly condemns E.T., The Little Mermaid, and Honey, I Shrunk the Kids.
When Medved describes himself as an "observant" Jew (as he does often in this book), I'm not sure whether he's describing his religious practices or his ability to spot evil that the rest of us missed in contemporary films. The argument of his book, and it is nothing if not argumentative, is best summed up by a jacket blurb from George Gilder: Hollywood is foisting "its own loony lifestyles and muddled world views on the American people."
Conservatives have been quick to agree with Medved. "The central point of Hollywood vs. America is, however, unassailable: not only is there a gaping chasm between Hollywood's America and the real America, but Hollywood seems willing to pay in the coin of reduced profits for its continued refusal to bridge the chasm," writes John Podhoretz in Commentary.
The odd thing about this criticism is that it sounds like the standard leftist rant against business. Hollywood is conspiring to warp Americans' minds. Movie makers are foisting bad products on consumers, and although they have been doing this for more than 20 years, the market has failed to punish them. This is an interesting hypothesis, especially coming from conservatives.
When a movie that Medved dislikes succeeds at the box office, it's because the American public was fooled into seeing it by those crafty bastards in studio executive suites. On the other hand, when a movie that he dislikes fails at the box office, it's because America rejected its evil message. For example, he notes that Star Trek V: The Final Frontier was the least successful of the series. He blames it all on the closing moments when Capt. Kirk points to his chest and speculates that maybe God is "right here. The human heart."
For Medved, this is an obviously anti-religious statement rejected by moviegoers. He never stops to consider that the film did poorly (only in comparison to the other Star Trek films) because it was simply the worst of the series. Writer-director William Shatner couldn't direct traffic on a one-way street.
Medved will not let any inconvenient facts or alternative interpretations of the facts convince him that he is wrong. For example, with regard to Home Alone, Medved never stops to consider that self-reliance has always been a theme in children's stories, from "Jack and the Beanstalk" and other folk tales to more recent classics such as The Boxcar Children. That's why children like them, and that's why parents, who usually want their children to grow into self-reliant adults, read the stories to them. Lack of historical perspective is a major weakness—one of many—throughout this book.
Consider the chapter "Hostility to Heroes." Here Medved takes contemporary cinema to task for its obsession with punks, villains, and morally ambiguous heroes. So what's new? When he thinks of James Cagney, Medved may recall the actor's singing and dancing portrayal of George M. Cohan in Yankee Doodle Dandy. But the rest of us recall Cagney's mother-fixated murderer in White Heat. And if Medved wants to see Hollywood glorify morally ambiguous figures, he should watch Clark Gable in Gone with the Wind or Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca or The Maltese Falcon. In fact, Bogart made a career out of morally ambiguous characters.
Or take the chapter "Maligning Marriage." Here Medved once again demonstrates his keen powers of observation. Most of us probably thought the box-office hit Sleeping with the Enemy was just a thriller about a wife's attempt to escape from her psychotic husband. But Medved sees it as a general "indictment of conventional marriage as a cruel and unhealthy arrangement." And, of course, he spots a trend: Hollywood hates marriage and never misses an attempt to show married people committing adultery or trying to murder their spouses.
True, we don't see many dramas about happily married folk. But would we want to? Medved never stops to consider the idea that maybe adultery is simply a powerful dramatic theme—powerful because we value marriage so much—or that the murder of someone by her spouse is an evocative plot element. Contrary to Medved's assertion that Hollywood has in the last three decades become anti-family, dysfunctional marriages and murderous spouses have for centuries been subjects tackled by dramatists (Has Medved never read Othello?) and have been staples of the movies from the industry's beginning.
Medved would probably be apoplectic if he saw any of the classic film noirs from the 1940s and '50s. They always involved one spouse trying to kill another, usually with the aid of a lover. Remember Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray (Fred MacMurray!!) trying to kill Stanwyck's husband in Double Indemnity? And as for adultery, it seems that in half her movies Joan Crawford enticed men to cheat on their wives and in the other half her husband cheated on her.
But it may be too much to expect Medved to remember 40- or 50-year-old films. He seems to have trouble remembering films that were released only a few years ago. He singles out all of the Oscars that went to Silence of the Lambs last year as proof of Hollywood's "penchant for praising the most startling and disturbing forms of entertainment." But he remains silent about all the Oscars that went to Dances with Wolves the previous year; the multiple awards that Driving Miss Daisy garnered in 1990; and Rain Man's big sweep in 1989. Yes, those films are quite "startling and disturbing."
Medved seems to recognize the difficulty he's gotten himself into and suggests at some points that the problem is the mix of films. Hollywood produces too many films that are filled with sex, violence, and attacks on traditional values. He's on firmer ground here. In the 1930s and '40s, Hollywood made film noir and musicals; it gave us Dracula and Andy Hardy. Today's mix of films seems light on G-rated fare. (There are reasons for this, but not the ones Medved thinks. I'll come back to that later.)
But Medved undermines his argument by citing as the filmmaker who most upheld mainstream American values…Frank Capra. Now, those who know Capra only from It's a Wonderful Life might be surprised to find that audiences of the day hated the film. In fact, Capra left the movies not because, as Medved (citing Capra's self-serving autobiography) claims, he hated the direction movies were taking, but because he produced a string of money-losing films.
The Capra that audiences loved was an unabashed liberal populist who worked his politics into almost all of his films. Meet John Doe, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town—these were the films that audiences loved. They had bite, and they attacked the American political and economic system for screwing the little guy. If Capra had faith in the little man, it was mixed with a healthy dose of cynicism about the big man. If he believed in the individual, he had his doubts about the mobs.
But beginning with It's a Wonderful Life Capra began making maudlin feel-good films that failed at the box office. And it is these films that Medved seems to love. If the younger Capra were making films today, Medved would complain that all his businessmen were crooks and all his politicians were corrupt.
(As a side note, the failure of It's a Wonderful Life bankrupted the production company that Capra and William Wyler had formed a few years earlier. The company's only other release was Wyler's very successful The Best Years of Our Lives, a film about World War II veterans trying to deal with the emotional and physical wounds of war. It was one of the most powerful antiwar statements Hollywood has ever made.)
Medved is also on weak ground when it comes to cinematic violence. Unlike some other conservative cultural critics, he doesn't let Arnold Schwarzenegger, Clint Eastwood, and Chuck Norris off the hook because they are Republicans. He decries the rising rate of bloodletting in cinema. And it's impossible to deny this trend is occurring.
But Medved fails to note that the audience for action films and horror films is men—predominantly young men and men of the lower economic classes. For centuries, such persons have sought out bloody, violent entertainment, from the boar and bear baiting of Elizabethan times to the cockfighting of the 18th century to the prize fights of the 19th and early 20th centuries. The only difference is that today's young men are watching fake violence instead of real. I'm not sure that is something to complain about.
Nor does Medved consider that the personal values of most filmmakers are decidedly antiviolence. If Hollywood really were trying to foist its values on us, there would be more films about the Berrigan brothers and fewer sequels to The Terminator.
As Medved himself notes, the theater-going public is overwhelmingly young (15 to 25), and it is mostly male. And young people, whether Medved likes it or not, seem to like violent and sexy films. The question is: Do we have violent and sexy films because of the young audience, or do we have a young audience because violence and sex in films have driven away older viewers and families? (Of course, even those films that draw an older or a family audience don't always meet with Medved's approval. Remember his reaction to Home Alone.)
Medved argues that the content of films has driven away the larger audience. As proof he cites the decline in cinema attendance following the abolition of the motion-picture production code, which put restrictions on the content of movies, in favor of the more-open ratings system in the '60s. Medved notes that between 1948 and 1953, as television entered more homes, movie attendance dropped from a weekly average of 90 million down to about 46 million. It remained at that level for the next 12 years. But in 1966 the average weekly attendance dropped to 38 million. In 1967, movie attendance dropped to 17.8 million, and it has remained at about that level since.
Medved contends that the drop in attendance occurred because the downbeat or kinky themes of movies and the graphic sex and violence turn off older viewers and keep families out of theaters.
The problem with his explanation is that the major decline occurred before graphic sexuality and violence came to the mainstream cinema. The decline began in 1966, when most major releases were still made under the old production code, which forbade curse words, graphic sex or violence, and antireligious messages. And the biggest drop occurred in 1967. Most of the films released that year were written to be released under the code, and many were actually shot before the code was abolished.
The films of 1967 were not that much different from those of 1966, 1965, or 1964. They certainly weren't offensive enough to be the sole, or even the major, cause of the 50-percent drop in the movie audience. If you have any doubts, just rent on videotape some of the 1967 films that, in Medved's words, drove audiences "from the theaters in horror and disgust": The Dirty Dozen, The Graduate, In the Heat of the Night, or Cool Hand Luke. With the exception of The Graduate, these films could have been made in 1964 with few, if any, changes. Incidentally, The Graduate was the top-grossing film of 1967.
It would be a couple more years before filmmakers could take advantage of the new freedom. I would peg 1969 as the signal year, with The Wild Bunch raising cinematic violence to a new high and Midnight Cowboy bringing a new frankness to on-screen sexuality. But by then the drop in attendance had already occurred.
So why did movie attendance drop during the mid-'60s? Remember what theater-going was like then. Most theaters were located in downtown areas that were definitely showing the signs of urban blight. And the theaters themselves were suffering from a decade of neglect. In addition, crime exploded during the mid-'60s. Between 1964 and 1967, the number of murders in the United States rose 39 percent, and the number of assaults skyrocketed by 43 percent. Furthermore, 1967, the year of the biggest attendance decline, was also the year that race riots occurred in a half dozen of America's largest cities. Is it any wonder that people didn't want to risk their lives to see a movie, any movie, at a no-longer-Fabulous Fox Theater?
Why doesn't Medved even contemplate that fear of crime may have at least played a part in driving people from the theaters? I can only surmise from the tone and tenor of this book that he first developed his thesis—that Hollywood is deliberately ignoring the market and trying to break down traditional values—and then sought evidence to back it up. He ignored anything that did not support his argument.
Of course, theaters eventually responded to rising crimes rates downtown by moving into multiplexes in the suburbs. The multiplexing of theater screens at malls made it safer to go to films and might have brought older viewers and families back to the cinema, but it occurred just as cable and videotape were expanding home-entertainment options. Older people and parents can be brought into the theater occasionally to see E. T. or Driving Miss Daisy, but given the constraints on their time and the other options open to them, they aren't likely to be regular moviegoers. On the other hand, young people have more free time and a greater desire to socialize, so they will continue to go to movies.
If Medved is wrong about why the movies changed, he's downright confused about what the changes mean. In those passages of the book where he's trying to show that Hollywood is out of touch with America, he notes that though on-screen deaths have skyrocketed in the last few years, violent crime rates have dropped and that more people say they feel safe in their homes than did in 1975; that while the movies continually present marriage in the worst possible light, marriage rates are up and divorce rates are down; and while movies continually malign the United States, 75 percent of Americans say patriotism is "in." So one would think that however evil the messages of popular culture, they aren't having that much effect on America.
But Medved argues just the opposite. In those sections of the book where he's on his poison-pervading-the-culture jag, Medved blames Hollywood and the broader popular culture for teen suicide, the breakdown of the family, crime in the street, those kids who played their boom box too loud when his family tried to spend a quiet day in the park, and the general breakdown of Western civilization. Again, there's no effort to put these problems into context.
The problems of this book perhaps show up most clearly in Medved's suggestions for improving popular culture. He explicitly renounces censorship, though more for pragmatic reasons than on principle. He therefore ends up suggesting some sort of market discipline: Consumers should go to see good movies, watch family-oriented television shows, and buy wholesome records. That's an odd suggestion for a man who spends almost 400 pages arguing that Hollywood has successfully ignored the market for more than 20 years.
Charles Oliver is assistant editor of REASON.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "It’s Not a Wonderful Book".