Last YEAR'S critically acclaimed "art film" The Cook, the Thief, his Wife & Her Lover is not an experience for the delicate of stomach. It begins with a naked man being restrained while the main character gleefully urinates over him. It ends with that same character slicing a cooked and elegantly prepared human corpse in a horrifyingly vivid scene of cannibalism.
In between, we see a woman's cheek pierced with a fork, and two naked bodies squirming in the back of a truck filled with rotting, maggot-infested garbage. There is, in short, unrelieved ugliness, horror and depravity at every turn. Naturally, the critics loved it.
When some of my esteemed fellow film critics began using words like brilliant and excellent to describe this pointless and pretentious piece of filth, I not only attacked the film on America-wide TV but also transgressed an unwritten rule of my profession — I attacked my fellow critics. In particular, I objected to the tendency to describe the picture as a raunchy black comedy without giving prospective moviegoers a better indication of the vivid brutality it contained.
There was a predictable firestorm. One letter writer admitted not having seen the film but protested at my "unfair" attack on it. "Your job is to tell us if a movie is skilful or not," she informed me. "Please stay off your moralistic high horse."
In other words, it's fine for me to talk about a film's sloppy or competent editing, about a convincing or unconvincing performance, but heaven forbid that I should address its moral content!
Defenders of today's popular culture are so obsessed with superficial skill and slick salesmanship that they ignore the more important issues of soul and substance. Theirs is, at its very core, a war against standards, a war against judgment.
In every realm of artistic endeavour, we see the rejection of traditional standards of beauty and truth. Ugliness has been enshrined as a new standard. We accept the ability to shock as a replacement for the old ability to inspire. Consider the obscenity trial in America last October of The 2 Live Crew, those poetic souls whose lyrics exalt the brutalization of women. One of the expert witnesses who helped secure the rap group's acquittal was a professor of literature. He claimed that aspects of their work were "refreshing and astonishing." He likened their use of profanity to that of Shakespeare, Chaucer and James Joyce.
These days, film after film revolves round characters who are fundamentally despicable — amoral losers who give us nothing to admire or even care about. From David Lynch's Wild at Heart to Sydney Pollack's Havana to Jack Nicholson's The Two Jakes, Hollywood has been creating central characters with all the warmth and charm of poisonous lizards.
Despite the presence of major stars, inflated production budgets and critical endorsements, these films were pathetic flops at the box office. They failed to connect with ordinary moviegoers. Yet Hollywood persists in shelling out untold millions on projects emphasizing the darkest, most repulsive aspects of human life.
In the heyday of actors like Gary Cooper, Jimmy Stewart and Katharine Hepburn, Hollywood was accused of creating characters who were larger than life, more deeply lovable and admirable than people in the real world. Today, the movie business regularly offers us characters who are smaller than life — less decent, less intelligent and less noble than our own friends and neighbours.
The situation in popular music is even worse. Once upon a time, parents worried about the impact of idolized singers such as Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley or the Beatles, but these performers were tender, wholesome romantics compared with Guns 'n Roses, Madonna and other paragons who dominate today's music scene. The singers of yesteryear certainly exploited sexuality, but their songs still fantasized about long-term relationships between men and women. What is most striking about popular music of the moment is the cold, bitter and sadistic vision of fleeting sex it promotes.
The values of selflessness and discipline so essential to normal family life are portrayed only rarely in the popular culture. Most adults are married, but movies today focus overwhelmingly on single people. And those few films that do show a family most often depict a marriage that is radically dysfunctional — with a husband accused of attempting to murder his wife (as in Reversal of Fortune) or a wife sleeping with her husband's female friend (as in Henry and June) or the married pair killing each other (as in The War of the Roses).
Destruction Of Peace
Whenever I complain about the destructive product of the entertainment industry, colleagues urge me to stop worrying; it's a simple matter to tune out. An incident last year reminded me it's not so easy to do that. My family and I went on an outing to a park by a mountain lake. Our daughters, aged one and three, went toddling off towards the ducks. The one-year-old was saying, "Duckie! Duckie!"— one of her first words — and reaching out to the birds with her chubby arms. My wife and I looked on with satisfaction.
But soon a group of teenagers carrying a ghetto blaster arrived at the lake shore. Coming out of their shiny chrome machine was a rap song littered with four-letter words describing rape and faeces and oral sex — all blasting out at a deafening volume. Our little girls had never heard those particular words before. They were frightened by the noise and started to cry.
I suppose we could have stayed and made a scene, but I don't carry assault weapons in the boot of my car. Instead, we had to reluctantly abandon the beautiful scene to those brutish kids.
The point is that you can't just tune out today's popular culture. The messages and the images are everywhere. Is it a coincidence that the war on standards in art, music, television and film corresponds with increasingly destructive behaviour on the part of the young people who are the most devoted consumers of these media?
Is there no connection between the media's obsession with crime and violence and the fact that the number of kids under 19 who are arrested in America has increased by 120 per cent since 1963? Is there no connection between the sex-crazed popular culture and the fact that out-of-wedlock births in America have increased by 350 per cent since 1960?
Ironically, media moguls downplay the significance of their work, insisting that sex and violence on screen do not encourage sex and violence in real life. The same industry then turns round and asks advertisers to pay tens of thousands of dollars for 30 seconds of air time in the hope that this fleeting exposure will directly alter the public's buying behaviour!
The war on standards in the popular culture is going to be the issue of the 1990s. Expanded censorship is not the way to win it, however. Attempts to move in that direction would only prove counterproductive. Boycotts of sponsors, direct protests, letter-writing campaigns and other forms of private-sector pressure are far more effective than new governmental regulation.
While we are working to prevent the further pollution of our culture, we should do more than protest the bad. We should also remember to promote the good. Moviegoers have shown that they are ready to respond when given the opportunity. An example is the utterly unexpected success of a wholesome, life-affirming project like Driving Miss Daisy.
We need more films like Daisy. But we'll get them only if concerned citizens are willing to work to make sure that popular culture will once again reflect — and encourage — the fundamental goodness of people.