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Jewish World Review Oct. 6, 2000 / 7 Tishrei, 5761

Michael Medved

Michael Medved
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Consumer Reports

Hollywood's contempt
for its audience --
POLITICIANS focus their angry attention on media violence and greedy Tinseltown marketing strategies aimed at kids, but the entertainment conglomerates most clearly reveal their dysfunctional values not in grand projects, but in fleeting movie moments. Consider what three brief-but-telling scenes in recent films say about the entertainment industry's unmistakable contempt for its audience.

In the kinky film The Cell, sultry Jennifer Lopez plays a psychotherapist who risks her life and sanity to enter the mind of a twisted, comatose serial killer. Smart, sexy, fearless, compassionate and successful, her character stands out as a role model for a new generation.

Why, then, did the filmmakers find it necessary to provide a 15-second scene showing their peerless heroine relaxing alone at home, smoking a marijuana joint? This is not an accidental inclusion, and there is no doubt that the character inhales. Other than providing a free commercial for the Pot Growers of California, what would motivate the movie men to associate so glamorous and admirable a character with an illegal habit considered dangerous and destructive by most Americans?

One classic advertising strategy involves the association of the product you're pushing with unusually attractive and stylish people --- and few human beings can equal Lopez when it comes to beauty and charisma. It's amazing that no studio honcho spotted this quick scene, without connection to the plot or vital purpose in characterization, and objected to its impact in undermining anti-drug messages from parents and teachers. If the industry took seriously its corporate responsibilities to the public, the pro-pot message would have painlessly been excised from the film.


The same movie contains another element that pointlessly assaults the sensibilities of tens of millions of potential patrons. The sadistic serial killer in The Cell (chillingly well-played by Vincent D'Onofrio) flashes back to the origins of his psychic torment, focusing particularly on the moment of his baptism at age 6. The scene at a riverbank, involving a Bible-toting pastor and ecstatic, hand-waving true believers, repeatedly reappears in connection with the most monstrous cruelty. The movie suggests that the future killer's abusive father held him down too long in the water, causing him later in life slowly to drown his female kidnap victims in a huge glass tank before turning their mutilated bodies into ghastly dolls.

Imagine, for the sake of argument, that the script for the film had associated such behavior not with baptism, but with Bar Mitzvah or some other ritual of a minority religion. Isn't it obvious that some executive at the studio (New Line Pictures, in this instance) would have protested, saying that such a gratuitous insult would have needlessly offended Jews --- or Buddhists or Hindus? Why, then, should Baptists, who outnumber such groups in this society many times over, receive less-sensitive consideration?

As a matter of fact, the utterly fictitious notion of crazed, unspeakably vicious serial killers who've been warped by traditional Christianity has become a sick, curious cliché in today's Hollywood. For characters played by Robert De Niro in Cape Fear, Kevin Spacey in Seven, Harry Connick Jr. in Copycat; and Ed Harris in Just Cause;, multiple murders and brutal torture come connected with flamboyant displays of Christian religiosity. The cruel caricature of committed Christians - especially fundamentalists and Pentecostals - remains a rare form of religious bigotry not only accepted, but repeatedly promoted by Hollywood as well.

Another sort of bigotry turned up in the clumsy comedy The Crew, starring Richard Dreyfuss and Burt Reynolds. The two veteran actors play aging mobsters who retire to Florida with their friends, but try to recapture their youth and vitality with one last daring caper. To facilitate the job, they buy black-market weapons, including an oversized shotgun, from a sleazy gun dealer. After the transaction, Dreyfuss instinctively says, "thanks a lot," to which the firearms merchant defiantly replies, "Hey, don't thank me. Thank the Republicans!"

The line stands out as the only political reference of any kind in the entire movie. It also offers no explanation of how new gun control-legislation (blocked, presumably, by those Republican rascals) magically would stop a transaction that the movie portrays (accurately) as already illegal.

Aside from any serious analysis of one stupid line, there's an obvious question about the writers and producers and their audience analyses. Surely, these show-business professionals have seen all of the national surveys showing that more than a third of Americans proudly identify themselves as Republicans, and more than 40% strongly support the right to bear arms. Why would a commercial movie company (Disney, no less) take an unnecessary risk by insulting such substantial chunks of the public with one irrelevant, unfunny zinger that bears no connection to other elements in the story?

No reasonable observer should exaggerate the impact of such passing messages on the public. A few seconds of cinema isn't enough to recruit new legions to smoke marijuana, or to seduce millions to abandon Baptist beliefs, or to rally new support for the Al Gore campaign. Repeated messages along similar lines, on the other hand, may exert a cumulative influence. Advertising works by conveying the same idea again and again, associating certain products or behaviors with fun or glamour, and movie imagery obviously achieves a comparable impact.

The most serious question about odd inclusions so unexpectedly inserted into big-studio films involves the motivation. No one could plausibly argue that such films as The Cell or The Crew would earn one dime less at the box office - or one dime more - if the edgy, questionable, sociopolitical messages had been omitted. No one would ever leave the theater saying he or she felt cheated because he didn't get to see Jennifer Lopez smoking weed.

When filmmakers feature such material, they're not attempting to connect with a mass audience, but with the Hollywood insiders who help determine their industry status. Ordinary moviegoers may not chuckle over the Richard Dreyfuss crack about guns and Republicans, but Rosie O'Donnell and Susan Sarandon will laugh and cheer.

The majority of Americans may not be pro-pot and anti-Baptist, or overwhelmingly hostile to Republicans, but such attitudes unmistakably dominate the movie colony. The saddest part of the entire situation is that so many otherwise brilliant artists in Tinseltown don't even realize how profoundly they've lost touch with huge segments of American society.

The situation is unhealthy for Hollywood and menacing to the Republic. As politicians (including Joe Lieberman and Al Gore) increasingly understand, many Americans who long have felt alienated from government, academia, big business and the legal system now feel similarly far removed from the popular culture. Countless citizens complain that the images they see in mass-media entertainment don't reflect them - and don't respect them. Quick, passing, gratuitous elements in recent films, even more than overtly political message movies, strongly suggest that they are right.

JWR contributor, author and film critic Michael Medved, a "survivor" of his own family with three kids, hosts a daily three-hour radio talk show broadcast in more than 120 cities throughout the United States. His latest book, written together with his wife, is Saving Childhood : Protecting Our Children from the National Assault on Innocence . He also participated as a conspicuously successful competitor on The GE College Bowl in 1968 on NBC. You may contact him by clicking here.


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01/26/00: Who is more "Twisted," Rocker or his heavy metal critics?
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10/06/99: Hollywood again makes drug use seem hip
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08/16/99: Government declares we're in a post-marriage age?

© 2000, Michael Medved