Jewish World Review Oct. 16, 2001 / 29 Tishrei, 5762

Michael Medved

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Can Hollywood change its ugly version of USA? --
WILL Hollywood play a positive role in helping America win the new war on terrorism? The answer depends on the willingness of the entertainment industry to confront and correct the destructive and dysfunctional elements of its own recent past. Celebrities recently have engaged in a brief, refreshing flurry of flag-waving. But such gestures can't instantly erase many years of damage to the nation's psyche and to its image abroad.

On the one hand, some of the biggest names in show business have gone out of their way to show that they are just as patriotic as ordinary Americans. Prominent stars such as Jim Carrey and Julia Roberts donated literally millions of dollars to victims' relief, and a glittering lineup of luminaries staged a touching and classy television special called a "Tribute to Heroes." A number of powerful filmmakers, disregarding the anti-military slant of so many recent movie releases, even answered a Pentagon call for high-level consultations on possible terrorist scenarios. Directors and writers of popular films, such as Die Hard and Being John Malkovich, brainstormed with Army brass in an unprecedented program to anticipate the next wild and demonic surprise attack.

Yet this bizarre program, despite its probable value to military planners trying to "think out of the box," also highlights the fact that violent and conspiratorial thinking has come to characterize a major segment of the entertainment establishment. How else could an objective observer interpret the idea that the armed forces turn first to millionaire screenwriters to understand the thought processes of mass-murdering terrorists?

Unfortunately, this obsessive Hollywood fascination with the dark side of human nature has played a major role in shaping America's ugly image in much of the world. In recent weeks, it has become fashionable to ask, "Why do so many people in other countries hate us?" Part of any honest response involves the movies, TV shows and popular music we export around the globe. It certainly didn't come as a complete surprise when anti-American rioters in Quetta, Pakistan, recently targeted five movie theaters showing U.S. imports. "Look what they did!" wailed Chaudary Umedali amid the smoking ruins of his cinema, which had been showing the hyperviolent, R-rated 1995 Hollywood shoot-'em-up, Desperado.

Most people - particularly those in developing nations - will get no closer to the real America or its citizens than the movie or TV images aggressively marketed in their homelands. If you make your home in Seattle or Cincinnati, you probably understand that lurid media fantasies - with their emphasis on violence, sexual adventurism and anti-social behavior - don't represent everyday reality for you or your neighbors. If you live in Indonesia or Nigeria, however, you'll get little chance to balance the negative impressions you draw from The X-Files, Hannibal or Natural Born Killers with any firsthand experience with America or Americans. No wonder so many Islamic extremists (and so many others) now look upon the USA as a cruel, godless, brutal and vulgar society - a "Great Satan," indeed.

A spokesman for Osama bin Laden's al-Qa'eda terrorist network recently summarized the struggle between Islamic fanatics and America as the eternal battle "between faith and atheism." Since the United States is by far the most religiously committed, churchgoing nation in the Western world, this claim of national atheism gains credibility only because of Hollywood's habitual denial or downplaying of our faith-based essence.

Even so sophisticated a foreign observer as the British-born movie producer David Puttnam (Chariots of Fire) noted in a 1989 interview that the pop-cultural messages about America had changed dramatically since the days of his childhood. In the 1940s and '50s, he recalled, "the image that was being projected overseas was of a society of which I wanted to be a member. Now cut to 20 years later - the image that America began projecting in the 1970s of a self-loathing, very violent society, antagonistic within itself. That patently isn't a society that any thinking person in the Third World or Western Europe or Eastern Europe would wish to have anything to do with. America has for some years been exporting an extremely negative notion of itself."

In other words, Hollywood has failed miserably in broadcasting to the rest of the world the truth about America's fundamental kindness, decency, generosity, patriotism and deep religious faith - all traits abundantly displayed in the days since Sept. 11. The emphasis on darkness, deviance and dysfunction has produced important consequences. I wrote about this influence more than 9 years ago in Hollywood vs. America, suggesting: "While the products of Hollywood's Golden Age most certainly encouraged the world's love affair with America, today's nihilistic and degrading attempts at entertainment may, in the long run, produce the opposite effect, helping to isolate this country as a symbol of diseased decadence."

To counteract that isolation, no one expects the entertainment industry to begin churning out simple-minded, one-dimensional pro-American propaganda. But in light of the prevailing paranoid and hostile show-business portrayal of so many U.S. institutions, some fresh thinking could simultaneously benefit the nation and the entertainment industry. In dozens of recent films, for instance, "CIA" or "FBI" have served as three-letter abbreviations for evil; now, most Americans understand that these organizations represent our first line of defense against very real killers and very real conspiracies.

Above all, the entertainment industry should strive for greater balance in its presentation of American life. Edgy thrillers may still find their audiences, but so will more uplifting fare emphasizing the goodness you can find in every corner of this country; loving families and engaged citizens should take their place alongside the loners and losers so beloved by contemporary filmmakers.

Considering the impassioned emotional reaction by leading celebrities to the bloody assaults on our country, this sort of reorientation may already be underway. In any event, a more benign, balanced and accurate Hollywood depiction of the land we love would do far more than screenwriters' creative speculation about new terrorist plots to help America win the current struggle against her international enemies.

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 . You may contact him by clicking here.

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