Laundry, Movies, Same Thing

777-FILM, a number you can call to check movie times and buy tickets, has been running some entertaining ads about people who miss movies because they failed to check the time or location. In one of these, a pretentious young man says, "Its a cinematic blend of texture and color... Its just like the movies!" The camera reveals that he and his bored girlfriend are watching their laundry swirl round in the washer. "Oh, yes," she says. "Laundry, movies--same thing."

Back in March, I wrote a piece called Interview With the Vampire is the Real Pornography in which I said that the movie of that name was a disturbing glorification of the right of a superior race to humiliate, torture and murder women. I received, and continue to receive, scads of email, some of it personally abusive, the theme of which is that it is wrong and wrong-headed to look for any moral message in the movies. Similarly, The Unconscious Hypocrisy of Schindler's List, in the first issue of the Spectacle in January 1995, brought me a lot of dissenting mail, not quite so angry or personal but with a similar theme. Movies, all these correspondents say, are commerce. Movie makers will tell stories that sell tickets. The major concern of actors and actresses is to find work. It is good when an actress finds work, even though she is playing an object who will be stripped, humiliated and devoured by vampires. We do not acquire our morality at the movies but in the home. If you hold movies responsible for meeting any kind of moral standards, you will wind up with nothing left but The Sound of Music (which I agree, by the way, was a very boring movie.) In other words, movies are inanimate like laundry, a field of human endeavor which involves products (detergents, action-adventure) but not ideas.

In Fantasy and Morality, a follow-up to the Interview essay, I wrote last month that fantasy writers would doubtless be surprised by the opinion of the movie's fans that fantasy fiction is exempt from any moral impact. The analogy I made--that there is no moral difference between the message of Interview with the Vampire and a film justifying the right of the Nazis to exterminate Jews--brought a further flood of angry mail.

As every journalist, op ed writer, pundit and essayist knows, diagnoses are much easier to do than prescriptions. Certain problems are so deeply rooted in human nature that suggesting solutions to them is frequently seen as unrealistic, futile and Utopian. When, in my twenties, I discovered that a girlfriend was bulimic, I recommended that she stop making herself throw up after meals. She was very angry with me: "Its not that easy." Most of what I have written in the Spectacle on any topic is diagnostic; I usually feel that once I have called attention to a double standard, an act of hypocrisy, or language that conceals what is really meant, I have done the job I set out to do.

Bashing the movies is such an easy task that perhaps one shouldn't bother. However, when I wrote the pieces on Schindler and Interview I was genuinely hard struck by the perception that no one seemed to see the truth about these movies. Knowing what to do about it is more difficult than spotting the problem. I gave the answer in the Schindler essay: I said an honest movie about the Holocaust would be in German or an Eastern European language, would start before Kristallnacht (November 10, 1938) and would end in the ovens at Auschwitz sometime after 1943, with no rescuer anywhere in sight. And no-one would see it. The "alternative" to Interview is even simpler: don't make the movie, even though the book it is based on is a hot property, there are people clamoring for a film and actors eager to appear in it (even actresses willing to play the role of torture victims for a turn in front of the camera and a shot at a career.)

In 1992, Michael Medved's Hollywood vs. America appeared. The long time film critic and PBS commentator argued that most Hollywood movies bash religion, marriage and family values, glorify violence against women, and in general show a deplorable lack of principle. Interestingly, Medved argues that some of the worst projects are commercially unsuccessful and in fact were intended to be serious, risky films expressing the personal values of their makers, while others pander to the perceived illicit desires of the audience. Along the way, Medved pans several movies I thought were quite good, such as At Play in the Fields of the Lord.

This made me sit up and take notice and think again about the accusation that if movies preach values, Sound of Music is all we will have. Since At Play, which showed a hypocritical missionary (John Lithgow) and a sincere but misguided one (Aidan Quinn) making a hash of things (and Quinn losing his own faith in the process), is the kind of film I wish Hollywood would make more often, I spent some time trying to reconcile my own reactions with Medved's.

I conclude that what we have here is a conflict of process versus substance. What I look for in movies is an honest dialectic, a procedural requirement satisfied by At Play in the Fields of the Lord. The movie fits into what you might call the "scientific progress goes bonk" category, agreeing with Gibbon, who said history is nothing but the record of human folly and misfortune. The missionaries end up inadvertently destroying the tribe they are trying to save, and Quinn is killed as everything falls apart.

Medved didn't like the movie because, in his view, it communicated contempt for religion. I am not certain it did; three of the four missionaries are honest believers at the outset. It is probably more accurate to say the movie communicated despair about religion, as did another movie Medved hated, The Rapture. Though I found the latter incoherent and unsuccessful, I recognized that the film maker was honestly being worked over by, and working through, an idea.

Medved categorizes movies as having destructive values if they express substantive ideas he does not agree with. My concerns in writing about movies have concentrated on the procedural: Schindler's List followed a hypocritical and self-deceptive process to tell a substantively valuable story;Interview denied that its message was about the torture and murder of women by cloaking itself as a fantasy.

I am not an ethical relativist. I believe human nature endorses some universal rules; the incest taboo is just one of many which are (as Edward O. Wilson pointed out in Human Nature) common to all cultures. Therefore, I cannot say that I will endorse a movie's values so long as it honestly works out an idea, no matter what the idea is. I will say that I will do my best to keep an open mind for as long as possible while I watch a film which, instead of trying to dazzle me with stardust or baffle me with bullshit, has an honest dialectic. Since, however, as Robert DeNiro's wonderful turn in The Last Tycoon with the letter, pair of gloves, and nickel demonstrated, movies are about light, magic and illusion, movies with honest processes are relatively rare.

Whenever movie people are attacked for their expressions, they, like anyone else, immediately fold the First Amendment around themselves as a cloak. The First Amendment is a meta-meme, an idea about the management of ideas, which says the following. Since government always uses a baseball bat when a scalpel is necessary, government must be minimally involved in determining which ideas are acceptable and which are not. Since the only scalpel that works is the human conscience individually expressed through the choices we make, we will leave the regulation of ideas to the individual conscience and not the collective bludgeon of government. Those who wrote to me howling that morality begins in the home are, of course, quite right; where they lose their way is in presuming that it is not expressed anywhere but the home, and does not need to be. Medved's point is that in correlating movie criticism with censorship, Hollywood takes an extremely hypocritical stance. Why, he asks, if Hollywood wouldn't make a film claiming that the Holocaust was a Jewish conspiracy, does Hollywood make so many movies about the evil workings of the Catholic church? In movies and any other human field of expression, just as in technology, the fact that something can be done does not mean it should be done.

Film makers, like the Interview fans who wrote me, also take refuge in the defense that "its only a fantasy," "its only a movie", "its only entertainment." Medved makes a good point when he says that film makers believe that their constant references to condom use will persuade the audience to engage in safe sex and avoid AIDS. Why then would they believe that their constant references to the subjection and humiliation of women will have no effect at all? Perhaps what we need in movies is a form of closed-captioning, a flag or colored light that tells us when to take an idea seriously and when not to. But of course we would ignore such a system; it is human nature.

It probably helps to have a serious capacity for self-deception if you want to work in Hollywood today; the embarrassed, somewhat defensive comments Medved quotes from people involved in Batman or the Lethal Weapon series express the conflict quite nicely. Lethal Weapon is an example of the fundamental moral confusion operative in many popular movies. The liberal producers paper the background with posters against fur and in favor of abortion rights; the centerpiece of the movies is a strong, close friendship between a black man and a white man; the villains are always white, including racist policemen and dour South African fanatics; Danny Glover shows his desire to protect the black community from violence and drugs; but the real themes, as in all such movies, is firepower and retribution at any price, and the illiberal subtext is that it is always necessary to ignore the Constitution and break the rules in order to punish the evildoers.

I recognize that movies are a business and will only survive if they sell tickets. Many of my favorite movies of recent years have been flops, whose artistic integrity contributed to their failure to find an audience. Perhaps we get the movies we deserve. Medved does not agree; he argues that many of the movies he hates the most have been financial failures. As I said in the introduction, it would be harder to argue that Hollywood is off course if so many of its expensive empty blockbusters had not failed in recent years. But Hollywood really does not know what people want; it flounders around, opening itself up both to my procedural and Medved's substantive criticism.

There certainly is a feed-back loop between what our film makers present, what we desire to see, what they give us the next time, and what we want the time after that. If Hollywood decides that what we really want are movies about the disembowellment of five year old girls, and we buy enough tickets to cause Hollywood to make more of the same, the fact that a financial success is occurring should not obscure the fact that something terrible is happening at the same time. It is probable very few real sadomasochists are at work in Hollywood. A movie about how women deserve or want to be beaten might follow an open dialectic to a repulsive, immoral conclusion. Most Hollywood movies instead show us what the film makers believe we secretly want, but pretend that it is something else than what we all know it is. This profoundly hypocritical process is reminiscent of the drug dealer who never touches the stuff, doesn't really believe in it, but sells it because it is what customers demand. (If Medved is right, add one layer of pathos: they are selling a drug no-one wants.) I was reviled by many correspondents for asking the question, but do the producers of Interview realize that they are telling their daughters they are objects for the violent pleasure of men, or their sons that women exist for this purpose?

It is usually possible to tell if a movie is following an honest or dishonest process. The original Dutch version of The Vanishing was an honest but ultimately repellent and depressing movie. It told its brutal story with no overt violence or sexual exploitation. It had characters, not objects. Silence of the Lambs was a curious hybrid. It never placed Jodie Foster in sexual danger-- a more hypocritical film-maker would have wanted the actress to be running around half-clothed at the end, but Jodie Foster is one of the few actresses with enough integrity to refuse to play that role. And it never made its female corpses or victims titilating, like most such movies do. But it glorified the almost God-like powers of its serial killers, and unrealistic tableaus like the crucified body of the policeman gave sadism a religious aura. Both movies raise the substantive question of whether it is worth telling certain stories.

If I want movies to follow a more honest, "literary" process, what of our literature? For every Victor Hugo who prefers satisfying moralistic outcomes, there is a Balzac or Zola who holds a veristic mirror to life, portraying unredressed murder, rape and theft at the highest as at the lowest levels of society. Would I counsel Zola not to tell the story of La Terre, where a dying rape and murder victim chooses to let her land pass to her attackers rather than see it fall into the hands of an outsider, her husband? In La Bete Humaine, every character is a murderer; Zola appears engaged in showing us the wide variety of human psychosis, aggression and sadism, concentrated in a small group of people. The same high school teacher who was horrified when I made a film portraying a copy of the New York Times burning had shown the class Dali's Chien Andalou, where a man slices a woman's eyeball with a razor blade.

Am I a hypocrite like him? Do I accept violent or derogatory cultural expressions only if they are "old and cold"? I'll let you be the judge of that, but will make you an offer: the day most movies follow an honest process, we'll get involved debating the role of the critic in attacking the substantive values of film. Let's just not deny that films have any substantive values or that their messages affect us.

Many of my correspondents will not agree with the statement that there is no movie so impoverished it does not communicate an idea, that in fact it is impossible to make a movie without ideas. Just as apparently neutral information impliedly advocates its own use--birth control information tells us birth control is legitimate, "one if by land, two if by sea" counselled resistance against the British--movies, whether their makers claim to want to or not, present powerful ideas about community, rules, human interactions and justice. The Terminator, Lethal Weapon and Batman all swarm with values--those pesky little values infest everything we do. Forty years ago, the French critic Roland Barthes wrote of wrestling that "most of all, what it is responsible for communicating is a purely moral concept of justice." In the same book, by the way, Barthes performed a semiotic analysis of laundry, proving my point that no human activity lacks moral significance. ("In advertisements for Omo detergent, dirt is portrayed as a small, black, ugly enemy, who at the mere threat of the detergent, flees rapidly from the pure white linen.") Movies, even (or especially) the most inarticulate and violent, are no different.

One of the fundamental underpinnings of the First Amendment is the idea that the cure for bad speech is not censorship but countervailing speech. Essays like this one are my attempt to take advantage of that right. My only prescription is to call for an honest process; but for movies which follow an honest process to a bad end, I will still avail myself of my right of criticism.