WEEK’S COLUMN is going to be unique. I can say that with some confidence, since it does not deal with Michael Ovitz or MCA. Everywhere I turn, journalists are explaining the details of Ovitz’s alleged deal with MCA, replete with tax consequences. I think it is very generous of MCA and CAA to have opened up their books to my colleagues in the media. Having said that, I would like to turn instead to the teachings of that great statesman, Sen. Bob Dole, who came to Hollywood last week to lecture the town about its social responsibilities. Dusting off an old Dan Quayle speech, Dole intoned warnings about “the mainstreaming of deviancy.” He equated Hollywood product with “nightmares of depravity.” He warned that “we have reached the point where our popular culture threatens to undermine our character as a nation.” The only things missing from his oration were the Quaylian allusions to the “cultural elite,” which the former vice president insisted was secretly ruling the entertainment industry. Dole’s campaign rhetoric produced the usual wimpy responses from the Hollywood establishment. Jack Valenti pointed out that there are an awful lot of producers out here and that some produced violent movies, but most did not.
WHAT’S ALWAYS DISTURBING about a Dole-like onslaught is that it produces such politically correct responses. Given the complex structure of our contemporary mega-companies, no corporate leader will simply step out and say, “These are cheap shots aimed at sucking up to the Christian Coalition.” But that’s exactly what they are and it’s important to say it. Of course, Bob Dole seems to exempt from criticism those action pictures like “True Lies” that star stalwart Republicans like Arnold Schwarzenegger or are financedby Rupert Murdoch, the Attila of corporate chieftains. To be sure, “True Lies,” which I personally enjoyed, seemed at times like a commercial for esoteric assault weapons — Dole, remember, wants to repeal the ban on these weapons, which he apparently believes foster a more peaceful society. No rational individual would deny that ours is a violent society. Oklahoma City was a vivid enough reminder not just of its violence but also of its ignorance. There are militia members out there in the heartland who don’t read the newspapers, don’t believe what they see on television and yet concoct apocalyptic visions about the inner workings of our government. Bob Dole’s ramblings fortify just this sort of paranoia. To assert that Hollywood is responsible for undermining our social values is to suggest once again that some shadowy power elite has a hidden agenda. Is there too much violence out there in the media world? Again, no rational person would dispute this, but the picture is far more complex than Dole would suggest. Videogames contain too much head-bashing. Cartoons have become excessively combative. There are too many grisly crime stories graphically reported on our local news shows, and tab TV embellishes the assault.
WHEN IT COMES to movies, it’s a mixed bag. I would argue that action films, by and large, are less violent today than they were a generation ago in the heyday of Sam Peckinpah and his imitators. Today’s action scenes tend to be more surreal, almost cartoonish. Moreover, audiences have “voted” their support of more benign movies such as “Forrest Gump,” “The Santa Clause” and “The Lion King.” A generation ago the spirit of Hollywood was defiantly anti-establishment. Drugs were in common use at the studios and the envelope was being pushed to the max in terms of sexual content. Today’s Hollywood, by contrast, is a study in “family values.” Executives and filmmakers pass around baby photos, not joints. There’s a genuine appetite to create films and TV shows with family appeal. Dole says the entertainment industry is promoting “casual violence and even casual sex,” but I would suggest that what Dole is proposing is casual censorship. He wants a society tuned into the sensibility of Ralph Reed or Pat Robertson. What happens to those of us who don’t share that sensibility? Time Warner’s efforts to cope with the so-called “lyrics” of “gangsta rap” are commendable. Concerns over this phenomenon should be muted by the fact that Snoop Doggy Dogg faces a murder charge, Dr. Dre is serving a five-month sentence and Tupac Shakur is in the slammer for 18 months to 4 1/2 years. Again, it seems like our society is managing to find its own way of imposing constraints. Bob Dole surely will win some votes for his onslaught, but I’ve got news for him. His rhetoric, not Hollywood, is “mainstreaming deviancy”– thepolitical process is deviating from rational debate into the politics of paranoia.