The New York Times called him “shrill and sanctimonious.” The New Yorker questioned whether he knew how to spell potato. Time saw him as a Martin Luther wannabe who was “determined to nail his 95 theses … on a movie marquee. Problem is, he keeps hitting his thumb.” Suffice it to say, Michael Medved has struck a nerve—a raw one, from the sound of liberal howling. A practicing Jew, Medved has been accused of being a “secret Christian,” a tool of Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and the Religious Right. He has even received anonymous threatening phone calls. All this for saying that movies today are bad, immoral, perhaps dangerous, and certainly not friendly to religion or traditional values.

Medved began his career as a cinematic gadfly when in 1985 he became cohost of PBS’s “Sneak Previews.” One of the first movies he reviewed was Agnes of God, which he said presented a “one-sided, unfair, negative view of the church.” Christians, surprised that someone outside their ranks noticed how they were treated by the media, wrote him passionate thank-you letters. Medved followed up by doing a theme show on “Hollywood vs. Religion,” which also received a positive response. This led to speaking engagements, articles in Reader’s Digest and USA Today magazine, and finally, last year, a best-selling book, Hollywood vs. America (HarperCollins)—which led to the savage critiques quoted above.

In the interview below the reader can judge whether Medved’s attacks on Hollywood are sanctimonious and shrill or surprisingly common sensical. Not all Christians will agree with his judgments, but all Christians should be encouraged by his public use of a moral yardstick to measure movies. Also, in the accompanying excerpt from Medved’s book, beginning on page 00, we look back at the controversies surrounding the heretical film The Last Temptation of Christ.

Why should we go see movies?

At their best, motion pictures provide enchantment. For me, Beauty and the Beast was an example of a wonderful family experience. I went four times with my daughters. I think a lot of people have that feeling about It’s a Wonderful Life. It has the power to make you a little bit more glad you’re alive. And that is what the best motion pictures are capable of doing. They give you a heightened sense of gratitude for being in this beautiful world that God created.

David Myers, in his book The Pursuit of Happiness, documents how the vast majority of people have this sense of gratitude for their lives.

That optimism and that feeling of gratitude is indispensable for correcting our social problems. To me, the most damaging message that Hollywood sends is a message of pessimism: that the future is going to be worse than the present; that there’s nothing you can do; that we live in a nightmare world; that we cannot avoid being assaulted by decay, violence, and every kind of cruelty. This is in jarring contrast with what most people experience in their own families.

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One of the themes of Hollywood vs. America is that the film industry is out of touch with the rest of the country.

The Associated Press media general poll found that 80 percent of Americans think there is too much bad language in films; 82 percent, too much violence; 72 percent, too much sex. I can think of almost no other issue that gets that kind of unanimity from the American people. Yet, in a debate with me on a national TV show, Peter Bart, the editor of Daily Variety, said, “Contrary to what Mr. Medved believes, movies today are considerably less violent and less sexual than they were 20 years ago.” I am sorry, but this guy needs a reality check. In this industry, people are so detached from reality.

In what ways can we see this detachment?

The only kind of sex that is forbidden on TV and in the movies is sex between husband and wife. On screen, sex occurs mostly among single people, usually teenagers. I point out in my book that, on TV, references to sex outside marriage are 14 times more common than sex inside marriage. Yet every study shows that the reality is that married people not only have sex much more frequently than single people, but they like it much better.

What are other areas of conflicting values?

Another is violence. In movies and on TV, violence is used to solve every problem; it is also presented as the essence of sexual attractiveness for a male. This addiction to violence, which comes in increasingly intense, poisonous doses, is so destructive, so obvious, and so ugly, it seems breathtaking that people can pretend that the situation hasn’t worsened enormously. I don’t want my son to grow up believing that the Terminator, a killer robot, is the quintessence of a heroic male.

Hollywood also regularly releases movies that encourage date rape or show women who love being beaten and degraded. As a father of two little girls, I’m terribly worried about this message.

How do industry leaders justify all this violence?

They lie—a lot. They lie on three counts. First, they deny that the violence exists—like Peter Bart, who says that movies are less violent today than they were 20 years ago, which is laughable. The National Coalition on TV Violence, a very liberal group, monitors these incidents of violence and can show that things get more violent year after year.

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The other thing they lie about is to say that without the violence, movies won’t make money. In my book, I show that if you look at all the movies released since 1983, PG-rated movies did almost twice as well as R movies; in 1991, they did three times as well. So why do they make so many violent films that demand an R rating?

The third thing they lie about is to say, “We’re just holding a mirror up to society.” What mirror? Do you know the number of Americans who have ever viewed any kind of violent assault in real life? According to the National Opinion Research Center in Washington: 2 percent. Yet every American who has a TV set views more than one violent assault every night. This is not a mirror, this is nonsense.

In your book you point out how religion receives short shrift on screen.

It’s a subject I never tire of talking about because it’s so obvious. All the surveys show that most Americans pray every week; 45 percent go to church or synagogue every week. This is never reflected in motion pictures or on TV.

Only characters from the past are allowed to be identified with regular religious practices—like the minister in A River Runs Through It, which is set in the 1920s, and so he’s allowed to go to church. Anyone in the 1980s—forget it. If a character goes to church, chances are he’s a crook or crazy—like Robert DeNiro in Cape Fear, who has a gigantic cross tattooed on his back. Just before he goes to rape Jessica Lange, he says, “Are you ready to be born again?”

No other group in America could be traduced with such breathtaking impunity.

I was struck by the string of movies you list in your book that treat religious characters negatively.

It’s shocking. But look what happens when there is a glimmer of something positive. Sister Act, a movie about a woman who hides out in a convent to escape the mob, wasn’t Going My Way or Bells of St. Mary. The nuns were stupid, but at least they were nice. And it’s a gigantic triumph. It did $170 million. Why did Sister Act succeed and two earlier movies with the identical plot line—Nuns on the Run and We’re No Angels—flop horribly? Because those movies hated the church; they were nasty to the church. (By the way, Sister Act is the only one of Whoopi Goldberg’s movies in which she didn’t use four-letter words.)

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So why does Hollywood keep putting out movies that are so out of step with the rest of America?

Clearly, it’s not for profit if you look at how badly everything is doing. Many of the few examples of unmitigated successes in popular entertainment in recent years have been family-oriented entertainment: “The Cosby Show,” Beauty and the Beast, Father of the Bride, even Home Alone (though I am troubled by its violence). I don’t think it was an accident that Home Alone, the top-grossing movie for 1991, for once showed a scene in church where you see people actually reconciling, and it shows an intact family where the mother actually loves the child.

So if it’s not the profits, what is driving all this?

There is this idea in Hollywood, which I hear constantly, that it’s the obligation of the artist to challenge society, to shake us up, to be a heretic. This is part of the twentieth-century disease. This idea in modernism that art must be harsh, shocking, horrifying has produced the degeneration of contemporary art in almost every field. And now it has reached popular culture. As recently as 1939, the movie business still held up the old ideal of artistic achievement, which was touching people’s hearts, touching people’s spirits, giving people hope, optimism, and, at times, tragedy. They always sought to connect with an audience. Now the most respected films are often very expensive films that have no chance of making a dime since they refuse to make that connection with the audience.

Can you provide an example for how this dynamic works?

I like Billy Crystal. He is a good, family man, and he has been in some very good movies. So how could I be so sure that his last picture, Mr. Saturday Night, would fail that I wrote about it as a flop in my book before the picture was even finished? What did I know that Columbia Studios, which gave him $30 million to waste on this film, didn’t know? I knew it would flop because Billy Crystal said he was going to make a character who was totally unlikable and totally despicable. I knew the American people wouldn’t buy it. They don’t like spending time with unlikable people.

So why would he want to make this kind of picture? He felt compelled to test his acting muscles, to do something challenging. He knew that even if it failed at the box office, he’d still get people from the industry coming up to him saying, “Billy, that was a brave movie. You really stretched your muscles. You didn’t just give us another silly little comedy that people loved, like City Slickers.” (And City Slickers was better than a silly little comedy. One of the reasons it became such a gigantic hit was it had a very promarriage message.)

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You note in your book that even the corporations that run the studios are buying into this goal of “artistic credibility.”

I’ll give you another example. The movie Hero, which came out last year with Dustin Hoffman, Geena Davis, and Andy Garcia, is pretty good and actually has an uplifting element, though I think it’s unnecessarily dark. I could almost take my older daughter to see it, but I wouldn’t, because it includes a dozen totally gratuitous obscenities. Because of those few words, they got a PG-13 rating, which is a harder rating to sell than PG and performs consistently less well.

If these studios are so eager to make money, why wouldn’t they leave these words out? Who would object? I asked these questions in a debate I did with one of these “official” Hollywood spokespeople. He said the problem is that sometimes people like Dustin and Geena just want to say those words. “They’re actors, they’re artists.” I’m sorry, but as a businessman you’re supposed to have the public in mind.

How does artistic merit require swearing?

We’ve enshrined an adolescent understanding of serious artistry. Holden Caufield in the novel Catcher in the Rye was fascinated by dirty words, but he was 14.I don’t understand the fascination among people who are presumably mature. These people are frozen in their adolescent attitude, which is, “I’m going to do everything I can to get my parents ticked off.” Even people who are 60 and 70 still have this adolescent chip on their shoulders.

Are some companies, like Disney, immune from these trends?

Not at all. Last year Disney made a movie called The Gun in Betty Lou’s Handbag, which was their biggest flop of the year. It was an overt attack on the institution of marriage.

But Disney and others are getting the idea. The one thing I wanted most to happen from writing this book has already happened, which is that a few people have begun to talk about these issues. The head of one major studio wants me to meet with him about the book. I also got called by an Academy Award-winning actor, a liberal who campaigned full-time for Clinton, who said he loved the book and not to let my critics get me down. This makes it all worthwhile.

Last year’s political campaigns touched on Hollywood’s negative values.

Frankly, I wish Dan Quayle had stayed quiet on this. I don’t think it is a political issue. I know people who are left-wing politically who are very, very offended by the contents of popular culture.

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What options do people have who want to respond to Hollywood’s sleaze and corruption?

They can make a point of supporting the good, not just being outraged with the bad. One of the best films in recent years was Glory, about a black regiment in the Civil War. I cried after I saw it, both because I was moved by the film and because I was heartsick over the fact that, yes, they can still make movies like this, but they choose not to.

How can we evaluate what films are good, especially as parents?

One has to do more than just count the number of bad words and actions. What is the film trying to teach? What’s the underlying message? Even though I know it’s a beautifully animated film and I know the music is great, I’m not a huge fan of The Little Mermaid, because I don’t think kids need the message: Follow your heart, ignore your parents. Also, you can have an affirmative movie like Parenthood that has questionable elements but has an underlying message that is extremely profamily.

Sometimes good films simply get ignored. One of my favorite movies of last year was savaged by my fellow critics. In Alan and Naomi, a 14-year-old learns that there are more important things in life than stick ball and hanging out with his friends. And his father actually uses the Bible to teach him—a beautiful film. What did the reviewers say? “This shows an unrealistically rosy picture of family life. Families like this don’t exist.” The hostility to the institution of the nuclear family is very real.

How do you respond to those who claim that protesting against a movie is censorship?

I’m opposed to censorship. I don’t want to cut off anybody’s right to self-expression. But I do want to encourage corporate responsibility. For instance, “Cop Killer,” the rap song by Ice-T about someone wanting to kill a police officer, caused many groups to organize themselves against its release and performance. Thank goodness we have a lot of organizations, most of them within the Christian community, who are making some attempt to influence the popular culture in the direction of decency.

Warner Brothers piously and pompously pronounced its First Amendment obligations to encourage black teenagers to kill cops, claiming that those who opposed the song were promoting censorship. Eventually Ice-T withdrew the song.

What a company chooses to produce has nothing to do with the First Amendment. Every year the Writer’s Guild of America has 27,000 scripts registered with it. Of those, fewer than 600 are produced. What about those 26,400 screen writers whose scripts don’t get produced? Are their First Amendment rights violated? Are they being censored? Of course not! All I’m saying is that when you’re deciding what you’re going to make that you introduce into the equation some consideration of its effect on the society we live in.

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How does your religious commitment affect how you evaluate movies?

It gives me balance. A powerful, negative movie, particularly if it is well made, can really make your spirit sick. Basic Instinct is an example. It was so well made, so well crafted, but so evil. I felt like a worse person coming out of that film. Fortunately, the day after I saw it was the Sabbath. I was able to sit at a Sabbath table with my family and our friends. I could feel the toxins washing away from me.

I don’t think I can review movies much longer. It is an assault—an assault on the senses and an assault on the spirit. My participation in my synagogue and with my family gives me a balance to that. What is on the screen is not reality.

Loren Wilkinson is the writer/editor of Earthkeeping in the ’90s (Eerdmans) and the coauthor, with his wife, Mary Ruth Wilkinson, of Caring for Creation in Your Own Backyard (Servant). He teaches at Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.

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