Kevin Patrick Mahoney takes a look at Michael Medved's controversial work
Hollywood versus America
is currently a massive debate in this country and America about the level of
violence in the media. If you’ve been watching Right to Reply for the last few
weeks, then you’ll have seen that this argument has still not been exhausted -
perhaps because there are no easy answers. Programme makers and film producers
have been having a hard time justifying the increased amount of violence. Few
are prepared to take centre stage and defend it. This whole argument has been
fuelled by the work of one man - Michael Medved’s Hollywood versus America. His
opinion, in his own words, is this: ”Hollywood’s addiction to graphic violence
is the most destructive feature of popular culture’s emphasis on ugliness. Its
obsession with brutality encourages far more serious sorts of anti-social
behaviour, with devastating consequences for our civilisation.”
You can’t get much more serious than that. I’ve taken a great personal interest in this debate, for I’m not afraid to say that I’ve watched violent films and have appreciated them. Yet I don’t like depictions of gross violence, just like anyone else. But I can look beyond the violence in certain films, and see that they do raise serious issues. Not all violent films are the same. I enjoyed watching Die Hard, but I wouldn’t consider it as a work of art, with a meaningful message. In some films, I think that the violence is justified. So I came to Medved’s book expecting to disagree with him - but to my surprise, I found some common ground.
I’ll begin with an examination of one the bloodiest motion picture series — The Godfather, parts I and II. Paul Verhoeven, director of Robocop and Basic Instinct, said that: "lf Michael Medved had his way, Shakespeare would never have been allowed to produce Hamlet - there are too many violent deaths”. While I may hesitate comparing Robocop with
I wouldn’t shirk from doing so with The Godfather, especially Part II. It’s
often been said that the motion picture is the artform of the twentieth
century, and I would like to argue that this film is one of its greatest
It falls into the genre of Tragedy, even though the central character, Michael Corleone (played by Al Pacino), does not die — indeed, it is essential that he doesn’t. Like all tragic heroes, he knows his tragedy, but is unable to do anything about it. As he himself says to his mother near the end: ”What did Papa think deep in his heart? He was being strong, strong for his Family. But by being strong for his family, could he lose it?” Michael had earlier shunned his family for its activities. As he tells his girlfriend, ”Kay that’s my family, not me.” He seems to be a very unlikely person to take on the role of Godfather. But then his brother, Santino (or Sonny, as he’s better known), is brutally murdered. It is appalling to see the mild-mannered Michael turn slowly into a monster. As his father laments, he could have done something better with his life - with the possibility of entering the Senate or even the Presidency.
Francis Ford Coppola, the director, said he wanted Michael “to be destroyed by the forces inside of himself; the very forces that had created him.” Again, as Coppola says, at the end, Michael Corleone is “very possibly the most powerful man in America. But he is a corpse.” The irony arises that by being strong for his family, Michael loses his wife in a car bomb meant for him, and he murders his brother and his brother-in-law. One by one, he slowly alienates the family that should be at the heart of his power base.
Yet some of the criticisms of Michael have been curious to say the least. This is what the British director, Nicholas Roeg, had to say about him: ”Here is this man who has become a liar, murders his brother and others, slams the door In his wife’s face and all in the interest of a little
He wouldn’t drink alcohol, which was the last straw.” It’s depressing the
amount of times I found in my readings that the biggest criticism that anyone
could come up with about Michael, was that he drank club sodas. If he had been
a merry drunkard, would that have made his killings all right?
In terms of violence, perhaps the first Godfather can be more criticised. It’s disturbing to find yourself wanting certain characters to die... Like Sollozo, the man who ambushed Marlon Brando’s Don, or Carlo Russo, who did the same for Sonny Corleone. Michael waits till his father has died before he takes out his bloody revenge. As Peter Cowie wrote In his excellent book on Coppola, ”If there is any manifestly obscene aspect of The Godfather, it is this feeling of complicity in the act of violence.” Yet Coppola shows all the pain and agony of the deaths - the garrotting of Carlo is dreadful to watch, as in his convulsions, his feet kick through the windscreen of the car that is taking him to his final resting place. At one point, the studio, Paramount, considered sending in another director, for they felt that Coppola would be too “timid” in his depiction of violence. The Godfather Part II is far more successful in its condemnation of Michael, as all his victims have a sympathetic quality. The roles of saviour and betrayer are cruelly perverted as Michael condemns his pathetic brother, Fredo, to death with a kiss.
Part II gives a very powerful critique of American society. As Coppola said,”I always wanted to use the Mafia as a metaphor for America. Both have roots in Europe... both feel that they are benevolent organisations. Both have their hands stained with blood from what it’s necessary to do to protect their power and interests. Both are totally capitalistic.” Alone of all the film’s characters, Michael Corleone sees the hypocrisy of America’s interests in Cuba. The United States, created out of a battle for
have tended to support fascist dictators as long as they are opposed to
Communism. It’s one of the many instances when America’s foreign policy has not
lived up to the American Dream, and has actively suppressed peoples under the
rule of dictators like Batista. The same point is made in Oliver Stone’s
Salvador. James Woods plays the unlikable hero, who nevertheless is the only
one who has the courage to speak out against the human rights violations he
sees, carried out by a regime armed by the U.S.Government.
The Godfather Part II argues that this journalist is not the only American who has been alienated by this. Peter Cowie wrote that the film has “Michael Corleone as the personification of the United States.” Everyone wants to kiss his hand and ask favours of him, but nobody loves him. There’s nothing that Michael can do to repair the corrupt world outside the family. Even Senator Geary, supposedly a very responsible man, is revealed as a racist and a pervert. Michael can only reform him by the use of blackmail. Incidentally, the actor playing Geary looks and sounds incredibly like Richard Nixon. 1972, the year of the first Godfather, was also the year when the Watergate Hotel was broken into. The resulting scandal, and the many years of losing the unpopular Vietnam war, left many Americans feeling very bitter and disillusioned about their system. Like Michael at the end of The Godfather, America was a corpse. Whenever there’s any violent act in The Godfather, the protagonists always make the same excuse - “It was only business.” The American people were tired of the U.S. Government making similar excuses about Vietnam. The Godfather is a very good critique of the American Dream, so perhaps, like Salvador, it could be criticised for being unpatriotic. You could say that American film makers disseminate a very negative view of America to the rest of the world. But I don’t think this is so - perhaps these films could be seen as helping the spread of democracy internationally. This is, of course, an important part of the American Dream. The world domination
American popular culture has done some good, by allowing other societies to see
that it is legitimate to criticise themselves.
I doubt that Michael Medved would ever campaign against violence in literature, for that would be too reminiscent of Nazi book burning parties. Yet, there is violence in literature, as well as in films. This creates the paradox whereby, with so many films being adapted from novels, violence is making the transition from the imagination to the screen. Are we to be restricted to merely read about brutality? Perhaps Medved has only focused so much on films because they are more accessible and take less time to consume - fewer people have the leisure time to read novels nowadays (although several years after I wrote that sentence, I no longer have any time to go to the movies because I'm reading so many novels!).
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is an example of one novel that made the transition to the silver screen. The book tells the story of Michael McMurphy, a criminal who pretends to be insane because he thinks that he will have an easier time in a mental asylum than a prison. He causes chaos when he discovers how wrongly the patients are being treated, and in his fight for them, he achieves something of an heroic status. However, the institution, under the tyranny of the Big Nurse, fights back. Since McMurphy is far more active than the other inmates, it is easier for them to justify a lobotomy. McMurphy, a sane man, is cruelly murdered; for, having been reduced to a vegetive state, his personality has been destroyed. Like Winston Smith in 1984, he’s forced to conform by the powers that be in society.
There is no doubt that there is more violence in films today than there was twenty years ago. Medved quotes a critic who condemned Cagney’s Public Enemy in the thirties. Now, few people would complain about the content of that film. It’s argued that, due to overexposure, we have become desensitised to violence. As Medved writes: ”This
level of tolerance for media violence may even promote acceptance of the
bloodcurdling cruelty we experience with increasing frequency in our own homes
and communities. It is hardly a positive development for a society when it
loses its ability to shock.” However, Martin Scorsese argues that: ”Maybe we
need the catharsis of bloodletting and decapitation, like the ancient Romans
needed it, as ritual, not real like the Roman Circus.” David Puttnam replied
that these “started legitimately as circuses, extremely mild entertainment. But
the audience demand for more and more resulted... in that form of entertainment
becoming more and more bloody... Successive societies have destroyed themselves
by the failure of their leadership to say: ’I know that’s what you’d like to
see, but... It’s bad for us, we’re damaging ourselves.” In Psychology: The
Science of Mind and Behaviour, R.D.Gross discussed vicarious catharsis, the
common belief that watching aggression will ‘help to get it out’ of the
observer. However, as Gross says, the evidence appears to contradict this
relief of aggression.
This debate comes round in cycles though. Back in the thirties, the American expatriate T.S.Eliot, and the academic F.R.Leavis founded the field of English Literature studies. They thought that British culture was being threatened by the new popular culture, including films. Reading literature, they said, would improve your mind. Yet as Terry Eagleton argued, when allied troops liberated the extermination camps, they found that camp commandants had been reading literature, and that hadn’t stopped them from killing thousands. As M.A.Lowry argued against Medved,”We are living in a world where news of every atrocity is brought to us instantly by television. It would be more damaging if popular culture did not reflect this (Nazi Germany’s popular culture did not reflect what was going on in its society - deliberately).”
Medved also contradicts himself when he says: ”Anyone who watches movies or
TV... knows that there is very little realism in the way they portray
violence.” But a few paragraphs on he quotes Leonard Eron, university of
Illinois psychologist, as saying: ”The more realistic the violence is, the more
effect it has, because the youngster thinks that everybody acts this way and
that it is an appropriate way to go about solving problems.” Yet the films that
worry me the most are the Home Alone ones, where violence is very unrealistic
and presented as fun. This is cartoon violence transferred to a realistic
setting. And these are the kinds of films that kids copy - several years ago,
there were cases of children getting lost in sewers, after they had tried to
emulate the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. It could very well be though, that
I’m jealous of McCawley Culkin, this ten year old who’s earning millions of
dollars. This could only happen in America, as part of the dream.
Kenneth Baker, a former Education minister here, contributed to the debate. He
wrote that: ”While most people can distinguish between reality and fantasy,
some find that more difficult, particularly the young, who may lack parental
discipline, and have low I.Q.s and poor education. They may have few peers whom
they can admire, and their cinema screens provide the only experience of a
wider world. Where are the positive role models for them?” The American media,
though, has not ignored this problem, as The Fisher King shows. Jeff Bridges
plays the D.J. who comes to regret what he carelessly said to one of his
However, I don’t believe that the media can be completely blamed for such crimes. The people who commit them are a small part of the audience, and there is usually something else wrong in their lives. As R.D.Gross wrote: ”It is possible that boys who watch more violent television differ in other important respects from those who watch less (for instance, it might be something to do with their personality and/or their family environment which accounts for their attraction to televised violence in the first
in which case we cannot be sure that it is the observation of violence which
causes their greater behavioural aggression.” Tony Blair takes up a similar
point when he says that: ”Abuse or violence in the home probably has a far
greater effect than anything watched on screen.” Blair also feels that it is
society which has failed such people. It’s rather hypocritical for an Education
minister like Kenneth Baker to blame violence on poor education. Vito Corleone
in The Godfather Part II sets out on his life of crime precisely because his
childhood was violent - his whole family was murdered in Sicily.
I believe that every film-maker has the right to make any film - but I agree with Medved when he says that they have a responsibility not to make the grossest film ever. He reports the efforts of Cardinal Roger Mahony in trying to re-establish a sort of Hays Code. In the thirties, all the big studio bosses agreed to regulate themselves through the Hays office. Yet this could never happen today, for movie-making is no longer such a monopoly. Independent studios wouldn’t have to obey. So, how could you restrict violence? Censorship doesn’t work, as Medved’s example of 2 Live Crew proves. When the authorities tried to ban them, they only succeeded in making them incredibly popular.
In my opinion, if 2 Live Crew sound angry, then I think that they have a right to be. The 1980’s saw a rapid decrease in the amount of federal funds going to inner city areas. Lyndon Johnson’s dream of a Great Society has been allowed to slip away. The Great Society was Johnson’s response to the Watts riots in Los Angeles, and the fact that it is not working anymore can be seen from the riots last year, which started off in almost exactly the same place. It was a response to one of the most powerful images of violence in America history: the beating of Rodney King, captured on video. Yet it wasn’t the tape that made them riot, but the fact that the guilty policemen were allowed to
free. No piece of fictional violence could ever have the same power as that. 2
Live Crew are using popular culture to reveal how angry they are that American
society, and the American Dream, has failed them. It’s coming to something when
the most common cause of death for young black men in America is homicide.
However, there are aspects of Medved’s argument that I definitely do not like, ranging from the stupid to the more serious. Medved mentioned what the movie industry was now doing to promote positive messages, such as encouraging the use of condoms and saving the rain forests. Medved asks: ”is it ridiculous to ask that they might also encourage hard work in school or even respect for teachers?” Can you imagine what a film would be like which set out to do this? Besides, it is hard to see how you can have drama without conflict, which sometimes necessitates the use of violence. One of the main points of Medved’s view is that violent P-rated films do less well at the box office - yet he also recognises that environmentally friendly films like Fern Gully bombed. But Fern Gully is an example of the type of film that Medved says should do well. Most kids would prefer Home Alone any day.
What most annoys me is that Medved endorses the views of Stuart Whitcomb, who was apparently a famous pop star in the sixties. Whitcomb said that “By destroying the past in the sixties, we did the most terrible thing. The idols of the past may not have had particularly good private lives, but they kept them private. They stood for positive values, they stood for hearth and home and love... Take Bing Crosby. Although he was apparently a lush (ie a drunkard) in private life, he never went on stage with a bottle like Janis Joplin did. Behind the scenes, Crosby bashed up his children, but on stage he sang about Galway Bay.” I think though, that this only goes to show the dangers of the American Dream. Why should we respect Crosby for just pretending to live up to the dream? And surely, his poor kids, brought up in that kind of environment - the very kind
tends to make children violent later in life... Bing Crosby was one of those
role models that Kenneth Baker wrote about. If there are no role models today,
then it’s perhaps because we’ve grown up a little more, enough to realise that
nobody’s that perfect.
Medved’s tactic against companies which release violent films is a kind of boycott. Pressure groups would form to campaign against the worst offenders. They would refuse to buy products from those who advertise with violent TV programmes, and embarrass executives by going to stockholders’ meetings. Medved writes that “A boycott is nothing more than an attempt to deploy private buying power to serve a public purpose. One group may boycott products to condemn pollution or apartheid; another will protest the sponsorship of televised sleaze.” Yet this is nothing new.
Back in 1971, Paramount had labour difficulties in New York when the Italian-American Civil Rights League took exception to the studio’s new production - The Godfather. Far from the film being unreflective of real life, real life turned out to be far more bizarre. Joseph Colombo, the man, who, as head of the Italian American Civil Rights League, was trying to persuade everyone that the mafia didn’t exist anymore, barely survived an assassination attempt in 1971. Less than a year later, Joseph Gallo was assassinated. It emerged that the two rival Families, the Colombo’s and the Gallo’s had been fighting a mafia war for quite some time. The Godfather may have even helped to reveal the truth.
Finally, I’d just like to mention a disturbing new trend in the American media. TV news stations are now using helicopters to film local violent incidents as they happen. That’s how much of the footage from the L.A. riots was obtained. The disturbing point is that this is actively being promoted by TV stations as a form of entertainment. You can now join a pursuit of a criminal from the comfort of your own home - with all the thrill of the chase.
Through all this, I’ve come to the conclusion that we have not become desensitised to violence. I’d like to argue more
positively on the behalf of the American audience. I think that they, and we, have become a more sophisticated audience. If we heard on the radio today that the Martians were invading, we wouldn’t run to the hills as over a million did in the thirties when they heard Orson Welles’ famous broadcast. Americans are now more skeptical of the media - which is a good thing, for it makes them less susceptible to propaganda. And is not the American Dream, in some of Its aspects, just propaganda? It is fortunate that American people - and through their films, the rest of the world, aren’t that gullible anymore. The success of American popular culture has only been proved by politicians in this country contributing to the debate, because it affects this country and many others. Medved’s book has only convinced me that American films should not be regulated. Surely it is a positive aspect of the American Dream that by being unafraid to show all the ugliness of their nation, that American film makers may have helped the spread of democracy in the world a little.
Coppola by Peter Cowie.
The Science of Mind and Behaviour by R.D.Gross.
Cinema, Politics and Society in America edited by Philip Davies and Brian Neve.
Crime Movies by Carlos Clarens.
The Sunday Times Culture Section - 10/1/’93, 14/2/’93, 21/2/’93, 7/3/’93, 14/3/’93. Extracts from Michael Medved’s Hollywood versus America.