It has been nineteen years since conservative commentator and film critic Michael Medved published the bestseller Hollywood vs. America: Popular Culture and the War on Traditional Values (HarperCollins, 1992), a book that made him a hero for “family values” conservatives across North America. While Medved made some valid points about the debasedness of some pop culture (and some “high” culture too), his book also had an approach to the problem which was, shall we say, troubling.
The problem is Medved’s atomistic, moralistic method of culture evaluation which is in danger of reducing a cultural product (e.g. a film or book) to an arbitrary evaluative grid. The example I’ll consider here is Medved’s practice of counting curse words in films, most notably Martin Scorsese’s academy award winning 1990 gangster film “Goodfellas” (based on the true story of Henry Hill). Medved refers to “Goodfellas” as “one of Hollywood’s all-time champions when it comes to expletives per minute.” (179) He then compares it to Raoul Walsh’s 1949 film noir “White Heat”:
“Somehow, director Raoul Walsh managed to bring to life the cruel realities of his main character’s world, both inside and outside of prison, while using 246 fewer F-words than Martin Scorsese employed in “Goodfellas”. Can any fair-minded observer watch “White Heat” and honestly declare that its effectiveness has been compromised…?” (180)
There is an argument here, I just know it. But what is the argument exactly? I think it goes something like this:
(1) If it is possible for a director seeking to make an effective ganster film to do so without using ‘F’ words then he ought not use ‘F’ words.
(2) Raoul Walsh’s “White Heat” demonstrates that it is possible to make an effective ganster film without using ‘F’ words.
(3) Therefore, a director seeking to make an effective gangster film ought not use ‘F’ words. (1,2)
(4) Martin Scorsese’s gangster film “Goodfellas” uses ‘F’ words (246 of ’em!).
(5) Therefore, Martin Scorsese should not have made “Goodfellas”, or at least he should not have made it with ‘F’ words. (3)
Everything in this argument hinges on whether we find (1) to be plausible. Rather than assail it directly, I’ll present another companion argument.
(1′) If it is possible for a director seeking to make an effective antiwar film to do so without using violence then he ought not use violence.
(2′) Isao Takahata’s “Grave of the Fireflies” demonstrates that it is possible to make an effective antiwar film without using violence.
(3′) Therefore, a director seeking to make an effective antiwar film ought not use violence. (1,2)
(4′) Steven Spielberg’s antiwar film “Saving Private Ryan” uses lots of violence.
(5′) Therefore, Steven Spielberg should not have made “Saving Private Ryan”, or at least he should not have made it without using violence. (3)
Really? Well let’s note first that “Saving Private Ryan” shorn of the opening sequence of twenty plus minutes of the Omaha Beach landing would no longer be “Saving Private Ryan” (to say nothing of excising the later battle at Ramelle). With all the violence removed you wouldn’t have a sanitized “Saving Private Ryan.” Rather, you’d have a different film altogether.
Now a person could argue that the violence in “Saving Private Ryan” is thematically more integral to the story than the swearing in “Goodfellas”. Surely Joe Pesci could still have won the Academy award while saying “What the heck are you lookin’ at?”. (And if he couldn’t then phooey on the Academy for their potty mouths.)
Okay, let’s consider a tighter example.
(1”) If it is possible for an author seeking to write an effective antislavery novel to do so without using the “N” word then he ought not use the “N” word.
(2”) Howard Fast’s “Spartacus” demonstrates that it is possible to write an effective antislavery novel without using the “N” word.
(3”) Therefore, an author seeking to write an effective antislavery novel ought not use the “N” word. (1,2)
(4”) Mark Twain’s antislavery novel “Huckleberry Finn” uses the “N” word.
(5”) Therefore, Mart Twain should not have written “Huckleberry Finn”, or at least he should have written it without the “N” word. (3)
I would let my argument rest on this as a reductio ad absurdum except for the distressing fact that even now there is a sanitized edition of “Huckleberry Finn” which is going into its second edition.
But I do have a final, parting volley: if these “culture war” conservatives insist on an arbitrary checklist as the means to assess cultural products then they should start counting the number of instances of adultery, murder, dismemberment and genocide recorded within the Bible.