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Medved-Infatuation with Foul

Medved-Infatuation with Foul - llhe infatuation with Foul...

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Unformatted text preview: llhe infatuation with Foul Language Micher Medusa? lvlichael lvledved is a well-ltnown critic who has written extensively about the film industry. In the foliowing article, excerpted from lvledved's book Hollywood vs. America {1992). he argues that Hollywood is hopelessly out of touch with the ArnerECan nublic'e values. Just as films have become more and more graphic in their depiction of sex and violence, they have also become more graphic to their use of "foul tanguaae." tvledvetl asserts that this trend is drivlng nillions ct Americans away from the box ottice. Medved also sees this trend occurring on telev'sion as nehvork programs seelt to push the acceptable language "envelope." If anything. the trend lvledved describes here has accelerated since his book's publica- tion. As you read the article. think about the movies and TV you watch. Do you agree ttat Hol— lywood has gone too far? | For many members of America’s mass audience, a low—frequency tone is hardly necessary to produce gut—churning results: they are already ill over the foul language that pervades our popular culture. with her office mate Hank Mitchell [Dorian I-larewood), Rosie blows her stack. “I've had it with the Beverly Hills crop. You elitists son oft: birch!“ You‘re worse than any snob in my mother‘s club,” she snaps. as “I couldn‘t get into your mother‘s club," he shoots back. “So kiss. . . my. . . ass!” so Producer Barney Rosenzweig fought passionately to keep this scene as written, and considered it a major victory for creating 'frecdoni when. after a extended battle, CBS gave him his way. at As a result of his triumph, millions of American kids had the opportunity to hear role models on television engage in precisely the sort of crude and abusive or / change that most parents try hard to di5courage in their children. :2 Not everyone in the television industry is convinced that the mediutn's new tol— erance for explicit language represents progress. Delbert Mann is one of the great directors in TV history, with credits including the original, televised version of Marty, The Bachelor Party, The Man Without a Country, and Playing for Time. AS he reflected on the current dilemma of the networks he has served so well, Mann told the Los Angeles Tones in 1991: “I get a real sense of America being turned off by the network television we see, and that the language is one reason for the lost net— work audience. The language is still important to people in this country.” as Other television veterans agree with him. “I wish we could go back to the inno— cent days of television," says distinguished producer David Gerber, chairman of the MGM/Ufa TelevisiOn Production Group. “Looking at some of the current shews, 1 wonder: how far can we go before the audience is offended and turns off? The pen— dulum always swings back. People in the industry just forget that." 2 It may seem anticlimacLic to discuss the excessive use of four-letter words after covering the current fascination with vomit and urine, roaches and maggots. Audi- ences are so energetically‘assaulted with every manner of maiming and mutilation, every imaginable approach to sexual exploitation and debasement of the human spirit, that one might well expect them to overlook the nasty language that usually accompanies the ugliness. The public, however, remains surprisingly sensitive to the verbal Obscenities that have become such a commonplace aspect of our movies. popular music, and even prime~time TV. All public opinion surveys measuring attitudes toward the me- dia report a remarkable unanimity behind the idea that Hollywood should clean up the language in the products it offers to the people. A well~publicized 1989 poll by Associated Press/Media General asked its res spondents: “Overall. do most movies that come out nowadays have too much pro- fanity in them, or not?” An astonishing 80 percent cited “too much" profanity: not one of the 1,084 survey participants endorsed the idea that movies today contained “not enough" harsh language. This sort of statistical response conforms to the strong impressions I‘ve received during more than seven years of communicating with the public as a nationally tele- vised film critic. Among thousands of letters complaining about one or another new movie release—or about the sad state of films in general—foul language is by far the most commonly mentioned offensive element, well ahead of excessive violence. graphic sexuality, racial and gender stereotyping, or any other grounds for objection. Anyone who bothers to listen to the public must come to understand that the eX« plosion of verbal Obscenities on screen has contributed powerfully to the sense of many moviegoers that a visit to their local theater has become a demeaning experi- CHCC. Ann Landers. whose nationally syndicated column provides a popular forum for the sentiments and values of Middle America, reports a huge volume of mail ex- pressing outrage on this issue. On May 15, 1989. she ran a sampling of these letters under the headline “Filthy Talk Tamishing the Silver Screen." Among the com— ments she includedz" - from Oxnard. California: “I’m sick to death of crude and vulgar language. How ' much more explicit can it get? . . . Why must decent people be embarrassed in ' front of their children by obscene words . . . ?" - from Vancouver. British Columbia: “My wife and I have walked out of so many movies because of the dirty language . . . " - from Panama City. Florida: “Amen to your comments about gutter talk in movies. . . . Rock bottom, I call it.“ - from Palo Alto’. California: “I'm a sixty-four—year-old male who has been around. Nothing shocks me, but some things offend me. I‘m talking about the F-word in the presence of my fifteen»year-old grandson. I’m afraid to take the boy to the movies again." ° from Kansas City, Missouri: “You said it wouldn’t hurt Hollywood to clean up its mouth. I agree. In fact. I'll go further and say it would help the box office. B K "it t W '13 U My husband and I go to very few movies these days because of the dirty talk. I'll bet millions of Americans feel the same way." Hollywood‘s refusal to face the sincere hurt and disappointment behind such statements represents an especially appalling illustration of the industry‘s underly- ing contempt for its audience. Even if one insists that all survey results are overstated, and that letter writers are unrepresentative, it still makes little sense to give needless offense to any signif- icant segment of the moviegoing public. I‘ve heard industry defenders make the ar- gument that among the 80 percent of all Americans who tell pollsters of their annoy- ance at the street language in films, only a minority are seriOusly alienated by the Obscenities. Even so, what producer in his right mind would unnecessarily and knowingly write off 30 percent, or 20 percent, or 10 percent of potential patrons for his movie? What makes Hollywood's self-destructive obsession with the language of the sewer even more difficult to understand is the total lack of countervailing pressure on this particular issue. Where are the advocacy groups, or even individual members of the audience, who clamor for the industry to maintain its impressive quota of F- words, Swords. and other expletives in film after film? Richard Pine, one of the most savvy and respected literary agents in the business, addresses the situation with commonsense clarity: “Nobody ever walked out of a movie and said, ‘Gee, that was a great picture, but the only problem was they didn‘t say “Fuck” enough.’ Who thinks like that?" Who indeed? Who dictates the idiotic overrepresentation of a few crude Anglo- Saxonisms in today’s movie dialogue—especially in the absence of any discernible audience demand for the inclusion of such words? As with the gratuitous vomit and urine scenes. the utterly gratuitous use of ob- scene language stems in part from the filmmakers’ adolescent insistence on thumb- ing their noses at all conventional notions of propriety. Many of the major decision~ makers in Hollywood can recall a time when even the use of “hell” and “damn” was strictly limited; their current opportunity to pepper their pictures with literally hun— dreds of far harsher words represents a recently won and deeply cherished freedom. At times, they seem determined to use that freedom simply because it is there. This attitude appears at every level of the production process, from producers to screenwriters to directors to the actors themselves. Certain performers are notorious for their insistence on inserting their favorite words in every film in which they are cast, even when those expletives never appeared in the script. According to veteran observers, Oscar winners Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci are among those who are es- pecially apt to increase the intensity of their characterizations with an abundance of unscripted, improvisatory Obscenities. Significantly, both men appeared in Goochellas (1990), one of Hollywood’s all-time champions when it comes to expletives per minute. The Entertainment Re search Group of Boca Raton, Florida, which devotes itself to the unenviable (and exhausting) task of counting the obscene words in new movie releases, certified this film‘s remarkable achievement. With a total running time of 146 minutes, director 15 16 17 16 19 Martin Scorsese and his cast managed to pack in some 246 F~words, fourteen Se words, seven A—words (“asshole”). and five “slang terms for parts of the male anatomy." This means that viewers of GoodFellrrs heard a major obscenity nearly twice every minute; or, to be more precise. once every 32.2 seconds of the picture‘s running time. Brilliantly well-acted, emotionally gripping, and critically overpraised, Scors~ ese’s Stylish triumph gave bad language a go'od name. When this veritable festival of foul speech won an Oscar nomination for Best Picture of the year and swept the leading awards from all the major critics‘ organizations, it only served to reinforce the idea that the finest in cinematic artistry requires a wealth of obscene dialogue. According to this reasoning, Scorsese needed every one of his hundreds of exple‘ tives in order to treat his subject with uncompromising integrity. After all, how can he be expected to shape a convincing film about murderous Mafia hoods without re- producing the filthy language such thugs would surely use in real life? This argument displays not only a childish literalism but also an ignorance of cinema history. The mere existence of some unpleasant aspect of reality—say, the morning con- stipation and hemorrhoidal pain that afflict a significant percentage of our fellow cit- izens—does not create an obligation to portray that situation on the screen. The fail- ure to focus on the moments that a character spends grunting on the commode does not necessarily betray the truth of his existence. nor imply a lack of integrity on the part of the filmmaker. Despite the professed enthusiasm for the subject matter from bands like the Toilet Rockers and performers like Shane Ernbury of Napalm Death (mentioned above), mainstream filmmakers have—so far—chosen to ignore defeca» tion as a major focus for their artistry. Every movie is inevitably selective in those e1- ernents of an individual. or a story, it chooses to convey. Artistic restraint—and con- sideration for the sensitivities of the audience—do not always amount to dishonesty. Anyone who remembers White Heat, the great Jimmy Cagney film from 1949, knows that the portrayal of a psychopathic gangster can be just as convincing, and just as terrifying, without obscene language. Somehow, director Raoul Walsh man« aged 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 Hear and honestly declare that its effectiveness has been compromised by the restraint of its language? . In this regard, as in so mahy others. the classics of Hollywood’s Golden Age could provide an education for many of today’s filmmakers. Consider John Ford‘s The Grapes of Wrath (1940), with its harrowing tale of embittered farmers (one of ' 'them an ex-con) fleeing the horrors of the Dust Bowl in Oklahoma for exploitation in the fmit orchards of California. While real-life “Okies” may Well have employed “ Extremely salty language in their moments of rage or pain, the impact of this noble 20 film is hardly reduced by its characters' failure to reproduce those curses. The same point might be made for the masterful Paths of Glory (1957) with its grim, nightmarish account of the fate of three ordinary French soldiers in World War I who are sacrificed by vainglorious higher—ups. The battlefield, and the mili- tary prison, as rendered by director Stanley Kubrick, are no less horrifying for their 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 absence of expletives. When viewing this stunning film alongside Kubrick‘s more recent antiwar epic Full Metal Jacket (1987), it is hard to see how the bountiful use of abusive language in the latter project makes it in any way a better film. While arguments may reasonably rage over the appropriateness of including verbal Obscenities in movies about the mob, or migrant farm workers, or long-suf— fering soldiers in the heat of battle, no one can make a convincing case that those words are essential in lighthearted comedies, or sentimental romances; or adventure movies for kids. Nevertheless, the Hollywood establishment inserts vile speech in nearly all such projects, without rhyme, reason. or proper warning to the public. A simple word count on 282 major movie releases from 1991—performed by the aforementioned Entertainment Research Group—proves that the public is correct in its assumption that it is virtually impossible to escape street language in today’s films. A breakdown of 1991 releases according to their MPAA ratings shows that the average R-rated movie contains twenty-two F—words, fourteen Swords. and five A~ words—providing its viewers with a major obscenity every two and half minutes. Keep in mind that these figures represent an average—indicating that half the films in this category provide even heftier doses of foul talk. ' Far more surprising is the ubiquity of harsh language in films deemed more ape propriatc for youthful audiences. I am almost amazed at how many parents still cling to the notion that a PG or PG—13 rating for a film means that their children will be spared the most intense Obscenities. This supposition hardly squares with the fact that 39 percent of 1991 PG—13 films used the F~word, 66 percent used the A~word. and an amazing 73 percent used the S—word! Even among PG movies—films to which parents eagerly bring their six- and seven-year‘old children—58 percent use the A-word, and 46 percent use the 8- word. Insisting on this sort of language in so many films for kids is not only unnec- essary; it is insane. Similarly insane is the dramatic drift toward dirty words on prime-time TV; in- creasingly, Americans find themselves assaulted by crude language in their own liv- ing rooms. Bill Bruns and Mary Murphy lamented this trend in a November 1990 article in TV Guide: Try explaining to your six»year—old, for example, what six—year-old Maizy on CBS’s “Uncle Buck" means when she tells her brother, “You suck." Or what fourteen—yenr-old Darlene Conner on ABC’s “Roseanne” is talking about when she brags to her sister that she was “felt up“ by her boyfriend. . . . Other words on other shows are coming across loud and clear. Sharon Glass, in the title role on CBS’s “The Trials of Rosie O'Neill," candidly tells how “I’m thinking about maybe having my tits done” to cope with her divorce. . . . NBC’S "LA. Law," meanwhile, has attorney Grace Van Owen upset because her former boss, the DA, is "pissed at me." On ABC's “Cop Roek," a judge calls a defen- dant a “scumbag"—a vulgarisrn for a condom. One 1990 scene in “The Trials of Rosie O’Neill” helped to define the new free- dom for prime—time producers to use harsh language. In the midst of an argument ...
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