Lights, Camera... Time Out!

HOLLYWOOD IS OFTEN ACCUSED of being about just one thing: money. Hollywood says it is just giving the public what it wants, and if that translates into money, so be it. Cultural conservatives fire back that no matter how much money flows into the entertainment barons' coffers, they should stop and consider that the product they make is not only over-priced, it is also dangerous. But Hollywood counters that it's only a movie and has no effect on the viewer; that it is merely reflecting society, not forming it.

These twin pylons framing the gate to the Magic Kingdom have stood a long time: On the left we have entertainment as public service; on the right we have entertainment as nothing more than a mirror with no deleterious effects.

In his book Hollywood Vs. America, film critic Michael Medved sets his sights on the pylon of entertainment as public service. Conservatives blast Hollywood, claiming that they would release tapes of the Manson murders (if there were any), if there was a buck to be made therefrom. While there there is ample evidence of this in Medved's book, he takes the argument a step further, stating that while Hollywood is no doubt about money, it's also about the power to re-make the world in its own image. To quote the Charlie Sheen character in Oliver Stone's Wall Street when he's chiding Michael Douglas for his apparently limitless greed: "How many yachts can you water-ski behind, Gordon?" Clearly, it was not merely money the Gekko character was after, it was power. And the power the left-leaning Hollywood lights desire is acceptance. Anyone who has ever auditioned for a play knows the feelings you get waiting for your turn with the casting director: inadequacy, the fear of losing out to someone not because they are better, but because they are better looking, of partisanship, cronyism, etcetera. Imagine this lowered self-esteem being the bedrock experience of your life and you begin to understand the kind of insecurities that plague most of the people in Hollywood. The hugely successful HBO series The Larry Sanders Show was about this very thing: a television talk-show host (Garry Shandling) who was so entirely cut off from his fellow man that he could only act "normal" when he was on the set.

The money that pours into entertainment coffers is seen by the denizens of tinsel town as a result of not only giving the audience what it wants, but as a vindication of their own insecurities and of the rightness of their views. Remember that most famous actors have minimal education and a narrow spectrum of life experience. Few have gone to college. Even fewer have served in the military or been successful in any business other than show. Almost none have any experience in public service beyond posing for an AIDS poster. This distorted person, however, has oodles of scratch, got it for being attractive or precociously imitative, and without a grownup's sense of perspective, thinks it's because they deserve it! No wonder they all sound like 7-year-olds when Larry King interviews them.

So money = power = a platform to expose your insecurities to the world. And the world, so starved for entertainment, will apparently take what it is given. If it's Saw IX, then so be it. 17-year olds take a Friday-night date to the multiplex, where they pack in to see an orgy of blood-letting, but their minds are really on the bump-and-grind in the back seat of the car after the show.

This tends to lend credence to filmmakers' defense of the other pylon: that what they purvey is merely entertainment, that no one is really watching it, that it's just two hours in the dark and doesn't really mean anything. Before I tackle that dubious defense, let's accept it for a moment: One the one hand, Mr. Producer, you believe your product is important enough to spend your life creating it; on the other hand, what you do is so unimportant that the audience will not remember it more than a couple of minutes after the credits roll. Oops! There goes your self-esteem again!

So what really allows these ego-bloated children to sleep at night is the belief that even though they're overpaid for what they do, what they do doesn't matter after all; they merely provide a non-fattening dessert to the main course of life: they can't be blamed for any weight gain in the body politic.

Conservatives shake their heads at such stupid arguments. Real life is full of the imitation of art. Every time such a connection is made: a Columbine, a Virginia Tech, etcetera, we shout to the Left Coast: "Look! They're "acting out"! They're copying your product! They're making pre-massacre videos, for crying out loud! They're looking for attention in the exact way and for the exact reasons you are! Don't you see it?

But the Alec Baldwins and Danny Glovers of the world just shrug and say there's no connection whatsoever. (Remember, you're talking to a 7-year-old here.) But a recent news headline seems to destroy their argument once and for all: in early December last, in Johnstown, Colorado, two teens were charged with the killing of the 7-year-old sister of one of them by beating her with imitations of moves from the "Mortal Kombat" videogame. Lamar Roberts, 17, and Heather Trujillo, 16, were baby-sitting Trujillo's half-sister, Zoe Garcia, while Zoe's mother was at work. Zoe lost consciousness and stopped beating after the teens hit, kicked, and body-slammed her, initiating moves used in the videogame. The autopsy showed she had a broken wrist, more than twenty bruises, swelling of the brain, and bleeding in her neck muscles and under her spine. Roberts admits to being drunk.

Now, to someone who can actually think, this is a perfect storm of parental abandonment, unsupervised children, alcohol, and the "entertainment" industry. Excise the entertainment portion and these same kids might have just gotten drunk and passed out while mom was at work. But now, turn on the tube, and an uninterrupted stream of anti-social behavior flows into the empty minds, hearts, and family rooms of emotionally and physically abandoned children, filling them with rage, hostility, and aggression. And who can they take it out on? The nearest victim of course: a child even younger than themselves.

When I learned of the story, I went online at CNN to look at the reader comments. All the posts expressed dismay about the murder, but few saw a connection between the videogame and the children's actions. I was dumbfounded: the accused children themselves admitted to trying out the moves in the videogame on little Zoe! How can there be a more direct connection? (Which only shows how effective Hollywood is at teaching values.)

One thing I have learned in life: do not waste your time arguing with a 7-year-old. The only solution is to send them to their room. I submit that Hollywood is just such a child. It denies that setting fire to the tablecloth will do any damage, and so I'm giving Hollywood a Time Out. There are many films I would like to see, and with my grownup sensibilities I can probably discern between the deleterious and the ennobling. But perhaps not. Perhaps we are all 7-year-olds inside; witness the wholesale destruction of our culture. The teenage girl who so blithely gives a grown man the finger from the safety of her car, the children who boldly smoke in front of adults outside convenience stores; the popularity of Brittney Spears... it all says children have taken over, abetted by their childish peers in Hollywood. They are running wild, drunk, destroying their own family room, setting fire to the kitchen, and now they are beating and killing each other.

I wonder if a Time Out is enough?