Movies are an extremely important element of American foreign policy around the world. These movies are not, however, products of the government; they are an extremely lucrative business that just coincidentally has overwhelming influence around the world.
Recently, I heard a discussion about the terrible picture of American life that is sent abroad by our popular culture. The American youth cult has promoted around the world blue jeans, McDonald hamburgers, Coke or Pepsi, and rock music, none of them bad, but nothing to praise either. We do have better things.
This is not new, of course. Beginning in the 1920s, post-World War I, the US became the main arbiter of the new culture: female emancipation, pleasure-seeking abuse of alcohol and cigarettes, and even a romanticized version of cowboy culture and gangster chic. It is boggling how much our cowboy culture and gangster chic have permeated world culture, more for ill than for good.
It is good for countries to reexamine their old and tired cultures but it may not be so good to pick up new and destructive ones. The enthusiasm for American youth culture has resulted in bad manners, indecent speech, and coarsened sexuality. Anything goes, and at any price. The 1960s free-speech movement launched not more free speech, but vulgar and violent speech.
While I believe in free speech, I think that artists also should have some societal responsibility for their products. I write movie reviews that often run counter to those of my more artsy colleagues, and get slammed for attacking freedom of speech and artistic license. Who talks about being responsible any more?
It has become sophisticated to be “edgy,” to look only at the dark underbelly of our civilization. American Beauty comes to mind, a film much admired by critics and the Academy, that posed the thesis that everything about American family life was false and pointless. That film does not represent the American life that I know, and that I suspect most of us know. But it becomes the model that so many viewers abroad believe we are.
Violence is big in American cinema and TV. We have more than enough of that in our society, but most of us are not violent and never experience it in our lives as much as popular culture would suggest. Does such graphic violence have an influence over our at-risk young? Do all these school and cinema shootings reflect something learned from popular culture?
Most offensive to me of all is what has happened to language. One would think from watching movies and television that all of us find it necessary to use “fucking” as an adjective for everything. It is an assault to go to a movie or watch otherwise good TV programs in which everyone speaks this way all the time. Are they reflecting American speech, or are they shaping it? I suspect the latter.
Sex is no longer just suggested in movies and TV programs. We are seeing simulated porn in everything. A story is not furthered by watching the sex act over and over again in movies where it is not warranted. It is just permissive porn and it makes us coarse.
I will mention here that most awful of movies, The Wolf of Wall Street, which has absolutely no redeeming value other than being pornographic about both sex and drugs. I can’t imagine the damage that such a film will do when it plays overseas. There was nothing funny or edgy about it; it was just vile.
It was shocking to me to see that film praised during the Golden Globe Awards recently. It seems that any sort of values, any sort of decency, is irrelevant when it comes to filmmaking. I manage to avoid seeing the really stupid, vulgar films designed for teen-age boys, but when a touted film is released that lures me in to the theater, I am outraged by the cultural assault. When the product is bad, we have the right---and duty---to say so.
Dr. Laina Farhat-Holzman is a historian, lecturer, and author of God’s Law or Man’s Law: the Fundamentalist Challenge to Secular Rule. You may contact her at www.globalthink.net or Lfarhat102@aol.com.