BOOK REVIEW / Glances into the art of darkness: Natasha Walter on a brave attempt to put morality back on the cinema screen: Hollywood vs America - Michael Medved: HarperCollins, pounds 17.99

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LAST WEEK, three out of the four main cinema releases were 18-rated - Bad Lieutenant, a nasty piece of work that lurched from filth to religious froth and back again; Hellraiser III, one of those playtime horror sagas; and the comparatively high-minded 1973 Scorsese classic, Mean Streets. Yesterday, Romper Stomper, a particularly vicious film about Nazi thugs, shoved those offerings aside. Whether or not such films make their audiences mimic their actions, whether such films are art, whether or not they are true, it is still a pretty bleak realisation that so many people regularly dive into their blinkered, darkly inhuman worlds, for fun.

Not many people have wanted to confront this phenomenon head on. But with a sudden rush of moral concern (in newspapers, at least); and with the rise of straightforward Clintonesque leftism freeing up various fields of debate, it seems time to look again at a cultural phenomenon that has never been satisfactorily explained. Why has Hollywood descended so far into what used to be forbidden territory? Why has it made what was once the other world, the underworld, of culture: pornography, obscenity and violence, our mainstream?

Money, is the usual answer. It seems logical. This is what the audience wants, what the audience understands, and what it buys. It's a nice answer for the film industry. Critics who want to deal with morality are thrown off balance, turning from the movie to society, and the film-makers slither away. But the Californian critic Michael Medved argues, in the book that looks set to become the Bible for a new cultural moralism, Hollywood vs America, these films have lost touch with their presumed audience, and they aren't laying the golden eggs any more.

Since the late Sixties, Hollywood has been suffering from a seemingly inexorable decline in audience numbers - and nowadays, in home-video sales as well. It's got to the point where a full 33 per cent of all Americans say that they never go to the movies; and 45 per cent go less than twice a year. Hollywood producers express bemusement with the figures, but when asked, the audiences know their own minds. In an Associated Press survey taken in 1989, 82 per cent of those questioned said they wanted less violence in films, 72 per cent wanted less sexual content, and 80 per cent less foul language. So it could - just perhaps - be those things that have helped to empty the cinemas.

Even in the market they have got, 18-rated films do badly. Obviously, some 18-rated films are good and some are bad, some are gritty and some are kitsch, but generally they're disliked. In the Top 10 box-office hits of the 1980s, only one was 18-rated, even though 18-rated films accounted for more than 60 per cent of all titles released. Put the figures in any old how, you get the same results: for the 221 films released in America in 1991, 18-rated films proved less than half as likely as PG films to reach the respectable box-office plateau of dollars 25m.

But if, contrary to popular opinion, you risk losing money by underestimating your audience, what does drive the makers of these artefacts? Next up on the list of easy answers is that they might be trying to confront and come to terms with the real levels of violence in society. As Paul Verhoeven, director of Basic Instinct, said: 'Art is a reflection of the world. If the world is horrible, the reflection in the mirror is horrible.' Even if art were to limit itself to documentary, enough already] One of Michael Medved's great strengths is his fabulous way with statistics, and as he quotes, academics at the 'Annenberg School of Communication' have come up with the finding that on prime-time American television, acts of violence occur 55 times more frequently than they do in real life.

What Medved believes is that violence is neither wanted by, nor true to, American audiences, but that it's the image-makers - Hollywood, television producers, music companies, and so on - who are screwed up and screwing us up. They're out of touch, amoral saddies who look to violence and perversity for their own thrills and believe, wrongly, that everyone else wants the same. There is a slight ring of conviction to this argument - as Madonna put it, 'The actors and singers and entertainers I know are emotional cripples. Really healthy people aren't in this business, let's face it.'

To prove their irresponsibility, Medved also tries to tie violence in films to violence in society, and if he doesn't convince, despite his mountains of statistics, it's because it isn't a provable thing. But it seems at least possible that things knock on, from bad to worse, in society as on the screen, as we learn to inure ourselves. And if films can't affect our learned behaviour, how is it that on-screen advertising is so wildly successful, why is it that we bother to speak out against racist and sexist and ablist stereotyping on screen, or, indeed, for the books and films that 'changed our lives'?

The big problem is quite how much Medved wants to put into the pot, diluting the strength of his evidence. I accept that listening to rock lyrics that say: 'Let me fill you up with something milky and white, Cause I'm going to slay you rough and painful, I wanna see you bleed' (2 Live Crew) has a corrupting influence. But I can't accept that Walt Disney's charming version of Hans Christian Andersen's The Little Mermaid is part of a frightening trend of 'children's films that set kids against parents'. Again, it's a sad development if 12-year-old Betsy, as quoted by Entertainment Weekly, said after a screening of Total Recall: 'I can't see it's violent exactly, it's pretty funny seeing people being shot in the head.' But I don't believe that the fact that Hollywood stars weren't queueing up to make victory films about the Gulf war is evidence of a creeping anti-militarism corrupting all that we hold most dear.

Also, while context may not be all, context must be something. The cannibalism we see in the schlock thriller Cape Fear is just not the same as the joke cannibalism we see in that heartwarming, frisky comedy, Fried Green Tomatoes, and Medved calls serious doubt on his capacities as a critic when he puts the two side by side. And who can read his passages defending the Vietnam vets, or America's history vis-a-vis Native Americans, without a certain shudder? Hollywood may not be a good guardian of our moral conscience, but God help us if Medved was doing the job.

He keeps us waiting for the 'what is to be done' section, but when it arrives it is rather different from what you expect. He comes out strongly (thank goodness) against censorship or production codes, arguing instead for consciousness-raising - via criticism, pressure groups, boycotts, outreach Bible groups, and so on - to bring pressure to bear on the consciences of the individuals concerned. Despite everything, his optimism is boundless: 'We can find grounds for optimism in the commitment to change from so many good people, both inside and outside the entertainment community . . . the battle has been joined and the groundwork is there for new offensives.'

There are many more problems than one can think up solutions. Parallel to a decrease in filth would have to come an upturn in the quality of other films. Swapping Cape Fear or Bad Lieutenant for Father of the Bride or Patriot Games is not, frankly, much of a choice. A world of saccharine, high-mindedly religious or militaristic films is also a kind of hell. But that shouldn't silence us altogether, and this book is, in itself, an act of defiance. For a long time, too many critics have tended to ignore the moral content of what they watch.

Medved's book, with its succinct prose, mountains of usable statistics and endless appeals to the best in all of us, makes it a powerful sparring partner in this debate. It should be read, it should be discussed, almost all of it should be rejected, some of it should be acted upon. Sure, its plangent laments for a lost generation stem from a typical overstatement of a typical Western obsession with ourselves. We have the luxury to harp on the Byzantine excess of our cultural decadence while real people are really lost to real violence. But then, if we can't defend our own culture, whose can we defend?

(Photograph omitted)