I was in a Blockbuster video rental shop the other day and as I made my way to the counter to pay for my video I happened to walk by the "Classic Movies" section. Though virtually all the films selected as "classics" were box office successes, this isn't a qualifier; you won't find "Jaws" or "Jurassic Park" here. What you'll find is what the film industry considers its tours de force, from "Ben Hur" and "Lawrence of Arabia" to "Casablanca" and "The Longest Day."
The walk down the "Classic Movies" section is a stroll down memory lane, back to a time when Hollywood's product was far different from today's controversial fare. Moviegoing then was a family event. It was innocent, clean, wholesome - and produced with the family, as a unit, in mind. Growing up in the '60s, the Sunday afternoon matinee was a family event; so innocent was moviegoing in those days that films were preceded not with endless trailers for upcoming releases, or admonitions to the audience to stop talking (which no one today pays attention to anyway), but with cartoons, featuring Bugs Bunny, or Tom and Jerry, or the Road Runner. Think about Bugs Bunny and "Lawrence of Arabia" on the same program. What a very different world it was just 35 years ago.
All that changed with the arrival of "Easy Rider," "Midnight Cowboy," "Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice" and the like in the late '60s. (For the record, I'm awaiting the '90s remake of that last movie: "Bob & Ted & Carol & Alice.") Hollywood ceased, for all intents and purposes, catering to the family. Children were given the animated movies; teens the PG fare that included just enough, but not too much violence, sexual innuendo and the like. Adults in time got just about anything. Lost in the upheaval was that introductory Bugs Bunny cartoon; perhaps symptomatic of the new era's loss of innocence, it simply disappeared from the silver screen.
There is an effort underway in Hollywood to once again produce family films that will be attractive to both youngsters and adults. The move is market-oriented in that clearly these movies sell, but it also says something about society's rejection of the Anything Goes mentality. Even so, the acceptability fulcrum has shifted in today's permissive society, and the true innocence of yesteryear is gone. The new rules of engagement call for the industry to deliver movies with just enough violence, just enough obscenities, just enough sexual content to attract adults, but not so much of any of these things to make them unacceptable for children. Thus there is the gratuitous violence, gratuitous swearing, gratuitous sexual innuendo in otherwise innocent, fine movies like "Independence Day," "Men in Black," and "Forrest Gump."
On prime time television there's a similar phenomenon taking place today. Interestingly enough, we're seeing the rebirth of the cartoon as an entertainment form, but like the movies, the rules have changed as well. Fox Television's "The Simpsons" blazed this trail several years ago, and, last winter, came "King of the Hill."
"King" focuses on Hank Hill, a fortyish propane salesman living in Arlen, Texas, his wife Peggy, and their adolescent son, Bobby. Despite their insecurities, the Hills know, even if they forget sometimes, that family is their foundation. Hank is a prime time rarity in that he's outspokenly Republican. (After a day of fishing, for example, he exults, "I caught more fish today than I
did in the '80s, and those were the Reagan years.") The show parodies everyone's politics, but usually liberals come off worse. Environmentalists are portrayed as drug-taking hippie throwbacks; bleeding-heart liberal bureaucrats are ridiculed; academic elites are scorned. "King of the Hill" in a sense is Middle America's revenge.
It's good clean fun (for conservatives, anyway) - but only to a point, unfortunately. Here again the rules of engagement have changed in the popular culture. Rough language ("kick your ass" and the like are commonplace) is used in the majority of episodes. So, too, are the gratuitous sexual references. Remove the cursing and sex from "King of the Hill" and you'd lose nothing of substance. But it's there nonetheless because, as with the movies, the industry feels it's essential in order to engage an older audience.
There's a body of evidence that indicates there's a certain truth to this, and if so, it's a testimony to our troubled times. But wouldn't it be wonderful if just one major movie studio, just one major television network were to reject popular opinion and re-dedicate itself to the pursuit of innocence?