What was planned as my annual December vacation turned out, in 1987, to be a prolonged stretch as sickroom attendant to an unexpected and most unwelcome case of slipped disc. Among many things this meant setting up the video recorder in the bedroom and schlepping daily to the movie store for new supplies of amusement, if "amusement" is the word for it. And that, for this old fuddy-duddy, proved to be an entirely unforeseen education.
It is no doubt a confession of utter detachment from the larger society, but for the past decade I have quit the movies. In part this has to do with the larger society: Conduct in movie theaters has fallen to such deplorable depths that it is no longer a pleasure to watch a movie in the presence of others. Public manners have been shaped by private behavior; people assume that if it is all right to conduct running commentary while watching a television show at home, it is likewise all right to do the same while watching a movie in public. The last time I was in a theater I asked the woman in front of me to stop talking while the previews were running. "I'll stop when the movie starts," she said testily, as if I were proposing the abrogation of one of her constitutional rights.
In larger part, though, my absence from the theaters is explained by the fare they are offering. I read the movie reviews, and what they tell me is that movies -- American movies, at any rate -- are now made for teen-agers or those with the mental age of same. Such productions are of no interest to me, so I am content to watch venerable movies on the video machine, grown-up movies starring the likes of Cary Grant and Jean Simmons and W.C. Fields, and directed by the likes of William Wyler and the immortal John Huston. From time to time word reaches me of a new movie that seems to be made for adults -- "Atlantic City," "A Passage to India," "Educating Rita," "Diner" -- and I rush out to rent it, but otherwise I am content to let the passing parade pass me by.
In December of 1987, though, I had no choice. For one thing my wife insisted on using her slipped disc as the opportunity to demand all the movies I'd theretofore managed to keep out of the house. For another, the video store offers few good old movies but much of the flotsam and jetsam of contemporary filmmaking; the video store is in business to make money, and these days money is made off movies for real or superannuated teen-agers. That being the case, we had a month of bubble gum.
Most of it I managed to avoid by absenting myself when the tape machine started to roll, but out of curiosity I sat through three that had been enthusiastically reviewed: "Little Shop of Horrors," "Roxanne" and "Tin Men." In varying degrees I enjoyed all of them, though only "Tin Men" struck me as conceived for adults, and though it seems to me a great pity that "Roxanne" is likely to be as close as modern audiences will ever get to Edmond Rostand's exquisitely overwrought "Cyrano de Bergerac," upon which Steve Martin's movie is loosely -- very loosely -- based.
But what really struck me -- struck me so hard it just about knocked me flat -- was how casually American movies now employ language of the most obscene and offensive nature. Each of these three films was made for what we now call "general audiences," yet each of them was riddled, from first frame to last, with language so foul as to redden the cheeks of the proverbial sailor. Certainly it reddened the cheeks of this startled old fogy.
This is not to say that I am prissy about foul language. I employ it far more readily than doubtless I should, and consider its uses to be both numerous and salutary; there's no punctuation mark quite so telling as a well-placed obscenity, especially if the usage is novel and unexpected. But this is in private conversation, among people who are similarly inclined or who are willing to tolerate my eccentricities, and who are more or less of a mature age.
The language in these movies, by contrast, is wholly public and, more than that, explicitly directed at children. "Little Shop of Horrors" is to all intents and purposes a children's movie, yet it routinely uses words that only a generation ago would have caused a child who uttered them to have his mouth washed with soap. "Roxanne" employs less obscenity than the other two, but startles the viewer by using them in the most unfelicitous and unnecessary ways. As for "Tin Men," scarcely a line in this movie about aluminum salesmen in Baltimore is free of dirty words.
The argument no doubt will be made that this is "telling it like it is." Baloney. Upton Sinclair managed to portray the reality of the meatpacking industry and Stephen Crane the reality of warfare without using the earthiest language employed by packers and soldiers; ditto for Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur on the reality of newsrooms -- and when "The Front Page" was remade in the 1970s, with obscenities liberally added, it lost all of its charm and gained no authenticity.
Obscenity may be a daily reality, but that is no reason for legitimizing it in art or popular culture. It is not, in any event, the portrayal of reality that the makers of these movies are seeking, but the titillation of audiences. Reared to what passes for maturity in the sensation-happy culture of Southern California, these directors and producers retain the childish belief that dirty words are automatically funny or shocking, and they use them to spice up scripts that, left to their own merits, would quickly reveal themselves to be devoid of humor or imagination. These filmmakers are the contemporary equivalents of the long-vanished peddlers of racy pictures: "Psst! Wanna buy a dirty word?"
Not merely is this childish, catering as it does to the delight that children take in what is ostensibly taboo, but it is wholly counterproductive. For the mature viewer, listening to an unceasing barrage of obscenity ultimately leads to boredom and irritation, and it saps the language of any energy or surprise it may once have had. If there'd been wholesale cursing through the first three hours and 15 minutes of "Gone With the Wind," would anyone be startled when Rhett says to Scarlett: "My dear, I don't give a damn"? Of course not: And as a result one of the most memorable lines in the history of the movies would have lost every ounce of its meaning and drama.
But sensibilities of the sort that produced "Gone With the Wind," not to mention the wonderful romantic comedies of the '30s and '40s or the powerful dramas of the '50s, are no longer to be found in the movie industry. It's a cynical, exploitive business, and right now it's cynically exploiting the relaxation of strictures on language and behavior. This it is quite free to do, as we inhabit a society that rightly resists censorship; but we are equally free to find other forms of amusement. Anyone for "The Philadelphia Story"?