Last year I saw two truly vile movies, Pulp Fiction and Kids . The first turned my stomach. The second filled me with shame for having sat through it: leaving the theater, I felt unclean. Those movie experiences reminded me of the depths to which popular culture has sunk, a reminder confirmed, in a different way, by the movies’ reception. Pulp Fiction drew near-unanimous raves as a postmodernist film classic, and its failure to win the Academy Award for best picture surprised many. The reaction to Kids was more reserved, but still respectful; if nothing else, the critics said, its unspeakable depravity offered instruction on the pervasive moral anomie among today’s adolescents.
The redeeming feature of such movies (and of the morally vacuous response they typically receive) is that they concentrate our minds. Yes, we say, we’re in a culture war. These things are evil, and it is the duty of the not yet totally corrupted to oppose them.
Recently I had another movie experience: I saw The American President . It’s nothing like Pulp Fiction or Kids , with none of their brutal violence or degrading sex. It’s rather a stylish romantic comedy, directed by Rob Reiner with a good deal of charm and wit. It has splendid sets, good pace, pointed humor, and”in Annette Bening and especially Michael Douglas”believable and attractive romantic leads. The American President’s story line does not bear close scrutiny, and, towards the end, the film makes the great mistake of taking itself too seriously, but if it’s finally fluff, it’s undeniably well-made fluff.
Two things about this otherwise diverting movie bothered me though, one of them relatively insignificant, the other worthy of some note”and related, if only obliquely, to the problems raised by Pulp Fiction and Kids .
The lesser point concerns the film’s cardboard politics. If you’re a liberal, this is the ultimate feel-good movie. In the person of Michael Douglas’ President, you get to be tough (you bomb Libya) but compassionate (you feel really bad about the raid’s innocent casualties). And you grow”from a competent and decent (but facile and uncommitted) neo-liberal to a truly caring (but unsentimental) paladin of the left. The film’s conservatives, of course, are uniformly cynical and mean-spirited. And they don’t look nearly as good as Bening and Douglas.
That’s fair enough, in a way. After all, these are hard times for liberals, and it might seem churlish to begrudge them harmless fantasy pleasures. Indeed, for most of the film, its liberal sympathies don’t get in the way of a nonliberal viewer’s enjoyment. But then in the last reel, Douglas, having got political religion from environmental lobbyist Bening, delivers an ideological stem-winder (to an improbably awed press corps) that rudely alters the film’s tone. What was a pleasant romance with amusing political overtones turns in a moment into a smug, humorless tract for our reactionary times. It turns back a moment later, but the damage has been done, and, unless you’re a born-again liberal, you leave the theater annoyed that your enjoyment has been spoiled for a pot of message.
My other reservation about The American President is of greater moment, even if, in a way, it’s hardly noticeable. This is, as all films of its type are, a cute movie. The protagonists meet cute, date cute, kiss cute. And go to bed cute. There’s the problem.
Sex is not cute. It’s many things, but not that. And yet in this movie”as virtually everywhere in American popular culture”that’s the way it’s portrayed. Here President Douglas, a widower, inadvertently meets lobbyist Bening. He’s intrigued and invites her to be his escort at a state dinner. They’re obviously attracted to each other, but the occasion offers little opportunity for personal contact. A few days later, he invites her to the White House for a private meal with him and his teenage daughter. The cute kiss occurs, interrupted by the Libyan bombing crisis. A few days after that, she returns to the White House determined to break things off (because of rampant media speculation), and the cute sex happens. They have known each other for something between a week and ten days.
None of this, it should be emphasized, is put forward in a titillating or salacious manner. The sex, which takes place off-screen, is handled discreetly and inoffensively. This is not, in any sense, a dirty movie. Quite the contrary. It’s PG-13, suitable for almost any audience.
It’s precisely this matter-of-fact, no-big-deal treatment that needs to be noted. We hardly notice the message being sent”which is, that it is entirely natural and unremarkable that any two ordinary people, having met and found each other attractive, promptly hop into bed. No relationship, no commitment. Sex first, and then we’ll see what develops. That’s the way we do things now, and those who don’t”and think in fact we shouldn’t”are made to feel, if not sunk in prudery, at least quaintly behind the moral curve. Indeed, we are made to feel awkward even to have raised the point.
Now of course in a family entertainment like The American President an enduring bond does develop. Of sorts. It’s clear at the fade-out that the couple will have, as we say today, a long-term relationship, but marriage is never mentioned or even suggested. Again, we are made to feel that this is beneath notice.
One final point of sexual correctness. In the seduction scene, it’s the woman who (cutely) takes the initiative. He’s nervous, but she’s bold and reassuring, and, admittedly with little resistance, he’s talked into bed. This is a woman, and a couple, for our times.
All this analysis, of course, risks overkill. Anything said here about The American President could be said about most popular movies and the great majority of TV sitcoms. But that’s the point. The myth of casual sex is endemic to our culture.
What makes this doubly perverse is that it’s just that”a myth. Recent serious studies of American sexual behavior indicate that we live differently”and better”than our culture says we do. Most people do not, in fact, treat sex lightly. They do not go to bed whenever presented with a likely situation or partner. Most identify sex with marriage, and, once married, they remain faithful to their partners. Sexual insouciance is hardly unknown in America, but neither is it the cultural norm we’ve allowed ourselves to pretend it is.
That curious self-indulgence has costs. We bemoan signs of sexual promiscuity among young people, and yet we immerse them in a culture that portrays sexual restraint as a curiosity, if not a life”denying pathology. No one educated by our popular culture could believe that “true love waits” is anything other than a repressive”and pernicious”lie.
Which brings us back to my, and our, movie problem. With Pulp Fiction and Kids the enemy is in clear view. With The American President and its innumerable imitators, we think we’re still among friends.