“Wise and Wonderful” Agnostic Cinema (May 2001)

Here’s a nearly foolproof way to find good flicks that freethinkers will enjoy: Find out which ones Michael Medved doesn’t approve of.

Medved, longtime film critic and self-proclaimed “cultural crusader” for the faith-based family values crowd, used to be the host of “Sneak Previews” on public television. Now his daily three-hour radio program, broadcast from Seattle and funded by the Salem Radio Network (“Christian Radio’s #1 News Network”) reaches “1.8 million listeners in 118 markets coast to coast.”

SRN (of Irving, Texas) boasts “the finest anchors and reporters in Christian journalism” and is the billing address for Medved’s personal website, where his movie reviews and other addled opinions are archived. He’s also a board member of the Dove Foundation, an organization that rates movies on the basis of “traditional Judeo-Christian values.”

I knew I wanted to see the film “Chocolat” even before Annie Laurie Gaylor gave it a four-pansies rating (March 2001). Medved had already warned against it. “This . . . will only attract unthinking flies,” he opined. “[Producer] Harvey Weinstein is so determined to show the horrid, intolerant, cruel nature of religious conservatives that he tries to do so by recreating an irrelevant and implausible struggle.”

Similarly, Medved panned “The Contender,” which Annie Laurie re-commended. “[A] feminist fantasy,” said the cultural crusader, that could be the most disappointing and annoying movie of the year. “A woman’s Ôsacred’ right to choose is the most important value in this movie.”

Medved has a well-established history of criticizing those he finds at odds with his supposedly Judeo-Christian values. In addition to movie reviews, his website also offers examples of his Golden Turkey Awards–snide comments on people and activities he believes are misguided or silly. Targets of his criticism include efforts to end racism and hate speech, the Million Mom March to promote handgun controls, Democrats, environmentalists, gays and lesbians, controversial art exhibits, and, of course, any effort to keep religion out of public schools.

I first became aware of his involvement with the Christian right when “Hollywood vs. Religion” aired in 1996 on a PBS affiliate station owned by a private university in Indianapolis. The title and content of the film reflect Medved’s book Hollywood vs. America, in which he depicts the film industry as an anti-religious cabal.

“It’s important to understand that it’s not some sort of organized conspiracy–a bunch of people in a room somewhere planning how they’re going to knock organized religion,” Medved says in the film. “What we are talking about is a tightly-knit creative community whose members happen to share some similar unspoken values and biases. And one of those biases involves a sincere and deep-seated contempt for organized religion.”

Credits at the end of the film indicate that it was produced and directed by Michael Pack of Manifold Productions, Inc., for the Chatham Hill Foundation, another Christian-funded organization based not far from SRN in Texas. (Pack is a fairly well-known conservative filmmaker who has brought us, among other “documentaries,” two films on Newt Gingrich.)

An Internet search revealed that Focus on the Family had put its Christian muscle into marketing the video through a mass mailing that announced the show’s satellite feed in November 1995. Postcards sent to religious leaders and other supporters asked that they contact their local PBS affiliates to request that the program be telecast. Clergy were asked to inform their congregations and request their cooperation in the effort.

I contacted my local PBS affiliate to complain that “Hollywood vs. Religion” had been aired without comment about its political underpinnings, and was told by the station manager that they had received a number of calls. He invited me to participate in a panel discussion about the controversial film, and I accepted.

In a subsequent phone conversation, the station’s news director revealed that Medved himself would also sit on the panel, and I (foolishly) said that I intended to bring up the nature of the film’s production and distribution and the lack of disclaimer on it. The brave news director left me a voice-mail message around midnight, withdrawing the invitation for me to participate. My message to him, asking for confirmation of the time and location of the event so that I could sit in the audience, brought no reply.

The local media folks who were allowed to sit on the panel were all in fawning agreement with Medved. Only one panelist was brave enough to wonder if erosion of moral values could be fairly blamed on Hollywood, but he prefaced his remarks by saying, “I’m a man of faith also–just so you don’t think I’m a godless atheist.”

My friends and I were allowed to sit in the audience but were forced to submit our questions on index cards, promptly ignored. Instead, Medved carried on uninterrupted, denouncing the film industry as malicious and stupid and showing “disregard for the fundamental truths that animate the lives of most people.”

Films that address those “truths” have been few and far between since “The Sound of Music” (1965), according to Medved. He offers as personal favorites such antiques as “Angels with Dirty Faces” (1938), “Boys Town” (1938), “Going My Way” (1944), “The Bells of St. Mary’s” (1945), “It’s a Wonderful Life” (1946), “My Darling Clementine” (1946), “The Ten Commandments” (1956), “The Robe” (1953), “Samson and Delilah” (1949), and “Ben Hur” (1959). These movies portrayed faith and religious leaders in positive ways and were box-office hits. Priests used to be handsome, he laments. Nowadays they are “far less appealing.”

Medved doesn’t like “The Three Musketeers” (1993 version) because it portrays Cardinal Richelieu as a sexual predator. “Sister Act” is acceptable because its view of Catholicism is “benign,” but “Household Saints” offers a cynical view of the church. “Agnes of God” is objectionable in many ways, not the least of which is Jane Fonda’s role as an atheist psychiatrist.

A practicing Jew, Medved objects to humorous portrayals of Orthodox Judaism in “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex,” “Radio Days,” and “Enemies, a Love Story.”

Other films he finds unacceptable: “City of Joy” (spirituality cut out of the original story); “Doc Hollywood” (set in South Carolina, but no churches shown); “Hocus Pocus” (elevates a feminist type of spiritual practice); and “Little Buddha,” “Heaven and Earth,” and “Malcolm X” (offer positive views of non-mainstream religions).

“Star Trek V” has an anti-religious subtext. “We’re No Angels” portrays religion as a crutch that doesn’t reflect eternal truths. “At Play in the Fields of the Lord” characterizes religion as hocus-pocus. In “King David” the main character loses his faith. The Jesus in “The Last Temptation of Christ” “bears no resemblance to the Jesus of the New Testament . . . but is deeply troubled and possibly insane.”

All of this is because “the religious practices of the people who create movies are very different from their audiences,” he states. “[L]ess than 10 percent of the entertainment industry’s leaders participate in religious services of any kind,” he asserts, citing a 1982 study “recently confirmed by the University of Texas.”

In movies, “ministers are murderous, evangelists are suckers and dupes, and fundamentalists want to take over the country,” Medved wails, but “agnostics are always wise and wonderful.”

Is that the result of deep-seated contempt for religion, or just an accurate reflection of our society? Medved makes a wonderful critic-in-reverse: I used the movies lambasted inHollywood vs. Religion as a viewing guide, and have enjoyed every one of them.

Freedom From Religion Foundation