I do not think anyone regarded Ernst Lubitsch’s sex farces asrnfamily entertainment, and although To Be or Not to Be and ThernMerry Widow would offend a Puritan, the vice is frivolous to thernpoint of delicacy, reminiscent of Landor’s description of Catullus:rn”Such stains there are … as when a Grace / Sprinkles another’srnlaughing face / with nectar, and runs on.” They didrnmake movies of immoral tendency in the 30’s and 40’s, but itrnwas also the age of John Ford and Frank Capra, and most peoplernseem to have known the difference between She Wore a YellowrnRibbon and The Postman Always Rings Twice. I do notrnknow precisely when the morals of Don Juan became confusedrnwith “family values,” but the revolution was accomplished byrnthe time I was old enough to see films like Pillow Talk, whosernmessage is simple: there is nothing wrong with Doris Day thatrna night in the sack with Rock Hudson cannot fix. Hollywoodrnis, after all, the land of impossible dreams.rnBy the 70’s moral corruption was a given of American film,rnand the more wholesome a movie looked on the surface, thernmore depraved was its subtext. Paper Moon, which was advertisedrnas an endearing and old-fashioned comedy, was in realityrnamong the nastiest films of the decade— a film that madernvice cute and portrayed the Middle American family as a stultifyingrnsecond-best to a life spent as a con artist. In fact, mostrnof the family movies and TV shows of the past ten years are asrnsolid as Paper Moon, and when I hear evangelicals recommendingrnE.T. (hate your own species and love ugliness) or ThernCosby Show (it’s easy to have a successful black family, so longrnas Dad’s a doctor. Mom’s a lawyer, and both spend most ofrntheir time at home with the kids), I can only speculate on whatrnItalians would call their formazione.rnSome conservatives like to think that simple, decent peoplernare being corrupted by improper role models. If only MagicrnJohnson had not done whatever he did to contract AIDS; ifrnonly Michael Jordan did not consort with gamblers; if onlyrnCher would act her age…. But “the fault, dear Brutus, lies notrnin our stars but in ourselves that we are underlings.” Whereverrndid we get this notion that entertainers—or, worse, athletesrn—were human beings worthy of imitation? Once upon arntime “show people,” as we used to call them, were regarded asrnsuspicious characters who, even if they lived blameless lives, hadrntrivialized themselves by acting out other people’s fantasiesrn(consider the depiction of the players in Nicholas Mckleby). Anrnathlete might be admired for his physical prowess, but only arn”sportsman” would wish to make his acquaintance.rnToday, however, the tables are turned, and it is everyday lifernthat seems to be an illusion, while the affairs of strippers andrnbasketball players who dribble on and off the court are thernreality. One night I fell asleep during the evening news, andrnwhen I awoke I was treated to the details of a celebrity sex scandal.rnIt gets worse every day, was my first thought, until I realizedrnthat the program was A Current Affair and not DanrnRather—a distinction without a difference.rnAnyone who read the front pages of a newspaper during thernpast year might conclude that the most important events werernthe death of a basketball player’s father, the same player’s retirement,rnBurt and Loni’s divorce, Donald and Maria’s wedding,rnand an injured skating queen. Mr. Jordan and Miss Kerriganrnmay be estimable people, for all I know, but they are onlyrnentertainers, and any information about their careers belongsrnin the sports section rather than on the front page, and as forrnMr. Trump and Mr. Reynolds, while it would once have beenrnsufficient to declare that they are not gentlemen, I am more inclinedrnto wonder if they are even human, much less men.rnThere is something seriously wrong with any person who thinksrnthat anything Michael Jordan does is news, and somethingrnwrong with a newspaper that would deface its front page withrnthe rumor that Mr. Jordan is going to try out for the White Sox.rnThis, then, is the substratum, the foundations of American culture:rnpregnant pinup giris on the cover of Vanity Fair and headlinernstories of emasculation. If cultures were separable, if highrnand low could be distinguished like Saxon and Norman inrn1100, we might be content to sigh, regretfully, over the wayrnthese peasant dogs live and spend our time only on the upperrnslopes of literature and art.rntJnfortunately, the same people who grew up watching FatherrnKnows Best and The Brady Bunch are now writing novelsrnand painting pictures. If American education amounted tornanything, a few years in high school and college might be expectedrnto elevate the aspiring artist above Wally and Beaver orrnBeavis and Butt-head, but such is not the case, because thernpeople teaching literature and art, however advanced theirrnpretensions, are accurate reflections of the movies, TV shows,rnand pop music that formed their taste and character. For thernartist, what you get is what you see, and it is no accident thatrn60’s pop art appealed to an entire generation of TV-watchersrnand consumers.rnThe problem with American culture was summed up last fallrnthe day after both Federico Fellini and River Phoenix died. Ifrnpopular culture has ever reached the level of real art, it is inrnFellini’s best films. Mr. Phoenix, on the other hand, hadrnstarred in a number of forgettable teen-exploitation movies.rnWhose demise received top billing? If you have to ask, yournmust be Italian.rnNight after night we were treated to the sordid details ofrnRiver Phoenix’s “lifestyle.” He was, his hippie mother sobbed,rna victim of this cruel and unjust society. First the whales, nowrnthis. Espresso’s American correspondent, Vittorio Zucconi,rnhad obviously had enough and titled his column “Requiem perrnun cretino,” pointing out the moral inequivalence between arnvictim of the metro killer and “a degraded young man, boredrnand overpaid, who destroys his own life with drugs.” The Italianrn”preferjs] to lament the passenger and not the star.” FewrnAmerican journalists can still make such a distinction.rnWhat sort of person can regard River Phoenix as a victim ofrnanything but himself? TV watchers, sports aficionados. Peoplernmagazine-readers—the majority, in other words, of the Americanrnpeople. When Homer Simpson goes to college, he canrnonly view his experience as an extension o{ Animal House, andrnwhen his distorted view of reality lands his friends in trouble,rnhis only solution is a prank. Is he sure it will work? Of course,rnhe insists, unless TV and the movies have lied to him all thesernyears.rnBut television and the movies do lie, and their lies go far beyondrnthe impossibly beautiful stories of gods and heroes onrnwhich we used to nourish our character. The lies told by poetsrnused to represent our highest aspirations; now they hint at ourrnbasest declinations. There is some good even in the worst of us,rna good deal of evil in the best, and on this basis every decentrnperson must be shown to be a hypocrite, every villain a hero.rnHollywood’s lies corrode our inner spirit; they make us haternourselves and go whoring after strange gods. Worst of all, theyrnrequire no effort but are slipped into our consciousness as easilyrnas a shot of heroin, and with the same effect. In reading arnbook or watching a play, we can abstract ourselves from the ac-rn16/CHRONICLESrnrnrn