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In Hollywood’s new moral order, murderers look like heros

February 26, 2001

Notes on four dubious cultural products:

Another nude Jesus. The Brooklyn Museum is at it again. No, it’s not porn photos and elephant dung on a painting of the Virgin Mary. This time it’s a naked female Jesus at the Last Supper. Mayor Rudy Giuliani took the bait and called for a decency commission. Better to let it go, or next year the museum will come back with a statue of Jesus as O.J. Simpson in drag or a painting of Mary as a WWF wrestler about to hit Jesus over the head with a chair.The demeaning of Christian symbols is a mainstream activity in our art world. Nude female images of Jesus are old hat in this game. So are send-ups of the Last Supper. Many versions are available, including one with Jesus and the apostles as dogs. One on display in Chicago features Jesus as Mrs. Butterworth, the syrup lady. The same alleged artist has a crucifixion scene starring the Pillsbury Doughboy. Are these feeble blasphemies political acts by the massively untalented? Oh, no. They’re art.

Eminem. A new Eminem problem confronts the cultural left: He may represent the crude beginning of a big backlash among the young, not against gains by women and gays, but against the regime of political correctness. Students in high school and college face the most politically repressive atmosphere America has seen in almost 50 years. Jokes, rumors, questions in class, comments by teachers are all tightly monitored. That work is accomplished by the use of speech and behavior codes, zero-tolerance policies, heavy indoctrination at freshman orientation and the sexual harassment police.Everybody knows that teen-agers are apt to rebel. Why hasn’t it occurred to people that they might want to rebel against the smog of orthodoxy that hangs over their schools? Eminem’s fans include millions of young people who clearly aren’t interested in hating women or gays. But they may be thrilled that he can get away with breathtakingly unorthodox (though stupid) opinions, and force the establishment to give him awards for it too. If so, the backlash against PC may be less dependent on the Bill Bennetts and Irving Kristols than on a musically talented dolt who thinks he should have killed his mother.

Hannibal Lecter, romantic hero. The makers of the movie “Hannibal” had the wit to swerve away from the nihilistic ending of Tom Harris’ book. (FBI agent Clarice Starling runs off and finds happiness as Lecter’s lover.) But they didn’t swerve all that far. The movie’s view of Hannibal is similar to the view many journalists had of the Unabomber: Sure, blowing people up (or eating them) isn’t a defensible activity, but still he’s a pretty riveting fellow who lives by his principles. (One of Hannibal’s major principles is that he prefers to eat only rude people.) Yes, Hannibal has some off-putting moments in the film. He cuts open the head of a living federal agent and feeds him his own brains. But in the end, he’s a noble, self-sacrificing fellow who is so fond of Clarice that he doesn’t even eat her. Lecter is something like Heathcliff, stormy and controversial, maybe, but darned attractive. We end up rooting for him. Memo to producer Dino de Laurentiis and director Ridley Scott: Stop now, before you film again.

The Marquis de Sade, romantic hero. “Quills,” Philip Kaufman’s film about de Sade, drew an Oscar nomination for best actor (Geoffrey Rush). It is also a contender for most perverse movie (no statuette given). In real life, de Sade was a monster who liked to beat and rape women. He was a dedicated pedophile who strongly recommended incest (it “should be the law of every government whose basis is fraternity”). After his wife hired seven or eight young girls as servants, de Sade abused, raped and tortured them all. He kept them captive — one for 2 1/2 years — so they couldn’t report his crimes. So naturally in the Hollywood version he is an attractive and essentially harmless fellow of principle whose main problem was censorship by a corrupt establishment.Jonathan Last, in a review in The Weekly Standard, notes that the good and decent men who oversaw de Sade at the asylum of Charenton, a priest and a doctor, are presented in the movie as the real perverts. Last says that the real-life good and evil characters have been reversed to fit an old Hollywood shibboleth: “The proponents of free sex are the enlightened forces of truth and happiness, while the opponents are the repressed forces of darkness and misery.” In an interview, Kaufman pointed out that the doctor’s character bears a resemblance to Kenneth Starr. No surprise there. Somehow we always knew that if Hollywood did the life of de Sade, he would be a hero and the villain would turn out to be Kenneth Starr.This raises a big question. If a sympathetic case can be made for Hannibal and de Sade, is there any place where the Hollywood culture will draw a moral line? The good news is yes, there is. In her column of Feb. 15, Liz Smith writes that actress Sharon Lawrence’s career was nearly ruined when her photo appeared in People magazine on the same page as President Bush. She was mistaken for a Republican! Hate mail poured in. Producers became unsympathetic. The town’s moral code was exerting itself. “There can be an excluding reaction and people genuinely resent you,” Lawrence said in a quavering voice.No problem. Liz Smith cleared the poor woman’s damaged reputation, writing for all to see that “Sharon Lawrence is not a Republican.” Whew. Now what about Hannibal? Feeding folks their own brains is no big thing, but what if he voted for Bush?

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