WASHINGTON, June 3 (UPI) -- Recently, an old friend sent me an e-mail to express his surprise and disappointment that one of his favorite movie networks had been running a series devoted to films made in the years before the implementation of Hays Code, which established strict guidelines regarding the moral content of films.
The network seemed to emphasize that these films were better than the ones made under the Hays Code in that they were more interesting, even racy. As my friend pointed out, the reason he and his wife watched the channel was precisely because they enjoyed watching the more wholesome post-Hays Code films as an alternative to today's explicitly sexually oriented and violent fare.
Contemporary Hollywood is a community that largely prides itself on its commitment to "social responsibility" but from the standpoint of folks who believe in traditional values, they are pretty much all talk but very irresponsible.
Take the two top-grossing movies in recent weeks, "The Matrix Reloaded" and "Bruce Almighty," with the former's reliance on graphic violence and the vulgarity and low standards of behavior that were displayed in the latter.
Some critics said the happy ending of "Bruce Almighty" in which the main character, played by Jim Carrey, becomes a humbler, more generous and thankful person was overshadowed by the earlier part. That is when, endowed by God with His powers, the character is thoughtless and materialistic and unconcerned with the sanctity of marriage.
"Matrix Reloaded" is a film that raises interesting questions too. Recently, The Washington Post's Tom Jackman wrote about the case in which a 19-year-old had come to confuse his life with that of the movie and ended up killing his parents with a shotgun. Jackman noted: "Some high-profile crimes since the movie's 1999 release have allegedly been committed without any obvious motive other than attempts to escape The Matrix."
Such incidents usually bring calls for gun control from the groups on the left who rail about the irresponsibility of the manufacturers. However, no one put a sign on that gun saying: "Use me to kill illegally." Nor do gun companies advertise their products in that way. In fact, the National Rifle Association promotes the importance of gun safety, emphasizing that the first rule to learn is the importance of keeping the gun pointed in a safe direction to avoid harming people.
Yet, this teaching is directly contradicted by how weapons are portrayed in Hollywood films and the other products of the entertainment industry, particularly video games and rock and rap videos, that essentially serve as advertisements for the illegal use of weapons and the criminal lifestyle.
There are many reasons why we are a more violent society nowadays. No doubt one important is the decline of the traditional family, particularly the increased absence of fathers who would guide young men on how to behave properly. But another important factor is the prevalence of movies and TV shows and video games featuring gun-driven violence and aggressive confrontation, in effect, helping to rewrite codes of social conduct.
Defenders of today's films say they are simply reflecting reality, but their great influence helps to make their version of reality a self-fulfilling prophecy.
One film, "Bonnie and Clyde," which was released in 1967, was particularly influential in changing how American films depicted violence and criminals. Not only did the film rely on extremely graphic depictions of violence, but its presentation of the criminals was disturbing too. "Bonnie and Clyde," depraved and callous killers in real life, were presented in the film as light-hearted innocents on a joyous crime spree who ended up as victims of cold-blooded law enforcers.
This film has been widely imitated in the years since its release, including during the 1970s and 1980s, two bloody decades in which relatively high real-life homicide rates were accompanied by the release of plenty of films glorifying killing.
Or was it visa versa?
The American Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Psychological Association, and the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry issued a statement during the summer of 2000 warning about the dangers of excessive exposure to violence by children.
The statement said: "At this time, well over 1,000 studies -- including reports from the surgeon general's office, the National Institute of Mental Health and numerous studies conducted by leading figures within our medical and public health organizations -- point overwhelmingly to a causal connection between media and aggressive behavior in some children."
It also said: "Its effects are measurable and long-lasting. Moreover, prolonged viewing of media violence can lead to emotional desensitization in real life."
The report noted that less research had been conducted on the impact of video games and other interactive entertainment but "preliminary studies indicate that the negative impact may be significantly more severe than that wrought by television, movies or music."
The statement stated that young children exposed to such violent entertainment are more likely to be overly aggressive and violent later in life than those children who have not been. Furthermore, the report maintained it reduces trust of others and the viewing of violence can even decrease the willingness to help others when real violence occurs.
Retired Army officer Dave Grossman is actively warning about the influence of violent films and videos on children. Researching his book, "Stop Teaching Our Kids to Kill," Grossman found that many perpetrators of violence developed their marksmanship skills playing video games. One 14-year-old boy named Michael Carneal actually killed several members of a prayer group in Paducah, Ky. even though he had never fired a gun before. But he had practiced on video games.
Individuals are responsible for their actions, certainly when it comes to murder. However, if the producers of video games and movies adhered to the Hays Code of the 1930s, the instruction on how to commit crimes and the incitement to do so would not be provided to youngsters such as Carneal.
Because Hollywood's leading stars and producers tend to pride themselves on their deep concern for our world, it is worth asking: Where is their concern for social responsibility when it comes to their own product?
The Hays Code was developed by the motion picture industry's producers and distributors in acknowledgement of their "responsibility to the public." It asserted that no film should be produced that would lower the moral standards of its viewers. Presenting crime or sin or wrongdoing in sympathetic terms was unacceptable. Nor were pictures to be excessively graphic in presenting violence or crime.
The section presenting the rationale for the code actually stated: "The motion pictures, which are the most popular of modern arts for the masses, have their moral quality from the intention of the minds which produce them and from their effects on the moral lives and reactions of their audiences. This gives them a most important morality."
It went onto say that not only do the films "reproduce the morality of the men who use the pictures as a medium for the expression of their ideas and ideals" but that they also influence those moral standards.
Back then, Hollywood acknowledged that its great, far-reaching power to shape the morality of our country also entailed a great responsibility. It was an industry with a social conscience as expressed by the Hays Commission.
The thinking in Hollywood is the exact opposite today. The stars and executives and producers and directors can talk about pollution or poverty and the importance of social responsibility, but before they do, ask them what they've done to clean up their own industry which has polluted our culture and impoverished our nation's moral spirit.
-- Paul M. Weyrich is chairman and chief executive officer of the Free Congress Foundation.
-- Outside View commentaries are written for UPI by outside writers on subjects of public interest.