At the Aspen Ideas Festival Kurt Anderson moderates a panel featuring television producer Norman Lear, actor and filmmaker Sydney Pollack, and author and filmmaker Nora Ephron. They talk about the ways in which film and television programs convey American values. Among the issues they address are transmitting cultural and moral messages through artistic media, business influences in the production of television and film, how entertainment changes and reflects contemporary values, as well as enduring values. They also answer questions from the audience.
This event was hosted by the Aspen Institute and the Atlantic Magazine. For more than 50 years, the Aspen Institute has been the nation's premier gathering place for leaders from around the globe and across many disciplines to engage in deep and inquisitive discussion of the ideas and issues that both shape our lives and challenge our times.
Host of public radio’s Peabody Award–winning Studio 360, Kurt Andersen is also cofounder and editor of Spy magazine. He is a regular contributor to Vanity Fair, the New York Times, New York, and Time, and has authored three novels, the most recent being True Believers (2012).
Nora Ephron is an American film director, producer, screenwriter and novelist. Her parents, Henry and Phoebe Ephron, were both successful East Coast-born and raised screenwriters.
Television writer, producer, and director; founder, People for the American Way. Norman Lear is a Jewish-American television writer and producer who produced such popular sitcoms as All in the Family, Sanford and Son, One Day at a Time, Good Times and Maude.
Academy Award-winning filmmaker, director, and producer. Sydney Pollack is an American film director, producer and actor. His career started in the 1960s, directing episodes of TV series such as The Fugitive and Alfred Hitchcock Presents.
Pollack studied with Sanford Meisner at The Neighborhood Playhouse in New York City before embarking on his acting career. He then moved behind the camera to direct and produce. He won the Academy Award for Directing for â€œOut of Africaâ€ (1985).
If foreigners are getting their perceptions of the USA from TV, films, and music then they are the dumb ones. No american should have to change the content of entertainment because foreign people might "get the wrong image of america."
The reverse would be laughable.
The program addresses a few major important themes. The differentiation between values and morals is very important in the discussion. Grammar has been highly politicized in recent times. A label is given to a word or phrase, and a war erupts over syntax. The original meaning of the word is often lost. The question of whether TV and film reflect our values or affect our values or both is pertinent. Films do reflect or values, whether positive or negative. However, they do not always, especially these days. Corporate and political interest can play into what gets produced and what doesn't. As Nora Ephron addresses kids today are using bitTorrents, downloading, and watching what they want, instead of what is fed to them. The question of whether TV reflects the values of this and the next generation remains to be seen.
Now some views on what contemporary film and t.v. programs convey about Americanvalues. You'll hear from television producer Norman Lear, actor and filmmaker SydneyPollack and author Nora Ephron. This event was part of last months annual Ideas Festivalhosted by the Aspen Institute. Its fifty minutes.And finally after what I think you all will agree has been a fascinating and diverse day,and as we wait for the good lord to dry things out slightly, the rain to stop, we have ourfinal panel. And to introduce it is one of the most talented, smartest, creative people in themedia and writing and literature today, my friend, my former fellow journalist, thenovelist and radio host Kurt Anderson.Thank you, Walter. Um, and it is my pleasure to just as they march up, not the penguins,but these geniuses here, Sydney Pollack, Norman Lear and Nora Ephron. And in theinterest of one American value that I think we all hold dear, which is pragmatism, we'regonna try to get you out of here more or less on time. Its up to us to make it up so I'mgonna dispense with some of the formalities. I, these people literally need no introductionand there is always IMDb if you need introductions, but... We're talking about "Americanvalues", not I want to hasten to add, given the last fascinating and inspiring talk,"American Virtue" necessarily. Um, I think television and film always reflects Americanvalues for better and for worse, intentionally and unintentionally, from Birth of a Nationto Mr. Smith Goes to Washington to American Idol and America's Next Top Model. Thoseall reflect American values, I believe, so I think its up to these folks to explain to us whatparts of the American character, what piece of American values aren't and are beingshown and embodied effectively in entertainment and art visually? And shouldfilmmakers and television producers consciously try to make television shows and moviesthat are more virtuous that display our best values for the sake of ourselves and ourchildren and grandchildren and people abroad, so they don't think that all we do isperhaps, "America's Next Top Model"? Um, Sam Goldwyn, the movie tycoon, famouslysaid that you should call Western Union if you want to send a message, rather than usemovies to do so. I want to ask each of you, um, if when you are dreaming up, doing allthat is required to get a television show made or a movie made, are values the moral,political, philosophical take away part of what you think about or does that just come atthe end, oh, yeah, happy ending. Or do you, is their a conscious part of the writing,creative process that is about trying to embody values and virtues? Norman, I'll start with you.Uh, yes, no and perhaps. I don't know the writer that doesn't sit down at least at the startwho isn't thinking about something he/she wishes to say. Some comment on something,something that comes out of some deep passion. Uh, and then there are situations with thething, writers perhaps, who are struggling to support two kids to keep another one incollege and are answering the call to do something that the studio believes in for entirelydifferent reasons, entirely different values and rushed to do that out of the need to do that.But I think for the most part, people I've known who write and direct, the caring part ofthem, the concerned part of them always wants to be dealing with that creatively.Sydney? Do you start off wanting to?I think that would, speaking for myself, be a terrible mistake on my part. I, I, I think if Iwere producing a picture, I might, if I were involved in a way where I wasn't trying tofind some part of my own unconscious thats the most important part to me to work with, Imight very well. I think the difficulty in this discussion is that it isn't, it isn't, it just isn't ascontrollable as words are. It really isn't. Something else is going on when you create ortell a story and in someway, and I hope this doesn't sound like a cop out, you really haveto trust that your own virtues, if you have them, are going to come out. Its a kind of(unidentified) test doing a movie. You can't hide who you are and that gets revealed insome way. Yes of course, you reflect on it and you say, am I doing something bad here?Am I making a film that I can't stand behind morally. Yeah, you know that unconsciously,but I think if you start from the premise of doing good, you're gonna make an eat yourspinach movie. You're got make, you're gonna preach. Its not my job to preach. It reallyisn't. Its the bishop's job who was just here and did it so beautifully. I try to get to you in acompletely different way. I try to move you by making you become one of the charactersin the film I'm making and I have to believe that if you experience the world throughthose characters eyes, something good is gonna happen, because you've changed yourpoint of view to some other point of view but in the long run, thats gonna lead to somesort of compassion in a way, but I don't think you can start with that.Nora, Nora, you wrote early on in your film career Silkwood, which certainly was amovie a distinct political message since then...What was it?The message? We'll talk afterwards and I'll fill you in. That big corporations are tendtoward the evil and want to protect themselves and will do anything to do soincluding commit evil acts.Well, I think one of the interesting things when you make a political movie and one of thethe things I'm always interested in is when Hollywood gets blamed for things which Ithink it does out of all proportion to its affect on anything, because if Hollywood had anyreal affect, George Bush would not be president, but (applause), but one of the things thatinterested me and discouraged me after Silkwood, because that is certainly one of thethings its about, is that most movies are about exactly the same thing and I think you'veheard me say this because we've done this before in some way or another, but they're allabout an appealing character strives against great odds to achieve a worthwhile goal. Thatis the plot of 98% of all movies that are made so that in the end, emotionally andsometimes even intellectually, Rambo and Silkwood are exactly the same movie and...Although the question becomes worthwhile and when we're talking about values.I understand that, I'm just saying that its interesting that when you make a movie that youhope will tell something about um the carelessness of American industry and doesn'tseem to make a whole lot of difference, you wonder about that. In any case, I was drawnto that movie not because of my values, but because I thought it would be an interestingthing to write because there was a moment, because it had been written about badly byjournalists on both sides of it and Alice Arlen who wrote it together, saw a way of writingabout this woman that was more complicated and was basically a short commitment inour lives that turned into a wonderful movie, so it was great. But I didn't come to it in terms of...Exposing (unidentified).You know, blah, blah, blah. Um, but I would like to say anecdotally that every so oftenand I want to say I forget the name, I used to forget the name of this movie even before Igot older, the one with Michael Douglas and Glenn Close, yes,Rabbit in the Pot.Rabbit in the Pot, its called, that's rightFatal Attraction.Fatal Attraction. They asked me to rewrite that movie and my values surfaced and it costme about four years college tuition and thats one of the reasons that I always forget thename of the movie, cause I really did say to the producer, I can't rewrite this movie,because its not. Women don't kill men, men kill women. So I had this, this horrible,costly feminist moment and I will never have one again.I wanna to, so you've paid you dues. Norman?I just want to take issue with both my colleagues here in the sense that knowing theircareers and what they've elected to do, they have always elected to do something thatmatters, each of them.Oh that is not true.Well as I recollect, as I look at your career. And when you talk about Silkwood and youtalk about its, from your point of view, what did it matter. I had a grandfather who uh, Iwas standing at a lake with one time and I was throwing rocks in the lake, I must havebeen about nine years old and he said, "You know Norman, every time you throw thatrock, a rock in the lake, it raises the level of the water". And so I'm a nine-year old kid,I'm looking to see, I'm throwing a big rock, another big rock and I'm waiting for the waterto rise and he said, "No you're never going to see that". And I don't know whether heintended for me to get this lesson at all, but years later, uh, you know when I heard him inmy mind say, "What you get for it is the ripple". And that's what we get, is the ripple.And I know you got ripples or I got ripples anyway, from Silkwood. It was a hell of apiece of work, it had a lot to say and you get a ripple. You don't get to see that water rise.Thanks.So you are a preacher?Here I go. I also felt that the producer in me, that it was time for a musical interlude andso... Red sails in the sunset... I won't do anymore.Well done. Um, speaking of more than a ripple, I would say a small wave anyway, therewas of course All in the Family, which was the great example of (applause)...Thank you.And I'll mention Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, just so they can applaud again, but um,but All in the Family was this enormous example of a big popular cultural phenomenonthat was about values and the struggle to find values at this volatile moment of the late'70's, or early '70 which were effectively the late '60's continued. Do you, as you'vewatched television shows go on and off the air in the last 25 years, do you see worthysuccessors to what you were trying to do with that show?I see worthy successors all over the place and just to repeat, you know, I'm asked all thetime, you know, or told the show accomplished so much and for me, and this is honest toGod and Bishop Jakes, uh, what I got was the ripple. People told me the family talkedafterwards, that's all. The Judeo-Christian ethic hasn't changed anything in terms of racerelations, religion, intolerance and you know, that one can visibly see and my little halfhour situation, comedy certainly didn't either, but I did learn that people talked about it.You mention it now, I might have mentioned Silkwood if you hadn't. Out of Africa too forthat matter and the character you wished other people would seek to emulate.I just feel good today, I guess.Well, but isn't it the case that suddenly this character Archie Bunker, which representedlot of lots of real Americans, could say things that weren't be said in the public airwaves before that.Yeah, but they were being said in school yards everywhere.And now they're being said on Fox.Oh on Fox! On Fox.I mean one of the things I was thinking about is that we all had such benevolent feelingstoward Archie because we actually thought when we saw that show, that that was on theway out and that's why it was such a wonderful, I mean its not one of the only reasons, itsa great show, um, and by the way, I think there is only one plot of a television show too.And that is?We are family. But, but I think, I wonder if that show were on the air and as wonderful asit was, whether it wouldn't seem as funny to us who now realize that the country has a lotmore of that then we ever dreamt twenty years ago.I guess the question behind is..Thirty years ago, how many years ago?Yeah, no, thirty years ago. Does America really ever take a, and this is what the mediaought to be helping us do, take a real good look at us, help us look at ourselves seriously.What, why, who are we when we look in the mirror culturally and I'm not sure the mediadoes the greatest job at that. It, All in the Family was entertainment.Sydney, uh, around the same time as All in the Family uh, during that part of your career,you were making these extraordinary films that were in a big explicit way, I think, dealingwith American values like They Shoot Horses and The Way We Were and Three Days ofthe Condor and Absence of Malice, um, which were four of many great films you made.It, did it, was there a moment when it became more difficult to either find an audience orconvince a studio that films like that deserve to be made?Oh yeah. I mean its almost impossible. Those films have moved into the independentworld now, I mean they're not any longer what major studios look for as what they calltheir "tent pole" films. I mean it was standard operating procedure in the seventies andeighties to tell any story that you felt was worth telling with actors that were good actorsyou didn't have any problem as we say, pitching it to the studio. You, you would getindulged and then turned down today if I came in and tried to sell any studio half of thosefilms that you mentioned They Shoot Horses, Don't They, the guy, one of them is going to getget killed in the end, come on, I mean any of those things, but you could probably raiseindependent financing for films like that now.Well, you could be George Clooney, I guess, who gets to make them.That's right, there's somebody like George whose gonna use their celebrity to makesomething they believe in like that and take a big cut in pay, then those things will getdone. Look at the films last year that were nominated for Academy, a lot of them wereaway from "tent pole", you know, studio filmsCrash, Brokeback Mountain.Yeah, all of those movies were, had at least one foot in the independent film world.Do, we have gone through an incredible transformation in television in the last twentyyears simply in the sheer amount of programming that is feeding into every home inAmerica for better and for worse. Again, its a golden age if you look at HBO and if youlook at part of Fox its a golden age, The Simpsons, I would point outAnd 24.And 24 which certainly embodies, don't we agree American values that are relativelyAbsolutely if they won't talk to you, torture them.Um, I'm saying, American values, not virtues. Um, do, do to the degree where people are,always default to, what about the kids? Are kids today getting a better or worse valueseducation in America from sitting in front of television, than they did when I was a kid orwhen you were younger?Well I think kids are sitting in front of their computers and they're watching sometelevision on their computers and, and I'm completely fascinated by what that means and Idon't think, and I don't think it has anything to do with content. I think we get veryconfused here. My own feeling is that the, that I lived through a period where the answerto almost every question about what was wrong with America was television. Um, bywhich people were talking about the medium itself and I think we have forgotten that themedium itself is truly interesting and with the Internet, all this clicking and linking andI'm bored and I'm going to the next thing and I'm this and I'm this, this to me concerns meway more about kids than what they're watching on any of these media, because I think asany of you know if you got hooked on solitaire when you got your first computer and feltyour brain frying between your eyes, it changes your brain. When you spend four hoursjust, when you come home and your loved one is waiting for you and you don't even gointo the room where they are, when you sit down at the computer to see if you got emailfrom a stranger. Um, you know this is interesting stuff.Although it is, the "zombification" that my own parents complained aboutwhen I would stare simply...I don't know about that, because we may not have kids that are zombies,but there are zombie kids out there. There really are.Do you guys, Sydney and Norman, watch television or are, is it a very selective thing. Doyou sit and watch shows every week or all the time?I could not live without TiVo, or I could not live with television without TiVo, becausewe don't make appointments with the tube. We'll watch Jon Stewart before we fall asleep,invariably. And the shows we watch, we watch at hours that are convenient for us, but wedon't sit down, except perhaps for 24, but sometimes we've had to watch by TiVo three in a row.Isn't that interesting that liberals watch this rough, tough right-wing show, 24.Sydney, you want to make it three?I, I, I stopped being as much a television watcher as I once was. I do watch on a selectedbasis, but I'm not a, I don't have the habit that I had 20 years ago where I really was kindof addicted to certain shows and waited for them week after week. I find that I don't dothat that much anymore.Nora I think, made a really provocative point early on that I'm gonna get back to which isfor all of the talk of culture war and violent movies can do this to ruin our society or pro-social movies can do this to help thing. What is your basic feeling about film andtelevision being able to move the needle one way or the other in terms of the health orgoodness of society.Well, there's no, in my mind there is no question that it has a very strong effect on howpeople see the world, whether the result of it literally moves a society, I mean I am of thebelief that there has been a lot of talk today of politics and about the Cold War and theend of the Cold War. I think the exportation of popular culture was as much aninstrument of winning the Cold War as anything military that went on. It does affect howpeople see the world in some way. You can't feel something without thinking something.Or you can't think about feeling something, lets put it that way. Its impossible, you don'thave control over it when you've moved the way you do. Images don't signal their strategythe way words do. You can figure out that somebody is trying to change your mind whenyou're spoken to or when you read, but that's not necessarily true with an image. Imageswork without you being aware of them working in some way. So I don't think there is anyquestion that it has an effect. If you asked me to measure it I couldn't. If you asked me totell you what the affect is, I couldn't, but is it a powerful tool in the changing and swayingof people's minds? I think absolutely.So when people get all up in arms left, right, Ann Coulter, Michael Moore about that thenthat's a fight worth having, because cultural products can really change behavior, you think?I think they do and I think that, ya have a big responsibility when you're given a bullypulpit like that. Somebody gives you what used to be seventy, eighty, ninety a hundredmillion dollars to make a film that's gonna go all over the world, there is apart of you thatrealizes that you have the ability to influence people.So speaking of a bully pulpit, Hillary Clinton has used hers in the last year or so and we'regonna get beyond television and film...I just want to say one thing about that though. I don't, I'm just finding it hard, it seems tobe that you use the word "reflect" at the beginning and I think that's way more accurate. Isee very little out there that is meant to change and to me, of course I come from theworld of romantic comedy, but there's no question you can get people to change their eyeware in if Meg Ryan is wearing a particularly attractive pair of glasses in a movie, but itshard for me to see any real, I can't point to a change in the society that I can...I can't tell you the change, but I know its gotta affect how they feel or how they perceive it.Its interesting how little political effect there is and when Ann Coulter and those guys sayHollywood, I think its a code word like Willie Horton. I think...For Jews? For...I think its a code word for Jews, absolutely.You can see a big change in society in the attraction of celebrities, just the whole celebritynonsense that goes on. I don't know how many magazines are utterly devoted to it,television shows utterly devoted to it, but uh, we have 11 year old twin daughters and wehave to talk to them a lot to, to make them understand that what they're, what they tend towant to watch about celebrities or what the covers of the magazines or so forth havenothing to do with the real world any more than reality television has to do with real human behavior.Does a film, does a show, do we think that like Will and Grace have the affect ofaccustoming millions of Americans to the idea of likable gay men or does it have also thesimultaneous opposite affect of making people all upset about gay marriage?There is no doubt in my mind that way the African American shows we dealt with madepeople much more accustomed to having black actors in their homes, in their parlorstalking about what they were talking about and so forth, the same thing would have to betrue common sensically of Will and Grace and familiarity with gay people.Is the, the, I know this is slightly beyond our, our brief I guess because all of you are, aremainly fictional filmmakers, your beautiful film about Frank Gehry aside, um, but(applause), but does the melting and bleeding of entertainment and into news and viceversa make the clear depiction of American values harder to get across in news. Is that amainly bad thing you think the kind of lets turn news into entertainment in terms ofreflecting a certain kind of American value that indeed everything amounts toentertainment in the end?What do you mean?Well I mean that if to the degree that news is presented increasingly as a form of entertainment.Are you talking about cable shout at one another things?What music beds on network news documentaries and the sweetening in towardentertainment of what used to be a straighter form of information provision. Is, is that,does that tell kids or young people that there is no difference between fact andentertainment and you know clear, clear news values and entertainment value.Well I don't think kids get their news from television if they get it anywhere. Um, I meanwe've seen that today in a number of panels. I mean my kids, I have one kid who reads anewspaper and one who doesn't and they're both very smart about, they both watch theDaily Show, I have to say that, but I think that fewer and fewer people, you know that,what we think of as the news its not, I mean its like past tense as they say in charades,um, and I watched Katie and Bob yesterday,Couric and Schieffer.Yeah and I thought, well I'll turn it on the first two nights, I will, but then I'll just go backto getting my news off the Internet all day long and watching Hardball, which by the wayI have while having a massage and I recommend it highly.The other thing in addition to "the kids" that we are meant to worry about, there is, and its aa real issue for the last twenty years especially as we've exported American movies andAmerican television shows abroad and that becomes a significant driver of, of the waypeople around the other 5.8 billion of earthlings think of us. Is that a, is that a mostly badthing or a mostly good thing, how, how our movies and t.v. have made the rest of theworld think about us. Sydney?Is what a good thing or bad thing, precisely?Is the presentation of America through movies and television what we would like the restof the world to consider America to be?I don't feel qualified to answer that. You can answer that.I won't present myself as qualified to answer it, but I go back to where, of what it allderives. The studios that make the major motion pictures are owned by giant corporationstoday. Television for the most part, not for the most part, just about all of it, is owned bygiant corporations. Their need is what drives most of they content. Their need, theirpublic corporations is for a profit statement this quarter larger than the last, which I wouldsuggest is at the expense of every other value, that is the significance in your value. Thereis nothing in nature that suggests anything can grow forever, but stupidly we insistcorporately that this must happen, quarter by quarter there must be.. it drives all thecontent on television with the exception of those that happily, luckily, for the audiencessake, have content that really mirrors, the values we tell ourselves we believe in, not thevalues when you talk about American values, it seems to me that most significant value isthat quarterly, is the quarterly profit statement that drives that engines for all major media.I'm wondering if we think though that, I remember once being in Europe and every city Iwent to I would turn on the television in the hotel room and a rerun of Baywatch was onand I began to think to what degree is America's Baywatch the message that's sent by your industry.Our industry? Oh, I don't know, I don't know. You know last night after we saw Sydney'smovie, I hope I'm probably speaking out of turn, but I saw Justice Breyer and we're oldfriends, I'm proud to say that I dated him once and we were talking about Frank Gehryand he said to me that he didn't really know about Gehry's buildings, he loved the movie,was kind of worried about them and I started laughing and he said, "why are youlaughing?" And I said, "You're worried about Frank Gehry, I'm worried about theSupreme Court". Um, so you know I feel that the culture is in much better handsincluding whoever made Baywatch than the people in the White House,so don't blame us, you know.No, I once accused a right-winger who was telling me I should worry more about violenttelevision of yelling theater in a crowded fire and uh, there is something to that I thinkthat this is as significant as it can be as Sydney says that television and movies can indeedaffect behavior in the hierarchy of important concerns is perhaps not the highest. I thinkwe are about ready to take questions uh, if people want to rise and ask them.