Lights! Camera! Political Action!

"If you want to send a message, try Western Union," observed one of the grand Old Hollywood moguls — L. B. Mayer, I think it was — about motion pictures that preached or heckled or jeered. And what a long time ago that was. Now, viewpoint-flicks sometimes seem to be taking over the industry.

Not that Old Hollywood was utterly dismissive of viewpoint. Old Hollywood celebrated law and order and, occasionally, what passed for social justice. It twitted the rich. John Ford, who did the social justice thing in "The Grapes of Wrath," whooped it up for the military in "They Were Expendable." Stanley Kubrick, in "Paths of Glory," took the contrary view; he thought generals were idiots. Yet, in the really old days, Democrats and Republicans alike could watch a movie without feeling angry or bitter for having betrayed two-bits into the hands of the powers of darkness.

Of late, pictures have become part of the political and social dialogue in a special way that broadens and complicates that dialogue. Do you answer the "Brokeback Mountain" hymn to homosexuality by plugging in a John Wayne DVD? What if you think — what if you know — that "The DaVinci Code" is a cunning fabrication? What would constitute "equal time" for the Jesus of the four traditional gospels, as opposed to the one fabricated by Dan Brown and given cinematic presence by Sony and Ron Howard?

New Hollywood’s social and political liberalism is easier to sniff out than to root out. It may be Mel Gibson has the only tenable idea: To counter a trend in the movies, you make your own movie.

While we meditate on these matters, here comes another Hollywood intervention in our affairs — an attack on the fast-food industry, based on a book of the same name, "Fast Food Nation." Here’s the Wall Street Journal’s summary: "An executive from a hamburger chain called Mickey’s … visits a Colorado meatpacking town to determine why there’s something wrong with the meat in the company’s popular sandwich, the Big One. The plant is staffed with illegal immigrants who work in unpleasant conditions. Other story lines include a teenager who works at a Mickey’s who is frightened by a string of robberies at nearby fast-food restaurants."

You get it? Fast food — stay away from it; far, far away.

Have the producers the right to admonish us in this vein? To tell us what to eat and what not to eat? Pretty nosy, huh? Pretty un-American. But to admonish in this manner is to employ a good old American right, that of free speech. Which means, if you don’t want to let the so-and-sos get away with telling you what to eat, you have to respond. We hadn’t, in the old days, heard of arguing with movies; the movies of yore didn’t preach so didactically as those of today. You could walk away and shrug. Not so now. A shrug concedes defeat. As the agriculture industry knows.

Thus, reports the Journal, "more than a dozen trade groups representing producers of beef, potatoes, milk and snacks, along with restaurant groups, are fighting back with a media campaign to counter what one group contends is the ‘indigestible propaganda’ [the book’s author, Eric Schlosser] is spreading." Wham! Bam! Slam! If you equate free speech with cacophony, you’re in the right place and time. The judgment of the marketplace is, in a real sense, the one that counts here: Will "Fast Food Nation" make money or not? But oh, what a commentary on the times. A beloved form of entertainment becomes a political battleground, and we enter the movie theater — where once reigned Hopalong Cassidy and Bette Davis and Bill Holden and Audrey Hepburn — to find the joint alight with fury. And we know it ain’t 1950 anymore, and L. B. Mayer is dead and buried. And we need not work hard to manage a sniffle or two.