What Liberal Hollywood? postsWednesday August 22, 2012
What Liberal Hollywood? Refuting Jonathan Chait's New York Magazine Piece
Jonathan Chait’s New York magazine piece, “The Vast Left-Wing Conspiracy is on Your Screen,” props up the very tired, and very dangerous, notion that the product of Hollywood is liberal. Here’s how you refute it:
Think of almost every movie you’ve ever seen.
Seriously. Once you do that, the product of Hollywood, i.e., the movies, is revealed to be as white as the Republican party, as violent as a neocon’s wet dream, and as monogamous as no one’s wet dream.
The GOP propagates an absolutist vision of good vs. evil? Hey, so do the movies! The GOP is dominated by white men? Most movies star white men! With guns! And when bad guys gather, there’s one thing Hollywood and the GOP agree on: Keep the diplomats out because they’ll just screw things up with their words. Stupid words. Who needs words when you can kick some ass!
Chait’s thesis is a textbook example of not being able to see the forest for the trees. Here are some of his trees:
- “Margin Call,” which blames the global financial meltdown on Wall Street shenanigans.
- “Ice Age 2: The Meltdown,” which warns of global warming.
- “Avatar,” which is full of “tree-hugging mysticism.”
- “Veep” and “The Muppets” and “The Campaign,” whose villains are rich oilmen.
- “The Dark Knight Rises,” which, he writes, “submits the rather modest premise that, irritating though the rich may be, actually killing them and taking all their stuff might be excessive.”
I’ll give him rich villains. Most movies are about underdogs, which the rich are not, except in the fevered imaginations of FOX-News. Even Hollywood hasn’t gone far enough to make them heroes. Except, of course, when their names are Bruce Wayne or Tony Stark.
I’ll give him “Avatar” ... except not on his grounds. Tree-hugging mysticism? How about a not-so-subtle attack on the military-industrial complex? How about a greater critique of the Iraq War (“shock and awe”) than its main opponent for best picture that year, “The Hurt Locker,” which was actually set in Baghdad in 2004?
But I won’t give him “Margin Call.” It was barely seen. Its widest release was a mere 199 theaters (1/20 of a summer blockbuster), it grossed $5 million (1/40 or 1/60 of a summer blockbuster), and it was hardly the blanket condemnation of Wall Street Chait makes it out to be. It was a complex, ambiguous movie. One of the nastier execs, who turns out to be more loyal than we suspect, makes this speech as he’s driving back from Brooklyn in his convertible:
The only reason that [most people] get to continue living like kings is cause we got our fingers on the scales in their favor. I take my hand off and then the whole world gets really fuckin’ fair really fuckin’ quickly and nobody actually wants that. They say they do but they don’t. They want what we have to give them but they also want to, you know, play innocent and pretend they have know idea where it came from. Well, that’s more hypocrisy than I'm willing to swallow. So fuck ’em. Fuck normal people.
Meanwhile, “Veep” skewers everyone, and the Democratic incumbent in “The Campaign,” played by Will Ferrell, is a sleazy John Edwards type who screws any woman. Sometimes he does it in his campaign commercials. Chait’s readings of Hollywood movies turns out to be more reductive than the reductive movies he’s supposedly watching.
He thinks “Dirty Harry” is an anomaly and “Rambo” is forgotten. They’re not. They’ve been replaced by “300,” and “Taken,” and “G.I. Joe,” and the “Transformers” trilogy. He thinks “Syriana” shows us the dangers of our misbegotten wars. Maybe. But it, too, was complex, murky, and barely seen. Its widest release was 1,775 theaters, which was the 117th widest-release of 2005, and it grossed $50 million domestic, making it the 56th most popular movie that year. No. 2? “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.” I believe there’s a Christ analogy in there. No. 4? “War of the Worlds.” Beware of foreign invasions. No. 8? “Batman Begins.” Because when street violence happens, it’s best to take the law into your own hands. Because you are pure and the system is not.
Chait keeps doing this. He keeps bringing up the barely-seen to prove his point while ignoring movies that are disseminated everywhere. It’s as if, to prove that liberals dominate the airwaves, he talks up “Fresh Air” but ignores Rush Limbaugh. His is a cloistered viewpoint in which HBO’s “Girls” matters. Yet, for most of the country, “Girls” doesn’t even exist. As in most Hollywood movies, girls don’t exist.
Who are the heroes of most movies? Superheroes and soldiers, cops and cowboys. The movies haven’t progressed past the mind of an 8 year-old boy. Neither has the Republican party.
In the documentary “Rated R: Republicans in Hollywood,” Ben Stein, actor, conservative and Hawley-Smoot Tariff Bill advocate, actually crows about this:
In recent years, the obsession that young viewers have with the action movie has helped the political conservatives. Because it’s basically saying all you braino, pointy-headed intellectuals, you’re all wimps and losers. It’s the action guy, the military guy, the police guy—he’s the real hero of society, the real man, and he’s the kind of guy you should be like.
That’s the forest that Chait, obsessed with the trees, or with twigs he’s found on the ground, misses.
John Wayne, George W. Bush
Chait makes one good point. It’s about a twig he found on his short walk through the Hollywood trees:
When Joe Biden endorsed gay marriage in May, he cited Will & Grace as the single-most important driving force in transforming public opinion on the subject. In so doing he actually confirmed the long-standing fear of conservatives—that a coterie of Hollywood elites had undertaken an invidious and utterly successfully propaganda campaign, and had transmuted the cultural majority into a minority. Set aside the substance of the matter and consider the process of it—that is, think of it from the conservative point of view, if you don’t happen to be one. Imagine that large chunks of your entertainment mocked your values and even transformed once-uncontroversial beliefs of yours into a kind of bigotry that might be greeted with revulsion.
You’d probably be angry, too.
I am angry, but for the opposite reason. Yes, the movies influence us. Yes, TV influences us. In my mind, everything affects everything, and if you’re seen on 4,000 screens or in millions of households you’re affecting things that much more.
So “Will and Grace” made us more tolerant of homosexuals? Good. I wonder if it makes up for the decades of sissies and perverts and suicidal sad sacks that were detailed in “The Celluloid Closet,” a documentary on Hollywood’s sad history with homosexual characters. Chait suggests that the portrayal of black presidents in movies like “Deep Impact” paved the way for Barack Obama? Good. I wonder if it makes up for decades of Stepin Fetchit roles, the lazy and the fearful and the laughable, which were the only black faces seen on movie screens for years.
More to the point: If “Will and Grace,” a singular phenomenon, is so influential, what about the aforementioned westerns and cop shows, war movies and superhero epics? What influence do they have on us?
Could Ronald Reagan have been elected president without John Wayne on the movie screen? Could George W. Bush? Both played up the cowboy angle. Both kept using the lines of Hollywood to further their political goals. “Go ahead, make my day,” Reagan said. “Wanted dead or alive,” Bush said of Osama bin Laden. “Bring it on,” Bush said to the Iraqi insurgents. One imagines that he saw himself as an action hero in an action movie. Most of America did, too. It went, “Fuck yeah!” Except the Iraq War didn’t end the way movies are supposed to end. It just kept going. It got messier and bloodier and more difficult to sort the good guys from the bad guys. The audience got restless. It thought it was watching something by John Ford or Clint Eastwood and it turned into “The Battle of Algiers.” It turned French on us. Fuck that. We walked out. We wanted a happy ending. Lesson unlearned.
And that’s my point: Not only is the product of Hollywood not liberal, but its playbook, its archetypes and storylines, have been stolen by the GOP to get their candidates elected.
What liberal Hollywood?
Chait begins with the culture wars of the early 1990s (“Murphy Brown,” “Cape Fear”) and wonders where they went. He argues that conservatives have given up. They haven’t. They bitched about “Million Dollar Baby” and its right-to-die ending. They bitched about “Avatar” and its trees. They bitched about “The Blind Side” and a photo of George W. Bush on the wall. They keep on bitching. Chait argues that liberals won the early’90s culture wars because these days homosexuals are sometimes depicted as human beings rather than demented perverts. I say conservatives won that war because they branded the product of Hollywood as liberal and the label stuck.
But it’s a false brand. Seriously. Just think of almost every movie you’ve ever seen.
Who is the Most Filmed Character Ever?
I was writing a review of “Margin Call” the other day, a good film with a great cast, and considered for a moment Paul Bettany's name in the cast list. IMDb.com informs us that he's best known for “A Beautiful Mind,” “Master and Commander,” and “The Da Vinci Code.” I loved him in each of these and expected big things from him. But “A Beautiful Mind” was 10 years ago, “Da Vinci” five, and he kept appearing in movies I had no interest in seeing (“Priest,” “Legion,” “Inkheart”). Then IMDb reminded me he had recently played Charles Darwin in “Creation.” “Was this the one that was never distributed in the U.S.?” I wondered. “The one Christian fundamentalists had a problem with?”
So I clicked on the character link.
While the answer to my initial question was yes, probably, I soon forgot all about it when I realized the following:
Charles Darwin wasn't portrayed on film until 1972.
Immediately, the usual “What Liberal Hollywood?” hackles were raised in me. The man who changed our 20th and 21st century worldview was ignored for the first eight decades of film? Not even a walk-on in someone else's story? Not even a “Bewitched” episode? And he's only been portrayed a total of 21 times? And this from an industry that's condemned daily as “liberal”?
That rant led to this thought:OK, how many times has Jesus Christ been portrayed on film?
Answer? 350 times, starting in 1897 with “The Horwitz Passion Play,” which starred Jordan Willochko as the Son of God. But that answer immediately led to this question:
Hey, is Jesus the most portrayed character in movie history?
Eventually I asked Patricia for her thoughts. In five seconds, she gave me this, but in the negative: “I don't think it's Santa Claus...” she began.
No, it is Santa Claus. 814 times.
Wouldn't it be nice, though, if IMDb had a sort function beyond what it currently offers—particularly if one could further sort by “movies,” “TV,” “Made-for-TV movies”? Instead, the site gives us user-created lists. We may never find out who the most filmed character in movie history is, but we do get to read blahXblahXblah's list of the 204 “Hottest Actresses”!
What do you think? Are Santa and Jesus it? Or has another character been portrayed more often?
Robin Hood is a piker compared to Jesus Christ and Santa Claus.
ADDENDUM: After all that, it turns out there is another....
Never Compromise: Hollywood and the Right-Wing
Jeff Wells talks up the latest poster for “The Iron Lady,” Meryl Streep's biopic of Margaret Thatcher, and its tagline, “Never compromise,” and riffs on all the anti-Obamaites in Congress who would agree with that slogan, who would rather “pull down the temple than be responsible legislators,” and concludes, even as he admits he's going to like the hell out of Streep, “no heart-swelling emotional currents for Meryl's Maggie Thatcher...not from this corner, at least.”
What all of that reminds me of, again—again, again, again—is how the right-wing in this country borrows the tropes of Hollywood heroes (“never compromise”) even as it disparages Hollywood.
Sure, this time it's slightly different, since the uncompromising hero, or heroine, is in fact a politician, and a right-wing politician, rather than John Wayne, or Bruce Willis, or Arnold. But she's still being viewed through that Hollywood and PR prism. And it raises the question:
Why does the tagline, “Never compromise,” appeal to us?
Immediate answer: Because most of us, poor wretches in the audience or in the voting booth, compromise all the time. We spend our lives compromising: with parents, with partners, with bosses; with expectations, with kids, with corporations; with life. Life for us is one compromise after another. Only life doesn't compromise back. (And Death is even worse.) We feel like we're the saps in all this.
That's why we go to the movies in the first place: to see that uncompromising hero or heroine. It's a wish-fulfillment fantasy, as surely as watching a man fly is a wish-fulfillment fantasy, and that's fine as long as we don't take the fantasy with us as we leave the theater.
But more and more of us are doing just that. We're taking that fantasy, now generated by the GOP—the less entertaining, right-wing version of Hollywood—into the voting booth and voting for the man who claims he never compromises. Which is as silly as going into the voting booth and voting for the candidate who claims he can fly.
What Liberal Hollywood? Anna Faris and the Laws of Date Night
A few weeks ago, in the April 11 edition of The New Yorker, there was a good article by Tad Friend on the comedic actress, and Washington state native, Anna Faris, which didn't seem to get much attention in the blogosphere—other than a curt dismissal on Hollywood Elsewhere—because it was only available in the digital and print editions. It wasn't online. It wasn't free.
But the best part of the article wasn't the stuff on Faris so much as the stuff on women, comedy and movies in general. The writer lists off the almighty Laws of Date Night that keep women and comedy separate and unequal:
- Men rule. (I.e., they pick the movie.)
- Men are simple. Don't confuse them. (Unnamed producer: “Men just don't understand the nuances of female dynamics.”)
- If a woman is the star, it better be a romantic comedy. (Tad Friend: “Unless she is Angelina Jolie.”)
- Women don't have to be funny. (Preston Sturges: “A pretty girl is better than an ugly one.”)
- Also, women aren't funny. (David Zucker: “Maybe women have a built-in dignity...”)
- Really, they're not. (Kennan Ivory Wayans: “If Will Ferrell was a girl, and she's got a belly and a hairy back, she's not running down the street naked.”)
I gained newfound (firstfound?) respect for Seth Rogen, Feris' co-star in “Observe and Report,” who observed (and reported), “If 'Pineapple Express' had been about two girls, they wouldn't have made it. And if I were a woman I wouldn't have a career.”
Friend contrasts female comedians in movies with female comedians on TV, where they're doing just fine, thank you, but the discussion reminded me, yet again, how unliberal Hollywood is in practice. Liberalism means feminism, or includes feminism, and yet what's feminist about 99 percent of the product coming out of Hollywood? Nothing. The opposite. Hollywood isn't even conservative on the matter. It's Confucian.
Hollywood Values: Patriotism
“[Adolph] Zukor, like so many of the Hollywood Jews, had used [World War I] as an opportunity to prove his patriotism; visiting Frank Wilson, director of publicity of the Liberty Loan program, which raised money from bond sales, he announced that the industry was happy 'to show its patriotism [and] to prove beyond all question its worth to the Government as well as to the people of the United States,' as if these had been at issue. The Jews mobilized the entire industy; Lasky and De Mille, now headquartered in California, even formed a Paramount brigade that marched up and down the studio grounds with prop rifles in preparedness.”
—Neal Gabler, “An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood,” pp. 39-40