What Liberal Hollywood? postsThursday February 18, 2010
Why Harry Can't Read Rights
So the main argument in yesterday's post was that the product of Hollywood, far from being liberal, is actually conservative, and, despite cries from the right about Hollyweird, on the left coast, being run by—as Sean Penn humorously put it in his Oscar acceptance speech last year—“commie, homo-lovin' sons of guns,” the movies have actually helped conservativism. The movies, which are often simple and absolutist (good vs. evil), help conservatives, who are also simple and absolutist, more than they help liberals, who are sometimes simple but rarely absolutist.
A good example is how the right frames the left's response to terrorism. If you're against torture, and in favor of putting terrorists, or alleged terrorists, on trial instead of holding them indefinitely or forever, you're impugned as wanting to “read the terrorists their rights.” Three days ago, in fact, the Obama administration announced the capture, in a joint raid by the ISI, Pakistan's Secret Service, and the CIA, of Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Taliban's no. 2 man and main military strategist. That's huge. The fact that the Pakistani Secret Service is involved is huger. And the right's response? From Powerline:
That's great, and we sincerely congratulate the administration on this accomplishment. We can't help noting, though: why didn't they pay for a lawyer and read Baradar his rights?
Google “Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar” and “read him his rights” and, as of this morning, you'll get 161 responses. Google “read the terrorists their rights” and you'll get over 33,000 responses.
And where does this sneering attitude about reading people their rights come from? The movies. Liberal Hollywood. The most famous example is in “Dirty Harry.” Scorpio, the giggling homicidal killer based upon San Francisco's Zodiac killer, says it first:
Scorpio: You tried to kill me.
Dirty Harry: If I tried that your head would be splattered all over this field. Now, where's the girl?
Scorpio: [cries] I- I have rights.
But when Harry brings him in, the evidence is inadmissible:
District Attorney: You're lucky I'm not indicting you for assault with intent to commit murder.
Dirty Harry: What?
District Attorney: Where the hell does it say that you've got a right to kick down doors, torture suspects, deny medical attention and legal counsel? Where have you been? Does Escobedo ring a bell? Miranda? I mean, you must have heard of the Fourth Amendment. What I'm saying is that man had rights.
Dirty Harry: Well, I'm all broken up over that man's rights!
It's not just “Dirty Harry,” either. No modern action movie about cops dealing with killers would take anything less than a hardline attitude toward Miranda rights. The phrase has become a code for being soft on crime.
The right-wing's “reading the terrorists their rights” sneer is effective, in other words, because it's already embedded in U.S. society... through the movies...which the right-wing attacks as Un-American. It would be laughable if it weren't so hypocritical.
What Liberal Hollywood?
I’ve been listening to right-wing culture critics complain about Hollywood for decades, ever since Michael Medved’s unreadable book, “Hollywood vs. America,” was published in the early 1990s during the heady days of Dan Quayle vs. Murphy Brown. I owned Medved’s book for years, and every so often I’d give it a go, but I could never get 10 pages into it without wondering how the man got the book contract in the first place. Horrible writer. One of his main early points of attack, I remember, was Peter Greenaway’s film “The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, Her Lover,” which he found thoroughly disgusting, but which became a critic favorite in 1990. And what did Hollywood have to do with this film? Nothing. It was a joint British/French production, distributed in this country by upstart Miramax out of New York, and its widest release was 239 theaters. It grossed $7.7 million domestic, which made it the 108th highest-grossing film of the year—only $278 million behind “Home Alone.” No wonder Medved ran around like the cultural sky was falling.
Since then, the din from the right about Hollywood and movies has only gotten worse. There's always some movie they've got complaints about. “Million Dollar Baby.” “Munich.” “Avatar.” Hell, they even complained about “The Blind Side”—in which a white, southern Christian family opens its doors and hearts to a homeless black kid and turns his life around—because one character, and not a major character, and not even a sympathetic character, makes a reference about George W. Bush. Talk about touchy. Talk about politically correct.
Before I jump into this mess, let me concede that, yes, most people in Hollywood are probably of the left. Most people in cities are of the left, most artists are of the left, and L.A. is a city full of artists. Makes sense.
Let me also concede that every so often a filmmker sneaks a liberal point of view into a movie. The classic example for me is in 1983’s “War Games,” when misinformation leads us a step closer to nuclear war, and, shifting from one defcon to another, we see Ronald Reagan’s smiling portrait in the background. The right sees this kind of thing as the power of liberal Hollywood but I see it as its impotence. They have so little power they have to sneak this shit in.
And the reason they have to sneak this shit in is because regardless of who lives in Hollywood, and regardless of their political persuasion, the movies themselves are ultimately conservative. Most movies promote monogamy, family, patriotism. They did so in the early days of Hollywood and they do so today.
I’ll go further. This is the essential Hollywood storyline: A lone man using violence to achieve justice.
From silent westerns to the latest action blockbuster, from John Wayne to Clint Eastwood to Arnold Schwarzenegger, from Zorro to Batman to Spider-Man, this is the story Hollywood tells us over and over again.
It’s easy to see why this is the essential Hollywood storyline, too, and it has nothing to do with politics. Since most movies are wish fulfillments, you need a) a hero, and b) a happy ending (justice). And since violence is more dramatic than diplomacy, you need c) violence to resolve whatever the conflict is.
But violence can be off-putting to some so Hollywood rigs the game further. They make the violence necessary by leaving out nuance. The good are super good and the bad are worse. And those who attempt diplomacy do so out of naivite or purely for political gain—thus further justifying the use of violence as the only possible solution.
And all of this plays into the hands of political conservatives, who tend to dismiss nuance and diplomacy, and ridicule those who assume there’s complexity in the world.
In the documentary “Rated R: Republicans in Hollywood,” Ben Stein, actor, conservative and Hawley-Smoot Tariff Bill advocate, crowed about all of 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.
So at the same time the right attacks Hollywood for being unAmerican it uses this very Hollywood playbook, takes advantage of this very Hollywood storyline, to gain power and change law. The way Hollywood gets moviegoers to cheer in theaters is the way Republicans get Americans to vote for them on election day. Life is simple. Good guys are good, bad guys are bad. Compromise is for suckers. And only through violence (the war on terror, the war on drugs, the death penalty, torture) can we achieve justice.
This is not an argument against the essential Hollywood storyline. This is not an argument against the essential right-wing storyline. Not yet anyway. I'm simply suggesting that Republicans have a peculiar way of telling Hollywood “Thank you.”