What Liberal Hollywood? postsSunday March 03, 2013
What Liberal Hollywood? A.O. Scott on Guns and Movies
“After the killings at Sandy Hook Elementary School, Mr. LaPierre declared that 'the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,' as pure a distillation of traditional Hollywood morality as you could want. ...
”When mass killings happen in the real world, the mark of the killer’s pathology is often described as an inability to distinguish fantasy from reality. But that is not a syndrome that afflicts only individuals. We gravitate, collectively, toward a simplified world where might makes right and good guys and bad guys are easy to tell apart.“
--A.O. Scott, from his article, ”Finding Comfort in Easy Distinctions,“ which is part of a section on movies and violence in today's New York Times.
Arnold Schwarzenegger, former governor of California, in ”The Last Stand" (2013).
The Dangers of PBS Programming
Maybe Mitt was right about the dangers of PBS programming after all. From Steven J. Ross' “Hollywood Left and Right: How Movie Stars Shaped American Politics,” pg. 378:
Schwarzenegger may have kept his personal politics quiet during his rise to stardom, but that did not mean he lacked a well-conceived ideology. Schooled in free market thought during his youth, his economic philosophy crystalized in January 1980 after watching Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman's Free to Choose television series on PBS. “It expressed, validated and explained everything I ever thought or observed about the way the economy works,” he told the Wall Street Journal.
On the other hand, maybe Mitt's beef ultimately has less to do with Big Bird than Big Arnold (from pg. 387):
Party loyalists were less than thrilled when [Schwarzenegger] bypassed Mitt Romney to support Ted Kennedy's reelection bid in 1994 in Massachusetts.
Early GOP Brass
“[George] Murphy and [Ronald] Reagan's electoral success was directly tied to Southern California's emergence as the center of a plethora of socially and religiously conservative groups that preached, as one historian notes, an ideology of 'staunch individualism, Protestant piety, and resentment against Washington ”collectivists'.' Ironically, this hotbed of antifederal activism owed much of its wealth and growth to Washington's largesse. In 1957, defense-related jobs accounted for 70 percent and 59 percent, respectively, of all employment in San Diego and Los Angeles counties. By the early 1960s, defense was the nation's largest business, accounting for 62 percent of the federal budget, and Southern California received the majority of those funds.“
--Steven J. Ross in ”Hollywood Left and Right: How Movie Stars Shaped American Politics," pg. 164. In Clintonian terms, it takes some brass to come to power by attacking what has created and nurtured you.
Being Fair to Hitler
“Making a film attacking Hitler ['The Great Dictator'] proved far more controversial than Chaplin anticipated. Producers who wishes to turn out starkly anti-Nazi movies—such as Walter Wanger and Harry and Jack Warner—were repeatedly constrained by Hollywood's self-censorship board, the Production Code Administration (PCA), and its antisemitic head, Joseph Breen. Created in 1934 to forestall federal censorship of motion pictures, PCA rules prohibited filmmakers from attacking or mocking foreign governments and their leaders. When Hitler and Mussolini promised to ban the films of any studio that offended them, and all Hollywood films if necessary, Breen stepped up his efforts to stop producers from endangering the industry's highly profitable foreign revenues.
”Indeed, not everyone thought Hitler was so evil. As late as January 1939, PCA censors attempted to halt production of Warner Bros.' Confessions of a Nazi Spy, the nation's first explicitly anti-Nazi film, explaining that to 'reperesent Hitler only as a screaming madman and a bloodthirsty persecutor, and nothing else, is manifestly unfair, considering his phenomenal public career, his unchallenged political and social achievements, and his position as head of the most important continental European power.'“
--from ”Hollywood Left and Right: How Movie Stars Shaped American Politics,“ by Steven J. Ross
According to Hollywood's PCA, Hitler had ”unchallenged political and social achievements." Why pick on him? According the HUAC 10 years later, the star of the movie was a red, too.
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.
How great is it to be as stupid as Maureen Dowd?
In her latest column, “Eggheads and Blockheads,” Maureen Dowd chastises the Republican party as the “How great is it to be stupid?” party, which it is, by comparing its current front-runner for president, Rick Perry, to ... wait for it ... John Wayne.
So she attempts to trash a man by comparing him to one of the most iconic heroes of American cinema? How great is it to be as stupid as Maureen Dowd?
Dowd uses John Ford's “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” as her prism for the upcoming presidential race. She casts Barack Obama as Ransom Stoddard (Jimmy Stewart), the thin lawyer from the east who is often bullied by the likes of Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin), whom, in a final showdown, he shoots and kills. From this he gains acclaim, becoming an ambassador to England and U.S. Senator. But it's all a lie. Tom Doniphon (John Wayne), from behind a corner store, was the real man who shot Liberty Valance. Stoddard's shot missed high and wide.
What's the connection between Ford's film and our current reality? None. The comparison is facile. The connective tissue is barely there. She merely sees Obama as an egghead (forgetting Stoddard's rage), Perry as a blockhead (forgetting Doniphan's heroism), and the rest of us as the townsfolk caught in the middle (forgetting that most were stereotypical Scandinavians, a favorite Ford trope.)
As she puts it:
So we’re choosing between the overintellectualized professor and blockheads boasting about their vacuity?
What's awful about Dowd is not just her myopic dichotomies, not just her clumsy Hollywood analogies, but the fact that she misses the bigger picture. Because what's fascinating about modern Republicans, who continually trash Hollywood, is how their candidates fit so easily into Hollywood western and action-adventure archetypes. This is intentional. The party that trashes Hollywood is the party that apes Hollywood. Both the GOP and Hollywood create wish-fulfillment fantasies in good vs. evil battles because that's what we, the public, wish to see. Until reality intrudes. Which makes us wish to see it even more.
It's not an insult, in other words, to compare Rick Perry to John Wayne. It is, in fact, the whole point to his awful, awful career.
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
Open Letter to Patrick Goldstein
Please stop writing about right-wing culture critics. Please. They're idiots. They think the product of Hollywood is liberal when it's blisteringly conservative. They study each film looking for some liberal thing that liberal Hollywood "snuck" into a film without asking themselves why liberal Hollywood would need to sneak some liberal thing into a film. You bend over backwards for these guys, you try to figure out where they're coming from, you think they can be appeased, but they can't be appeased. The first sentence of your post last Wednesday was about as laughable as any first sentence can be: "If we could wave a magic wand and do just one thing that would bring true happiness to the right-wing blogosphere, what would it be?" The answer? Nothing. There's nothing we can do. Right-wing culture critics are in a permanent state of dissatisfaction. That's their raison d'etre. That's their super power. They're like Mr. Furious from "Mystery Men." They have the power to get really, really angry... and that's it. Take away that power and they have nothing.
As for the space you're giving them? Please use it to cover the studios. Please. The day after your worthless post about the right-wing blogosphere, you wrote about Fox Studios and the way it handles its screenwriters—including 11 screenwriters for "The A-Team"—and that's exactly what the rest of us, who don't live in Los Angeles, and don't know from studio bosses, need.
We know a little about the studios. In one of the countless "Downfall" mashups last year, there was a line complaining about how Fox dumbs down its superhero movies, about how they'd give goddamn Wolverine webshooters and a bat cape if they could. So people know. Last year I wrote a post—"Dumb Like a Fox"—ranking each studios' super-saturated films over the last five years by their average box office. The studio with the lowest average box office? Fox. The studio with the fewest fresh films according to top critics at Rotten Tomatoes? Fox again. There's a correlation there that, for whatever reason, people keep missing. Particularly people at Fox.
So we know Fox sux; we just don't know why Fox sux. Your recent column helps. We even have a possible name to attach to all of these lousy films: Fox co-chairman Tom Rothman. Nikki Finke, in her column, absolves Rothman, but you imply that this is because he is her source, or someone close to him is her source. Either way, you make clear, his Finkeish absolution is a farce. You write:
As anyone who's ever worked at Fox can attest, the brilliant, hard-working and, well, often overbearing Rothman is at the center of every key decision -- and some not-so-key decisions -- made at the studio. When Brett Ratner was making "X-Men: The Last Stand" at the studio, he once complained that the studio couldn't even send out publicity material for the film until Rothman had approved the photo stills.
Then you write about the process at Fox:
At Fox, the real art form isn't the movie, but picking the right release date and creating the right poster and trailer. Fox is a packaging studio, where the most creative person isn't any of the screenwriters, but Tony Sella, the marketing wizard who has become something of a genius at crafting irresistible trailers, TV spots and poster art for less-than-irresistible movies.
So now we have a name and a process to back up the numbers. We're that much closer to accountability.
Please keep doing this. This is what you're good at. This is what makes your column worth reading. Find out for us what we can't find out. Let us know what we don't know. Right-wing culture critics? Not only can we find that out for ourselves, we already know what they're saying. And we know it's not worth knowing.
Your sometime reader,
Robin Hood — Libertarian?
Here's my favorite part of A.O. Scott's review of the new “Robin Hood”:
Meanwhile — and believe me, there is a whole lot of meanwhile in this crowded, lumbering film —...
Here's my least-favorite part:
You may have heard that Robin Hood stole from the rich and gave to the poor, but that was just liberal media propaganda. This Robin is no socialist bandit practicing freelance wealth redistribution, but rather a manly libertarian rebel striking out against high taxes and a big government scheme to trample the ancient liberties of property owners and provincial nobles. Don’t tread on him!
Yes, Robin Hood, in legend, is most famous for robbing from the rich and giving to the poor, but Hollywood, liberal Hollywood, has never followed suit. In the Fairbanks version in 1922, Robin and his men sing about it (“We rob the rich, relieve distressed...”), and an arrow quivers close to “the Rich Man of Wakefield,” but that's about it. Otherwise they're against Prince John's excessive taxes. The Flynn version during the Depression? That caravan they rob is full of Prince John's tax money. Costner? He does rob a wealthy man, and takes the necklace off of his comely daughter, but he, too, is mostly about getting back tax money. Ditto Patrick Bergin the same year. You can take issue with it, but don't pretend it's anything new. Hollywood always makes it personal, not political.
Plus the libertarian line is just silly. The libertarian assumption is that we're all free and government enslaves us. The 12th century assumption is that we're all enslaved, at the whim of a king who is chosen by God, so Robin tries to use government, i.e., kingly decree, to free us. We're talking different planets.
Most important, and please accept the usual SPOILERS here, the fault of the new “Robin Hood” movie isn't that Robin Hood does't rob from the rich and give to the poor; it's that he never becomes Robin Hood.
Ah, well. At least Scott's review isn't as bad as Armond White's.
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 did gross $7.7 million domestic, though. That made it the 108th highest grossing film released in U.S. theaters in 1990—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.”
Twitter: @ErikLundegaardTweets by @ErikLundegaard