(Not remotely a conservative film. But it remains frighteningly timely and accurate in satirizing conservatives.)
I'm quite late in covering National Review's list of "The 25 Most Conservative Films" due to other pressing events (as well as my annual post-Oscar film roundup). Still, it's impossible to ignore. I won't be as pithy as Roy Edroso nor as witty as Jon Swift, but here we go.
The Reductive Mindset
[Conservative site Big Hollywood] is supposed to eventually host cultural musings from such notable film critics as House Minority Leader John Boehner and Minority Whip Eric Cantor; commenting on a scene in the new thriller The International in which the characters shoot it out in the Guggenheim Museum, one Big Hollywood contributor coos approvingly, "I love seeing modern (phony) art destroyed."
From "Culture Shock," by Charles Homans.
If you're not familiar with how movement conservatives view film, art and pop culture in general, check out "Dispatches From the Konservetkult" by Brad Reed and Roy Edroso, where they explain how "today's members of the right-wing culture patrol see ideological subtext everywhere they look." As they conclude:
What the Konservetkult has failed to grasp through all this is that art is most successful when it is not put slavishly in the service of political ideology. To be sure, art and politics have commingled in the past, from Beethoven's symphonic tribute to Napoleon to Goya's graphic depictions of war, to South Park's barbed libertarian social satire. But lasting political art uses politics as its inspiration; in the Konservetkult's calculus, politics must always use art. Normal people look at a piece of art and ponder how it changes their view of the world, or how it deepens their appreciation for life. The right's culture critics look at art and ask, "How can this help us win?"
Movement conservatives have propagandist and controlling impulses, but there are deeper dynamics at work as well. Artists tend to be anti-authoritarian, which comes with questioning things, so it's no surprise that authoritarian conservatives tend to have a uneasy, even hostile relationship with art. Art questions, spurs reflection and self-examination, and is capable of saying more than one thing at once. Conservatives also tend to regard 'seeing the world through another person's eyes' with alarm rather than interest. Narratives often feature conflicting attitudes between characters. Some stories don't have neat and tidy resolutions and a clear "moral." Instead, they embody a dialogue, an argument, or a conversation. Playwright Tom Stoppard understands this well:
And herein lies an element of Stoppard's genius: Refusing to offer you a single pat lesson spoken by a character who serves as the play's moral authority, Stoppard requires his audience members to piece together their own conclusions. "I write plays because writing dialogue is the only respectable way of contradicting yourself," he has said. "I put a position, rebut it, refute the rebuttal, and rebut the refutation."
Narratives can require a tolerance for ambiguity that stymies a black-and-white mindset. Stories often possess a complexity that resists simplistic, reductive interpretations. This may be most pronounced in America with Biblical literalists, who employ a very dogmatic approach to sacred texts. (Some religious scholars have noted that Christians of earlier eras did not approach the Bible this way. It's also been observed that the literalists might benefit from reading more literature and developing more comfort with metaphor and allegory, as well as a tolerance for ambiguity.) Good art generally rebels against attempts to subjugate it to some specific purpose or narrow, slavish interpretation. As Hamlet puts it:
You would play upon me; you would seem to know
my stops; you would pluck out the heart of my
mystery; you would sound me from my lowest note to
the top of my compass: and there is much music,
excellent voice, in this little organ; yet cannot
you make it speak.
- Hamlet, 3.2, 363-368
This attitude isn't limited to authoritarian conservatives, although they may demonstrate its most noxious form. It can also show up in students (and academicians):
Introduction to Poetry
By Billy Collins
I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide
or press an ear against its hive.
I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,
or walk inside the poem's room
and feel the walls for a light switch.
I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author's name on the shore.
But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.
They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.
It's hard to top that. (Still, since we're delving into film, I'd also highly recommend reading "How to Be a Clever Film Critic" from Life in Hell by Matt Groening.)
If I Like It, It Must be Conservative
Since conservatism purports to uphold eternal truths, it's funny how malleable "conservatism" actually is for self-proclaimed conservatives. Generally, whatever they view as good they call conservative, while they label everything they view as bad as liberal - or something else conservatives view as negative (socialist, heathen, European, etcetera). Hilzoy has an excellent link-annotated version of a piece conservative Andrew Sullivan featured, "Conservatism is like Water," and disillusioned conservative John Cole took on the same piece in "Conservatism as Urine" (Glenn Greenwald touches on related issues). As I commented over at Hilzoy's post, movement conservatives tend to define themselves by what they oppose, but power and tribalism are the key drivers, and ideology trumps competence. The neocons still aren't admitting they were wrong – they're just lying about their past statements. Jonah Goldberg tried to re-label fascism as liberal, and Nixon as well. Goldberg, Peggy Noonan and other conservatives attempted to claim George W. Bush was liberal, too - but only after his popularity sunk. The conservatism they're selling a highly re-touched profile shot while the reality is the picture of Dorian Gray. As Digby's often observed, in the conservative mindset, conservatism cannot fail, it can only be failed. Still, when it comes to art, John Cole's urine metaphor is the most apt, because movement conservatives piss all over art, whether in a show of contempt or to try to claim it as their own.
National Review's 2006 list of the "top 50 conservative rock songs" is probably the most infamous and ridiculous of these attempts, and Jon Swift's is probably the funniest of the responses. However, also back in 2006, for Valentine's Day they ran a symposium on "the most conservative love story ever told." Some of the participants actually admitted their choices were a stretch, while for others, "conservative love story" simply meant "no sex." (Always a sure way to win over the kids.) What's sad is that such reductive exercises are so unnecessary. Why not simply make the question, "What's your favorite love story, and why?" and run it on your conservative site, without trying to bludgeon the stories into ideological constraints? An actual interesting conversation might result, and you could even have that conversation with (heaven forbid) people who didn't share your political views. It's obnoxious when conservatives smugly try to claim Orwell's Animal Farm as their own while rooting for the pigs. I'll also never forget conservatives on Fox News expressing concern that one of the favorite films of then-nominee to the Supreme Court John Roberts, Doctor Zhivago, was "a little bit Commie" – doubtless simply because it takes place during the Russian Revolution, while they completely ignored the views of the main couple! (Not to mention the persecution author Boris Pasternak faced during his lifetime.) To go personal for a moment, several of my conservative friends are film-lovers, and while we occasionally touch on politics in discussing movies, TV, plays and the like, it normally only comes up because of the stories themselves, and most of the time there's a wealth of other things to discuss. Personally, I think our political talk shows suffer severely from an unwillingness to call bullshit and from pretending all statements are equally valid and accurate - but that's a completely different arena, with serious consequences, and many disingenuous, bad faith actors. There is much more to existence than politics, and in real life, people of good faith and humor can discuss a great number of things enjoyably (including politics, actually). It just seems a shame to deprive one's self of so much richness and joy in both art and life.
The richness of cinema history is also largely absent in conservative accounts. As Roy Edroso noted:
And though the new NR list is graced by contributions from heavy thinkers as well as hacks, it's remarkably dumbed-down from the original. The 1994 list of 100 movies included films by John Ford and Wajda, Cavalier's Therese, There Was a Crooked Man, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, etc. These were in most cases woefully misapprehended by the editors, but at least they showed some interest in film history. The oldest films on the current list are 1984's Red Dawn and Ghostbusters. The Lives of Others, a favorite of William F. Buckley, is the lone art-house entry. Most of the honorees were originally released after right-wingers started mining movies for affirmation and have already been through the conservetkult's cultural appropriation mill, e.g. The Dark Knight, United 93, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, A Simple Plan, etc.
I don't blame laziness so much as a weary awareness, after all these years of similar work, that they are no longer breaking new ground. Real critics would be excited by any opportunity to reexamine film culture, but propagandists are more easily bored. As culture-war detail is only a part-time job for most of them, why re-invent the wheel? So they grabbed what was handy and did a quick, web-friendly Top Whatever list. Later on they'll get someone to write about the supply-side economic message in Confessions of a Shopaholic, and if it plays they can use it again later.
Art, even commercial art like Hollywood fare, is seen merely as ammunition. And similar to Sarah Palin on policy, most rightwing cultural critics are not "conversant" on their subject matter.
This stands in sharp contrast with the film reviews issued by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. The reviews are written from a socially conservative perspective, for a similarly-minded audience, but the reviewers clearly know something about film syntax and history. They outline their criteria for all to see. My moral framework differs from theirs, and certainly my judgment of some films. However, unlike the rightwing reviewers, their chief goal is not to wage a culture war, even if they do touch on some of those issues. Instead, like most film reviewers, they're trying to help their readers (specifically, members of Catholic congregations) with their film-going choices, and like many family filmgoer reviewers, they try to inform parents about content and give guidelines on viewer age and maturity. They rate the film Milk as "L -- limited adult audience, films whose problematic content many adults would find troubling," but don't deny that it's a well-made film. They really mean "many socially conservative adults," would find the content troubling, but that's their readership, and ten years ago, I suspect they would have labeled the film "morally offensive," so I suppose that's progress. Meanwhile, the Vatican's list of 45 great films contains many cinema classics. Even if the reviewers disapprove of a film or aspects of (mostly American) culture, they're not completely ignorant of it, nor the medium. They state their reviewing criteria and perspective clearly, and while their political views may become further apparent in the reviews, the films themselves are not mere fodder for a political agenda. They're providing a consumer guide, sometimes a moralizing one, but they're not propagandists.
One can certainly find obtuse cultural criticism from purported liberals and from academics, but it's a definite hallmark of movement conservatives. Roy Edroso's probably chronicled the wackiness of conservative attitudes towards the arts and pop culture more diligently than anybody, and TBogg has delivered some sharp, funny critiques of Andrew Breitbart's conservative site, Big Hollywood. Still, Charles Homans really captures Breitbart's site:
…beneath the patina of combativeness, it’s really just a support group for 24 fans. What Big Hollywood does isn’t criticism, or reporting—it’s ideological accounting. And its failure to get its arms around the culture in which it is swimming is symptomatic of the broader failures of the conservative movement.
So what is "conservative" regarding the National Review and their film list? For them, "conservative" is a pretty fluid concept - like water - or urine – but again, basically that which is good is conservative, while that which is bad is liberal. If a good and popular film can somehow be forcibly pressed into service for the greater glory of converting the masses to movement conservatism, no interpretative stretch is too ludicrous or asinine. National Review writers differ somewhat in their views, but generally, they're "country club" Republicans. They backed Mitt Romney in the primaries, always favor tax cuts, want more money to go to the rich and generally hold that the poor are poor because of a lack of character. They support torture and oppose civil liberties, and backed the Bush administration's moves to eliminate habeas corpus rights and Geneva Convention protections. They have happily posited that everyone arrested and held indefinitely by the Bush administration is guilty. They approved of Bush's warrantless surveillance. They supported the invasion of Iraq, accused dissenters of being traitors, and demonize Muslims, Arabs and Persians. Many of them still insist that no one in the Bush administration ever lied to the American public. Basically, they backed everything about Bush until he became unpopular, and then they occasionally tried to separate him from the conservative brand name. Most of them loved (or still love) Sarah Palin. Party loyalty and tribalism have almost always come before any sort of integrity, intellectual or otherwise. Almost all of them argue in bad faith, although sincere zealotry and self-delusion also intrude. Near the end of the presidential campaign, Andrew McCarthy was writing about William Ayers possibly penning Obama's books for him, and even some of his colleagues starting getting alarmed.
Just about every MLK Day, National Review tries to claim that Martin Luther King, Jr. was really a conservative, or would be if he were alive today. It's a silly claim for many reasons, not the least of which is that under William F. Buckley, Jr., National Review opposed the Civil Rights Act and attacked King as an agitator. Buckley was a key figure in perfecting the conservative shell game – as we've discussed before, "the pitch is that the real enemy isn't socioeconomic elites, those rich individuals in gated communities, powerful corporations, and other oligarchs, instead it's those cultural elites like that snooty egghead professor who looks down on the movies you watch." Basically, the trick is to exploit social issues and feed spite to gull social conservatives into voting against their own economic interests and leave the real, moneyed elites in power. Occasionally, conservatives such as Jonah Goldberg and Tucker Carlson have let the game slip, but it's been an awfully good racket. Like many rightwing publications, National Review is a loss leader that only survives due to wealthy patrons. Conservatives like to pretend they're the champions of meritocracy, but many conservative pundits are the product of wingnut welfare and shameless nepotism.
Different breeds of conservatives vary somewhat on their precise attitude toward funding for and regulation of the arts. Most of them favor eliminating the National Endowment for the Arts, despite its paltry funding, the economic stimulus it provides and its many good works, such as defraying ticket costs for students to attend plays. (The same people rarely if ever oppose cost overruns at the Pentagon and billions spent on obsolete, Cold War weapons systems. The recent Republican numberless budget urged that the NEA be eliminated and PBS be de-funded, classic asshole moves since Reagan and Gingrich, at least.) Social conservatives practice a steady racket in condemning all that filth in Hollywood, although not all of them openly call for a return to the Hays Code. It's very easy to favor public funding for the arts while opposing active government censorship, of course. The New Deal funded plenty of arts projects, and public funding helped figures from Arthur Miller to Maya Lin (Ingmar Bergman and many other international artists have been state funded). As Roy Edroso and others have noted, movement conservatives mainly view all culture mostly as ammunition for their cause, not something of value in its own right.
For more on the National Review mindset, the Sadly No archives offer plenty of material. Dave Neiwert delivered some of the most definitive responses to Jonah Goldberg's piece of anti-historical, revisionist crap, Liberal Fascism. (Meanwhile, some of my older posts center on National Review, including "Concern Trolls for Nixon," "That Damned Liberal Racism" and "The Conservative Brain Trust Takes On: Freedom of Religion!")
I'm skipping the few I haven't seen. There aren't many spoilers in the NR blurbs or my responses, but if you're concerned about that for a given film, don't read that entry.
1. The Lives of Others (2007): “I think that this is the best movie I ever saw,” said William F. Buckley Jr. upon leaving the theater (according to his column on the film). The tale, set in East Germany in 1984, is one part romantic drama, one part political thriller. It chronicles life under a totalitarian regime as the Stasi secretly monitors the activities of a playwright who is suspected of harboring doubts about Communism. Critics showered the movie with praise and it won an Oscar for best foreign-language film (it’s in German). More Buckley: “The tension mounts to heart-stopping pitch and I felt the impulse to rush out into the street and drag passersby in to watch the story unfold.”
— John J. Miller
Apart from Brazil further down, calling the great film The Lives of Others "conservative" might be the most audacious and preposterous move on this list. National Review has some cover in citing their founder, the late William F. Buckley, Jr. But Buckley in his last years disapproved of the war in Iraq and other aspects of the Bush administration, earning disapproval from many other conservatives in the process. The chief bad guy in The Lives of Others is an East German official in the communist government, which seems to be the main reason to try to claim The Lives of Others as "conservative." However, two of the heroes are artists, and the third is someone moved by their art and their humanity. I have no problem with conservatives liking the film – I thought it was one of the best of 2006. Liking it makes sense for a conservative who didn't like communism, reveres civil rights, likes artists and public criticism of officials, has an anti-establishment streak and believes that conscience trumps orders. But it makes no sense to claim it as "conservative" for authoritarians who hate civil rights, hate artists and want to control them, seek to squelch public criticism, want journalists to show loyalty to the president (as long as he's a Republican), and defend the established order, no matter how unfair or corrupt. Guess which camp most of the National Review crowd falls into? The Lives of Others is a repudiation of everything they shamelessly defended for eight years under Bush.
There are further contradictions. As Matthew Yglesias observes:
...We’re really defining conservatism down if we take “the pervasive intelligence state of Communist East Germany” to be a distinctly conservative notion. Perhaps more truly typical of the conservative worldview is that after Lives of Others comes in at the number one slot, The Dark Knight takes position number twelve specifically because of its alleged advocacy of pervasive surveillance.
My review of the film is here (the fourth film covered). Here's an excerpt:
While some characters work to recognize each others' humanity, there are others who strive to obscure and eradicate it. It's also important to remember that all the suffering in the film is the result of one selfish, callous man willing to abuse his vast power without the slightest twinge of conscience. If Wiesler is Pontius Pilate and Grubitz is O'Brien, the shadowy Minister Hempf is a passionless, porcine Salieri, more than happy to destroy anything and anyone beautiful if he can't possess them, body and soul...
There's a powerful line near the end of the film: "To think that men such as you once ruled a country." Sadly, they still do in many places, and as with Animal Farm, the greatest mistake would be to assume that the important dynamics captured in this impressive film only apply to other countries, and the lives of others.
There's one last irony in National Review picking this film to top its list. Buckley and others saw the film at all in large part due to collective public funding by the European Union's MEDIA programme to distribute the film beyond Germany – precisely the sort of arts funding many conservatives oppose.
2. The Incredibles (2004): This animated film skips pop-culture references and gross jokes in favor of a story that celebrates marriage, courage, responsibility, and high achievement. A family of superheroes — Mr. Incredible, his wife Elastigirl, and their children — are living an anonymous life in the suburbs, thanks to a society that doesn’t appreciate their unique talents. Then it comes to need them. In one scene, son Dash, a super-speedy runner, wants to try out for track. Mom claims it wouldn’t be fair. “Dad says our powers make us special!” Dash objects. “Everyone is special,” Mom demurs, to which Dash mutters, “Which means nobody is.”
— Frederica Mathewes-Greene writes for Beliefnet.com.
Pixar tries not to be that political. Last summer, conservatives first rejected WALL-E as too critical of consumerism and destroying the environment of the entire planet, then pivoted and tried to claim it as an indictment of the "nanny-state." It was all very silly. Who knew that "marriage, courage, responsibility, and high achievement" were uniquely conservative? Many conservatives do believe they're somehow the champions of meritocracy, but funny, I'd say true liberals are. Modern conservatism is defined by its aggressive protection of entrenched, unearned privilege and class warfare for the rich. It's defined by tribalism, nepotism, cronyism, corruption and a lack of accountability. (Did I mention that National Review is a loss leader?)
4. Forrest Gump (1994): It won an Oscar for best picture — beating Pulp Fiction, a movie that’s far more expressive of Hollywood’s worldview. Tom Hanks plays the title character, an amiable dunce who is far too smart to embrace the lethal values of the 1960s. The love of his life, wonderfully played by Robin Wright Penn, chooses a different path; she becomes a drug-addled hippie, with disastrous results. Forrest’s IQ may be room temperature, but he serves as an unexpected font of wisdom. Put ’em on a Whitman’s Sampler, but Mama Gump’s famous words about life’s being like a box of chocolates ring true.
— Charlotte Hays is co-author of Somebody Is Going to Die If Lilly Beth Doesn’t Catch That Bouquet.
Yes, it's common knowledge how the "Hollywood worldview" embodies petty crime, drug use, dancing to that devil music rock 'n' roll, forced sodomy, accidental murder, Loud Scary Negroes spouting Biblical passages, and sticking a watch up your ass for five years. Even from someone with a cartoonish view of Hollywood liberals, the Pulp Fiction line is ridiculous – all the more so since the same group of Hollywood liberals nominated and awarded Forest Gump for Best Picture. Forrest Gump also did very good box office and was enjoyed by liberals as well as conservatives when it came out. Forrest himself is not political. Actually, for the time, he'd be seen as liberal by social conservatives in having a close black friend (again, National Review opposed the Civil Rights Act and that Negro rabble-rouser, Martin Luther King, Jr.) Hays apparently was no fan of the counter culture, which is her choice, but referring to "lethal values" is pretty extreme. Jenny (Penn's character) is messed up mainly due to sexual abuse as a child by her father. But hey, if the kids are scared to become hippies, take drugs or have sex, the film clearly has conservative cautionary-tale value. ("Amiable dunce" is a phrase that was used to describe Reagan, who Being There presciently predicted.)
5. 300 (2007): During the Bush years, Hollywood neglected the heroism of American soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan — but it did release this action film about martial honor, unflinching courage, and the oft-ignored truth that freedom isn’t free. Beneath a layer of egregious non-history — including goblin-like creatures that belong in a fantasy epic — is a stylized story about the ancient battle of Thermopylae and the Spartan defense of the West’s fledgling institutions. It contrasts a small band of Spartans, motivated by their convictions and a commitment to the law, with a Persian horde that is driven forward by whips. In the words recorded by the real-life Herodotus: “Law is their master, which they fear more than your men[, Xerxes,] fear you.”
— Michael Poliakoff, a classicist, is vice president for academic affairs at the University of Colorado.
I guess Poliakoff missed all the documentaries and feature films that came out on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Still, there's a more legitimate case to be made here for 300 capturing the skewed conservative world view, given the views of the graphic novel's artist-author Frank Miller, the film's mix of homophobia and homoeroticism, and its depiction of peace-lovers as corrupt, weak girlie-men. It depicts one of the great battles in history, and most of the action scenes are well-staged, but this is a stylized, occasionally cartoonish version of history. If Poliakoff wants to claim this as a "conservative" film, fine, but he pulls a common right-wing move – ignoring that many Democrats supported invaded Afghanistan, and opposed invading Iraq was because it was unnecessary. It's also not as if most right-wing bloggers, the 101st Chairborne, chickenhawks extraordinaire, know jack-all about "martial honor" and "unflinching courage." (I wrote about 300 earlier here - it's the twelfth film covered.)
6. Groundhog Day (1993): This putatively wacky comedy about Bill Murray as an obnoxious weatherman cursed to relive the same day over and over in a small Pennsylvania town, perhaps for eternity, is in fact a sophisticated commentary on the good and true. Theologians and philosophers across the ideological spectrum have embraced it. For the conservative, the moral of the tale is that redemption and meaning are derived not from indulging your “authentic” instincts and drives, but from striving to live up to external and timeless ideals. Murray begins the film as an irony-soaked narcissist, contemptuous of beauty, art, and commitment. His journey of self-discovery leads him to understand that the fads of modernity are no substitute for the permanent things.
— Jonah Goldberg
If you somehow buy that shallow narcissism isn't a hallmark of modern conservatism, and believe that all that is Good and True is conservative, and believe that Groundhog Day is somehow a political film, this critique makes sense. Otherwise, it's just Jonah pissing away on a very good film to try to claim it as his own. It's not as ridiculous as him trying to claim The Wire as a conservative show, but in typical Goldberg fashion, his critique adds absolutely nothing of value.
7. The Pursuit of Happyness (2006): Based on the life of self-made millionaire Chris Gardner (Will Smith), this film provides the perfect antidote to Wall Street and other Hollywood diatribes depicting the world of finance as filled with nothing but greed. After his wife leaves him, Gardner can barely pay the rent. He accepts an unpaid internship at a San Francisco brokerage, with the promise of a real job if he outperforms the other interns and passes his exams. Gardner never succumbs to self-pity, even when he and his young son take refuge in a homeless shelter. They’re black, but there’s no racial undertone or subtext. Gardner is just an incredibly hard-working, ambitious, and smart man who wants to do better for himself and his son.
— Linda Chavez is chairman of the Center for Equal Opportunity.
Shorter Chavez: Because of Chris Gardner's unlikely, triumphant story, we conservatives don't need to feel guilty about shutting down homeless shelters, screwing over the disadvantaged and despising the poor. (I covered The Pursuit of Happyness, a decent flick, here - it's the seventh film covered.)
8. Juno (2007): The best pro-life movies reach beyond the church choirs and influence the wider public. Juno was a critical and commercial success. It didn’t set out to deliver a message on abortion, but much of its audience discovered one anyway. The story revolves around a 16-year-old who finds a home for her unplanned baby. The film has its faults, including a number of crass moments and a pregnant high-school student with an unrealistic level of self-confidence. Yet it also exposes a broken culture in which teen sex is dehumanizing, girls struggle with “choice,” and boys aimlessly try — and sometimes downright fail — to become men. The movie doesn’t glamorize much of anything but leaves audiences with an open-ended chance for redemption.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez
Juno doesn't get an abortion because otherwise, there'd be no movie. Lopez apparently only likes Juno as potential propaganda, and in her world, audiences can earn "redemption" if they become pro-life. Lopez misses what many pro-lifers don't get – being pro-choice is not pro-abortion. It means a woman gets to choose. Lopez putting "choice" in quotation marks reminds me of John McCain's sneering "health of the mother" remarks, and it's unclear what Lopez means beyond expressing contempt. Unsurprisingly, Lopez misses that Juno's self-confidence is something of a front, and Juno herself comments on this – but Lopez must not spend much time around adolescents if she thinks teen bravado is unrealistic. Also, teen sex is hardly dehumanizing in Juno. Perhaps screenwriter (and ex-stripper) Diablo Cody can explain all these things to Lopez. (I reviewed Juno here - the fourth film covered.)
10. Ghostbusters (1984): This comedy might not get Russell Kirk’s endorsement as a worthy treatment of the supernatural, but you have to like a movie in which the bad guy (William Atherton at his loathsome best) is a regulation-happy buffoon from the EPA, and the solution to a public menace comes from the private sector. This last fact is the other reason to love Ghostbusters: When Dr. Peter Venkman (Bill Murray) gets kicked out of the university lab and ponders pursuing entrepreneurial opportunities, a nervous Dr. Raymond Stantz (Dan Aykroyd) replies: “I don’t know about that. I’ve worked in the private sector. They expect results!”
— Steven F. Hayward is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
Hey, I love the private sector line too, and I watched (and quoted) this film with one of my brothers more times than I can count when we were kids. Ghostbusters is a comedy and not a political film, though, and claiming it's about the evils of regulation is fucking ridiculous. The real villain, you may recall, is an extra-dimensional demon who eventually takes the form of a giant Stay-Puft Marshmellow Man (yet somehow, I don't think the film is an attack on corporatism).
Hayward demonstrates the essence of bad analysis – it makes the film less interesting and enjoyable.
11. The Lord of the Rings (2001, 2002, 2003): Author J. R. R. Tolkien was deeply conservative, so it’s no surprise that the trilogy of movies based on his masterwork is as well. Largely filmed before 9/11, they seemed perfectly pitched for the post-9/11 world. The debates over what to do about Sauron and Saruman echoed our own disputes over the Iraq War. (Think of Wormtongue as Keith Olbermann.) When Frodo sighs, “I wish none of this had happened,” Gandalf’s response speaks to us, too: “So do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.”
— Andrew Leigh is a screenwriter and producer in Los Angeles.
I had a friend who argued that LOTR was a WWII allegory, even though that was a reductive interpretation and Tolkien even explicitly refuted it. Similarly, I'm cool with Andrew Leigh liking Lord of the Rings, and having his own political views. But trying to justify invading Iraq by citing 9/11 and Lord of the Rings makes him a huge wanker on two fronts. If we really want to push the LOTR analogies, arrogant Bush and Cheney seizing the Ring of Power, shredding the Constitution, lying to the public and attacking a much weaker country that they were told didn't have WMD is not like humble Frodo and the Fellowship risking everything to destroy the Ring of Power to prevent the subjugation of all free people. The most charitable comparison would be to say that Bush, Cheney and the neocons were like Boromir, well-intended but driven mad with dreams of power, but the truth is they're more like Denethor, Wormtongue, Saruman and Sauron. There's also Jon Stewart's take.
12. The Dark Knight (2008): This film gives us a portrait of the hero as a man reviled. In his fight against the terrorist Joker, Batman has to devise new means of surveillance, push the limits of the law, and accept the hatred of the press and public. If that sounds reminiscent of a certain former president — whose stubborn integrity kept the nation safe and turned the tide of war — don’t mention it to the mainstream media. Our journalists know that good men are often despised by the mob; it just never seems to occur to them that they might be the mob themselves.
— Andrew Klavan is the author of Empire of Lies.
Klavan's take is a classic of selective viewing. I liked the film overall, but covered most of these issues in my review:
Late in the film, I began to wonder when the hell the Joker found time to wire half the city with explosives. It veers into infallible boogeyman territory. This became more of an issue as The Dark Knight flirts with the idea that only extremism will defeat the Joker's extremism. If we treat the film as mere escapism, it doesn't matter as much, but the film certainly seems to be asking us to take its moral issues seriously. Predictably, right-wingers tried to claim the film sas their own, and as a validation of George Bush, which was pretty silly. The Batman of The Dark Knight, like 24's Jack Bauer, is fictional, has nearly infallible judgment and can be trusted with unchecked, awesome powers, and not only takes full responsibility for his actions, he takes the blame for things he didn't do (something the Bush gang and their fans have never done). The Dark Knight also highlights Batman's transgression in spying on the whole city to find the Joker – Lucius says it's wrong because it's too much power for anyone, and says he'll resign after helping Batman if the system stays. Batman (by wiping the computers at the end) apparently agrees. Batman stops Harvey Dent from torturing and killing a mentally ill member of the Joker's gang, pointing out that it won't accomplish anything (even if it feels satisfying) and will in fact undermine everything good that Dent has done. Batman does lose it himself in beating up the Joker, but gets played in the process (as does one of the cop guarding the Joker). The Joker's plot depends on him making others lose their cool and surrender to fear and rage. Plus, in the end, Batman doesn't break his no killing rule, and brings the Joker to justice. Meanwhile, despite their panic, the citizens (and prisoners) of Gotham on the ferries choose to reject fear and barbarism. As Rob Vaux puts it:It's worth noting that the film's most important moment comes not from any of the main characters, but from an unnamed man beneath them played by Tiny Lister. His simple, pointed gesture perfectly encapsulates the need for heroes like Batman, and acts as an all-important reminder in this grim near-masterpiece that everyone is capable of redemption.
For more on Klavan, check out Hilzoy, Mustang Bobby and skippy.
13. Braveheart (1995): Forget the travesty this soaring action film makes of the historical record. Braveheart raised its hero, medieval Scottish warrior William Wallace, to the level of myth and won five Oscars, including best director for Mel Gibson, who played Wallace as he led a spirited revolt against English tyranny. Braveheart taught that freedom is not just worth dying for, but also worth killing for, in defense of hearth and homeland. Six years later, amid the ruins of the Twin Towers, Gibson’s message resonated with a generation of American youth who signed up to fight terrorists, instead of inviting them to join a “constructive dialogue.” Liberals have never forgiven Gibson since.
— Arthur Herman is the author of How the Scots Invented the Modern World.
Braveheart is ludicrous as history, but is enjoyable as a Hollywood epic. "Dying for," I agree with, but "killing for"...? When the film came out, it was the stated favorite film of the year for all the Republican presidential candidates except for Bob Dole (who preferred The American President). It was a safe pick, but there was a joke about the different reasons they liked it – 'Pat Buchanan liked it because it showed a gay guy getting thrown out a window to his death,' and so on. I'm a bit sick of conservative masturbatory fantasies like "Liberals have never forgiven Gibson since," but the armchair warriors ever must pretend. Wonkette correctly notes that liberals were fine with Gibson until his later anti-Semitic rant and perhaps his torture porn film Passion of the Christ. But really, a film showing an armed insurrection against the establishment power (which views itself as inherently superior) is conservative? Really? As with Forrest Gump, Hollywood liberals nominated Braveheart for Best Picture and voted it the winner. Funny, that.
14. A Simple Plan (1998): A defining insight of conservatism is that whatever transcendent inspiration there may be to moral principles, there is also the humble fact that morality works. Moral institutions and customs endure because they allow civilization to proceed. Sam Raimi’s gripping A Simple Plan illustrates this truth. Bill Paxton plays a decent family man who lives by the book in every way. But when he’s cajoled into breaking the rules to get rich quick, he falls under the jurisdiction of the law of unintended consequences and discovers that simple morality is not simplistic, and that a seductively simple plan is a siren song if it runs against the grain of what is right.
— Jonah Goldberg
A Simple Plan is a good but awfully bleak film, with Billy Bob Thornton giving a particularly heartbreaking (and Oscar-nominated) performance. Goldberg is basically claiming that because 'crime doesn't pay' this is a conservative film. I imagine he'd be a fan of the Hays code - hell, he could go ahead and try to claim every film made under the Hays code is conservative.
15. Red Dawn (1984): From the safe, familiar environment of a classroom, we watch countless parachutes drop from the sky and into the heart of America. Oh, no: invading Commies! Laugh if you want — many do — but Red Dawn has survived countless more acclaimed films because Father Time has always been our most reliable film critic. The essence of timelessness is more than beauty. It’s also truth, and the truth that America is a place and an idea worth fighting and dying for will not be denied, not under a pile of left-wing critiques or even Red Dawn’s own melodramatic flaws. Released at the midpoint of Reagan’s presidential showdown with the Soviet Union, this story of what was at stake in the Cold War endures.
— John Nolte blogs at BigHollywood.Breitbart.com.
You're welcome to it. John Nolte betrays the typical rightwing attitude that somehow, liberals don't think "America is a place and an idea worth fighting and dying for." (I wonder about his stance on the Bush/Cheney power grabs and attacks on the Constitution, since so many conservative cheered those on.) Everyone's entitled to their guilty pleasures, but when one realizes that a large segment of conservatives have based their very identities and world views on Red Dawn and Atlas Shrugged, so much becomes clear.
(Shorter right wingnut-o-sphere, in perpetuity: "Go Galt!" "Commie homos!" "Reagan is Jesus!" "Woooolveeeriiiiiiiines!")
16. Master and Commander (2003): This naval-adventure film starring Russell Crowe is based on the books of Patrick O’Brian, and here’s what A. O. Scott of the New York Times said in his review: “The Napoleonic wars that followed the French Revolution gave birth, among other things, to British conservatism, and Master and Commander, making no concessions to modern, egalitarian sensibilities, is among the most thoroughly and proudly conservative movies ever made. It imagines the [H.M.S.] Surprise as a coherent society in which stability is underwritten by custom and every man knows his duty and his place. I would not have been surprised to see Edmund Burke’s name in the credits.”
— John J. Miller
I recently watched this again, and it's a great movie, immaculately crafted by director Peter Weir. Religious conservatives might not like all the Darwinism. And I find the claim laughable that movement conservatives uphold duty to their country over their tribalism and authoritarian leaders. But all right. Master and Commander indisputably portrays a strict hierarchy and duty above all – because it's set on a naval vessel during wartime. Daniel Larison makes similar points in his piece on the list.
17. The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe (2005): The White Witch runs a godless, oppressive, paranoid regime that hates Santa Claus. She’s a cross between Burgermeister Meisterburger and Kim Jong Il. The good guys, meanwhile, recognize that some throats will need cutting: no appeasement, no land-for-peace swaps, no offering the witch a snowmobile if she’ll only put away the wand. Underlying the narrative is the story of Christ’s rescuing man from sin — which is antithetical to the leftist dream of perfected man’s becoming an instrument for earthly utopia. The results of such utopian visions, of course, are frequently like the Witch’s reign: always winter, and never Christmas.
— Tony Woodlief writes for World magazine and blogs at tonywoodlief.com.
Reading Woodlief's remarkably snotty blurb, I'm reminded of Jesus' General "Republican Jesus" series and an old post title of mine – "because Jesus died for my sins, not yours, you damn hippie." There's no question that C.S. Lewis uses Christian themes and symbols heavily throughout his Narnia series. It's pretty sad, though, that Woodlief can't watch the film without thinking of Kim Jong Il, and pretty desperate that he tries to treat a children's story as a foreign policy treatise. (The complexities of reality don't fit into simplistic mindsets as neatly.) It's not clear precisely what Woodlief's basing his utopian blather on – perhaps he's attacking those godless commies of yesteryear – but he's positing Jesus as oppositional to "the left," which is both obnoxious and inaccurate. There are religious conservatives who try to follow Jesus' actual teachings, and help the poor – but a surprising number of conservatives have proclaimed (without irony) both their Christian Righteousness and their contempt for the poor and downtrodden. Jesus was an anti-establishment figure, and more liberal than conservative. Most of the key figures on the religious right are the moneylenders Jesus threw out of the temple, and that line about the rich man, a camel and the eye of the needle is one the modern GOP would benefit from heeding.
19. We Were Soldiers (2002): Most movies about the Vietnam War reflect the derangements of the antiwar Left. This film, based on the memoir by Lt. Col. Hal Moore (played by Mel Gibson), offers a lifelike alternative. It focuses on a fight between an outnumbered U.S. Army battalion and three North Vietnamese regiments in the battle of Ia Drang in 1965. Significantly, it treats soldiers not as wretched losers or pathological killers, but as regular citizens. They are men willing to sacrifice everything to do their duty — to their country, to their unit, and to their fellow soldiers. As the movie makes clear, they also had families. Indeed, their last thoughts were usually about their loved ones back home.
— Mackubin Thomas Owens, a Vietnam veteran, is a professor at the Naval War College.
I'm guessing that Owens subscribes to the stabbed-in-the-back myth on Vietnam, and either hasn't seen many war films or is feigning ignorance because it would interfere with demonization of the "antiwar left." What films depict soldiers as "wretched losers or pathological killers"? Owens conveniently doesn't say. Most war films – certainly most of the classics – could be called "pro-soldier, anti-war," a pretty common sense stance. We Were Soldiers is at its best as a depiction of a specific battle. Randall Wallace remains a better writer than director. Parts of the film are pretty cornball, especially in the home front sections, but Wallace does effectively convey loss and sacrifice. One of the key scenes involves Lt. Col. Hal Moore telling a military reporter, Joe Galloway (Barry Pepper), "You tell the American people what these men did here. You tell them how my troopers died." Maybe Owens missed this, or just assumes that the filmmakers – and the real Joe Galloway, who wrote the book the film is based on – share his views. I'm not familiar with all of Galloway's views on Vietnam, but I do know that he's a highly-regarded war correspondent, earned a Bronze Star, has expressed complex and unsunny views on Vietnam, and was a fierce critic of Rumsfeld's mismanagement of the Pentagon and of the Bush administration.
20. Gattaca (1997): In this science-fiction drama, Vincent (Ethan Hawke) can’t become an astronaut because he’s genetically unenhanced. So he purchases the identity of a disabled athlete (Jude Law), with calamitous results. The movie is a cautionary tale about the progressive fantasy of a eugenically correct world — the road to which is paved by the abortion of Down babies, research into human cloning, and “transhumanist” dreams of fabricating a “post-human species.” Biotechnology is a force for good, but without adherence to the ideal of universal human equality, it opens the door to the soft tyranny of Gattaca and, ultimately, the dystopian nightmare of Brave New World.
— Wesley J. Smith is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute.
The Discovery Institute is the "think tank" peddling Christian Creationism dishonestly, so it's probably not a surprise that Smith isn't up to speed on scientific ethics or liberalism. Is there a more liberal ideal than "universal human equality"? The "conservative" angle to Gattaca is that social conservatives oppose stem cell research and other medical advances. But viewing other people (poor, black, Muslim, gay) as inherently inferior is the one of the defining characteristics of movement conservatism (not that they aren't some awfully arrogant Democrats out there, but they tend not to be eliminationists as rightwingers are). Who the hell outside of fringe figures and sci-fi authors is arguing that aborting fetuses with Down's Syndrome should be mandated, or that we should create a "post-human species"? The zeal for a eugenically "pure" world, complete with murder of undesirables for the greater glory of the Master Race, is a hallmark of fascist, conservative movements.
22. Brazil (1985): Vividly depicting the miserable results of elitist utopian schemes, Terry Gilliam’s Brazil portrays a darkly comic dystopia of malfunctioning high-tech equipment and the dreary living conditions common to all totalitarian regimes. Everything in the society is built to serve government plans rather than people. The film is visually arresting and inventive, with especially evocative use of shots that put the audience in a subservient position, just like the people in the film. Terrorist bombings, national-security scares, universal police surveillance, bureaucratic arrogance, a callous elite, perversion of science, and government use of torture evoke the worst aspects of the modern megastate.
— S. T. Karnick blogs at stkarnick.com.
This may be the most unintentionally hilarious pick on the list. The world of Brazil is hardly an "elitist utopia" gone wrong – it's one of bureaucratic oppression, conservative conformity and enforced obedience. Pretending that's a government trope yet not a business one is laughable. Brazil is a darkly comic, savagely anti-establishment film that extols how essential imagination is. Conservatism is by definition not anti-establishment, and movement conservatism does not support the arts, nor imagination in general. The "callous elite" in Brazil are soul-crushing managers, petty bureaucrats, jack-booted thugs, corrupt captains of industry and disconnected, vain socialites (although Gilliam humanizes even the police a bit). They resemble country club Republicans far more than the artists or academicians often used as scapegoats by the National Review crowd to rile up the conservative base to have them vote against their own economic interests. Lopez and other National Review writers are pro-torture and backed Bush's assault on civil rights, from eliminating habeas corpus to warrantless surveillance. One of the darkest lines in the film is "Don't hold out son – it'll only jeopardize your credit rating!" That's because in the film, victims are charged for the cost of their own torture, something Gilliam borrowed and expanded on from a news story he read. Terry Gilliam himself said, "Have people forgotten I made Brazil? George W. [Bush], [Dick] Cheney, and company haven’t. I’m thinking of suing them for the illegal and unauthorized remake of Brazil." Glenn Greenwald eviscerated Brazil being called conservative, and also linked Karnick's response.
23. United 93 (2006): Minutes after terrorists struck on 9/11, Americans launched their first counterattack in the War on Terror. Director Paul Greengrass pays tribute to the passengers of United 93 by refusing to turn their story into a wimpy Hollywood melodrama. Instead, United 93 unfolds as a real-time docudrama. Just as significantly, Greengrass provides a clear depiction of our enemies. United 93 opens as four Muslim terrorists pray in a hotel room. Several hours later, the hijackers’ frenzied shrieks to Allah mingle with the prayerful supplications of United 93’s passengers as they crash through the cockpit door and strike a blow against those who would terrorize our country.
— Andrew Coffin is director of the Reagan Ranch and vice president of Young America’s Foundation.
Several commentators just said "fuck you," to National Review for trying to claim this film as conservative, which is a pretty damn obnoxious move by Coffin and the gang. But then, movement conservatives have tried to politicize 9/11 almost since it occurred. Coffin's comments are interesting because Kathryn Jean Lopez actually preferred World Trade Center because she felt United 93 humanized the terrorists too much. It's not a sympathetic portrayal, but it doesn't show them as inhuman demons, either. Coffin's happy to add in his own Islamophobia and machismo, though. United 93 is an impressive film, and I found it quite moving in parts, as did many viewers. It deserves better than Andrew Coffin's attempted appropriation. (I wrote more about United 93 here - it's the fourth film covered.)
24. Team America: World Police (2004): This marionette movie from South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone is hard to categorize as conservative. It’s amazingly vulgar and depicts Americans as wildly overzealous in fighting terror. Yet the film’s utter disgust with air-headed, left-wing celebrity activism remains unmatched in popular culture. As the heroes move to stop a WMD apocalypse, they clash with Alec Baldwin, Tim Robbins, Susan Sarandon, Sean Penn, and a host of others, whom they take out with gunfire, sword, and martial arts before saving the day. The movie, like South Park itself, reveals Parker and Stone as the two-headed George Grosz of American satire.
— Brian C. Anderson is editor of City Journal and author of South Park Conservatives.
Parker and Stone are more libertarian, but over time, they've made fun of just about everybody. Anderson claims this one because of the mockery of Hollywood actors, and completely misses that "American, Fuck Yeah," was mocking the jingoism of conservatives.
25. Gran Torino (2008): Clint Eastwood directs and stars in the ultimate family movie unsuitable for the family. He plays Walt Kowalski, a caricature of an old-school, dying-breed, Polish-American racist male, replete with post-traumatic stress disorder from having served in the Korean War. Kowalski comes to realize that his exotic Hmong neighbors embody traditional social values more than his own disaster of a Caucasian nuclear family. Dirty Harry blows away political correctness, takes on the bad guys, and turns a boy into a man in the process. He even encourages the cultural assimilation of immigrants. It feels so good, you knew the Academy would ignore it.
— Andrew Breitbart is the proprietor of BigHollywood.Breitbart.com.
Andrew Breitbart's eager claiming of a racist really says it all. (Maybe he thinks it makes him "edgy.") Like other commentators, I have to wonder if Breitbart saw the end of the movie, which de-romanticizes Dirty Harry. Eastwood as Kowalski changes a great deal, and that's due to human contact and seeing the Hmong as real people versus interlopers. The greatest "cultural assimilation" in the film is the Hmong gang, which isn't a positive. Walt does give a great deal by the end, but he learns even more. (My review of Gran Torino is near the end of this entry. For more Breitbart insanity, check out TBogg's Big Hollywood roundups, and also these posts: one, two and three.)
You Damned Kids Stop Making Art on My Lawn
Most of the National Review blurbs are simplistic, narrow, reductive readings of the films in question. If the reviewers merely said, I like this film, and here's why, without these preposterous contortions, we could potentially have an interesting conversation. But from a crowd that tries to claim Martin Luther King. Jr. as conservative and disown fascism as liberal, it's not surprising their film project is so insufferable and godawful.
One might think that movement conservatives would be busy enough ruining the economy, starting unnecessary wars, drowning cities, torturing people, insisting we torture people, defending the torturing of people, stripping away civil rights and defiling the Constitution, fighting against reproductive rights, suppressing scientific knowledge, practicing religious hypocrisy and ignorance, and zealously hating on racial minorities, gays and the poor, they could leave the arts alone. But many people enjoy the arts, which may explain why Jonah Goldberg and other movement conservatives are so intent on 'harshing everyone's buzz' by pissing all over them. It's their loss – and it's ours only if we allow ourselves to sucked into their vortex of cranky, obnoxious idiocy.
Sane conservatives with a sense of humor and an appreciation for the arts are welcome aboard, of course. Screening of Dr. Strangelove tonight at 8.
(Fixed some typos.)
(Cross-posted at Blue Herald)