In his book “Natural Right and History,” Leo Strauss, who taught many of the men who taught me political philosophy, coined the phrase “reductio ad Hitlerum” meaning that a view is not “refuted by the fact that it happens to have been shared by Hitler.” One of my pet peeves about American political discourse is the popularity of this fallacy, one result of which is the cheap and disproportionate (in several ways) use of the Third Reich and the Holocaust in the making of simple points about the much-lower stakes of American and Western politics (see also Godwin’s Law on the Internet). I’m more liable to take the invocation of the Third Reich or the Holocaust as proof that the invoker has lost his mind or has no point to make.
It has now officially happened with THE PASSION — Mel Gibson is the Hitler Youth. At the end of the article is this truly deranged quote: “This is how it began in Germany,” she said, “with the Hitler youth venom.” At the rally in question, the instigator was hardly more serious, saying that THE PASSION “really takes us back to the Dark Ages, plain and simple … Mel Gibson is turning the clock back to the Dark Ages.”
How does one respond to tripe like that? Can 1,000 years of history really be undone “plain and simple” by one movie. Does Ms. Moskowits really believe that the Americans she lives among are just itching for the right excuse to kill all the Jews? There are such people in the world, but they are generally virulently anti-American too, and they will likely not see THE PASSION (since it contradicts the Koran on the fate of Jesus).
As I’ve noted here before, based on what one can know outside the movie, I’m not persuaded by arguments made thus far that the film is anti-Semitic. But I recognize the possibility that I could be wrong, or even that I am not, but the film will be misinterpreted. It is possible, I suppose, that some yobbo will misunderstand the film and go beat up a yeshiva student as they leave the theater. But ask yourself, “what would happen after that?” Is there any doubt that said hypothetical incident will be widely reported, and the ADL et al will even take the lead in publicizing it and commenting upon it? That Mel Gibson and his distributors will denounce the perpetrator unequivocally? That police will spare no effort to track down the attacker in this high-profile case? That, in many if not most jurisdictions, the attacker would risk *extra* jail time for attacking a Jew-qua-Jew, rather than the wrist-slap or less that Jim Crow-era Southern juries gave lynchers?
Now, this course of events would be unfortunate, but hardly a Holocaust (or even a Kristallnacht, a Nuremberg law, or the routine of an American country club, circa 1920). The Holocaust didn’t just happen in a fit of absent-mindedness and desensitization from too many readings of the MERCHANT OF VENICE. It happened because Germany put into power a totalitarian government with genocidal plans which it then carried out. Get some sense of proportion, people. The United States in 2003 is not Weimar or Nazi Germany, no matter what one woman’s memories might be or how many times “Hitler” is invoked. Nor is the Dark Ages one anti-Semitic filmmaker away. Some anti-Semitism exists, of course, but it has no political or cultural cachet. And a few dementos will always exist.
“He’s trying not to be the next Kobe, and she’s trying not to be the next victim – here’s LeBron James and Ashanti!”
After 50 Cent’s performance of “P.I.M.P.,” during which he was joined onstage Snoop Dogg, the ubiquitous former pimp Bishop Don Magic Juan, members of his G-Unit posse and a bevy of half-naked women. “Today is the anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream’ speech – isn’t it nice to see that his dream has finally come true?”
“Our next presenter saves a lot of money on Mother’s Day. Give it up for Eminem!”
After Christina Aguilera performed “Dirrty”: “You’ll be hearing those songs at strip clubs for years to come.”
“Our next presenter is being sued by more people that the Catholic church. Give it up for P. Diddy!”
“Seeing Janet Jackson with Jermaine Dupri is like finding out about a sale a day too late” – on the romance between the bombshell Jackson and the diminutive hip-hopper.
After Coldplay’s somber performance: “Wow, I hope you didn’t slit your wrists to that one.”
On the super-dreadlocked “Get Low” rapper: “Doesn’t Lil’ Jon look like a black Cousin Itt?”
After a bighaired performance by Beyonce: “She might have had a little Seabiscuit in the hair, but she was kickin’!”
I just watched a TV show in which a sympathetic character looks to the screen and says (paraphrasing from memory only a little) “Schools are handing out condoms to kids at a younger age every year. But sex is also emotional and spiritual. Parents should be the ones who teach children about sex. If you leave it up to the schools, you never know who’s gonna be teaching them.”
I hope you know what show I’m referring to. If you don’t, you really need to check out SOUTH PARK. Caveat: if you are appalled at the last sentence in that graf and can’t imagine ever laughing at jokes that crude (in both senses of that word), you probably don’t. But both forms of crudity are part of what make the show great. For those of you in Pago Pago, the R-rated humor in this very adult cartoon mostly follows 8-year-old kids with mouths like sailors (call it KIDS SAY THE DAMNDEST SHIT). It is *really* over the top and in such calculated ways, that to complain about it as such is to miss the point.
When 8-year-old boys decide they want to be lesbians just like their new teacher Miss Ellen and one of them starts chewing on a rug sample — the joke isn’t just the shock of hearing a locker-room term for lesbian sex, but on the literal-minded innocence of the boys in the midst of it all. It’s as if the show is about G-rated kids souls in R-rated bodies or the different forms that innocence must take in an R-rated world.
Also the show is most merciless on liberal cant. Other episodes have had Big Gay Al (yes, that’s his name … thanks for asking) explain why he *shouldn’t* be allowed to join the Boy Scouts or have the boys learn that patriotism involves love of country even when it’s wrong (and reprises World War II by turning Cartman and Osama bin Laden into versions of Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd).
And Saturday’s episode made the obvious point never made in humorless, wonkish discussions of sex ed — would you have wanted to learn about sex from any teacher you ever had? It also follows the theory of sex ed with impeccable logic, to demonstrating fellatio methods to kindergartners (and it doesn’t shrink from, well … ahem). Flannery O’Connor once made the point that to the hard of hearing, you shout. She also said the time had passed for what she also called “the pious voice.” Social-conservative satire is working its way into the culture through this raunchfest, and while the show will definitely “frighten the horses,” in a world that, so to speak, worships horses, that’s not a bad thing.
THE SECRET LIVES OF DENTISTS (Alan Rudolph, USA, 2003)
Early this year, my friend Rod Dreher wrote a vigorous attack on THE HOURS and a Gloria Steinem appreciation thereto, as an apologia for selfishness, applause for walking out on one’s family as a means to “self-actualization.” “A fairytale for contemporary narcissists,” he called it. He also favorably cited a James Lileks bleat about what a dirtbag the Episcopal bishop of New Hampshire is for having abandoned his family. “Life is not about always being happy; it’s about doing the right thing,” Rod wrote on the Dallas Morning News’ blog.
Well, here is the anti-HOURS, anti-Hollywood, anti-narcissism movie. And it’s a great film — the somewhat-misleadingly titled THE SECRET LIVES OF DENTISTS. From the title, you’d expect a bizarro comic romp, and the film does give you some of that for a while. But it gradually becomes a serious, dry-eyed and, finally, romantic film about marital love and a husband’s struggles with his suspicions that his wife is cheating on him.
Campbell Scott and Hope Davis play a married pair of dentists, with three daughters, an SUV and another car, one home in the suburbs and another in the country, and all the rest of the setup that might make you think you’re in for AMERICAN BEAUTY. Early on, Scott sees his wife with another man, but not irrefutably cheating. But then he starts having more and more suspicious thoughts through the score of asides, facial looks and “I’ll be home a bit late tonight, dear” moments of daily life. Those suspicions become embodied in a fantasy character played by Denis Leary, a belligerent patient at the film’s start who was on the outs with his wife and wouldn’t get any dental work done until his teeth started to hurt (there’s a lot of metaphor packed away in there, especially considering Scott’s opening voiceover about the strengths and weaknesses of teeth).
Fantasies of unfaithful-spouse-killing has been the subject of comic romps before (as in Preston Sturges’s UNFAITHFULLY YOURS … DENTISTS even has an early scene at an opera), and the fact that DENTISTS plays with two levels of reality in the Leary character and a couple of other scenes may make you think that’s where the film is going. But no. Scott tells Leary that he’s not going to confront her with his suspicions, because “then I have to do something about it.” Hopefully, he says, it’s just a momentary lapse that will pass. Leary taunts him, and the suspicions mount as the film progresses through a nor-especially-eventful plot. There’s a sequence where Scott drives off after a quarrel with Davis over the youngest child and yells at the top of his lungs “fucking bitch!!!” that led me to believe he was going to stray — LAST TANGO IN PARIS starts with a near-identical yell in a similar-looking setting. But no.
Through these sequences, DENTISTS instead shows the romance of routine, what “love” means after sex has worn out its immediate luster. And yes, the title of this entry *is* a Carly Simon reference. Scott and Davis are shown in bed together a few times, but there’s nothing that could qualify as a sex scene (there’s an instantaneous flashback of a quick encounter) or even any particularly sexy clothing or nudity. What “love” means for this couple, and most marriages (I suspect) is the joy-pain of parenthood. There is a lengthy sequence during which stomach flu strikes every member of the family, and it will resonate with anybody who has had a sick child or can remember being one (i.e., all of us, I suspect). And who remembers having his father rush him to the hospital. Scott feels ill himself but still does his best by the varying ill members of the family — gets a little frazzled, fantasizes to the song “Fever,” as the healthy kids make things difficult, as he wipes the vomit off the shoes of the youngest who doesn’t know better, as he takes a daughter to the hospital and stays overnight when the fever hits 105.
In other words, Scott is an almost-unheard of character in Hollywood movies today and someone whom the makers of THE HOURS looked at with contempt (the John C. Reilly character in that movie) — a conventionally loving good husband and father who is happy in his role and who defines himself and his happiness in those terms. DENTISTS is like an American SCENES FROM A MARRIAGE (though obviously far lighter in tone, and more immediately “pleasurable”). Or maybe, something more like an American version of one of French director Eric Rohmer’s films, where little in the way of great dramatic events happens, but rather, like Rohmer once said about his own films, it’s less about what people do than what they think about while they do it.
That approach to this movie is why Roger Ebert is wrong in the one criticism he makes against the movie in an otherwise-positive review. The Leary character is necessary as a route into Scott’s mind. What makes the film lifelike is Scott’s taciturn manner; if they were the kind of overpsychologized couple who hashed everything out, yes, Leary would be redundant and mood-breaking. But in a movie that’s all about surfaces and maintaining appearances, there has to be some way to show us what temptations, suspicions, and ill thoughts Scott is resisting.
And this is ultimately why the husband and wife love one another. They *don’t* act on every impulse. Or if they do, they repent. And the other has the grace to forgive unconditionally, without dwelling on the particulars. (Despite the theological language there and my firm conviction that the film follows a Christian template, DENTIST is a secular movie about a secular family.) Instead, “love” for them as with my parents (I had as happy a childhood as my parents could reasonably have provided), is a verb not a subject. Love is the things they do (and don’t do) without thinking, just *because.* Nothing is said between Davis and Scott. They just do. Exactly.
Another part of what made DENTISTS so moving for me, and enhanced its intellectual appeal for me, is that it doesn’t over-romanticize love. Or turn it into *luv* as Peter Kreeft might put it. Scott and Davis have outgrown both *luv* and the original sexual passion that first brought them together, but still they clearly love each other and their children. To the movie’s credit, there is only one, not-very-long scene near the end where they explicitly try to hash things out “in our relationship.” And it’s not psychologizing or therapyizing, it’s a potentially-nasty confrontation. Tempers start to flare, but the children unintentionally (the key point) get in the way. It’s ordinary routine asserting itself over narcissistic explicitness.
Why DENTISTS is so convincing in its portrayal of an ordinary family may lie in the performances given by the children. Davis is good enough; Scott is merely as brilliant as can be expected (he gave *this* performance *and* the greasy, fast-talking ROGER DODGER at more or less the same time); Leary is nothing short of perfect casting — sarcastic, brusque, rude. So far, so expected. But the kids — Gianna Beleno, Lydia Jordan and Cassidy Hinkle — are revelations. They’re not “performers” or Olsens-esque muggers. The youngest (Hinkle) looks about 3, openly prefers her Daddy and slaps both her parents in the face. But the slaps are innocent, and somehow Hinkle knows how to slap like someone who doesn’t know any better, rather than as someone following the script. The elder two girls, meanwhile, know how to be in the room with their parents while paying no attention to them, since they’d rather watch the Powerpuff Girls, or eat their own food, or get absorbed in their own quarrels, even as mommy and daddy are cleaning up after them. There’s a natural, unostentatious quality to them that’s both perfect for DENTISTS and the (blessed) opposite of most child actors who get significant screen time.
It has long been obvious to all who cared that Roger Ebert was a liberal Democrat with radical and counterculture sympathies (yet somehow in the pay of Vast Right-Wing Conspirator Conrad Black and the evil Disney Cultural Megamonster). His reviews of the films of Spike Lee, Oliver Stone and Michael Moore came laced with asides and whole paragraphs that made it clear to anyone with the eyes to see. Fine, whatever.
But the subject of President Bush in the past couple of years has pushed him out of the closet, and his own doors have come a bit unhinged in the process. His review of LUMUMBA, a biopic of the 1960s Congolese radical, began with a rant about Bush’s missile-defense plan. And in his post-September 11 review of ZOOLANDER, he more-or-less said the film could cause Malaysians to kill Americans by the thousands. Or something like that.
Now, that kind of stuff is just funny. And Ebert, the most influential film critic of his era, the man who first lit the fire under practically every film geek of my generation, isn’t even the lefty critic most worth laughing at for that sort of thing. (There’s a whole gaggle at the Village Voice). But he crossed the line in an interview in the latest issue of the Progressive.
Much of it was fine and par for the course, until he began exhibiting a generational and intellectual arrogance that I find utterly breathtaking, but entirely typical for Ebert’s kind of culture snob. I suppose there isn’t really any point in my saying anything since I’m a generation younger than Ebert and therefore never took a civics class. And this is all obviously the same “Limbaugh rhetoric” from “parrots” who “don’t have any ideas of their own.” But reading tripe like that makes me think I was in the first generation that ever took a logic class.
The double standards are appalling and legion. Sean Penn is “probably not dumb” because he’s the greatest actor of his generation. Um, OK. About anyone who would make that argument — who thinks there’s a greater correlation between intellect and acting ability than between intellect and thinking you’d learn the truth about Iraq from Saddam Hussein and Baghdad Bob — that person probably *is* dumb. But let that go. How does this “probability” sit alongside Ebert’s repeated and open contempt for Dubya as stupid? The man has degrees from Harvard and Yale. Yes, he had all sorts of connections and advantages that middle- and lower-class people didn’t, but Harvard and Yale don’t just hand out degrees, even to their legacies, and they don’t graduate dummies. Yes, Bush is not philosophically sophisticated or reflective (very, very few people are), but that’s not the same thing as being dumb, as in the caricature Ebert and the his SDS pals draw. And Ivy League degrees have a far greater “probably” relationship to intellect than acting ability (which is essentially the ability to convincingly pretend, a skill that the uncharitable might note is much closer to self-delusion than to knowledge).
And what’s this born-yesterday piffle about religion and politics? “Religion in the White House has crossed the line between church and state … we finally get a religion in the White House” in the form of Bush? Was Ebert taking so many civics classes that he skipped history classes? In fact, if anything Ebert’s generation, far from being the last to have a civics class, was the first to decide on a new, secular sense of “civitas.” Prior to approximately the time of Kennedy, religion had proudly never left the White House or American politics — the only questions had been what religion and to what ends. Does Ebert think the Puritans were people with funny hats and turkeys who came to America to set up the “shining city on a hill” as a secular republic? Has he read Lincoln’s Second Inaugural, in which he explicitly interprets the Civil War in providential and salvific terms? Or anything by the civil rights movement from *Reverend* King or Fanny Lou Hamer? Or does he know about the Calvinist Woodrow Wilson, who justified U.S. imperialism as God’s civilizing hand (and was far from alone in so doing)? Or Teddy Roosevelt, who justified same as a form of muscular Christianity (James Naismith, the inventor of basketball, was of that school of religion)? Or the Abolitionist movement, which was a product of the Second Great Awakening? Where was he when Jimmy-fricking-Carter was in the White House? Or when Bill Clinton publically set up a counsel of religious elders to look after his soul during the Year of Monica? Or … I could go on and on, but why bother? It’s obvious Ebert is just parroting a set of ACLU talking points because he’s never had an original thought of his own. Doesn’t he even remember from 1959-1960 that the wider-shared objection to Kennedy wasn’t that he’d bring *religion* into the White House, but that he’d bring in the *wrong religion* — Catholicism, the foreign tyranny of the Pope of Rome and all that. Again, prior to Kennedy, it always had been assumed that the president and Congress would come from one or another strain of mainline Protestantism and govern accordingly. Maybe little Rog skipped that day in civics class. Or maybe he was busy praying for the election of Harry Truman (no church-state separation issues or cause for thoughts about the stupidity of a man who thinks God takes sides in politics there of course).
The “civics class” comment is self-righteous demogoguery. And wholly unjustified as an opinion for Ebert to have about his own intellect as demonstrated here. To avoid being one of those who “don’t understand the First Amendment,” one must first have read it, and what it says is “Congress shall make no law …” (This prohibition was later extended to state and local government through the 14th Amendment.) What it says absolutely nothing about, what no court has ever construed it to say, is private action, private criticism, private open-mindedness or anything else private. It’s a restriction on government. The only offenses cited are Fox being a meanie to the brilliant Sean Penn, the refusal of some stations to play the Dixie Chicks and right-wingers’ dismissal of his own political columns as worthless (an entirely justified one; the Florida recount columns are comedies of forensic errors, not excluding lies). Oh … and some people on the Internet keep a list of who they see as U.S. enemies. Big fat hairy deal. What does any of this have to do with government action, the only thing the First Amendment speaks about? Maybe little Rog skipped that day in civics class too.
If you want to argue a policy, you first have to understand and talk specifically about what is happening. And on the most basic of economic concepts, Ebert is just plain all thumbs. Now it could be, in principle, a perfectly reasonable complaint that the tax system is insufficiently progressive or the welfare state insufficiently generous. Or that certain politicians have made it thus and that’s bad. But what is this Ebertish babble about “their money is being stolen” and “a concerted policy of taking money away from the poor and giving it to the rich”? The poor have little or nothing *to* take away or call “theirs” to be stolen … that is why they are called “poor.” What is this “concerted policy” that Ebert is talking about? Tax cuts? All they can do, by definition, is let people keep more of what they have earned in the first place. To the contrary, the Earned Income Tax Credit actually “gives” money (there is no “Negative Income Tax”) to people … but only the working poor. Further, the share of people near the bottom who pay no federal income tax at all has grown in recent years, and will continue to expand under Dubya’s tax cuts. Government spending programs? Leave aside the empirical (and therefore far too complex for Ebert’s posturing) question of whether they have in fact been cut (they have not … nondefense government spending under Dubya is as high as it has ever been). Just think conceptually about what Ebert is saying. Government spending programs give some people money or benefits they didn’t have before. A government might cut such programs, but that could only give the beneficiaries less, and that’s just not the same thing. This might sound like a Jesuitical distinction, but Ebert was too specific and too repetitive in his usage to think he was speaking loosely. Besides, he took all those civics classes that gave him a corner on reason against those who parrot Limbaugh rhetoric and have never had a thought of their own. He genuinely seems to live in a world where the government robs from the poor to give to the rich. And that is just plain nuts, except under some Brezhnev Doctrine of permanent entitlement growth or some absolute objection to any and all private property.
Speaking of Marxism, I also loved the way this millionaire presumes to speak for the poor. Remember how the Progressive’s writer mentioned Ebert’s car license plate, but didn’t say what kind of car it was? That was awesome. He complains that so many “ordinary people” are “voting conservative and thinking that the conservatives represent them” and then haughtily says “they don’t.” Has it ever dawned on this guy that other people might be at least as decent (maybe better) judges of their own interests and who represents them as he is? Or that people’s interests might be broader than economics (e.g., the culture war or foreign policy)? Or that, heaven forfend, he might be wrong about economics. No, Ebert is just so sure, so sure. His certainty doesn’t come from political or economic realities; it comes from apparently on high.
These are acute distinctions, I realize, but I have no patience with them or tolerance for them when they come from someone who so pointedly looks down on other people’s intellects, say they parroting Limbaugh’s talking points because they never took a civics class and have no thoughts of their own and all that rubbish. The reason I suspect that Ebert only gets rude dismissals from conservatives is simply that when he talks politics, he isn’t worth engaging. In fact, as a general rule, the more profound somebody’s distaste for a political view, the less likely he is to address it.
Ebert plays like he wants a civil discussion, why can’t we celebrate people with different opinions and argue with them, etc., but how can one have a civil discussion with someone who wrote a snob-act-masquerading-as-a-column on the presidential daughter’s wardrobe choices, calling her “uncouth” and a “yob,” but exactly what you’d expect from such dumb family stock? How can one have a civil discussion with someone who compared Florida Secretary of State Katharine Harris to Bill the Butcher from GANGS OF NEW YORK? How can one have a civil discussion with someone who says Bush getting caught in the London rain proves that missile-defense is a bad idea [I am not making that up]? How can one have a civil discussion with someone who defends the Florida Supreme Court’s conduct with “I trust that if any of those justices believed in their hearts that their decision was wrong, they would have said so” and yet has no problem with calling the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision a “federal coup” [the double standard stinks to high heaven]?
And why would one want to?
Ebert icon from Rentertainment.
This is just too funny. Free Willy doesn’t want to be free.
Maybe an aquatic Jean-Jacques Rousseau needs to “force him to be free.” Seriously folks, what capitalist mystification or false consciousness has Free Willy has been reading? Maybe Marcus Aurelius or some other Stoic narcotic (them aquatic mammals is smart). Remember in Luis Bunuel’s THE PHANTOM OF LIBERTY, when Spaniards are being executed by French revolutionaries, and they yell “Down with Freedom!” That was awesome.
(Putting on my best Anne Robinson voice…)
Actually, that’s a gross exaggeration. LEGALLY BLONDE 2 is a not politically radical at all (or even politically very deep, more anon), but that’s what makes it annoying. It’s just a not-very-successful retread of a concept that was a delightful comic gem when it was fresh a couple of years ago — innocently cartoonish kewpie doll shows how smart and effectual she really is when Harvard/Washington look down their noses at her. The half-life of this formula is pretty short — and BLONDE 2 lost two-year’s worth of energy and originality. Everything (with one exception) is a rehash. A genuinely great scene of Witherspoon’s innocently-truthful video application to Harvard Law gets put through the motions here as a Power Point presentation on the life of her pet chihuahua Bruiser that had material obviously calculated (in the character’s mind, I mean) to make a point.
The film wouldn’t be worth chewing over if it weren’t for that one new element — the switch in venue from Boston/Harvard to Washington/Congress. Now, I’m not one of those conspiracymongers who believe “Hollywood” is a singular noun that wakes up in the morning and asks itself over its first latte “what can we put into movies to help the left.” LEGALLY BLONDE 2, for all its surface political subject matter, is primarily a money-spinning frothy comedy — so featherweight that you can’t hold seriously against it the details it gets wrong. It concludes with a staff member giving a speech to a joint session of Congress; it occurs in that alternate political universe where Big Tobacco/Big Oil/Big Lipstick/Big Whatever, can defeat an incumbent congressman on demand merely by giving money to his opponent. That kinda stuff.
But this very fact about it (it’s neither a prestige, “adult” political film like THE CONTENDER nor an indie polemic like BOB ROBERTS) is precisely what makes LEGALLY BLONDE 2 revelatory. Just as “virtue is doing the right thing when nobody’s looking” or “a lord’s character is determined by how he deals with his slaves rather than his king,” the very fact that the film isn’t a seriously political film means that the unstated assumptions, the “of courses” of the world of entertainment show up in sharper relief. LEGALLY BLONDE 2′s understanding of political psychology says a great deal about the climate of political orthodoxy in the entertainment industry and the precise way that its liberal consensus finds its way into films. The film’s basic plot device is that Elle finds out about Bruiser’s mother being used for testing cosmetics. So, just like she went to Harvard Law just to be near her boyfriend, she goes to Washington to pass a law outlawing animal testing and free Bruiser’s mom. Once there, she undergoes the same “airhead fish out of water” humiliations she did at Harvard, but gradually wins everyone over to her team through her pluck and self-assurance and graduates/gets her bill passed.
OK, no problem in principle. But comically speaking, there is absolutely no reason why animal rights has to be the cause (a few easily rewriteable detail jokes aside) — all that’s necessary for the film is that Elle have one. It’s the comic version of a Hitchcockian MacGuffin — she could have gone to Washington to pass a bill to save her family from having to sell their homestead because of the estate tax (first example to pop into my head). Yet when the writers of this film needed a political MacGuffin, they (and, the key point, as in *every other recent commercial, apolitical Hollywood film*) came up with a liberal or left example. The last time I recall a conservative cause at the moral center of a Hollywood entertainment was the risible LISTEN TO ME, where Debate Stud Kirk Cameron persuades the Supreme Court to outlaw abortion. In 1989. But after all, as the head writer on MURPHY BROWN once said, “you write what you know.” And as has been copiously documented (and collected by Michael Medved), the entertainment industry is too well-marinated in liberal orthodoxy to “know” conservatives except as demon Other.
This shouldn’t be taken as too harsh a judgment on any individual film, except that since this sort of political product placement entirely goes one way, you can’t not notice it after a while. Apolitical films in Hollywood today will show only liberals or the left in this sort of neutral or indifferently-positive manner, as a way to fill out the movie. There’s no more reason, for a comedy like LB2, that the cause has to be animal rights rather than abortion, any more than a character has to drink Coke rather than Pepsi. At least with real product placement, the filmmakers are paid to make a choice that is dramatically indifferent. Liberalism gets it for free. And once you start to see it, it begins to work against the movie in question in precisely the same way product placement does — by calling attention to itself and highlighting its selectedness. You see Danny Glover’s daughter at the dinner table in a routine sequence in one of the LETHAL WEAPON sequels wearing a “Save the Whales” T-shirt and your mind wanders to think whose idea it was to pick *that* cause. And why it’s always Coke, Coke, Coke. It becomes the elephant … er, donkey, I guess … in the room.
Not that LEGALLY BLONDE 2 is very much better when politics, primarily animal testing, is explicitly on its mind. Very early on, Elle finds out about Bruiser’s mom and so goes to her law firm and says they should crusade against animal testing because “it’s wrong to harm any living thing merely for profit,” and when the other members of the firm protest, she says “doing the right thing profits everybody in the long run.” As a former grader of undergraduate political philosophy essays filled with unwarranted leaps of reasoning, I just wanted to wince at the former … “and that is the moral standard because …?” and at the latter … “is that really so …?” It’s not that an animal-rights backer could not potentially answer these questions, it’s rather that the film doesn’t see that an animal-rights opponent potentially could deny them. But Elle states the insight as if it were self-evident and it’s never challenged in the movie, except on role-playing terms (“they’re our clients”), legislative flim-flam (Sally Field’s character), personal venality (the chief of staff). Never does the film think to ask why cosmetic firms test the safety of their products — is it really because executives get pleasure or profit *from* torturing bunnies? There’s a throwaway line where Elle says that banning animal testing would provide jobs for “thousands of scientists” to develop alternative methods of determining cosmetic safety. Does one laugh or cry? Do the letters o-p-p-o-r-t-u-n-i-t-y c-o-s-t-s spell anything meaningful? Yet LEGALLY BLONDE 2 continues to move blithely on ahead as if showing gory pictures of animals were some miraculous persuader, before which all opposition crumbles (why hasn’t PETA succeeded yet, if the matter were that simple). As the Washington City Paper complained, the film looks down on characters for treating Elle as a stereotype, but does so by turning everyone else into other sorts of cartoons. This betrays the film’s real conception — essentially it’s a form of wish-fulfillment for its makers and their animal-rights-backing soulmates in the audience. Which is everybody, right? After all, they write what they know.
What made LEGALLY BLONDE 2 especially sad is that the glorious Reese Witherspoon, one of the era’s best actresses, has made an infinitely better political movie. In fact ELECTION is just plain one of the best movies of recent years. After coming home from LB2, I popped in my DVD and watched some of its best scenes — the campaign speeches, Tracy Flick’s self-introduction, Mr. McAllister explaining democracy to Paul — just to reassure myself that smart, serious political satire with noncartoon characters really can be made in this day and age. There is hardly a topical reference in the film, but it explains, just to name one aside, the force behind Clinton’s driven personality in the look on Tracy’s face and her voiceover as she looks out the school bus window. And Paul’s foreshadowing of Dubya in some ways is so funny precisely because it couldn’t have been intentional — the film was released in spring 1999.
Well, Mel Gibson knuckled under. At least somewhat.
Easy for me to be brave about Gibson’s movie, obviously, and for all I know these changes might be for the better. But I can’t say I’m not disappointed. This is starting to resemble (in a much lower-stakes field, it cannot be said often enough) some Union of Soviet Cinematographers self-criticism sessions for artists whose work was considered “bourgeois formalism” or whatever made Stalin’s colon clench that week.
I hope this report is accurate and the only changes Mel makes merely emphasize the Jewishness of Jesus and His disciples — in which case, not only is it theologically unobjectionable, but I’d applaud it as the greatest antidote to Christian anti-Semitism (of which, though any amount is too much, there is blessedly very little today compared to 100 years ago). Though I do wonder what “clearly labeling” Simon as a Jew would mean, since nearly everybody not in a Roman soldier’s outfit will be a Jew. In fact, I wished I’d emphasized this point more the last time I blogged about THE PASSION. In any faithful adaptation of the Gospels, almost all the characters, on both sides of the crucifixion, would be Jews. Only the deranged, looking to stroke a pre-existing prejudice (and they can’t set the standard), could see a Jew being killed, to the grief of His Jewish mother and His Jewish followers, by Romans at the behest of a different group of Jews — and come away blaming the Jews. (By the way, what about the risk of this movie stoking other prejudices? Have the Sons of Italy taken some sort of omerta … oops.)
Still I’m not optimistic. It’s just hard to read these complaints for very long and not come to the conclusion that the ADL, Wiesenthal Center et al, just believe that Christianity is simply anti-Semitic as such. And indeed the Jewish lobby groups aren’t backing off in the slightest (like in the quote from Foxman: “with creative rights come the responsibility to tell history as we see it” or something very close to that). Plus the Reuters article has this delicious bit of “please stop me before I refute myself”:
“Rabbis who have screened the film say it threatens to undo decades of progress between Christians and Jews after the Vatican refuted the deicide charges in the Second Vatican Council from 1962 to 1965.”
Say what? I suppose if Gibson got a papal imprimatur for his 32-part TV adaptation of THE PROTOCOLS OF THE ELDERS OF ZION for family Ramadan hour, there’d be a problem. But a Gospel film made by a Catholic artist in dubious communion with the Vatican and over which the church has no more control than it does over THE MATRIX movies — that can have THAT much of an effect? I hope that’s not true, but if it is true, then let’s just pack in interreligious dialogue and go home. Those “decades of progress between Christians and Jews” then would have produced nothing of value if it’s so superficial and fragile as to be threatened by THE PASSION.
And Gibson knuckling under came shortly after this piece in which a rabbi says his group has gotten more anti-Semitic letters than customary. But then goes ahead and blames … THE PASSION. Is there any oxygen in the house? For one thing, this article does not cite any of the hate mail as citing THE PASSION (and on the “dog not barking” theory, that probably means there hasn’t been any). But there’s an even more fundamental problem in blaming Gibson’s movie. For practical purposes, nobody has seen it. All that people have done is hear the discussions in the press, on discussion boards, blogs and whatnot. Therefore, by definition, unless Rabbi Heir thinks the letters are coming from the goyish putzheads Matt Drudge, David Horowitz or Michael Medved, the film THE PASSION cannot be the cause of anything. The only thing people know of it is the discussion surrounding THE PASSION. And is it not possible, Mr. Hier, that people are reacting (in a contemptible way, certainly) against your self-righteous bawling? And that maybe, just maybe, this is an example of being the cause of one’s own misery (that is possible, isn’t it?)
Anyway, even if Gibson makes no further cuts and the film plays to a firestorm of anti-Semitism charges next spring (that will happen unless the ADL gets final-cut approval — mark my words), the chill will be felt down the line. If one of the most famous stars in the world gets this much grief trying to self-finance and self-distribute a Christ movie without the approval of Jewish pressure groups, what’s a mere studio owned by a conglomerate with 30 other boycottworthy irons in the fire to do? Even if the Jewish groups lose, they win, because the cultural word is out: no more Jesus movies henceforth without the imprimatur of organized Jewry.
Go here for a homage (dunno when this effect will expire … I suspect at midnight EDT, about 7 hours from now). Today, Alfred Hitchcock, the greatest director of them all (well, my favorite anyway), would be 104. It would be impossible to overstate how much I love his movies and what an effect they had on me as a young adult.
- VERTIGO, a masterpiece, is only my third-favorite of his films (behind REAR WINDOW and PSYCHO);
- He taught me that art and works that stand up to scholarly criticism can be thoroughly enjoyable and that a vulgar movie can depict the deepest religious thoughts and feelings;
- One of the events that made me a cinephile was a week-long Hitchcock festival on one of the cable superstations (WGN in Chicago, I think) that showed DIAL M FOR MURDER (my first Hitch, and I still treasure it like a first love) REAR WINDOW, VERTIGO, THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH (1956), PSYCHO and TORN CURTAIN;
- Just last year, I saw two of his earliest, less well-known films for the first time each, BLACKMAIL and THE RING, and it was like finding another well in the desert given the usual diminishing returns as you work your way through your favorite directors’ bodies of work. Even his weakest films have some merit and some of his less-canonized works are absolute gems that most directors would be proud to call his best (BLACKMAIL, SABOTAGE, FRENZY, FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT);
- Hitchcocks still to see — UNDER CAPRICORN, WALTZES FROM VIENNA, JAMAICA INN, MURDER, YOUNG AND INNOCENT, RICH AND STRANGE, SECRET AGENT.
Well, one day after I advise Mel Gibson not to let the Anti-Defamation League see THE PASSION, the ADL weighs in and the secular media picks it up, both the Associated Press and Reuters. Someone should send Mel a link to my site, though I should inform him that there is a Consulting Fee For Fabulously Wealthy Film Stars.
I obviously haven’t seen the film, so maybe I should hold my fire, but I can’t say I’m impressed with the ADL’s arguments, as presented in its press release. Any reasonably faithful adaptation of the Gospels will show Jesus’s blood being sought by the Jewish authorities and the Jerusalem mob. Whatever the subtle details of what body did what at what hour, where the accounts do differ in minor ways, all four Gospels are united in proclaiming what the ADL is clearly constructing in its first, second and fifth bullets as anti-Semitism. If the argument is that any portrayal of any Jew demanding Jesus’ blood is anti-Semitic, then Christianity as such is anti-Semitic. At this point, I throw up my hands and go home, concluding that ADL wants Christians to apologize ourselves out of existence.
I can understand the historical discomfort of the ADL and reasonable Jews with the deicide charge and its link to passion plays, given what it has “justified” in the past. But the execution of Jesus of Nazareth, whatever its theological meanings, is a historical event, as much a historical event as the execution of, say, Socrates. And the peoples and certain leaders in 1st century Jerusalem and 5th century Athens played significant roles, according to the primary historical documents we have of those events. Blaming contemporary Jews for deicide is absurd and makes no more sense than blaming the execution of Socrates on contemporary Greeks. It is also, in the light of eternity, bad theology — the execution of Jesus, whatever the role certain historical personages played, was required in the economy of salvation by the sins of all men (a point Gibson has made, along with some people who have seen the film). Catholic congregations are reminded of this every year by playing the part of the crowd demanding Jesus’ death. I would definitely agree that Christians, especially Catholics, have an obligation not to repeat past crimes against God’s people. But truth is truth, and at some point, Judaism and Christianity have to part ways on who Jesus of Nazareth was, and that has moral and historical implications that I don’t think the ADL is grasping, and which explains Gibson’s stubbornness and (at least my) skepticism about the ADL’s charges.
As a strictly theological matter, why shouldn’t those Jews of 1st-century Jerusalem not taken in by this new heresy led by this Nazarene nobody (is it necessary to emphasize that Christians generally realize Jesus and all his disciples were Jews), those “Jews who adhere to their Jewish faith” in the ADL’s words, have wanted Jesus’ death? Is ADL speaking from the perspective of Judaism? Jesus was claiming to be the prophesied Messiah, the Son of God and all that. If these claims are not true, and every Jew has to believe they are not true (otherwise, he’s just become a Christian), then the mere man making them is the rankest blasphemer, surely worthy of death under the Law. In addition, God’s people turning away, rejecting Him for this or that false idol — the golden calf, the Egyptian and Babylonian deities during the exiles — is a constant theme throughout the Torah. Caiaphas bloody well should have been concerned about his people following for this latest heretic, and stamping it out as blasphemy. Speaking theologically, some amount of anti-Christianity is inherent in Judaism, and some amount of anti-Judaism is inherent in Christianity. We just have to live with that until God calls a halt to history, and calling any and every reminder of any of the bases for the latter a form of hate doesn’t change that.
DRACULA: PAGES FROM A VIRGIN’S DIARY (Guy Maddin, Canada, 2003)
Last night, I went to see for a second time DRACULA: PAGES FROM A VIRGIN’S DIARY (thanks for the link, Missy). In a generally very good review, Jonathan Rosenbaum accurately described this film’s formula, but draw a completely wrongheaded conclusion — “A silent black-and-white film of a ballet based on Bram Stoker’s novel and performed to portions of [Gustav] Mahler’s first two symphonies — who could possibly want to see that?”
Um … me. I dunno about you, but doesn’t that description practically sell itself? If nothing else, even if the movie turns out to be no good or the elements don’t mesh or whatever, wouldn’t such a film have train-wreck value? And wouldn’t there be some virtue in seeing some fine dancing or listening to Mahler’s music itself … even if the film as a whole didn’t work? But in any event, once you’ve seen it, these disparate elements in DRACULA really work very well together and becomes amazing (to me at least, and in retrospect) to reflect that nobody had thought of this strange marriage before.
Silent-cinema after all was born at more or less the same time as Stoker and Mahler were writing. But the media have some strong affinities. Even story ballets, like silent cinema, generally don’t use any words, instead using stylized movement and exaggerated acting to convey an emotion (rather than explain an event). The events in the Bram Stoker novel have the same feverish, dreamy, suggestive late-Victorian quality as Mahler’s floridly Romantic music, and (as my pinko friend Joshua has pointed out in a discussion group) ballet can convey that ethereal, sleep-walk quality better than more-realistic media. The stagy smoke-and-mirrors effects can shroud the Baroque stage design to create an overall atmosphere with fewer concerns about realism that sound and drama create.
But director Guy Maddin (I’d previously seen nothing else by him, and boy do I want to catch up on his work now) actually managed to make a movie, rather than a ballet musical (or an opera with defined arias, recitatives and whatnot). With the exception of a couple of pas-de-deux sequences, the dancers from the Royal Winnipeg ballet company were mostly cut off at the neck, the shoulders or the waist, rather than being framed in the Fred Astaire tip-to-toe, let’s-see-the-feet-doing-the-entrechat frame. But it’s not the dance steps Maddin is interested in — he’s interested in fusing his elements, not just using them. Ballet becomes a means to convey a kind of stylized cinematic movement, as if people were moving and floating through fevered dreams. In his review, Rosenbaum cites a Maddin manifesto on acting that includes the following: “Walking actors have forgotten how to walk. All actors should walk with latent or overt purpose, and cram a little poetry into their gaits while they’re at it.”
It was also obvious (as Missy pointed out to me afterward) that Maddin didn’t direct his actors in the “tone it down” mode, as most film directors do when working with stage actors. Instead, they kept their exaggerated gestures and larger-than-life smiles — one of my favorite moments was a sequence of Lucy choosing among suitors on a swing, with the camera moving out of and into a series of facial closeups. And you know what? When a film is a silent ballet, this exaggeration works just fine because we’re accepting the stylization and the anti-realistic, dreamy universe the filmmaker is creating.
The film, I should add, is also a lot of fun. There’s an (I think) intentionally funny moment when a group of four men carrying torches each do a spin and the beams of light spin along with them. Some of the silent-film title cards are quite witty. Maddin drops in expressionistic splashes of color for money, gold and blood — there’s a universe of longing in a barely-discernible pale-pink stain on Lucy’s white dress. And the film isn’t really silent, there are occasional sound effects, proving again that less is more — there’s a chilling-ick effect from a low squealch, uncluttered by other sounds, when a character gets beheaded with a spade.
- Disagreement over the U.S. Episcopal Church’s ordination of a homosexual bishop inspired a couple of Anglican clerics to give a Kenyan bishop an example of the warmth and hospitality that the English are noted for exhibiting toward Italian soccer fans.
- Canada’s reputation for Tolerance marches forward, with The Latest Word being that no teacher may, in any public space, express any disapproval of homosexuality (or “two-spirited people” even). If the teacher had been suspended merely for graduating illiterates and innumerates, the union would kick up holy hell. Here, it’s his chief persecutor.
- At the bottom of the Canada link (and it’s a sign of the times that this is now considered worthy of a mere aside), there is this: “Meanwhile, a Commons committee is considering a bill that would make the reading of biblical injunctions against homosexuality in a church a ‘hate crime’ under the Criminal Code.” This is a spreading phenomenon in the countries that used to be Christendom. Even if everything in THE MAGDALENE SISTERS were holy writ, it should have been long-ago obvious that Ireland is no longer your grandpa’s beloved Erin or the theocracy of Sinead O’Connor’s mind. Yes … the Catholic Church is being warned about the potential criminality of a Church document. We have seen the future.
- This desecration of a conservative parish happened the night that the Episcopal church ratified Gene Robinson’s election as New Hampshire bishop. Perhaps it was just like ripping up a city block when your sports team wins the title. I should note that there’s no actual evidence that this was gay activists, but the details of the crime have to make that the default assumption for now.
- At least these demonstrators were peaceful and stayed outside when ordered to (though some of the quotes in story are just sad … “this is my birthright as an Irish Catholic”). But I will never forget serving as a lay communion minister at a parish in Austin, Texas, during the heyday of ACT-UP and having a significant part of the training devoted to “this is what you do if demonstrators come to desecrate the Host.”
Does five in one week constitute something more than anecdotal evidence?
It’s too bad that the Article 2, Section 1, Paragraph 5 of the U.S. Constitution prevents not just me from becoming president, but also bars Arnold Schwarzenegger from following the career trajectory of Ronald Reagan. Think about it — from looked-down-on actor to Republican activist to governor of California to …
But I can dream. If you’re Kim Jong-il, who’s gonna intimidate you more — Howard Dean or The Terminator? Visualize the Iranian mullahs quaking in their boots at the prospect of having to deal with John Kerry (stop laughing).
I cannot recommend this article in City Journal strongly enough (thanks Adam, Stacy). I don’t hate Michael Moore nearly as comprehensively as some might expect, and as a Roman Catholic, I am no champion of libertarian market-worship.
But Kay Hymowitz nails down how Moore’s economic vision and his animus toward “Corporate America” is, among much else [none of it pretty], basically a form of childhood nostalgia. He romanticizes, particularly in ROGER & ME (a great film though it is) America’s post-WWII industrial heyday, and blames “corporate greed” for its disappearance. But Moore never acknowledges that the job security and relative affluence his father enjoyed four decades ago at the GM plant in Flint was the result of specific historical circumstances. WWII had bankrupted or destroyed the infrastructure and economies of the other great industrial powers, and the 1973 Arab oil embargo had not yet sunk Detroit’s model for success.
Greedy CEOs didn’t turn the industrial Midwest into the Rust Belt. It was basic economics. All was not sunshine and light in the postwar boom. Factory floor jobs were stressful, repetitive and at times dangerous, while the Flint, Mich., of 1959 can no more be an economic model than can the plantation South of 1859. Both are gone with the wind, and sit-down strikes and assembly lines are not a useful economic agenda any more than moonlight and magnolias.
An interesting article appeared recently in the Christian Science Monitor about how the Internet has made Hollywood’s job of making a profit from a turkey even tougher than before. Now in the world of Everybody’s A Film Critic And Has A Personal Site To Share His Thoughts (cue Victor looking around innocently), test scores are finding their way into the public domain more easily. The speed of the Internet also means that word-of-mouth basically can now develop even before a film has opened, and by Sunday, a film can have received the kiss of death — “Loser.”
I can certainly can confirm that an attentive civilian could now know *even before the film was released* that HULK had bad word-of-mouth and probably wouldn’t be worth his (my) while, though *my* interest was probably marginal to begin with. Typical of my snobbishness, I haven’t been to see any of the action blockbusters this summer, though comic-book movies like HULK, X2, LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN rarely interest me as a noncomic geek. The only summer blockbusters that I haven’t seen but really want to are 28 DAYS LATER and PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN.
But compare it to last year, when SPIDER-MAN had good advance word (but not a notably more-prestigious or -interesting director-stars team than HULK — Sam Raimi/Tobey McGuire/Willem Dafoe vs. Ang Lee/Eric Bana/Nick Nolte). I went to see SPIDEY and liked it moderately. I dismissed HULK sight unseen.
I’m somewhat ambivalent about this kind of pre-buzz buzz, however much it might do the Lord’s work against a bad film, because it so traps the film in the self-fulfilling prophecy cycle about its box office (it’s a turkey, therefore nobody goes to see it, so it must *really* be a turkey … etc.).
The film doesn’t get a chance to overcome 1) bad prebuzz or 2) disappointing early-audience response. In the case of (1), it often occurs for reasons having nothing to do with what’s on the screen — need I remind anybody [I probably do] about 1998 and the same “turkey” tag sinking BABE: PIG IN THE CITY, a very good film that deserved better than it got. In the case of (2), most films probably wouldn’t overcome them anyway, but a few do need time to find their audience or shrug off initial marketing mistakes — need I remind anybody [I certainly do] about 1983 and THE RIGHT STUFF, a masterpiece that carved out its popularity via video after flopping in theaters.
A recent White House occupant fancies himself as a cowboy, only it’s not Dubya, but, according to the London Daily Telegraph (this is where it’s available in September 2007) it’s the Sensitive-90s-Dad-In-Chief.
I loathe armchair psychology, but seeing a single movie 30 times in eight years is *so* unnatural that it’s hard not to speculate. Eisenhower and Bush 2.0 have each seen HIGH NOON also, but only three times and once respectively (and Ike was president when the movie was new fercryinoutloud). It’s not unusual for a professional critic or a really hard-core CINEMANIA-caliber film geek to see a film that often — my records are seeing THE COOK, THE THIEF, HIS WIFE AND HER LOVER 12 times in two years (but then none in the next eight) and THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS 22 times (but over almost 15 years). But this is the guy so intent on saving the world from The Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy and getting Osama bin Laden in December 2000 that he didn’t have time to notice the Rose Law Firm billing records, the raw FBI files on Washington’s top Republicans or any of that. And he was so focused lake a laser beam on the economy and Bosnia that he vulnerable to the stalking of cigar-wielding interns (especially while discussing Bosnia). How did he find the time to see a movie 30 times?
Numerous critics have long noted how HIGH NOON is “really” an anti-McCarthy allegory of the lone man abandoned by others’ cowardice in the fight against evil. Does it not seem typical of Clinton that he would see HIGH NOON 30 times? Maybe he just loves the movie, but it would be entirely consistent with what we know of Clinton’s self-dramatizing and narcissistic personality that he’d see himself as a lone defender of right, a modern-day Gary Cooper headed for a showdown with the black-hatted trio of Gingrich, Hyde and Starr. To give another example of the same phenomenon, he once explained some stretch of ineffectuality in an interview with The Washington Post by quoting from Chapter 6 of Macchiavelli’s THE PRINCE about the difficulties of “founding a new order of things,” thereby implicitly comparing Hillarycare, the moter-voter bill, gays in the military and Midnight basketball to (some of the examples Macchiavelli uses) Romulus founding Rome and Moses leading the Israelites into the Holy Land. The good St. Nick has a lot to teach us about politics, but that be wack.
Further, the choice of *that* Western, as opposed to, say, STAGECOACH or THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE or the Clint Eastwood spaghetti Westerns, is also instructive in terms of what it says about Clinton’s self-image and that of a significant swatch of Boomer public opinion (and Clinton is nothing if not the blue-state ego-ideal of his generation). When Europeans-in-place and Europeans-in-spirit call Dubya (or America in general) a cowboy, they’re referring, however accurately, to a certain image — an impetuous, dashing, ruthless taste for violence. Yosemite Sam basically. But Will Kane is a different kind of Western hero, one more acceptable to Our Sensitive Era — tortured, alone, only resorting to violence by clear-and-present necessity. And he even gets bailed out at the end by his wife …