Rightwing Film Geek

Long and boring … do not read

Before Big Hollywood gave Sonny the space to rebut Ben Shapiro’s execrable post about the Top 10 Most Overrated Directors of All Time — the site’s editor-in-chief weighed in. But not on the correct side.

John Nolte aka Dirty Harry defended the Shapiro piece (saying “Bravo!” and “I loved” it), which was a disappointment. Again, not so much because he defended it (one would hardly expect an editor to turn against his own writer in a public forum), but because of the way he defended it — with the most unconservative arguments in the book. Here is the essential excerpt.

We could all come up with lists like this, lists that defy the conventional wisdom in one area or another. Taste is subjective. Certainly there are those who somehow find themselves in the enviable position of being “cinematic tastemakers.” But…
…who anointed them?
Who anoints the anointers?
Who knows?
Who cares?
There are many film writers and historians worthy of admiration for both their passion and knowledge of cinema’s rich lore and history. Off the top of my head I can’t get enough of Robert Osborne, Kurt Loder, David Thomson, Richard Schickel, and Ephraim Katz. Not to mention our own Robert Avrech and Leo Grin. Leonard Maltin’s movie guide has been a well-thumbed staple at my side for a quarter century. So I say with no offense to any these gentlemen that their opinions mean nothing to me.
As with any art medium, no matter how schooled, experienced, educated or knowledgeable, when it comes to likes and dislikes, there is no arbiter. No one knows.
I’ll take a velvet Elvis over a Picasso or Jackson Pollock Any. Day. Of. The Week. Because…
No one knows.
Certainly there are reasonable ways to objectively judge the look of a film, the performances, the score, and the other cogs that make up the wheel. But not the wheel itself, not the movie itself. That would be like judging someone’s love for another. You and everyone else may find her homely and dumb and a lousy cook, but he loves her and she makes him happy.
And I’m tired of being told what to like. I’m tired of being told that this director’s important or that film has something to say…

To elaborate on the response I gave at the Big Hollywood combox, there is much there I agree with. Obviously, matters of pure taste are inarguable, aesthetic judgment is not mathematics, and nobody is trying to tell Nolte, Shapiro or anybody else what to like. I was careful to state that I don’t have anything per-se against someone not liking Hitchcock or any other director. Most of the better comments against Shapiro stipulated that exact point. What I, and apparently quite a few other Big Hollywood readers, have something against (a lot, actually) is Shapiro’s specific post — its schoolboy fact errors, its pronunciamento tone, and its utter lack of argument and support that might make a discussion with him over beer *actually worthwhile.* Shapiro’s article consisted of “it roolz/it droolz!!!” and no details that indisputably demonstrated that he had ever seen the movies in question. And I’m sorry, but that’s just sophomoric drivel.

There’s also something deeply unconservative about Nolte’s defense. The recent movie (UNTITLED), which is in significant part about hucksterism in the contemporary art scene, had a very apposite line: “That is not my opinion. It is my judgment.” The difference between opinion and judgment cannot be overstated. For most college-educated conservatives of my generation, our defining moment, the event(s) that made us conservatives was the campus political-correctness and canon wars of the late 80s and early 90s. At that time, the canon of the arts was being attacked as the oppressive tool of Dead White Males and the very notion of canonicity and its key element (judgment) were being “deconstructed,” “problematized,” “critiqued,” etc. And not just in the name of raceclassgendersexuality but also whole (much more serious and weighty, if often popularized and vulgarized) philosophies dating back to Nietzsche and Rousseau.

We were attracted to conservatism because it opposed radical selfdom, radical subjectivism and radical emotivism. Yet Nolte’s defense of what is essentially a list of self-referential emotive outbursts from Shapiro is a betrayal of the concept of “judgment” in the name of subjectiveness. Yes, subjectiveness is *IN* every aesthetic judgment, but that doesn’t mean every aesthetic judgment is NOTHING BUT subjectivity. I couldn’t care less about someone’s opinion of Hitchcock (on that, Nolte and I are at one); I could care about someone’s judgment about Hitchcock. However, Shapiro offered no judgment and Nolte defends that. And even if, at the end of the day, it IS all subjective, can we at least GET to the end of the day in an interesting way?

But why should someone have to offer judgment? Because artistic canons exist. While it’s fine not like a canonized work or body of work (that’s an opinion and inarguable), it’s incumbent on a person who doesn’t do so in public to state his reasons and provide a basis for his judgment. And yes, it is incumbent on the contrarian in a way that it is less so for the person who likes the canonized work(s). Is this unequal? Yes. But arguments from inequality per-se and the four-letter f-word (“fair”) should only persuade nihilistic liberals. Conservatives are supposed to stand for Tradition, for the settled ways that represent the accumulated wisdom of the past; it is liberals and leftists who think, like children, the world can be made anew, starting with Year Zero (there was something faintly Khmer Rouge-ish about Nolte’s closing “Yes, right here at Big Hollywood, let’s tear this mother down, start over, and have at it”). Conservatives do remember our Edmund Burke, don’t we, or are we all now subjectivists all the way down, indifferent to canonicity? The notion that artistic canons had to justify themselves anew every day to everyone is the natural territory of liberal authorityphobes and god-haters. Ah … there’s that other bugbear word, besides “opinion” — “authority.” Nolte nods in this direction with his passage about “cinematic tastemakers” and “anointers,” but immediately responds with, in effect, “who made them that.” The very fact that a conservative like Nolte takes us so quickly to the not-so-grand not-so-cosmic “sez who,” to any notion that smells like authority is itself symptomatic of the sickness of our time.¹

The short answer to Nolte’s question is “nobody,” at least not in any formal sense. But art is no more like government than it is mathematics. Nobody has authority in any of Max Weber’s formal senses (I certainly don’t claim any; I know no critic who does). The only authority I have to declare Ben Shapiro a twit and his article a worthless embarrassment is my reason, my experience and my appeals to others’. That’s the only authority that will ever exist in the arts or criticism. But it is a kind of authority, and conservatives shouldn’t argue that we can do without it. Artistic authority has no formal expression and/or we wouldn’t want to give it formal expression. But going from that fact to attacking it is akin to (actually just “is,” if in another field) post-war liberals thinking that informal (or “soft”) types of social authority as family, custom, elders, credentials, propriety, manners, etc., were mere oppressive prejudices and could either be done away with or replaced by more “rational” forms of authority, meaning government and law.

We all know how that turned out, don’t we?
¹ Nolte’s phrase “who anoints the anointers” is a play on the Roman phrase “who guards the guardians.” It’s another symptom of our time’s sickness that a conservative thinks of artistic judgement in terms of a metaphor related to the domination that is government power.


January 19, 2010 - Posted by | John Nolte


  1. And this is even more fun than the Shapiro critique; many things to savor, acknowledge and mentally argue through. I need to visit here more often.

    Comment by The Siren | January 19, 2010 | Reply

  2. Lucidly argued. I read the Shapiro piece- and, though I have hardly watched any of the canons exhaustively, I found the piece pretty shallow. If he claims to be a critic, then he does deserve the flak. As a sophomore amateur cinema-enthusiast, I have my feelings of wtf’s-the-big-deal-with-this moments, but then I read, gain insights, assuage my doubts(even if slightly)and refine/reserve my judgements.

    My takes at the moment??
    I find the Lean films I’ve tried ‘boring’, his films ‘feeling’ more like templates of future more engaging spin-offs.
    And, Lynch’s Blue Velvet had me guffawing at the sheer mountain out of a molehill-ness of the whole thing, a judgement I still doggedly reserve, principally as a reactionary backlash. Was Absolutely Enthralled and Bemused by Mullohand drive. Though, while reading the reviews later, something at the back of my mind kept telling me a schoolboy manipulator could cook this up for fun. Like Chance Gardener and contrived meanings.
    I did have a hearty laugh at Shapiro’s sheer college-boy-horny reductionist take on Aronofsky. I’ve no qualms though( Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis, in his next, that seriously clouds any judgement of mine)
    Michael Mann: love his casting, (not much of a critical judgement I know, but nothing that exciting in his oeuvre imo).
    Martin Scorcesse. Worship Taxi Driver, maybe cause he’s like a damn-you idealistic Holden Caulfield and it feeds on my own post-teen self-imposed weltschmertz. The Departed, Cape Fear, Goodfellas, Gangs, Temptation, Casino- with decreasing level of favorable critical interest. Raging Bull- havent got round to watching it, probably from a ‘who cares’ attitude. In Scorcesse’s own words though, his films are excessively (maybe unlikable) character- focussed for my taste.
    Tarantino. well, he’s overrated- if only as a director.QT films OK stories/plots,but the sheer (for-me) exotic nature of his dialogue, his character’s portrayals/casting and interactions are a pure pleasure.
    Woody Allen, Ridley Scott. Hits and misses, ashes and diamonds, simultaneously. Annie Hall is so awesome(u cant argue with that), I turned into a neurotic Woody Allen for a month.
    Hitchcock is a genius, and one of my favorites, though having watched countless post-Hitchcock versions of his films, the responsive tension or surprise is subdued and rare. Love the classic(whatever that means), clean-at-the-surface, stylised direction of his films. His films are just so..crafted, visually written novels, efficient ‘wholesome’ dramas. effective?? not so much, at least for me.

    Having said that, director’s- all of them- are a bit overrated. From my own limited exposure, I gather noone’s oeuvre or ‘canon’ is consistent, in toto. (except Wes Anderson..maybe??)

    Unrelated questions-
    1. Do you admire Ayn Rand?? (re: http://markshea.blogspot.com/2009/08/some-folks-may-remember-victor-morton.html)am awed by the sheer clarity and organisation of her sometimes harsh thinking, but am bemused when i see cliques deifying her as a prophet or something.
    2. With re to this post, I can’t figure out the last paragraph viz. conservative/liberal dichotomy. So, what exactly is a ‘liberal’s’ take on authority supposed to be?? (I have to confess all this liberal/conservative b/w division stumps me. Ah well, maybe thats my Indian nuance fudging the fences)
    3. When are you putting up 2009 Skandies, love your ‘scenes’ skandies.

    Comment by Rohit | January 19, 2010 | Reply

  3. Lucid as always, and I find it revealing (although it stands to reason — never really put it together) that the canon wars / p.c. stuff would’ve been so defining for conservative intellectuals of our age bracket.

    A quibble: although I wholeheartedly agree that much of this sloppy “deconstruction” went too far in a lot of unproductive directions, I would like to think that, with benefit of distance, we might be able to remove the (productive) impulse from the (doctrinaire, self-serving) fervor.

    I suspect even the staunchest conservative intellectual would agree that Time and Knowledge are not linear pursuits and that our understanding of the past is forever being modulated and adjusted. The difference, it seems, is in degree and in relative caution vs. rapid, willy-nilly upsetting of the apple-cart (which is, I contend, also good from time to time, but whatever).

    To claim that aesthetic judgments are not 100% autonomous, that they have a sociological component, and that what qualifies as great artistic achievement shifts over time due to pressures that are not solely internal to the development of an artform’s own imperatives, does not seem at all unreasonable. The problem was when folks (quite tendentiously) reduced the aesthetic judgment to the pure folly of the social, i.e., “Here’s what the straight white male power base thinks is good.” Period. That’s just willfully dumb. But to say, wait a minute, there are social and historical reasons which have diverted us from considering (say) Zora Neale Hurston, and let’s take a look and see if this stacks up in aesthetic terms, is a different and wholly appropriate matter.

    All that having been said, I (not surprisingly) agree with you that rampant subjectivism is bullshit. There are expert opinions and they count for more (provided they can explain themselves, rather than hide beneath the aegis of Pure Authority! We all must justify ourselves now and then.) The Big Hollywood problem, clearly, is that these guys believe that because the canon of cinema has been formed, by and large, by a critical and academic establishment that tilts leftward (or further) that all aesthetic judgments made by these folks are tainted tout court, the mystifying nonsense of “liberal elites.” Um, not everything comes down to politics, boys. Sometimes the evidence is right there, irrefutable, on the screen.

    Comment by msic | January 20, 2010 | Reply

  4. Rohit:

    I do not admire Ayn Rand at all, either substantively or temperamentally (she attracts the acolytes she deserves). She had, like, three insights her entire life, but one was that certain terms either were used or could only be used as taboo-markers or “capture-the-flag” rhetoric. In contemporary times “torture” is one such term. And for future reference, please do not link to Mark Shea from here. I appreciate that you asked me something directly, but his ability to understand the ideas of people who disagree with him is zero.

    The point of my last graf is that liberals’ successful assault on pretty all forms of non-rational, non-positivistic, non-government authority had disastrous consequences (the destruction of the family, for example).

    And, as always, I will post my Skandies ballot after the results are announced.

    Comment by vjmorton | January 20, 2010 | Reply

  5. Waz:

    Damn, I wish I could disagree with you more, youpinkoyou …

    Seriously, I more or less agree with everything you say. As you know, I’m not averse or allergic to post-modernism and deconstructive acts. Indeed, I think the right can usefully use them against the meta-narratives that liberals treasure — Whig and Marxist theories of historical progress, e.g. But just ranting against the cinematic canon because it includes a lot of liberals is unproductive; yes, not everything is politics.

    Perhaps the reason for the excesses of the 90s was that its motivating factor and the dominant part of the rhetorical and/or public case for it was “equality” not “enlightenment.” No sane righty opposes encouraging and/or assigning to students the Harlem Renaissance or Asian painting or the Koran, etc. Now, as a flaming reactionary, I’m free to oppose equality and say “history is what it is, can’t be undone and if that results in a disproportionate [sic] number of the important writers or composers, etc., are men or white [or gay … in principle], then so be it.” For liberals who support affirmative action or reparations, etc. — that’s not an option, so they have to dig for something else as the cause (hence the excesses).

    I think the test is — how does one react to Bellows’ question “Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus; I would love to read him.” I would say re film, then who IS the Scorsese of the conservatives?* When he comes, I’ll be his biggest fan. But I won’t insist a priori that the Zulus MUST have a Tolstoy and conservatives MUST have a Scorsese.
    *Which isn’t exactly a fair comparison — I think the cinema canon has plenty for us and some of us. But it’s why I won’t pretend conservative affirmative-action movies are great.

    Comment by vjmorton | January 20, 2010 | Reply

  6. This forum’s quite an education.
    Anyways, Any good books you could recommend to broaden an understanding of cinema?? Have read a few, but they are either too specialized or too cursory in focus.
    And, is that a Saul Bellow quote in your last reply??? I have ‘Ravelstein’ with me right now…but i am a bit tentative to begin reading Bellow with his last work..

    Comment by Rohit | January 20, 2010 | Reply

  7. With re to “destruction of the family”…there’s something like TOO MUCH family, at least here, in India. Family can also be so oppressive, so obdurately baselined to supposed honor, it can stifle the spirit out of you. Me, in my present rebellious malaise, I am all for a bit of destruction….

    Comment by Rohit | January 20, 2010 | Reply

  8. I’m taking this over here simply because the IFC blog isn’t mine to run riot over and I feel uncomfortable getting into debates with people I actually know on there. And you’re right: Graham’s article doesn’t *specifically* say that. But the BH crew (and I have, like, zero idea why you like them; none of them are as cogent as you, most of them are downright awful writers, I’d maybe give an exemption to Robert Avrech and Stage Right) generally operates within a very narrow confine of talking points that underlie each post, shuffling the deck depending on the day. And one of their big ideas is that Obama is bringing “thuggery” and “Chicago-style politics” to the White House — as opposed, presumably, to the bipartisan, compromise-heavy Bush administration. A selective memory indeed. Over here on the left, I’m *definitely* of the opinion that Obama should’ve rammed the healthcare initiative down the throats of Congress while he could and just terrorized everyone LBJ style (I don’t have health care, so it’s kind of a big deal to me). Which is manifestly not what happened; he gambled on compromises that would sort themselves out for some weak brew, and he lost.

    The whole “BDS” annoys me because of its pseudo-medical connotations and because it’s out of whack. BDS worse than accusations of Clinton as sociopathic murderer et al.? Worse than Obama = Hitler? Same difference, seems to me; everyone loses on those.

    Comment by Vadim | January 21, 2010 | Reply

  9. […] Victor Morton argues that the canon is an inherently — and necessarily — conservative institution. […]

    Pingback by Judgment and Opinion - Plasma Pool | January 21, 2010 | Reply

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