Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Red Dawn was a conservative film? Who knew?

I’m not even sure where to begin with this one: The National Review has come out with a list of the best “conservative” films of the last twenty-five years. I leave “conservative” in scare quotes, because it is unclear how they’re defining it. Most of the films listed (though not all) seem to be there because of a single aspect of plot or theme that exemplifies a conservative preoccupation—so Juno makes the list because its title character decides against having an abortion, Ghostbusters makes the list because of William Atherton’s depiction of a “regulation-happy buffoon from the EPA,” and The Lives of Others seems to be there because it was enthusiastically endorsed by William F. Buckley.

Anyway, here’s the list in descending order:

25. Gran Torino
24. Team America: World Police (seriously)
23. United 93
22. Brazil
21. Heartbreak Ridge
20. Gattaca
19. We Were Soldiers
18. The Edge
17. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe
16. Master and Commander
15. Red Dawn
14. A Simple Plan
13. Braveheart
12. The Dark Knight
11. The Lord of the Rings
10. Ghostbusters
9. Blast from the Past
8. Juno
7. The Pursuit of Happyness
6. Groundhog Day
5. 300
4. Forrest Gump
3. Metropolitan
2. The Incredibles
1. The Lives of Others

Again, not even sure where to begin, though I’m tempted to say that if these are the best conservative films of the last 25 years, then conservatives obviously don’t make very good films. Certainly, the most unequivocally conservative entries here—300, Red Dawn, We Were Soldiers, Heartbreak Ridge and Blast from the Past—unequivocally suck. The one possible exception to this statement is Forrest Gump, a film that makes me gag but one I’m willing to grant has redeeming features (a good soundtrack, if nothing else). That 300 is on a list of supposedly “good” films at all (and at #5, no less!) brings the entire endeavour into question. That the film is described as “a stylized story about the ancient battle of Thermopylae and the Spartan defense of the West’s fledgling institutions” makes it even more laughable, considering the fact that Sparta was as dictatorial as any despotic regime of the 20th century, exercising absolute control over its citizenry, and ultimately responsible in the Peloponnesian War for the destruction of Athens’ “fledgling” democracy.

Some of the rationales offered for defining the above films as somehow inherently conservative are similarly hilarious, and occasionally baffling. Take, for example, the description of United 93:

“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.”

That, incidentally, is the entire entry—I’m not leaving anything out. Someone explain to me please how this qualifies as de facto conservatism?

Team America: World Police, to my mind the most bizarre choice, is there because it mocks left-wing Hollywood types. Someone forgot to mention to the list compilers that Trey Parker and Matt Stone are equal-opportunity satirists, and if Alec Baldwin et al come in for mockery, heavy-handed American foreign policy (it’s there in the title, people) takes the brunt of the film’s derision.

Here’s what was said about Braveheart: “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.” Oh, right—that’s why Mel Gibson no longer gets a fair shake from liberal Hollywood. It’s all about Braveheart. I remember the left-wing rage upon seeing stalwart American youths in the recruiting lineups shouting “FREEDOM!” in bad Scottish accents …

What I think irks me most about this list is the simple fact that the vast majority of what gets produced by Hollywood is conservative—by which I mean, not that we see a lot of films with overt conservative agendas, but that popular film, like popular television, is inherently conservative in its general themes and stories. Good people and good acts are rewarded, transgressors punished, law and order function as transcendent principles, the overriding ethic is individualist rather than collective, America (or its Spartan proxies) always wins, and the obvious end-point of every romantic comedy is marriage literal or symbolic. Representations of sex, violence, and alternative lifestyles (ranging from single parenthood to homosexuality) have of course become more pervasive—but that conservative deep structure persists. Nowhere is this more evident than in the classic slasher film: it may be filled with explicit sex and gory violence, but the killer—be he Jason or Michael Myers—ultimately acts as the moral absolutist, only sparing those who abstain from immoral behaviour.

It gets to the point where it’s the films substantively deviating from this deep structure that prove most disturbing and, often, the most compelling. But even to say this is a bit disingenuous, for if this list demonstrates anything at all, it is the fallacy of this kind of classification. The best films, like the best art of any kind, cannot be classified so simply as merely “liberal” or “conservative.” Based on the jumbled criteria cited in the list, I would have to say that, for example, No Country for Old Men is certainly not a conservative film. Does that make it liberal? Of course not. What it is, is a film that raises a lot of questions about morality and the nature of evil, of the consequences of our actions, and the possible futility of taking up arms against a sea of troubles. As I’ve blogged before, many conservatives have seen in The Dark Knight’s depiction of the Batman’s vigilantism a vindication of the Bush Administration’s choices to operate outside domestic and international law. While that element is undeniably present, to see it as the sum total of The Dark Knight’s message is to miss the point of the film, which poses the Batman’s vigilantism not as an absolute good but a vexed ethical and moral dilemma for which there are no easy answers.

I suggested to my students this morning that one of the ways we know great art—or even just good art—when we see it is that it changes the terms of our discussion with it, and forces us to expand our vocabulary to engage with it. The problem with this list is that it tries so very hard to reduce our vocabulary. Incidentally, this irks me on behalf of the intelligent and principled conservatives I have known in my life. To reduce The Lord of the Rings to something like “The debates over what to do about Sauron and Saruman echoed our own disputes over the Iraq War” or Juno to a straightforward pro-life message, or Narnia’s White Witch to someone who “runs a godless, oppressive, paranoid regime that hates Santa Claus … a cross between Burgermeister Meisterburger and Kim Jong Il,” bespeaks a reductive and simplistic brand of conservatism that rejects nuance as waffling and ambiguity as weakness.

And, seriously—300?

1 comment:

nadinebc said...

Bit of an odd list, I have to confess Team America: World Police is a bit out there for a conservative film. They need to look up the word subversive in the dictionary.

Clearly they did not see the uncut version....