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Ross says:

Meanwhile, even 24, ostensibly the most right-wing hour on television, features what Martha Bayles, writing in this season’s Claremont Review of Books, terms a “timid selection of villains,” including “vengeful Serbs, a bitchy German, red-handed Mexican drug lords, a turncoat British spy, a greedy oil executive, power-mad government officials (including one president), and—once in a blue moon, when the Council on American-Islamic Relations is looking the other way—violent jihadists.”

Once in a blue moon?  Really?  They happen to be among the main players in no less than three of the six seasons.  Even if you take the view that they were phoning it in during the sixth season and simply recycling old plotlines from earlier seasons (e.g., Arabs with nukes, the Vice President trying to force the President out via the 25th Amendment, terrorist youths in our suburbs!, etc.), 24 has assembled a small army of Middle Eastern actors and extras over the years.  Perhaps the only thing more annoying than general hysteria  about “Islamofascists” is the rather bizarre obsession with pretending that American pop culture has not endorsed this hysteria with gusto.

Megan McArdle makes some of the right points in response to this.  I would add that totalitarian regimes have been perfectly willing to regulate sexuality in particular throughout the 20th century, and it was frequently the case that revolutionary communist forces were extremely demanding in their expectations of moral and ideological purity to the point of a secular asceticism.  There is a larger problem in the argument that theocracy is somehow inherently worse or more intrusive than totalitarianism, which is that historically theocratic governments ruled states that were not especially administratively effective, nor were they powerful enough to enforce their restrictions with the kind of thoroughgoing interference of the modern totalitarian state.  The idea that you don’t have to believe in the rules and doctrines of a totalitarian system seems to show a complete lack of awareness of the practices of indoctrination and denunciation that were certainly present in communist states.  The particularly terrifying thing about, say, a Stalinist regime was that the rules and doctrines would change from year to year and adherence to the old doctrines, which had been up until the day before perfectly acceptable and mandatory, became proof of deviationism.  At least with religious orthodoxies, whatever else you might think about them, they remain generally quite stable and fixed once they are set down.  Under Stalinism, you were expected to confess a party line that changed along with shifts in policy, and the longer you had been around the more evidence of your past deviation from the current line, whatever it happened to be, there would be.   

The post did remind me of something I have read before about the “alternative history” of the universe of The Golden Compass:

The conservative Protestant churches seem to have missed the part of Pullman’s alternative history where Calvinism was absorbed into Catholicism to create the corrupt Magisterium.

This is revealing of the author’s view of Christianity and the apparent absurdity of the world he has imagined, in which two utterly, starkly opposed confessions that are about as far apart from one another as possible somehow came together in common cause to become part of the same religious authority.  I should think that any Presbyterians who heard about this alternative history would be having so much difficulty stopping their spasms of laughter that they would not have the energy to register a protest. 

“The Golden Compass” is a blatant attempt to duplicate the success of the “Harry Potter” franchise. The only thing missing is richly imagined characters, a comprehensible story line, good acting, and satisfying special effects. ~Peter Rainer

So, I take it that that’s a thumbs down.  I have been interested to read some reviews of The Golden Compass after commenting on this Atlantic article about it.  While it has received some good press, many reviewers are saying that it is confusing and mediocre.  (The title has also provided easy fodder for mocking the film’s direction, or lack thereof.)  I wonder if the movie has so softened and dulled the ideas in the book (even if they are ideas that would have made the movie much less popular and lucrative), as the article suggested it did, that it lost whatever coherence it may have had as a novel.  The Chronicle’s reviewer certainly thought this was the case:

It’s a story without a soul.

Perhaps materialists will take that as a compliment?


Via Ross, here’s the most cutting criticism of the quality of the characters in Lions For Lambs that I’ve seen so far:

These aren’t human beings; they’re sentient position papers.


While I’m thinking about the topic of atheism and “hard secularism,” I thought I would make a few remarks about this Atlantic piece on the making of the movie version of The Golden Compass.  I haven’t read the Dark Materials trilogy, nor am I exactly rushing out to pick up a copy of the first book, so I am relying pretty much entirely on the article for the background, but something did strike me about an idea contained in one version of the script.  From the article:

The earlier scripts made passing reference to the Fall. In the Stoppard script, Asriel, in a rage about the Authority, mocks the “apple of desire” and the “fig-leaf of shame”; a few scenes later Coulter, the evil Nicole Kidman character, yells at Asriel, “You can’t conquer God!” Weitz told me he’d originally written an opening scene showing Lyra in a college chapel listening to a sermon about the alternative Genesis, “but that movie was not going to get made.” A Weitz script dated December 2004 makes no explicit reference to Genesis. Instead, the theology is mediated entirely through a discussion of Dust, which, according to your taste, is either more highbrow or just more muddled. Asriel tells Lyra that people believe Dust is sin and that it brings on misery. He says he will set out to destroy Dust and essentially reverse the consequences of original sin: “When I do—pain, sin, suffering—death itself will die.”

What this reminds me of more than anything else, aside from gnostic utopian insanity, is the Alliance assassin from Serenity, who seeks the annihilation of sin from what I think is supposed to be the other side of things.  For the assassin, eliminating sin was the ultimate goal of the totalitarian Alliance’s desire for control (against which our anarchic, vaguely neo-Confederate Browncoat heroes are resisting), which is the role that “the Magisterium” theoretically ought to be filling in a story that vilifies religious authority, but apparently it is not. 

In any case, there does seem to be something to the charge that The Golden Compass is “Hitchens taken to the kids,” though this may do a disservice to the movie, which might at least be entertaining.  Even the finished product’s somewhat more muted digs at Christianity are not going to be well-received, at least not by anyone who isn’t already a fan of the anti-clerical jabs of V for Vendetta and the dedicated blasphemy of something like Preacher

One of the surest ways that you can tell that it’s going to be badly lacking is the frequency with which people defending it in this article keep saying that it’s “highly spiritual.”  Talking about something being “spiritual” as a substitute for religion, or as a way of proving that something isn’t anti-religious, is a classic response, since it doesn’t actually have to mean anything and yet seems to provide some cover for the person saying it.  We’ve all heard the line: “Oh, I’m not interested in religion, but I consider myself a very spiritual person.”  How nice.  Even Sam Harris meditates, so I understand, and obviously entire sci-fi franchises are built on or involve hokey mysticism (Star Wars, Stargate) that might well have been derived from The Idiot’s Guide to Buddhism, so why can’t an adaptation of an explicitly anti-theist work of fiction also be “spiritual” in some entirely non-commital and thoroughly meaningless way?   

Three cheers for decent historians:

A Vatican-backed historian has attacked the film Elizabeth: The Golden Age as a “distorted anti-papal travesty” that risks dividing the West just when it should be rediscovering its “common Christian roots” in the face of Islam.

Stuart Reid at The Spectator’s Coffee House blog is making sense:

Any depiction of those years that depicts Elizabeth as the good guy and Philip as the bad guy is comic-book history.

He is also even more hard-core than I am:

What a pity the Armada failed.

Reid and Cardini and I are not alone in our objections to the film:

The Catholic News Service, which is run by the United States Bishops Conference, said: “With the single exception of Mary, Queen of Scots, all the Catholics in the film are twisted, embittered intriguers.”

And even then their depiction of Mary Stuart isn’t exactly flattering.

I have no excuse.  There were warnings that the Elizabeth sequel was terrible, but I made the mistake of seeing for myself.  This is a perfect example of why movie reviewers are necessary.  You really should take Chris Orr’s word for it: it’s bad!  If anyone is tempted to go see it, just don’t.

When it isn’t painfully boring (which is most of the film), it’s sappy, and when it isn’t sappy it veers into some weird fusion of Patriot-esque speechmaking and retrojected values of liberal tolerance.  As Orr noted, the dialogue is often unpardonably lame.  At one point Elizabeth even gives a little talk on the evils of the Inquisition and England as the bastion of liberty of conscience and thought.  Since pretty much no one today likes the Inquisition, this is an easy way to make her the sympathetic champion of Freedom (her appearance before the assembled English soldiers does have a bit of the Gibsonian “they may take our lives…” element in it), but pretends as if “liberty of conscience” were some universal principle here rather than an invocation of Protestant polemic.  

The director, Shekhar Kumar, has stayed strangely faithful to the original Elizabeth’s studious reproduction of Protestant and English nationalist historiography on film.  Indeed, in the sequel Kumar has ratcheted up the anti-Catholicism of the first movie.  You could just as easily call this Black Legend: The Movie or The Catholics Are Coming To Get You.   

The portrayal of Philip, were it done to an American or British historical figure, would throw certain people into fits of hysteria.  The treatment of Mary Stuart was hardly any better.  The take-home message seemed to be: “The dagoes and Scots are trying to take away your freedom, so you have to kill them.”     Since English historians have long wanted to ignore the fact that Philip II was also briefly Philip I of England, it would hardly bother many to show Philip, as the movie shows him, as some sort of decrepit, superstitious eunuch who is afraid of the sunlight and talks to himself, or whatever it was we were supposed to conclude about him.

This was also the king who sent a significant portion of the fleet that won at Lepanto over the Ottomans, and who was probably among the most accomplished, albeit flawed, monarchs of the early modern period.  Naturally, Elizabeth’s apologists and myth-makers have always had to tear him down to make their heroine appear more important than she was.  This movie is just one of the more recent and execrable efforts along these lines.   

The opening “historical” introduction manages to ignore completely the contemporary Dutch rebels, whose resistance to Philip’s rule was the reason for Philip’s wars in northwestern Europe.  “Only England stands against him,” the writers pompously tell us.  The Dutch role in defeating the Armada is also ignored.  The Golden Age is the English version of Fred Thompson bombast: England stands alone for freedom!  Never mind that the Dutch kept fighting and dying against the Spanish for another two decades after the Armada was defeated and that Spain’s bankruptcy was related to its constant continental warfare against France to protect the Milan road.  We mustn’t diminish the reputation of the most overrated monarch in English history. 

P.S. Even Mike Potemra agrees on the anti-Catholicism of the movie, so it must be pretty obvious.

When I was in a summer program in England on Tudor and Stuart history and literature, I once had the pleasure of seeing one of my classmates react with visceral horror at the historical mockery that was the original Elizabeth.  He was particularly amazed at the absurdly short shrift given to Lord Burleigh, as anyone familiar with the period would be. 

Don’t misunderstand me.  As a work of cinema and as a matter of acting, Elizabeth was impressive and deserved to beat that preposterous Shakespeare in Love (which stole its deserved Best Picture and Best Actress awards) in every category.  For their sins, Gwynneth Paltrow went on to make such masterpieces as Proof and Joseph Fiennes disappeared into a cinematic void after his weaselly character was shot in the head in Enemy at the Gates (though, I am sorry to see, he is poised to sully the good name of Vivaldi by taking on the lead role in a film of the same name). 

As Chris Orr tells us, the Elizabeth sequel is a different story, filled with dialogue that might have been scrounged from the wastebins at the writing sessions for Star Wars, Episodes II and III:

Him: “Why be afraid of tomorrow, when today is all we have?” Her: “In another world and at another time, could you have loved me?” 

On the plus side, I have heard that the music is by A.R. Rahman, who wrote, among other things, the score for the Oscar-nominated Lagaan, so perhaps there is some small redeeming virtue left in the film.

Ross offers an interesting counterargument on the crucial ”Bourne question”:

Okay, but let’s not take this too far. For instance, I would submit that a film like Braveheart (which, like the Bourne movies, I’m very fond of) qualifies as obviously “anti-English” even though it’s technically only critical of the English government and military, or that the infamous Valley of the Wolves is an anti-American movie even though it mainly concerns itself with the wickedness of certain American soldiers (and evil Jewish-American doctors, of course).

All right, I’ll grant Ross that Braveheart really is anti-English (as is almost every historical movie Mel Gibson has ever directed and almost every historical movie he’s starred in) and Valley of the Wolves really is anti-American, but it seems to me that Braveheart, at least, never gives  you any reason to think otherwise and indeed encourages you to despise the English as part of some grand Celtic vendetta for past crimes.  It is partly the anti-English-ness of Braveheart  and partly the nationalist mythology of it that have so disgusted Alex Massie.  There will be no argument over Braveheart’s anti-English quality, since I’m fairly sure that the director would happily agree that it is anti-English, just as The Patriot is very clearly anti-British (despite the moderately positive portrayal of Cornwallis).   

Now a very different kind of film made by an Australian would be Breaker Morant, which depicts some of the evils of British policy in the South African War and which has a very clear anti-imperialist message, but which is not anti-British as such.  The main character, portrayed mostly favourably, is an English gentleman, and the movie does not show the kommandos in a terribly flattering light.  However, because it recognises that the South African War was a “bad cause,” as Woodward’s Morant puts it, it does not vilify the Afrikaners, either.  It shows the war to be the cynical and senseless waste that it was.  It finds fault with certain individuals and institutions, but it does not condemn the whole of the country.

The two movies Ross mentions were designed to be exactly what Ross says they are, because they are different examples of nationalist filmmaking.  Braveheart is anti-English in a classic nationalist myth-making way where the perfidious oppressor nation with no redeeming qualities is ultimately defeated by the heroic champion of independence.  Similarly, Alexander Nevsky is intensely anti-German and was made with the intention of vilifying Germans as a group.  Valley of the Wolves was designed to be anti-American after a fashion, but mostly by way of providing a villainous adversary to bolster the strong pro-Turkish nationalist themes in it.  Your standard nationalist action/war flicks do not allow for a lot of subtlety in the depiction of enemies, which is why virtually every American and British movie made about WWII shows Germans to be a monolithic group of villains. 

When someone attempts to break with the standards of the nationalist war flick and introduce complexity and humanity into the depiction of enemies, his film typically does not fare very well with the big action movie crowds.  The crowds that turn out for their own versions of Rambo are not interested in making fine distinctions and balanced portrayals, but want very clear-cut affirmations that their people are virtuous and the other guys, whoever they might be, are either nameless, faceless opponents or they are fairly close to evil incarnate

Ultimatum, on the other hand, insists on conveying the message that Americans are not all like the worst people running Treadstone/Blackbriar, and that even those who have been part of the system and those who have been conditioned and brainwashed into becoming killing machines for the government can change and turn against the corruption of the system.  One of the interesting things about the climax of Ultimatum is the complaint that Bourne makes when he said, more or less, ”You said I would be saving American lives.”  Implicit in this statement is the notion that, had Treadstone actually been used in some way to help save American lives, Bourne wouldn’t have that much of a problem with it.  Besides the larger argument that there is something basically wrong with the methods being employed, the movie might also be seen as saying that the agency’s real error is in using these “assets” for the wrong things (e.g., assassinating Russian politicians rather than, say, targeting terrorists).  If a movie like that is what passes for “anti-American” these days, I fear that some of us have become hyper-sensitive.   

To ask the all-important question, “Is The Bourne Ultimatum anti-American” is a bit like asking, “Is Gladiator anti-Roman?”  Put this way, I think we can immediately see how misguided the question is, since the question makes us say whether the movie is for or against an entire country, way of life or (if you will) civilisation, when the movie in question is pretty clearly an indictment of a corrupt and/or tyrannical government.  “This isn’t us” isn’t quite “there was a dream that was Rome” in rhetorical power, but it conveys a similar idea.     

The first mistake anyone who flings the “anti-American” accusation makes is to equate the government with the society as a whole.  If someone or something is critical of the U.S. government, it is very often deemed anti-American or, if the person doing the criticising is American, unpatriotic.  This plays by the state’s rules: it makes patriotism dedication to the state, rather than to the country, and it makes the state into the embodiment of America.  This is simply not true, and it’s a very good thing at times that this isn’t true.  That doesn’t mean that the citizens don’t have some small part to play in the dreadful policy decisions made by the state (it is our government, after all), but the decisions being taken in Ultimatum are the sort that the public is never supposed to know about because the average citizen of this country would still probably be horrified at ordering the deaths of foreign journalists in the name of protecting some part of the behemoth security state.

This may be why I don’t think the word “anti-American” means very much, at least not as it is used these days.  If it applies to, say, Bin Laden, Gerhard Schroeder and Paul Greengrass in some meaningful way, it seems to me that the word is either far, far too broad to mean much at all or it is used deliberately to obscure what the user is actually trying to say (i.e., “I really don’t like this person’s views, and I’m going to tar him with a really ugly label”).  Here the criticism is that the movie pretty explicitly says that black ops, torture and breeding armies of mindless assassins are all un-American activities (ha!), which can really only offend your sensibilities as an American if you think all of these things are basically necessary and useful tools of the state for the protection of [place whichever buzzword we’re using this week here]. 

Mickey Kaus’ main complaint is that “the film is unredeemed by any sense that America or the American government ever stands for or does anything that is right.”  Here’s the crucial point, since the movie is not concerned with America in general, but is very specifically concerned with one nasty corner of the American government.  It does not, it’s true, spend even five seconds of film time noting the solid work that people in the National Park Service are doing every day, and Matt Damon does not stop his rooftop chase in Tangiers to applaud this year’s charitable giving to hospitals, but I think these things might break up the storyline a bit.  Obviously, I jest, but this sort of thing invites a bit of ridicule. 

Yes, we know that Damon and Greengrass are men with super-liberal politics (Howard Zinn is a Damon family friend, for goodness’ sake), and we know that they don’t understand James Bond (which is their true crime), but what is the basis for charging their movie with anti-Americanism?  That it doesn’t engage in a lot of feel-good, pro-American rah-rah?  This is silly.  I’ll second Chris Orr’s “jingoistic nonsense” line.

This may have already occurred to everyone, but what was the casting director thinking in putting James McAvoy in the male lead in Becoming Jane?  His most recent and famous screen credit is as the lascivious Scottish doctor to Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland.  This isn’t to belittle McAvoy, who did a brilliant job in a central role in what was one of the truly superior films of last year, but it is to ask a question: do Jane Austenites want Nicholas Garrigan as their heroine’s Mr. Darcy? 

(And, yes, I understand that actors by definition pretend to be other people all the time and can play a wide variety of roles, but it still seems strange.)

Harry Potter, in fact, functions something like a Rorschach Blot: In countries around the world, it captures various national anxieties about contemporary culture and international affairs. French intellectuals, for example, debate whether or not Harry Potter indoctrinates youngsters into the orthodoxy of unfettered market capitalism [!]. Some Swedish commentators decry what they perceive as Harry Potter’s Anglo-American vision of bourgeoisie conformity and its affirmation of class and gender inequality. In Turkey, we find a significant discussion of Harry Potter that pivots around issues of Turkish civilizational identity: whether Turkey is part of the West, the East, or a bridge between the two. A few Turkish writers have even asserted that controversies over Harry Potter in the United States demonstrate how Turks are more “Western” than Americans. And in Russia, a country whose concern over international status and prestige becomes more apparent each day, the newspaper Novaya Gazeta created a minor firestorm when it claimed that the film visage of Dobby the House-Elf was a deliberate insult to President Vladimir Putin [bold mine-DL]. ~Daniel Nexon

What is the strange obsession that people have with imputing grandiose cultural significance to the Harry Potter books and films or the popularity of Harry Potter?  Why must everyone constantly be looking for clues as to its political message, or seeking some lesson of political morality from a tale of battling wizards? 

If you look very closely, and really try to see the resemblance, I suppose you can see one, but then you would have to be extremely anxious to find negative portrayals of Putin in a story about adolescent wizards.  What does it say of your own view of the Russian President that you see a similarity between him and an imbecilic, droopy-eyed elf? 

Does it actually make any sense to be offended by this?  Granted, the character in question is a slave and not terribly bright, but he does come across as genuinely good and as someone interested in helping the hero with various (admittedly dimwitted) stunts.  To put it mildly, this is not how Putin’s critics view the man.  On the contrary, his critics concede that he is smart, shrewd and ruthless, but they also regard him as utterly villainous–more Draco than Dobby, to say the least.  For Putin to resemble a character who hates his Death-Eating master is actually a kind of compliment to Putin (the realisation of which will probably lead to a flurry of anti-Potter articles as subtle pro-Putin propaganda).  At the rate these ridiculously politicised readings of Potter are going, we will shortly hear from the Kremlin’s answer to Michael Gerson, Vladislav Surkov, who will assure us that the Order of the Phoenix is actually just a proxy for Boris Berezovsky’s seditious efforts against the Russian government and the depiction of the Ministry of Magic is designed to make Russians lose faith in their government as part of Britain’s grand conspiracy to subvert Russia from within by way of the Potter movie franchise.  Enough is enough.

Potential Spoilers Below 

If I’m mistaken and there have been movies in which Islamists where the bad guys, please let me know. ~Michael Fumento

How about True Lies?  Granted, this was a very bad movie (it had Schwarzenneger and Tom Arnold in it, after all), but it was a success at the time and made very explicit that the nuclear terrorists were doing what they were doing for plain jihadi reasons.  It was a movie that made jihadis the villains even before 9/11 had happened–does that count for anything?  How about A Mighty Heart, whose entire raison d’etre is an act of violence carried out by jihadis?  How about World Trade Center?  The story is not principally about the terrorists, but obviously the jihadis are the villains of the piece.  Or Flight 93?  Did I miss something?  Does anyone really think that we have actually been completely lacking in these sorts of movies?  Against these, yes, you will also have the case of The Sum Of All Fears (also a terrible, terrible movie) where jihadis were replaced with a much more universally hated, and non-existent, neo-Nazi threat.  This is ridiculous political correctness and a crazy obsession with long-dead Nazism, but if you think we are at war with “Islamofascists” should it really matter to you whether Hollywood emphasises the Islamic side or the fascist side?

Update: This last point was intended to be tongue-in-cheek.  I was also mistaken and responded too quickly before reading carefully.  Mr. Fumento does make a point of specifically excluding pre-9/11 movies and 9/11-related movies.  Having excluded them, he is right that there are fewer movies that portray jihadis as the villains.  That exclusionary move seems a bit strange, though, since 9/11 is the iconic moment of jihadi terrorism.  Excluding movies related to the most immediately significant jihadi terrorist attack and then complaining about a lack of movies showing jihadi villains are odd moves to make.  If I ruled out Schindler’s List and Life Is Beautiful , I could also make a claim that Hollywood seems to have stopped caring about the Holocaust and no longer makes movies about it.  That wouldn’t make a lot of sense.  

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Why would anyone think that Dana Stevens has the need to take a lame Democratic partisan shot in every movie review she writes?  Via Ross comes her Transformers review, in which she writes:

That planet was once home to two alien races: the upstanding Autobots and the sneaky Decepticons. (Does anyone but me hear the echo of “Democrats” and “Republicans” in these names?)

Um…no.  But if this were the case, it would put Dick Cheney in the position of playing Starscream.  That does sound about right, given their shared capacity to grate on my nerves with their voices.

Bird has, as Slate’s Josh Levin makes clear, always been ambitious and willing to enter dark emotional territory. That’s very much to Bird’s credit, and that willingness to not condescend can make for great kid’s movies. ~Reihan Salam

Reihan is talking about the director of Ratatouille, the new animated feature that is apparently brilliantly made and which is also boring children from here to Miami.  My Scene colleague Alan Jacobs discusses it at some length here.  My Scene colleague Matt Frost adds his thoughts here


My remarks are on the willingness of people making children’s movies to refuse to condescend.  Speaking of animated rodents, I have to tell you that The Secret of NIMH was one of my favourites growing up (and it was probably one of your favourites, too).  Talk about not being afraid to “enter dark emotional territory”!  It was, if the critics are to be believed today, the Ratatouille of its day, and it was also a memorable production that could enchant children without being a waste of time for parents.  NIMH would be the standard by which I would judge any animated picture, and the few more recent offerings I have had some reason to see (usually because I was visiting with some of my younger cousins) typically don’t measure up that well.

Now, I’m no great religious scholar, but it doesn’t take Pope Benedict to see that the Noah story is not a charming little tale about familial love, but a terrifying lesson about our dependence on God: a warning that we are alone in the world and always at the mercy of a wrathful and demanding Lord. ~David Plotz

Just so.  Well, that and a warning not to breed with the Nephilim (who were all wiped out, I suppose, which makes it a moot point).  It is also the main scriptural counterargument against all secular and atheist whingeing (that one’s for you, Mr. Massie) in the area of theodicy.  If God willed the annihilation of all life on earth, save those in the Ark, who can take seriously complaints against God based on “bad things happening to good people”?  First of all, it throws into doubt the “good people” part of the equation, since the righteous folks were on the boat.  The story of the Flood teaches that when calamities strike the world, the world as a whole may very well deserve what it is getting and God may even have willed these things for the chastisement of man for his edification.  What’s more, that this is an expression of God’s love, not the absence of it.  This is a hard saying, but it is true.   

This is why Evan Almighty is not really an ”appalling effort to pander to religious moviegoers,” in that it isn’t pandering to religious people to get them to come see the movie, but rather tries to appeal to people already going to the movies with some minimally religious message.  It sounds like an appalling effort to milk the vague sentimental Herrgott piety of the broad middle of barely religious Americans for some money, while teaching that the “family that dwells on a large wooden boat together stays together, because it is surrounded by floodwaters.” 

Religious moviegoers of the sort Mr. Plotz is imagining are the people who went to see The Passion not in spite of the sufferings of Christ depicted therein but because of them, because they do not want to see their religion stripped of its most powerful and terrifying moments.  Those are the moments that strengthen faith.  If you want campy feel-good stories about togetherness, you can go watch The Smurfs.  Evan Almighty may bring in a lot of money, but if it does my guess is that it won’t primarily be busloads of evangelicals who put it there.  It will be people who would like to have some nice nods towards religion in their entertainment and would like a religion that doesn’t demand too much, provided that we are all really nice people who are concerned about all the little furry creatures.  As an Orthodox priest once said to us one Sunday, “We are not called to be nice.  We are called to be perfect.”  Anything that confuses niceness with perfection is, in my view, a stumblingblock to real faith.  But perhaps Mr. Plotz and I are actually in agreement about this, since he says:

If I were a believing man, movies like Evan would make me long for the days when Hollywood just ignored God.  

From all descriptions I have read, it sounds as if it is moved by the same spirit that inspires Democratic “outreach” efforts to evangelicals and has many of the same characteristics: clumsy, embarrassing and painful to watch.  Evan Almighty sounds like a movie that would satisfy a fairly mildly religious Episcopalian who thinks that if only religion could be about the love and the togetherness and the via media (always the via media) there would be no more problems, at least not with religion.  Let there be nothing severe or harsh or (Heaven forefend!) judgemental in religion–that would seem to be the shlocky religiosity to which Evan Almighty may be appealing.  Maybe that describes more Christians in this country than I would like to think.  For all our sakes, I hope not. 

But whereas Oh, God was charmingly irreverent—a religiously themed movie even an atheist could love—Evan Almighty bears the stamp of the Bush era. Its politics may be nominally green (the Lord’s ultimate goal is to stop environmentally harmful legislation), but its approach to revelation is strictly constructionist. ~Dana Stevens

Question: is there any movie that has been released in the last year that Dana Stevens did not think bore the “stamp of the Bush era” (and in a bad way) or possessed some other sinister conservative message?  Knocked Up is a product of focus groups and pro-life political correctness, and 300 was “a mythic ode of righteous bellicosity” that prompted her to write:

But Leonidas is not above playing the tyrant himself. When a messenger from Xerxes arrives bearing news Leonidas doesn’t like, he hurls the man, against all protocol, down a convenient bottomless well in the center of town. “This is blasphemy! This is madness!” says the messenger, pleading for his life. “This is Sparta,” Leonidas replies. So, if Spartan law is defined by “whatever Leonidas wants,” what are the 300 fighting for, anyway? And why does that sound depressingly familiar?

So, as far as these recent movies are concerned, the answer to my question would seem to be no. 

Judging from her assessment of the movie, the problem with the story and all its Biblical literalism isn’t so much the nature of the story or even the Biblical literalism as such, but that the movie isn’t funny.  It sets up what could be a terrific farce, but then fails to deliver. 

What really seems to bother Ms. Stevens about the politics of the movie is that, according to her description, it isn’t so much drearily Bushian as it is idiotically saccharine because “[t]rees will be hugged, parks saved, unscrupulous legislators vanquished—and one man will learn to spend more time with his family.”  It sounds like a cross between an old Captain Planet episode and Spanglish.  Admittedly, that sounds pretty horrible (Spanglish being the movie that managed to make Adam Sandler entirely unamusing), but it sounds nothing like a movie that “bears the stamp of the Bush era.”  On the contrary, from what she says about its banality, conventional wisdom and triteness, it has the feel of an Obama speech, complete with the “quiet laughter” it provokes.   

There seems to be a pattern in her movie reviews where Ms. Stevens manages to find something politically perverse about movies she regards as terrible, rather than simply acknowledging them as films that are superficial or fail in their execution.  The rest of the time, she feels obliged to find some political flaw in movies that she enjoyed in spite of herself.   


On a different subject, speaking of George Bush, movies starring Morgan Freeman as God and Oh, God, I was reminded of this

In keeping with a proud tradition of not placing too much importance on most pop culture products and arguing vehemently against reading political messages in the plotlines of space operas, I had steered clear of the ever-widening circle of arguments over the political “message” of Judd Apatow’s Knocked Up (I should mention at this point that I have not seen this movie).  There is a part of me that would like to encourage left-of-center movie reviewers to see every cinematic depiction of normal human behaviour as a coded conservative propaganda effort, thus reinforcing the association of normality with conservatism that any supposed propaganda effort would be trying to achieve.  This saves conservatives some of the trouble in actually producing our own films, as it attributes the production of films in which conservatives had no role to our supposedly vast network of Hollywood influence.  In addition to being very amusing, because it is so obviously contrary to fact, this serves to increase the public perception that such-and-such a popular, entertaining movie is “conservative.”  It also gives conservative movie reviewers things to write about, as they attempt to perceive the hidden references to Burke in The Bourne Supremacy*. 

For the most part, however, I find this sort of movie criticism annoying because it is so obviously wrong and compels everyone to label quite arbitrarily different pieces of art, television and film according to mostly inappropriate or misleading political categories.  Instead of appreciating Pan’s Labyrinth as a work of magical realism, it seems as if everyone felt compelled to show off his anti-fascist credentials by talking up the supposed political lessons of the film.  Instead of trying to understand, say, the New Caprica sequence in Battlestar Galactica as an interesting attempt to tell a different side of a war story there was no shortage of observers who wanted to make it into a commentary on Iraq.  Interpretations of 300 were similarly obsessed with either its horrible Orientalism or its supposedly subversive attack on Bush.  I suppose there could be and are political messages worked into all sorts of stories (I am more sympathetic to interpreting Apocalypto as a conservative morality play, which is far less speculative given the well-known politics of the director), but I suppose I have never quite understood why this becomes the basis for criticising the story or, more dramatically, rejecting it outright.  This is my general rule of thumb: the less overt and clear the political references, the better the work of art.  If you can very readily glean a political message from a film (at least any film not explicitly intended as propaganda), it is probably not terribly well made and probably not worth watching.  Take V for Vendetta, for instance–please!  

There have been some cases where Hollywood studio politics clearly clashed with the marketing and release of films that had potentially very un-P.C. implications, resulting in their narrow release and fairly dismal box office receipts (and possibly contributing a little to their later critical acclaim).  Children of Men and Idiocracy were two films that, even in the Cuaronised version of the Children of Men plotline, seem to have conveyed messages that so horrified their respective studios that the studios seem to have tried to sabotage their success.  Both films pointed towards–probably unwittingly for the most part–the issues of “birth dearth” and demographic collapse that might be taken as encouragement for a natalist politics, and Idiocracy also had the ”bad” taste to clearly put intelligence and heredity at the center of its story.     

*In case anyone couldn’t tell, this is not a serious example.

And now for something completely different: here are Kajol and Aamir Khan in Chand Sifarish and Mere Haath Mein from Fanaa.

But there’s more than a passing resemblance between this narrative [Animal House] and classic right-wing populism. Like “Bluto” Blutarsky rallying his fraternity to ruin the homecoming parade, crafty conservatives have been riling up middle America for decades against champagne-sipping limousine liberals. The boys in Animal House aren’t, say, fighting tooth and nail for a living-wage ordinance. These mostly privileged young men are fighting for their right to party—a libertarian cause if there ever was one. And consider that the villain in Wedding Crashers is a Kennedy clone, a cultured environmentalist who hides his woman-hating ways behind earnest platitudes. ~Reihan Salam

I salute Reihan for suffering through Fletch again so that the rest of us can be reminded of just how much we resent Chevy Chase for that (and Ishtar) to this day.  He also has to be the only one–ever–to align John Belushi with the politics of the Southern Strategy.  As for the political message of Wedding Crashers, I leave that to Michael, since this is more his area than mine.  Besides, I don’t even like weddings.

In Kevin Smith’s Clerks, the lead characters discuss the morality of the assault of the unfinished second Death Star in Return of the Jedi. One character, arguing that independent contractors were unjustly killed in the attack, equates the Rebel Alliance to “left-wing militants.” But if the Anchorhead sequence is taken as canonical (there’s disagreement among fans on this point), it’s hard to cast the Alliance as a leftist movement in any conventional sense. The Rebellion, in fact, is a radically libertarian undertaking. Thirty years after Star Wars captured the world’s imagination, it’s past time that the Rebels’ fight for economic liberty was celebrated in those terms. ~John Tabin

Just so we’re all clear on this: it is good for libertarianism to be associated with the fictional violent attacks of insurgents against an empire (Tabin seems to be suggesting that the Galactic Empire invited these attacks), but it is bad for libertarianism to actually have a real presidential candidate espousing relatively mild criticisms of the neo-imperial policies of our own government.  In other words, libertarian principles are fine for fantasy universes, but undesirable in the real world.  I might even agree with this assessment of the value of libertarianism in certain cases, but it is an awfully strange thing for an avowed libertarian to say. 

There’s a scene about two-thirds of the way through in which pirate representatives of various nations meet to elect a king, that resembles the late Star Wars movies with their endless council discussions and legislative wrangling. ~Dana Stevens

You don’t vote for kings. ~King Arthur

Somehow I think I will manage to miss this Pirates epic as easily as I have missed the first two.  Haven’t the movie execs realised that the reason why the concurrent filming of Lord of the Rings worked out so well was that the complete story had already been written out and been wildly popular for decades?  Then there is the small matter that the story of the trilogy was actually interesting and engaging, unlike the heinous wastes of time that were the Matrix sequels.  Then again, they’re the ones pulling in hundreds of millions in revenues and I am writing on this blog, so why should they care whether they turn out the most appalling garbage?

Do you think any cool Trade Fair girl would give you the time of day if she knew the pathetic Bible-dancing goody-goody that you are? ~Fred (Chris Eigemann), Barcelona

Quasi-religious people attend services, but they’re bored much of the time. They read the Bible, but find large parts of it odd and irrelevant. They find themselves inextricably bound to their faith, but think some of the people who define it are nuts. ~David Brooks

While reading this, I was reminded of Barcelona and Ted’s “Bible-dancing” (in which he dances to the tune of Pennsylvania 6-5000 while reading the Bible) because late in the film one of the Trade Fair girls (Ted’s future wife) describes herself as quasi-religious.  For his part, Ted has something of a quasi-religious respect for the cult of management.  Cosa de gringos.

Alex Massie really hates Braveheart.  Fair enough.  While it is not the historical absurdities of the film that bother him the most, they are enough to make me shake my head in disbelief, so I am not going to say very much on behalf of Braveheart.  I am afraid that I’m having trouble finding the racist element in it beyond the general categorisation of Englishmen as barbarous thugs who want nothing more than to rape and pillage (oh, wait, I’ve got it now).  If I were a Scot, I would probably find it to be as dreadful as I found The Patriot as an American.  My objections to the latter may be slightly idiosyncratic, since I found the movie’s treatment of Loyalists, for one thing, absolutely awful; the happy South Carolinian beach community where our hero takes refuge is also a bit hard to take.  (In knocking The Patriot, I risk no backlash from outraged fans, since none exists.)  I think I may be able to explain why Braveheart won such a following in Scotland.  First, any group of people will respond favourably to the the dramatic re-telling of the stories from their national history that portray them as the put-upon, longsuffering people who throw off the yoke of oppression and whose hopes are embodied in a charismatic warrior figure who suffers and dies on their behalf.   Maybe this is why some Indians liked Mangal Panday–who knows?  My guess is that they liked it because of Rani Mukherjee, but that is another story.  

On a different point, I would remind everyone of the great enthusiasm Braveheart generated among many on the right, along with neo-secessionist sympathisers with the SNP, in this country.  It was frequently feted in the American conservative press as the “conservative movie of the year.”  Why?  Because Gibson was always talking about “freedom,” which was a word that had already become a substitute for alot of conservative argument back in 1995.  In fact, the redeeming features of Braveheart had little to do with some general “freedom” (sorry, that’s “freedom!”) and everything to do with waging a vendetta for his murdered woman (compelling, but totally fictitious) and fighting on behalf of his friends and countrymen.  (If I recall correctly, Wallace’s original skirmish with the authorities was actually a fight for the right to keep a fish that he had caught, which is a respectable, if less romantic, thing to fight for.)  The things that made Apocalypto worthwhile were the things that kept Braveheart from becoming a purely Eisensteinesque approach to the middle ages.  My impression is that students of film could probably learn something by comparing Alexander Nevsky and Braveheart as similar ideological treatments of medieval warfare that recast the medieval struggles in totally different, modern terms.

Setting aside their problems, the thing I find interesting about Braveheart and The Patriot is the way that they show how, for lack of a better word, “blowback” comes into being.  Gibson always sets up the story as one of the average man whose hand is forced by brutal and repressive action by the invading/dominating (always English) forces to take violent retaliatory action.  He reprises part of this sort of story in Apocalypto.  This was a Gibson action flick that I actually enjoyed, which was described to me as the most paleo film ever made and which Peter Suderman has called “the ultimate reactionary movie,” which may well be true.  When Republican audiences see Gibson leading a rebellion against a tyrannical occupying force, be it the English of the 14th century or the British of the 18th century, they tend to eat it up (though, somewhat weirdly, there was a much stronger positive response to Braveheart in America than to The Patriot), but when it comes to Americans projecting power far from home and occupying other peoples’ lands, well, they seem to forget all of this and become very incensed at the idea that people in other countries might respond to the indignities and humiliations of domination by foreign powers in a similarly rebellious way.

One final point: people tend to respond more favourably to Wallace-like martyr figures than they do to successful Bruce-like political leaders in their art and literature (not necessarily in their voting), because I think there is a broadly shared and deep sentiment that makes many people really want to believe that good leaders are firmly uncompromising and slightly mad.  Political leaders who engage in politics are always going to be considered less inspiring and less admirable, even when those leaders actually bring home the bacon, because people will receive this “bacon” with the knowledge of the supposedly unsavoury process by which it was acquired.  It was acquired by compromise, you see, which is obviously less desirable than acquiring it through a bold armed raid on the local pig farm.  This doesn’t make any sense.  It is part of the chaotic, destructive side of romanticism, and it isn’t supposed to make sense, because it is an open revolt against things that make sense.   

So I’m watching Pan’s Labyrinth at long last, and two things occur to me: Guillermo del Toro is not a subtle director, and that stupid flying mantis-like bug is really annoying.  He She doesn’t have the panache and personality of a Master Flea.  He She just keeps chirping.  I don’t like it.

He’s a nationalist…he will stand on the side of the Chinese.  That’s why they call themselves Nationalists. ~Charles Townsend (Liev Schreiber) in The Painted Veil


Maybe Reihan is right.  Maybe a sequel to 28 Days Later is one of the best movies around.  There is a long and respected tradition of endless numbers of horror sequels, so I suppose it’s only fair that the 28 crowd gets its own franchise.  As post-apocalyptic horror goes, 28 Days Later is pretty hard to beat.  I don’t see how you can even attempt a sequel of something as grim and unnerving as that one (except, naturally, that you, the studio executive, want to make a lot more money).  Of course, it could be worse–they could start making prequels.

If screenwriters don’t know the stories, they could start with the Black Book of Communism. It could introduce them to such episodes as Stalin’s terror-famine in Ukraine, the Gulag, the deportation of the Kulaks, the Katyn Forest massacre, Mao’s Cultural Revolution, the Hungarian revolution, Che Guevara’s executions in Havana, the flight of the boat people from Vietnam, Pol Pot’s mass slaughter—material enough for dozens of movies. ~David Boaz

Well, having just mentioned The Killing Fields, it seems odd that he seems to list “Pol Pot’s mass slaughter” as one of the things that hasn’t been treated in a film.  The Katyn massacre was part of the story of the codecracker movie nobody went to see, Enigma, and The Lost City showed briefly but effectively the beginnings of communist terror under Castro and Guevara.  The horrors and chaos of the Cultural Revolution have been depicted, albeit not in a systematic way, in the fine Chinese movie To Live and, again, One Day In The Life of Ivan Denisovich portrays Solzhenitsyn’s account of the Gulag.  The Last Emperor at least obliquely refers to the police state under Mao (and this otherwise movie actually exaggerates the mistreatment accorded to Pu Yi after his deposition).  Tom Hulce starred as the projectionist in an outstanding portrait of Stalin, The Inner Circle, that was as quickly forgotten as it was brilliant in depicting the dictator and his willing lackey (it was more of a portrait of the cult of personality, but very powerful all the same).  Robert Duvall played the man himself in a miniseries about Stalin.  Those are just the ones that I have happened to see or know about myself.  

Now, it is absolutely true that there are still not enough movies being made to tell the stories of the more vast, systematic crimes of the Soviet Union and Maoist China against its subject peoples, including the genocide of the Ukrainians or the famines induced by collectivisation in China, and there are obvious political reasons why telling the stories about the evils of communism does not inspire a lot of folks out in Hollywood. 

Yet if screenwriters and producers are not banging down the door to make these movies, to listen to contemporaries of all political persuasions compare current threats to the Greatest Evil Ever you would be hard-pressed to find very many who talk about how such-and-such a foreign leader is the “new Khruschev” or the “new Stalin.”  No, every pundit knows that to get people to pay attention to a foreign crisis he has to invoke Hitler, Nazism and the Holocaust.  Chauvinists and jingoes call it Islamofascism for a reason (they are ignorant), but they have another reason: fascism causes a visceral, negative reaction in virtually all who hear it, while communism may well deeply offend many but somehow lacks the emotional power that sixty years of continuous conditioning about Nazis have created.  There is a more immediate hunger for anti-Nazi stories in America, because Americans were directly involved in fighting Nazi Germany in a way that we simply weren’t with the Soviets.  Even telling stories from the Korean War are probably less appealing, because the war was enormously unpopular and ended in stalemate.    

Even so, there are a few more films depicting the crimes of communism than Mr. Boaz allows.  If they are less well known, that may be because they have smaller audiences, perhaps because the Cold War ended with a whimper rather than a bunker.  All of this may in turn explain why there are fewer movies made about the evils of communism: the stories are very dramatic and powerful, but the collapse of communism came about in large part because the system simply broke down and the many peoples who laboured under that yoke finally threw off the yoke themselves.  Sad to say, but great stories about foreigners successfully struggling against their repressive governments are not the source of big box-office results.  What kind of anticommunist movies sell over here?  Rambo.  Now you can probably see why there aren’t more of them being made.   

Some months ago, I had written a post about The Lost City that was swallowed up by a fickle browser and I never got back to giving my impressions of this truly excellent movie.  I was first inspired to see it by this Leon Hadar post, which I had commented on before after seeing The White CountessThe Lost City has much in common with the latter, and both are outstanding antidotes to Casablanca-style abstract idealism.  Fico Fellove (Andy Garcia) is in many ways the opposite of Bogart’s Rick.  He is a lover of music and dance for their own sake.  He is one who cultivates a life apart from politics and causes not because he has become embittered and cynical in the worst sense, but because he appreciates beauty and the culture of his native city.  “Have you ever thought of living for your country?” the elder Fellove lectures his hotheaded son, Ricardo–Fico does exactly this, and he is not surprisingly the only one of the three sons who lives to the end of the story.  Once Castro comes to power, he does not go off to join a resistance movement, but instead goes to make his own way in America, to build up a life and find a way to get the rest of his family out of Cuba.  It is a moving film that still does not pretend to take itself too seriously.  So that no one becomes too philosophical, Bill Murray’s anonymous “Writer” is always ready to lighten the mood with cornball antics.   

“I don’t have a loyalty to a lost cause,” says Fico Fellove, “but I do have a loyalty to a lost city…and that’s my cause and my curse.”  Fico’s loyalty to place, even a lost place, a place to which he can never return, is inspiring to behold.  Would that more people had a tenth of the devotion.  Fico is a true family man, in that he places his loyalty to his family ahead of everything else.  Unlike his brothers, who either get themselves killed fighting for abstract freedom and democracy or join the sinister forces of Castroism, he places his loyalty to them and the rest of his family first.  If there is one moment where Fico puts principle ahead of these relationships, it is when he realises that “madness” has come to Cuba with the rise of Castro and that he cannot afford to stay, despite his love for the beautiful Aurora (Ines Sastre).   

The Lost City is a tribute to the Havana and the Cuba that were lost in 1959 and afterwards, but it is also a hint of what might eventually be there once again once the deadening shell of party rule is dismantled.  In the end, The Lost City is a sad film lamenting the disappearance of a vibrant and rich world, but it diagnoses very clearly how such places enter into oblivion: through the rigidity of ideology, revolutionary claptrap and promises of the future.     

I finally saw The Last King of Scotland this week, and Forest Whitaker’s performance in the role of Idi Amin is every bit as good as I had heard that it was.  He was certainly deserving of the Academy Award he received.  He embodied the charisma, paranoia and bombast of the dictator in what seemed to be the right proportions.  It would be too much to say that he made Amin a sympathetic figure, which is not really possible, but he did make him believable and real, and this is a tribute to Whitaker’s acting. 

As many of you will already know by now, the story is told from the perspective of a young, self-indulgent Scottish doctor who has decided to have a bit of an adventure (and to get out of the shadow of his father) by going to Uganda, where he happens to become Amin’s personal physician.  Amin’s enthusiasm for all things Scottish helps the young doctor to ingratiate himself with the dictator, and before long the doctor discovers that he has simply become the big man’s lackey and finds himself trapped in the deadly embrace of the jovial monster.  His powerlessness and vulnerability as the dictator’s lackey is brought home in two episodes: in the first, he pleads uselessly with a furious Amin to not expel the Asian merchants from Uganda, and then has this episode thrown back in his face by Amin when the dictator realises the economic consequences of expelling the merchants:

Amin: “Why didn’t you tell me not to expel the Asians?”

Garrigan: “I did!”

Amin: “But you did not persuade me, Nicholas.  You did not persuade me.”

Of course, the absurdity of trying to persuade a man who routinely has his enemies and critics murdered on the slightest hint of disloyalty is clear.

Let me preface this by saying that I haven’t yet seen Children of Men, so what follows is based on what occurred to me as I was reading this interesting Christopher Orr review of the movie.  He first notes Cuaron’s scrubbing of any meaning, polemical or otherwise, from what was originally, as Orr calls it, a “Christian fable.”  With this phrase in connection with the story’s theme of childbirth (or the absence thereof), I am reminded at once of That Hideous Strength, since it is childlessness (albeit not barrenness) that blights the main female character, Jane, in the last installment of the Space Trilogy.  Lewis makes it fairly explicit that there is something deeply awry and unnatural in the woman’s marriage and life that she doesn’t have any children, and once Merlin and the animals destroy the horrid Atlee-esque bureaucratic machine (now that’s what I’m talking about!) the trilogy’s hero, Ransom (a philologist!), is there at the end of the story to advise Jane on how to live in a God-pleasing manner.  (For some reason, no one has ever made film adaptations of these Lewis stories–I wonder why!)  Now, cue angry ranting from Amanda “Some of the Non-Procreating Women Escaped” Marcotte; score one for the natalists.  Orr then also notes the odd, incongruous introduction of anti-immigrant sentiment as a feature of the non-natal future, and cites Ross’ objection that this feature makes no sense at all.  Just as a matter of sheer practicality, dying societies will take whatever labour they can get.   

Therefore, as I was reading Orr’s review, a thought occurred to me: the movie Children for Men is a much better-made, savvier attempt at making something like V for Vendetta.  The similarities are quite plain, so it struck me as odd that I have not seen anyone else compare the two.  Perhaps someone has, but probably no one has thought of the two together since most sane people seem to agree that Children for Men is a very well-done film and those same people seem to agree that Vendetta is the most awful waste of time you were likely to have experienced last year.  Consider: both are set in the near future of an authoritarian/neo-fascist Britain, both are making not-so-subtle criticisms of 2006-07 U.S. policy, both think that the most put-upon groups in such a future authoritarian dictatorship would be improbable selections from the list of Officially Designated Minority Victim Groups (Muslims and homosexuals in Vendetta, immigrants in Children of Men) and both vest their hopes for social and political change in more or less empty symbolic actions carried out by desperate revolutionaries.  Cuaron has taken a story of redemption and renewal and turned it into a rather hollow paean to predictable leftist shibboleths of diversity and “empowering women” (which is why Marcotte thought so highly of it), much as the original Vendetta and the film version took a story of a Catholic rebel fighting for the True Faith and turned him into the symbol for nihilistic anarchism.  The difference is that the entirety of Vendetta was shot through with intellectual and spiritual emptiness, which made it an obviously bad film; Cuaron has enough talent and skill as a director that he can take something of even Vendetta-like pretentiousness and make it into a watchable movie.

When a movie review begins with references to Der Ewige Jude, it is safe to say that it is not going to be a complimentary review.  Dana Stevens of Slate starts out in heavy-handed fashion with the Nazi references and never stops to take a breath.  Then she says:

But to cast 300 as a purely apolitical romp of an action film smacks of either disingenuousness or complete obliviousness.

Only in the most general sense can one cast the telling of this story as political, in that it is a story about a battle (which takes place, after all, in Greece, not in the Near East) and therefore the conflict being depicted has some political dimension as all wars do.  It may therefore have something to say generally about the politics of independence or anti-imperialism or opposition to aggression and conquest (none of which, mind you, does much for the 300-as-Iraq war propaganda argument), but in this it is no more a commentary on current policies than Braveheart referred to the Balkan Wars because both involved questions of national independence to one degree or other.   

I have been similarly unimpressed in the past by attempts to read political messages into the third season of BSG, because it seemed clear to me that a) this was implausible given the content of the New Caprica episodes and b) it was explicitly contrary to what the directors and writers themselves said they were doing.  When everyone involved in the production of something says, “No, we’re not talking about the United States government!” it makes sense to assume that they are probably telling the truth.  After all, it isn’t as if people in the movie and television business make their predominantly left-liberal politics a secret.  If they wanted to state that their project was a pointedly political one, they would do so, because that is what politically active film and TV types do.  Had BSG decided to go that route, they would probably have won as many viewers as they would have lost, so I find it unlikely that they shied away from open criticism of the government because they feared a backlash from fans.  Those who insist that they are not using their art, such as it is, to criticise a specific policy, but who say that they are trying to tell an entertaining and perhaps interesting character-driven story, are probably just trying to tell a story.  If it is set during wartime, wartime themes will keep cropping up that people living through a real war, however remote from the fighting they are, will naturally associate with their war–but that doesn’t mean that the two have any connection at all.  I think the same would hold true for projects that tell a story that might at first seem more favourable to a pro-war view, such as 300 at first appears to be.

I have not seen 300, but I did read the “graphic novel” some years ago and I am, in any case, familiar with the story of Thermopylae.  What are the important details of this story?  It valorises courage against overwhelming odds, praises patriotic defenders of their country against foreign aggression, and espouses the importance of a society governed by nomos and not by the arbitrary will of one man.  Pretty horrifying stuff, let me tell you.  An argument could be made (perhaps I will make it after I have seen the movie) that 300 is one of the most deliciously anti-imperialist, anti-Bush movies ever made.  Bush would obviously play the role of Xerxes (as the Times has already suggested).  His opponents could see themselves as Leonidas and the Spartans, an embattled few who nonetheless prevent the ruin of their country.  It would be really overdrawn and absurd in its own way, but not nearly as absurd as what Ms. Stevens has to say about the film, the experience of which she likens to being raped.  No, really, she does. 

When this sort of story is set at Minas Tirith and the vaguely Oriental hordes of the Hradrim are pressing down on the Riders of Rohan, most left-liberals don’t bat an eye–they cheer on the Men of the West, because they have entered into the fantasy world where the forces arrayed against Minas Tirith are clearly in the service of the Dark Lord.  Not even most multicultis like the Dark Lord, and their radar for ethnic stereotyping seems to turn off as they see strange, vaguely Arab-looking archers on the backs of oliphants.  Even animal rights activists don’t seem to get too upset over the rather mean despatching of the oliphants in Return of the King.  Now, set this same story in history, indeed identify it as a specific, critical moment in the history of our own civilisation, ignoring for the moment that this is an adapted and literally comical retelling of that moment, and watch how the liberal, in this case Ms. Stevens, throws a fit.  Did I not tell you this was coming?  Earlier this week I wrote:

They are pretty much all “over the top” once you see people sprouting claws, leaping from building to building or, in this case, fighting an army depicted with such purely Orientalist imagination that it would make Edward Said spin in his grave.  Everything about 300 the “novel” is over the top.  From the few clips I have seen in previews, the costumes and ethnic stereotypes seem to have leapt full-blown from the deeper reaches of George Lucas’ mind onto the screen.  I expect the cacophony of PC screeching any day now. 

I wrote that on Thursday morning.  By Thursday night, Ms. Stevens’ review had appeared.  Apparently without any sense of irony, Ms. Stevens wrote:

The Persian commander, the god-king Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) is a towering, bald club fag with facial piercings, kohl-rimmed eyes, and a disturbing predilection for making people kneel before him.

Er, well, I don’t know about the traits of a “club fag” (a phrase which, if stated at CPAC, would probably merit denunciations from Hugh Hewitt), but to depict the Persian shahanshah as bejeweled and heavily decorated with makeup is not really that far from what we understand about Persian court ceremonials (at least in the late Achaemenid and again in the Sasanian periods) and proskynesis, which was the hateful barbarian custom that Alexander demanded of his commanders, was the ritual prostration before, or at the feet of, the emperor.  Obviously, it symbolises complete submission to the will of the ruler and represents a reminder of the prostrator’s much lower status.  Diocletian, probably not someone whom anyone would have called a “club fag” (certainly not to his face!), adopted proskynesis from the Persians and made it an integral part of what became Byzantine court ceremony.  So in other words, one of the things that really bothers Ms. Stevens is one of the things that 300 actually gets more or less historically right.  Um…okay. 

Since proskynesis is something that an imperial autocrat demands of his subjects, or indeed his slaves, it doesn’t seem so terribly outrageous to depict a ruler who demands such servility as being, well, an arbitrary ruler who demands servility.  Making the heroes of the movie into the opposite, free men who will not abase themselves before a mere mortal, also makes sense from the perspective of telling the story as a morality play (which, at bottom, almost every comic book worth its salt does).  That it actually has more than a little connection with the real Spartans and Persians of history is an added bonus! 

If the story were about heroic resistance fighters battling a Panzer division, or if there were derogatory references to “goose-stepping,” Ms. Stevens would probably be enthralled.  “Race-baiting fantasy and nationalist myth” are great for most left-liberals, provided that the “race” being baited is German and the nationalist myth being promoted is that of FDR’s America.  It all depends on whose gigantic rhinoceros is being gored. 

To recount the story of Thermopylae as shown in 300, which is essentially a hyped-up version of an historically true account, is not necessarily to actually embrace the entire binary structure of Greek conceptions of identity where the free, rational Greek men are set off against effeminate, slavish barbarians and irrational women.  Of course, the point is that the Greeks perceived things in this way and understood the peoples around them through this lens, which Miller (probably unthinkingly) reproduces with his own exaggerated flourishes.  Perhaps it does not jibe with multiculti sensibilities as much as the multiracial rebels of The Matrix series, but the story is actually much the same: a dedicated few fighting off hordes of enemies, who are themselves enslaved by the ruler.  Possibly, the movie may try to subvert or alter the entire structure by making the story into one of the resistance of the relatively weak against the mighty. 

Ms. Stevens goes on:

Leonidas likes to rally the troops with bellowed speeches about “freedom,” “honor,” and “glory,” promising that they will be remembered for having created “a world free from mysticism and tyranny.”

This is apparently, from her perspective, a bad thing.  Now let’s understand something.  This is a perfect example of how Miller’s version of Thermopylae, and apparently the movie’s as well, is distorted by Miller’s own biases.  The Spartans weren’t fighting against mysticism.  Only the Romans were more superstititious than the Greeks when it came to mystery cults, oracles and divination, and the Spartans were no exception.  They may have been fighting, in some sense, for the gods of their city, but the rationalist, anti-religious strain that comes through here is entirely anachronistic and better suited to Ridley Scott’s nonsense of medieval history in Kingdom of Heaven.  In any case, these were not 5th century B.C. Voltaireans duking it out with theocrats.  Left-liberals and libertarians alike should love this angle of 300.  It is like V for Vendetta on speed in its bloody hostility to both religion and authority.  (This may be why an Objectivist friend of mine, who introduced me to 300, thought it was such a great story when we were in college.) 

It’s conservatives who should feel reluctant to lend 300 any cheers or support.  Why, after all, are mysticism and tyranny paired together?  What does one really have to do with the other, unless you believe that reason is reason-against-piety and hold that religion is the enemy of human liberty?  Isn’t this just some rehashed Gibbonian Enlightenment garbage about religion as a tool of despotism?  Yes, it is, and conservatives should be on their guard against it.  In this respect, 300 is a gorier version of Ryan Sager’s book or one of Andrew Sullivan’s madcap posts about “big-government Christianists.”  Slate readers should be thrilled by it, and it should tell religious conservatives something about him and his colleagues that Victor Davis Hanson is a big booster of the film. 

Speaking of Romney, he has been making the rounds on the national TV circuit, providing endless fodder for critics who paint him as a constant flip-flopper.

In yet another example, CNN profiled the 2008 presidential field and Romney listed his favorite movie as “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” But as recently as 2003, Romney told media outlets that his favorite was the George Clooney flick “O Brother Where Art Thou.”

Why the switch?

Perhaps the answer lies in this very Biblical description of “Raiders of the Lost Ark” in the CNN piece: “Renowned archaeologist and expert in the occult, Dr. Indiana Jones, is hired by the U.S. Government to find the Ark of the Covenant, which is believed to still hold the Ten Commandments.”
And we all know how much the religious right loves the Ten Commandments. ~The Boston Herald

Even though I am a tireless Romney critic, I will actually allow that it is perfectly acceptable for someone to change his mind about his favourite movie.  They are both pretty good, as these sorts of things go, so I can’t even fault him for having bad taste.  Of course, no one would even think to bring up the change if he hadn’t been engaged in pure cynical pandering for the past year.  When you start reinventing yourself entirely as a politician, people begin to distrust you about everything you do, no matter how innocent or normal. 

As it happens, the films convey distinct messages about piety and religion, and O, Brother, Where Art Thou? has a far more explicit theme of the hubristic wanderer brought to repentance and humility (as everyone can see, it is an adaptation of The Odyssey in much of its story).  Might that message have hit too close to home for the ambitious politician who can’t decide which state he’s from? 

If politics had anything to do with the change, I would guess that George Clooney’s leading role in O, Brother was probably what put Romney off the film.

When boyhood’s fire was in my blood
I read of ancient freemen,
For Greece and Rome who bravely stood,
Three hundred men and three men;
And then I prayed I yet might see
Our fetters rent in twain,
And Ireland. long a province, be
A Nation once again!

As the old Fenian song reminds us, the story of Thermopylae has been used and reused more than a few times.  300 the “graphic novel” was no different, and shares with this Fenian song the conceit that Spartans were fighting for “freedom,” which is only true in the sense of thinking of the independence of their polis and resistance to barbarian rule as defining freedom.  In the mouths of Miller’s Spartans, the invocations of “freedom and reason” come off sounding like bad speechwriting for the current administration or, just as annoyingly in its way, the motto of a libertarian magazine.  Whether or not the lines from the “novel” sound as trite when spoken in the film, I don’t know.  When reading it, I do remember thinking that it was this forced ideological part of the “novel”–where the Spartans simply had to be fighting for some high Ideal and couldn’t just be fighting to repel the invasion of foreign conquerors–that was the least interesting.  No doubt it is only a matter of time before certain jingo enthusiasts of the movie begin referring to war opponents as new Ephialteses. 

The AP movie critic has dubbed 300 “ultraviolent.”  If the hype about how supposedly super-gory the mildly violent Apocalypto was is any indication of how squeamish modern movie critics have become, the knock on 300 for being excessively violent (which seems silly, since it is a movie about the comic version of a battle) is probably overblown.  I haven’t seen it yet, so I can’t say myself whether the other knock the AP critic gives it is justified.  Like 300 the “graphic novel,” which I have actually read (who says four years of college and five years of graduate school taught me nothing?), the movie is apparently extremely pleased with its own seriousness and insists that you, the audience, take it just as seriously:

But Snyder’s depiction of the ancient Battle of Thermopylae, in which 300 Spartans fought off a much larger Persian army, is so over-the-top it’s laughable — so self-serious, it’s hard to take seriously. 

I don’t know what it means to say that a movie based on a comic book is over the top.  There are bad comic book movies (Daredevil, Fantastic Four, X-Men 3) and entertaining comic book movies.  They are pretty much all “over the top” once you see people sprouting claws, leaping from building to building or, in this case, fighting an army depicted with such purely Orientalist imagination that it would make Edward Said spin in his grave.  Everything about 300 the “novel” is over the top.  From the few clips I have seen in previews, the costumes and ethnic stereotypes seem to have leapt full-blown from the deeper reaches of George Lucas’ mind onto the screen.  I expect the cacophony of PC screeching any day now.  But criticising exaggeration and camp in comic book movies would be like ridiculing Bollywood movies for all the song and dance numbers–these things are integral to the genre and cannot be cut out without making it into an entirely different kind of movie.  You may as well hold the moodiness of noir films against them, or discount the New Wave for its unconventional style–what’s the point? 

So a friend of mine here at Chicago recently recommended that I see Fanaa, the 2006 Kajol-Aamir Khan vehicle that saw the stunning Bengali actress return to the screen as if no time had passed since her last appearance in 2001.  Two days ago I did happen to watch it, and I was impressed.  Once you allow for the melodrama and improbable plot devices, which are inevitable, it is possible to appreciate it as a quite decent telling of a tragic love story.  The story is one that our 24-obsessed nation could enjoy: will love win out over jihadOne of the songs has a line that is striking, and quite in keeping with what I understand to be part of a long tradition in Islamic and Indian religious and love poetry:

tere pyaar me.n ho jaa’uu.n fanaa

May your love annihilate me!

Apparently, as I discovered recently, the state of Gujarat banned the film in response to Aamir Khan’s comments on the state of some farmers displaced by a dam project.  So, while I was up tonight at the local Dunkin’ Donuts, I got to talking to the man behind the counter there, and it turned out that he was from Gujarat.  That reminded me of the story about Fanaa.  From there we launched into a discussion of the movie and Kajol (the cousin of everyone’s favourite, Rani Mukherjee), pictured just below. 

We then came around to the latest Bollywood news about the engagement of Abishek Bachchan and Aishwariya Rai, which everyone seems intent on bringing up each time I talk about Indian movies.  If the Indian popular press is as unimaginative as ours, they will have already coined some hideous name like Abishwariya or Aishshek to describe their relationship. 

It’s odd the sorts of conversations you will have in this neighbourhood, but then I suppose it is rather odd that I would have known enough about Fanaa to use it to start a conversation.

You’d have to be pretty thick not to realize that del Toro intends the fairyland narrative — heavy with arbitrary commands, underground abattoirs, and intimations of blood sacrifice — as a commentary on the politics at work in the real-world storyline, and this realization has sent many critics into raptures over the film’s supposed political sophistication. Hence, for instance, Wall Street Journal critic Joe Morgenstern’s announcement that Pan’s Labyrinth “deepens our emotional understanding of fascism, and of rigid ideology’s dire consequences.”

This is, of course, precisely what the movie doesn’t do. López makes what he can of the character of Vidal, turning a cardboard villain into a memorable monster, but the film’s politics are about as deep as a puddle of blood. The fascists are beasts who torture, maim, and kill without compunction, before sitting down to fine dinners with local grandees and corrupt clerics; the Communists in the woods, on the other hand, are a heroic lot, sturdy and kindhearted and ethically pure, like figures out of, well, Communist propaganda. The only thing such caricatures deepen is our understanding of predictable left-wing bias in Western cinema. ~Ross Douthat (via Peter Suderman)

I haven’t seen Pan’s Labyrinth, so I reserve judgement on the quality of this film.  It almost could not be as good as everyone claims it is, because that would mean that it is as memorable and well-done as Casablanca but not nearly so clumsy with its blatant political moralising.  Obviously, if Ross’ review is right (and for the content of his review I am only working from the two paragraphs Peter cited), it is even clumsier and therefore probably much, much worse.  

Casablanca is a great classic in its way, but it is also one of the pioneers in heavy-handed, clumsy anti-fascist propaganda (this undoubtedly improves its reputation for most people, but it is a serious flaw in the film).  Victor Laszlo was also sturdy, kindhearted and ethically pure (and he gets the girl!), the Germans were also obviously cruel and malevolent, and Rick was that classic type of the embittered American idealist (whose motto apparently is, “I will never learn from experience”).  The inevitable conclusion is more predictable than the final shaadi scene in a Bollywood romance.   The shallowness of Casablanca’s politics has never stopped people from considering it one of the greatest movies ever made, though it almost certainly should have.         

Speaking of the merry communist bands in the forest and the noble Laszlo, I much prefer my commie movie heroes to actually be decent patriotic Russians who are only later cynically transformed into Party symbols by the conniving little commissars who secretly hate the heroes (the portrayal of Zaitsev in Enemy at the Gates is a lot more believable and sympathetic than Laszlo’s cookie-cutter “freedom”-fighting commie).  Therefore, when I heard that Pan’s Labyrinth was something like a mythical allegory on the closing days of the Spanish Civil War, my heart sank.  I had initially been intrigued by what I had heard of the story, and immediately after learning about the political angle I was sure I already knew the script.  Ross’ description confirmed my suspicions: noble Republican heroes confront over-the-top bad guy fascists.  How they do so and what we see along the way become almost secondary to this tiresome moral lesson.  Maybe Pan’s Labyrinth doesn’t hector us as much as it sounds like it does, but it would be a unique anti-fascist movie if it didn’t.  When I first heard of the movie, I thought, “That might be very interesting.”  Then I heard the bit about the Spanish Civil War and I thought, “How dreary.”

This is not because I am uninterested in the Spanish Civil War (quite the opposite, in fact), but because I am entirely uninterested in morality plays in which it is taken as a given that the “fascists”–that is, the Nationalists–represent the embodiment of corruption and darkness, while the Republicans represent everything good and humane.  (When, I ask you, will someone make an updated version of the story of El Cid featuring the character of a dashing Carlist general?  When hell freezes over, comes the answer.)  It’s one of the reasons I always have such a hard time taking Hemingway seriously, because writers are supposed to be great observers of the world around them and writers who side with what I consider clearly atrocious causes have forfeited some of their authority as witnesses about the world.  That’s also one of the reasons I implicitly trust Roy Campbell’s aesthetic judgement.  I suppose I am in a distinct minority here. 

However, while I’m sure Ross is entirely right in his assessment of the depth of the movie’s politics and its lack of political sophistication, I submit that this is exactly the kind of “emotional understanding of fascism” that everyone wants and it is the sort of understanding that everyone will declare brilliant and insightful because it achieves something so much more important to a modern audience (especially a modern American audience) than real understanding of a phenomenon: it reenacts and condemns the audience’s foremost, universally-hated ideology in a sort of spectacle of moral judgement.  The only “emotional understanding of fascism” most of these people want is a very simple one that involves learning how to hate fascists.  In fact, there has never been any other kind of understanding in any form of Western art since 1945 for obvious reasons.  If that involves reimagining the Nationalists of Spain as stereotypical fascists, so be it. 

Everyone can unreservedly despise the “fascists” portrayed in the spectacle, while patting themselves on the back for being free of the bonds of such a ”rigid ideology.”  There is no need to delve any deeper than puddle-level into the politics of the subject.  We know from the beginning how we will react to the fascists; our conditioning has done half the director’s work for him.  All he needs do is give us a little push and we are happily sprinting towards whatever he wishes us to see, as if we were in a race with our fellow viewers to see who will reach the expected feeling of revulsion and contempt first.  “Oh, look at me, I hate fascism the most–do I get a cookie?” the winner will cry.  “Simplistic narratives and characters,” as Peter describes them, are the only kind that can exist in a movie about fascism or any regime deemed fascist by the cognoscenti.  The closest anyone has ever come to making a more complicated movie about a famous fascist person, to my knowledge, was Max (Tea with Mussolini definitely does not count), but that was set in Hitler’s youth and even that, in the end, had to succumb to a caricature every bit as cartoonish as any you will likely see.  The ending of Max is the payoff to the audience that has endured treating Hitler like a real human being for well over an hour–they want to see him reduced to a gibbering madman, no more, no less, and the director obliges.   There may come a time when this is not the case, but until someone produces, say, a complex and intelligent bio-pic about Marshal Petain or some Clint Eastwood of the next generation directs Letters from Salo we will continue to be treated to the thin, predictable treatment that assumes everything and asks nothing.  That is the treatment everyone wants, because anti-fascism is essentially the last universally-accepted consensus view. 

If you took away the audience’s mindless anti-fascism, they would become very agitated and unhappy, because it would be to take away the one thing about which virtually everyone can agree.  It is to some degree one of the few truly universal bonds uniting people from all over the world, and it provides a handy moral and political compass for most of the world.  To challenge that consensus would be to invite doom on yourself.  To start introducing anything other than simplistic narratives and characters into storytelling about anything related to fascism or those regimes conventionally and often ignorantly deemed fascist would be to risk the classical charge of trying to reject the gods of the city.  Not only would the director who dared to try be crushed by negative press and his motives impugned, but very few people would go to see it.  It would be considered part of the decadent avant-garde and relegated to the realm of strange experimental films.  It is much easier, then, to take the normal route, paint in bright primary colours with no subtlety whatever and receive the accolades of a grateful public, whose comforting crutch of reconfirmed ideological superiority continues to support them and keep them from having to think about the rigidities of their own ideological commitments and the crimes of their own regimes.  

Watching Mike Judge’s Idiocracy, which finally hit the shelves this week on DVD, I couldn’t help noticing its uncanny resemblance to Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men. Sure, Idiocracy is a low comedy, full of kicks to the groin and monster-truck rallies, while Children of Men is a serious dramatic thriller about the extinction of humanity. But both movies are chilling visions of a future dystopia extrapolated, with pitiless logic, from our current moment. Both feature a reluctant hero (Clive Owen in Children of Men, Luke Wilson in Idiocracy) who’s jolted from his depressive complacency and asked to save the planet from destruction. And both posit human reproduction (or the lack of it) as the problem that threatens the future of the human race. 

One other commonality: Both movies were scandalously underpromoted by the studios releasing them. Judge’s film sat on a shelf for two years at Fox before being hacked down to its current 84-minute running time and dumped, unadvertised, into only a few cities on the slowest movie weekend of the year. Children of Men’s fate has been slightly less ignominious; it was released nationwide, largely untrumpeted, on Christmas Day, and only this week, after countless critics (including me) put the movie on their 10-best lists, has Universal rushed to mount a too-little-too-late push for Oscar consideration.

The burial of Children of Men was lame, but comprehensible. Figuring that few viewers would flock to such an unremitting downer of a film, Universal must have decided to market the movie modestly, hoping at least to break even with attention from art-house audiences. But Fox’s choice to withhold Idiocracy even from the markets where it was most likely to find cult viewers—New York? San Francisco?—and to eschew all advertising is simply bewildering. The shrouding of Idiocracy in what amounts to a marketing burqa is especially ironic given that the film’s most pointed satire is aimed at the ubiquity of advertising in American life. ~Dana Stevens

On Children of Men, I think Ms. Stevens gives the studio too much credit.  It isn’t just that the movie is an “unremitting downer of a film” (some might say that Schindler’s List is something of a downer, too, but that didn’t stop the studio from promoting it like crazy), but that it is a downer with an obvious but decidedly uncomfortable message for the wine-and-cheese set: if every couple in this country had only one child or had no children, the future for our people would be just as bleak as it is for all of the people in Children of Men.  Natalists immediately saw the potential significance of the movie as something that would dramatise their arguments for them.  I suspect that it received such pitiful studio support because it might make natalism the respectable, sane option in the same way that dystopian stories of totalitarianism have made various forms of anti-statism the obvious alternative.  However, as we all know, natalism is the preserve of fundamentalists and fascists and therefore forever off limits to respectable people, or so some people would tell you.

The reason for the opposition to Idiocracy is more obvious: it was not acceptable, even as a big joke, to tell a story about the dysgenic results of the ever-declining average intelligence of humanity achieved through the prolific breeding of morons.  You can’t even talk about that without some penalty, much less put it on screen!  (Here’s Reihan’s old review of Idiocracy.)  Before it’s all over, Ms. Stevens must also register her own disapproval:

Ultimately, Children of Men’s vision of the future is more inclusive, and kinder, than Idiocracy’s. Judge’s gimlet eye is so ruthless that at times his politics seem to border on South Park libertarianism—a philosophy that, as has often been observed about South Park, can flirt with the reactionary. And there’s more than a little classism in Idiocracy’s fear that the dumb—here pictured as trailer-park trash and fast-food-swilling losers—will inherit the earth. Would we be better off in a world in which the brittle, infertile yuppies shown in the movie’s opening moments had populated the earth with their spawn?

That’s right: the movie that depicts the near-extinction of mankind is “kinder” than Idiocracy.  Ms. Stevens is pulling out all the stops: it’s libertarian! it’s like South Park! reactionary! classist!  (I confess that I have never before seen the word “classism,” but in our age of race-class-gender studies, we would have to have classism to go with racism and–coming soon–genderism to accommodate all the transgendered out there.)  The answer to her question is pretty clearly yes.  The idea behind the movie is that the world would be better off if those yuppies at least managed to reproduce at replacement levels.  That is what frightens the studios.  Here’s a possible reason: studios are having a hard enough time getting people to go to movie theatres in an age of Netflix, DVDs and, soon, the iPhone, so the last thing they can afford is for their childless, moviegoing audience to get crazy ideas about having large families that will consume more and more of their time and leave them fewer occasions to go to the cinema.  Therefore all movies that might encourage middle-class professionals to start having more children must be kept out of sight for as long as possible.  What do you think? 

In Superman Returns, it’s doubly problematic, because the script has given him a romantic foil, Lois’s boyfriend, who is constantly risking his life - the mark of a real hero - to save Lois and her child. Whereas Superman risks . . . um . . . well, okay, there’s some kryptonite thrown in, and he almost dies from it, but in every other situation Lois’s boyfriend comes across as the guy we really ought to be rooting for, and Superman as the annoying interloper showing up to save the day at no risk to himself. ~Ross Douthat

I only recently saw the movie myself, having been uninterested in the remake/sequel/whatever when it first came out.  I only grudgingly rented it when I was in a mood for what I assumed would be a pair of bad comic book movies (I also watched the third X-Men again to give it a second chancebut it remains as terrible as ever).  Going into it with extremely low expectations (the clips I had seen last year were just awful), I was surprised that it wasn’t nearly as terrible as I thought it would be.  You may call this damning with faint praise, but I came away with a much higher estimation of the entire movie than I ever thought I would. 

A lot of people, including Ross, are giving Kate Bosworth an awfully hard time.  She did not dazzle or distinguish herself, but she did a perfectly acceptable job.  For some reason, I kept thinking of her as the poor man’s Rachel McAdams (Michael will probably be horrified by this comparison). 

Is the entire story completely predictable?  Yes.  But you already knew that.  It’s a Superman movie.  Superman wins, Luthor loses, and his old ambiguous, tortured relationship with Lois Lane goes back to being ambiguous and tortured.  You are never surprised or deeply moved, but you didn’t go to see a Superman flick looking for surprises or a moving experience.  You go to see the whole “faster than a speeding bullet, can leap a tall building in a single bound” bit.  Naturally.  Had the new Superman taken the “Wonderman” route and thrown the new boyfriend into outer space, well, that would have at least been different…but everyone would be very upset that they had made Superman into just another jealous ex-lover.  People like Superman because he isn’t human and has no really good reason to intervene, yet he deigns to hang around and help anyway.  People who want deeply human, complex, flawed and slightly crazy superheroes (count me in) are Batman fans to the end.  People who want the simple and pure straight arrow as their superhero go for Superman.  This is probably a good measure for someone’s tendency towards either pessimism or optimism, but I won’t dwell on that here. 

But maybe we’ve all been looking at Superman Returns the wrong way.  Maybe Superman shouldn’t be the one we pay attention to.  Maybe he is the foil.  Maybe the entire movie was a way for James Marsden to play someone genuinely heroic and redeem his career from the unfortunate interlude as the eternally worthless Cyclops in the X-Men movies.  By setting him up against Superman, the superhero of superheroes, his Richard White character comes across as that much more impressive.  It’s almost enough to keep you from cheering when Marsden/Cyclops is vaporised by the Phoenix when you start watching X-Men III.  Almost. 

As Apocalypto is far too big for just one inference, accepting this assessment opens the door to a plethora of other equally compelling readings. Gibson sees parallels between the Maya’s deforestation and environmental degradation today and has compared the scaremongering temple priest to the Bush administration. Pacifist, pro-life and anti-fundamentalist points could plausibly be in there too.

Mel Gibson is on an Eastwoodian journey from Lethal Weapon frivolity to real artistic depth. Apocalypto is a milestone. So good, perhaps, that the murmuring over his next film should start before this one leaves theaters. ~Louis Wittig

Also for your consideration: Ross Douthat comments on Peter Suderman’s remarks about Rod’s Dreher’s refusal to see Apocalypto (blogging is fun, isn’t it?).

I saw Apocalypto last night/early this morning, catching the last show of the night.  It is very good, as most critics have acknowledged.  It is a unique work of art, and I do not mean that dismissively or pejoratively.  It has contributed something hitherto unseen to the world of cinema, but it is not so strange or unusual that the audience will be lost.  Moviegoers who want to see something they have never quite seen before should flock to see this; those who are simply interested in an engaging story and an adventure in a Mesoamerican setting will also be reasonably well satisfied. 

Visually, it is one of the better-crafted films of recent years.  The cinematography seems to this humble viewer to be as good as it gets.  My one gripe here would be that Gibson uses  POV too often when it does not seem to add all that much.  The recreated temple complex and city have been portrayed masterfully, and the richness and level of exquisite, beautiful detail in costume and make-up will have to earn the film an Oscar for that if it wins for nothing else.  It is almost wrong that more time in the film is not spent in this ornately decorated, carefully staged world, because it is clear so much time and work went into creating it for us.  Compared to this part of Apocalypto, most historical dramas are laughably weak.  Perhaps the only modern film about the ancient or medieval world that includes anywhere near the same attention to detail is Alexander, but this is a much better movie than Alexander and surpasses it in this area as well.  

Filmed in Yucatec Maya, as we all know by now, it is another triumph of a Gibson blockbuster foreign-language film.  On a personal note, a couple weird, unexpected parallels with other languages–to which there can be no historical connections–kept occurring to me as I listened to it.  Evidently, “ha” means yes, which also occurs in Armenian and Hindi, and the negative imperative was something like “ma,” which might remind students of Greek or Armenian of the mi and me negative imperatives respectively.  For me, these few superficial similarities made the experience all the less alien.  The dialogue is not at such a high or academic level that the use of another language becomes an impediment to the flow of the movie.  After a very short while, many of the basic words and phrases used repeatedly become more familiar.  The subtitles do not intrude. 

Dramatically, it follows a straightforward loss-transformation-return structure, the classic archetypical hero tale, and joins it together with an elemental man vs. man kind of story.  If stories of loyalty and duty to one’s own people and family are stories that you want to see, you will want to see this movie.  If you feel uncomfortable watching the depredations of a decadent elite and find that the demagogic preaching of a bloodstained functionary hits a little too close to home, you may want to stay away. 

I don’t want to give away too much, but there are some basic themes of this movie that seem to have been lost in all the hubbub about depictions of human sacrifice and filming in Yucatec.  The first is a simple one, but one that defines the central character, which is Jaguar Paw’s father’s lesson that “fear is a sickness.”  The story reveals how Jaguar Paw ”strikes” that fear from his heart in the tradition of all good adventure heroes.  There is nothing elaborate or perhaps even very clever in this, but this is fundamental to the entire story and it is a shame it has not received more attention.  Perhaps it is so obvious that it seems unworthy of mention, but it caught my attention.  But since so many critics seem to be responding to the film with remarks like, “It’s very pretty, but what’s the point?” it bears mentioning that it is making several fairly obvious points, of which this is the simplest one. 

Another one of these points, and this is the moral of the story, is pretty clearly that of hubris calling down nemesis.  This is hubris in both its senses of violence and arrogance, which invites the downfall of those who try to raise themselves up too high or who believe about themselves that, as the bloody priest claims, “we are a people of destiny, we are masters of time.”  Whom the gods would destroy, they first make insufferably self-important.  These words do not necessarily echo (and indict) any particular leader, any particular elite or any particular civilisation (though it is a timeless message and one that all would do well to heed), but rather the tendency of every ruler, every people and every civilisation in its time to claim the mantle of the predestined, the chosen, the invincible, History’s favourites for whom the rules are different and to whom the normal course of history, change and decay does not apply.  The perfect irony of the priest’s declaration to be one of the masters of time on the eve of his civilisation’s fall seems to have been somewhat lost on many of the critics.  If we cannot see how this lesson relates to us or how we can make use of it, we really are in trouble.  If the audience forgets or overlooks this part of the film, I think they have pretty much missed what Gibson is trying to say.

Unfortunately, all the critics have done Apocalypto a grave disservice in their emphasis on its supposedly overwhelming violence.  This aspect of the film has been talked up so much that it almost convinced me, sight unseen, to not see it because the way people were describing it I came away with the impression that this was going to be something like the Chichen Itza Chainsaw Massacre.  It was nothing like that, and not anywhere even close.  In the last decade, we have been treated to a number of non-horror films (and undoubtedly piles of horror movies) that far exceed Apocalypto in brutality, gore and general bloodletting.  Perhaps that is hardly the standard by which we should judge it, but if we are going to damn Apocalypto as being somehow exceptionally violent and gory (which, by any reasonable standard, it really isn’t) we would have to condemn Gladiator and The Passion with even more vehemence.  An earlier Gibson project, We Were Soldiers Once, has such graphic injuries from napalm and shrapnel that they make the wounds in Apocalypto seem pretty ordinary.  You could make an argument that war movies today are inevitably bloodier, but then this would force us to make certain allowances for Apocalypto, which contains a very small-scale war but one that is no more and no less brutal than the hack-and-slash battle scenes of Braveheart.  

It may not surprise some, but in terms of sheer brutality and bloodiness The Passion outruns Apocalypto by a mile.  Perhaps predictably, Gladiator is far more violent, but like Gladiator Apocalypto neither dwells on the gore nor does it minimise the viciousness of hand-to-hand combat nor does it avoid the mostly realistic depiction of wounds.  Unlike GladiatorApocalypto is not just a revenge-and-eternal glory pic (which is perforce what Gladiator had to be once Maximus’ family is dead), but is genuinely a story about the “good home, worth fighting for” that Richard Harris’ Marcus Aurelius observes about Maximus’ home.  The end of the story, to which I will only allude, is one that declares that we should look to our own and mind our own business.  If we have a good home, we should fight for it, and leave the mastery of time and destiny to the bloody-minded frauds who make it their business to slaughter other people for their own advantage.  It is, in its way, the greatest anti-statist movie of the last ten years.  Eat your heart out, Vendetta. 

Peter Suderman points to this Apocalypto review in TNR, which led me to look at this story:

Gibson raised eyebrows when his “The Passion of the Christ” was done entirely in the archaic language of Aramaic. Now Diesel has revealed that he wants to make a three-part swords and sandals epic based on the life of Hannibal. And he wants to do the films all in Punic, the language that was spoken by the Alps-crossing conqueror, but not by anyone for 2,000 years.

That last note isn’t quite true.  There were apparently still Punic-speakers in the time of St. Augustine, as I believe he relates in his correspondence (and Wikipedia tells us that it might have survived into the 7th century, though I do not know of any references to Punic-speakers in the 7th century), but then the history of Punic is not something I would expect entertainment reporters to know all that well.  A Carthaginian trilogy would be great fun (but who would pay to make it?), and Hannibal is probably one of only a few great generals of classical antiquity whose story has never been, as far as I know, brought to film.  Shih-huang-di has been covered, but Ashoka fans everywhere are impatiently awaiting a proper adaptation of his life that does not have Kareena Kapoor in it. 

The question I have is this: when will the Armenians in Hollywood get their act together and produce a screen adaptation of the epic story of the Vardanank’ (entirely in Grabar, of course)?  For some background information on the Vardanank’, read the entry on the Battle of Avarayr (451). 

You can also read this, but try to ignore the Theodore Rshtuni worship in the section on the 7th century if you can.  If Theodore Rshtuni initiated a policy of “compromise between Arabs and Byzantines,” Vidkun Quisling was a hero to his country.  Rshtuni’s “compromise” was effectively to side with the Arabs against the Byzantines, who were still ruling the country at the time.  Some Armenian nationalists have long regarded him as one of the great national heroes because he helped overturn the church union with Constantinople, thus reestablishing Armenian “independence” in church matters at the expense of making a deal with the Muslims.  (And, yes, I do see the parallels with the Byzantines in the 15th century–but I would not therefore say that Lukas Notaras and Mark Evgenikos initiated a policy of compromise between the Latins and the Turks!)

However, telling the story of the Vardanank’ these days might be complicated by some recent developments.  Because Armenia has been pinned between the basically hostile states of Turkey and Azerbaijan, it has been forced to rely heavily on its ties to Moscow and Tehran, which has also necessarily hurt her position with Washington.  Partly as a result of this close relationship with Iran, the long and close connections between Armenian and Iranian cultures have become much more important for a lot of ethnic Armenian scholars and Western scholars of Armenian history (Armenian vocabulary is heavily dependent on Iranian words).  Part of this shift has involved something of a revisionist effort aimed at the Battle of Avarayr and the memory of Vardan Mamikonean, who is also commemorated as a martyr and saint in the Armenian Apostolic Church.  In some of these new interpretations–which are by no means widespread, but which are becoming more popular–seeing Avarayr as a fundamental clash between the Christian Armenian and Zoroastrian Iranian worlds has become less fashionable and there is a tendency to judge Vardan, who has hitherto been the archetypical national hero, as someone who led his people into disastrous resistance against an overwhelming foe.  (It is as if Scots started to belittle William Wallace for being too confrontational.) 

Earlier, pre-Soviet efforts by Armenian intellectuals to emphasise their people’s considerable common ties to the European and wider Christian world no longer necessarily command the attention that they once did, and the story of cultural exchange and interdependence between Armenians, Iranians and other peoples in the region has consequently gained in prestige.  Before the Vardanank’ suffers from the revisionist idiocy that has afflicted other great mythic moments of national struggle, we need a major feature about Vardan.  Maybe there is an opening in Gibson’s schedule. 

Mel Gibson, of course, is very far from the only filmmaker who makes a fetish of gore. What’s so bothersome about Gibson, at least in this movie, was captured by LA Times film critic Kenneth Turan in his NPR review this morning. Turan notes that “Apocalyto” begins with that famous quote from historian Will Durant: “A great civilization is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself within.” Gibson’s apparent message to us with this film is that our own decadence could easily lead to our destruction. A solid and necessary point, to be sure. But Turan points out that by any sane measure, our civilization’s capacity for reveling in extreme violence is a sign of decline. On evidence of this film, says Turan, Gibson is not the cure for the problem, but part of it. ~Rod Dreher

Rod offers a sober and appropriate corrective to the Apocalypto enthusiasm that I have been indulging lately.  He makes an important argument that this is a work of art that incites the passions and may even indulge something of the demonic.  I think I will be going to see it, probably today, but even if it proves to be as well-made as Peter and others claim I may not be able to recommend it. 

But Apocalypto is more than a high-velocity Hollywood adrenalin rush. It’s also, arguably, the ultimate reactionary movie, a savage rebellion against modernity that holds up technology and urbanity as poisonous to society. After warming his audience to the good-natured rural villagers, Gibson reverses this trick and paints their urban counterparts as ghoulish and decadent, almost inhuman. The captives’ journey into the city is filled with nightmarish sights — slave markets, sickly children, chalk covered laborers in a stone quarry looking like hollow-eyed ghosts — and capped off with a terrifying scene of ritual human sacrifice. Gibson films it all like an ancient macabre freak show, implicating the sin-filled city, with its suffering masses, devious leaders and enslaving inventions, in the desecration of the simple agrarian life he presents at the beginning. ~Peter Suderman

For not only is he an enormously talented filmmaker, he is also one of genuine conviction. And so we have Apocalypto, a stunning action epic, a gory personal indulgence, and a forthright defense of family, tradition, and local community against the decadence of urban modernity. It is a journey into an ancient foreign land filled with exoticism and excitement, but it is also a visit to the haunted, occasionally disturbing, yet undeniably compelling cinematic world of Mel Gibson. ~Peter Suderman

But this is not at all apparent from the movie. What is apparent is that the movie is an all-out attack on tribal culture, which Hollywood has idealized throughout its history and made a fetish in the era of political correctness.

I’m not sure how conscious this is on Gibson’s part. It’s likely not a position he has carefully thought out. In many ways, this is the work of an angry, unstable, self-destructive artist guided by pure instinct: a Modigliani or Van Gogh painting on a $100 million canvas.

But his movie definitely is telling us that tribal sensibility, which films like “Dances With Wolves” celebrate so nostalgically, actually is primitive and backward; and its resurgence in Africa and the Middle East is causing all the problems in our world.

In the climax of “Apocalypto,” when signs appear that the white man and his Christian civilization are coming, we feel relief. That relief flies in the face of everything the movies have taught us since the ’60s, and no one but Gibson would have dared try to induce it. ~William Arnold

Apocalypto opens to general audiences tomorrow, and I plan to see it then.  But this review caught my attention, as it is my impression that this interpretation misunderstands the theme rather badly.  It is not, I am guessing, a simple story of savage natives destroying themselves, only to be delivered by the white man–in fact, I am doubtful that the conclusion is meant to be a relief.  It is probably intended as judgement, a confirmation of the Durant quote cited at the beginning about the collapse of civilisations, and proof that the mayhem you have been watching for the past two hours has had the consequences of distracting everyone from real dangers by focusing on phantoms and illusions and seeking false solutions through an orgy of violent bloodletting.  (What could the movie be referring to, I wonder?)  Combating the wrong ills all along, this people has ruined itself and prepared the way for its own downfall.  We have been treated to moralising tales of the fall of the civilisations like this for a very long time; both the fall of the Republic and the fall of the Empire have often been expressed in terms of corruption and the decline of virtue that paved the way for autocracy and barbarian invasion respectively.  Occasionally, this has been put on film, though in the Roman case the movie version has sometimes been horrendously bad (e.g., The Fall of the Roman Empire with Alec Guinness, Sophia Loren and Michael York), but there is nothing new about the idea.  Only the setting and the intensity of the violence, I suspect, are what make it seem so unusual. 

I say all this about Apocalypto based only on what I have read about the film and what I have heard from a couple reliable sources who have seen it, but it seems to me that the film is not so much an indictment of tribal society or tribalism as much as it is an indictment of failed ruling classes everywhere that attempt to shore up their crumbling edifices of power with the blood of the people.  (Ahem.) 

If the film depicts ”tribal” life as something other than idyllic and as the subject of some romantic pastoral, that is all to the good, because people have never lived in such societies.  If he has drenched the screen in the blood of sacrificial victims, it is to set forth clearly the insanity of the rulers of a collapsing civilisation.  (And, yes, we should recognise that it is an exaggeration of historical realities.)   

Gibson has almost certainly overdone it with too much violence–this is virtually a given in any of his productions–but if he has gone a bit overboard (again, I still haven’t seen it myself) he has also possibly recaptured a kind of intensity and ease with the violence of life more befitting the ages in which his stories take place.  It was an observation in Huizinga’s Autumn of the Middle Ages, if I am not mistaken, that medieval European man was much more prone to strong emotion because of the intense and often straitened circumstances in which he lived and that medieval man was also far more accustomed to and more tolerant of violent spectacle and violence itself.  It was routinely a part of life in a graphic way that simply has ceased to be the case for a very long time in most of our part of the world (and we can appreciate the obvious benefits of this while noting that it makes us far more likely to be unsettled and disturbed when we see violent spectacle).  If his corrective is excessive, it is only because we have become accustomed for the most part to avoiding that spectacular violence (except in our cartoonish horror flicks) all together. 

It is funny that Mr. Arnold should mention Dances With Wolves, since the film that springs to mind in connection with Apocalypto is Zwick’s Last SamuraiSome people, who are very smart and have generally good taste in mlovies, don’t think much of The Last Samurai, so they may find the comparison silly, but my guess (and right now it is still just a guess) is that both represent variations on a theme of either internal decay-civil strife-foreign influence/domination or traditional society resists state-state crushes its opposition-state succumbs to invasion after it has ripped the heart, so to speak, out of the traditional society that it governed.  Last Samurai is slightly different, in that it is a last stand of the old guard against modernisers, so there the state is actually strengthened by foreign support and adopting foreign ways but, as the conclusion of the film tells us, the director wants us to view the fallen defenders of the old traditions as the moral victors.  There are strong echoes, from what I understand, of a purity vs. corruption theme in both Last Samurai and Apocalypto, where the state embodies corruption and the hero and his family/followers embody the antithesis of everything that the state represents. 

Things that recur in all Gibson movies, to varying degrees, are elemental forces of loyalty to family, the desire for revenge, man’s constant recourse to conflict, our lust for power, our resentment against injustice and the permanence of violence in this world.  Whether he is showing how these things are ultimately overcome and conquered in The Passion, or whether he is showing how they are possibly turned to good ends (Braveheart), he sees all of these as being closely bound up with suffering, violence and blood.  Because of this, he may understand some of the elemental forces that drive men as well as any filmmaker today, and this leads him to show those forces in their raw and exposed form.  As Gibson moves farther and farther away from subjects that are familiar or safe for a comfortable, squeamish modern audience, his movies might well become even more intensely bloody. 

It turns out that Saddam sought nothing in Niger and that the British government was wrong. By the time that became clear, however, it was too late. We were already at war and learning not just how badly the CIA and the Pentagon could screw things up, but that British intelligence, for all its tea services, wasn’t worth a damn, either.

This was truly shocking. I don’t know about you, but whatever Bush said in the run-up to the war I took with a grain of salt. After all, the man could hardly speak English. But Tony Blair was a different matter. Blair spoke perfect English, full and well-rounded sentences—subject, predicate, verb. He was Bush’s adult translator and when he stood in the Commons, placed his notes before him, and fulsomely Winstoned about the coming war and the dangers of appeasement, I paid attention. He sounded so awfully good, and behind him, seen but unseen, was all of British intelligence, never wrong and always well-dressed, heirs to a legacy dating back to the East India Company, Gordon in Khartoum, Lawrence in Arabia, Bell in Baghdad, and even George Orwell and Leonard Woolf, serving the empire (and taking notes) in far-off Asia: Bond. James Bond. ~Richard Cohen, Slate

If I had had any idea that Bond movies could induce this kind of unthinking Anglophilia and general nitwittery, I would have been urging their ban for years.  Encouraging some dunderheaded awestruck reverence for the competence of the British Government (!) in the old colonials has to be among the worst consequences of the Bond phenomenon.  Anyone who could come away with the impression that dowdy little Tony Blair with his vapid speeches and his ridiculously large ears was the natural heir to the tradition of ”Chinese” Gordon and T.E. Lawrence is someone with a serious case of Received Pronunciation-envy.  Would anyone confuse David Cameron with the heirs of the legacy of Marlborough or Wellington?  I should think not.  And where did anyone get the idea that British intelligence was never wrong?  Please don’t tell me, “I saw it in Live And Let Die!” 

But Cohen isn’t done yet:

In my mind, Bush was not exactly Leighter, but Blair was definitely Bond. When the British prime minister spoke, he did so with a forthrightness and authority that Bush lacked. He seemed the very voice of Newtonian, Darwinian, Shavian reason. “We do not want war,” he said shortly before the war began. “No one wants war.” I thought Bush did. I thought Blair didn’t. 

Why?  In what deranged fantasy world did you have to be living to think that Blair, who deploys military forces to kill other people the way most people brush their teeth, did not want war?  Besides the occasional speech about Europe and the launch of a new failed initiative here and there, Tony Blair has done nothing else for the past nine years than start, engage in or otherwise become enmeshed in a war somewhere.  Sometimes it was for the sake of human rights, sometimes to bring peace, sometimes to back up the Yanks, but always and everywhere he was ready to send British soldiers on missions that no one else in Britain understood or supported.

Anyway, after all this time, are we Americans really so completely pathetic that we still cannot get over our sense of inferiority to the Brits?  Are we still that impressed with the ability of some sizeable percentage of their population to speak our language (and theirs!) with fluency?  

Anyone suffering from excessive confidence in the intelligence-gathering capabilities of MI6 is encouraged to watch The Tailor of Panama.  Of course, it’s a fictional story, just like the Bond movies, but maybe it will be the cure for what ails you. 

Most traditional notions of honor, good manners, and the like seem to be aimed at addressing exactly these kinds of problems. For example, if everyone were like Mr. Pink, the entire profit model of waitressing would break down. ~Chris Roach

Apocalypto keeps looking better and better (a new trailer is available).  I have also heard good things from advance viewers.

One advance viewer, Peter Suderman, writes:

Ross Douthat points out that, despite Mel Gibson’s personal and media troubles, he’s still a formidable force at the box office. To which I would add (and this is coming from someone not entirely thrilled with The Passion) that he’s also an extremely impressive filmmaker as well.

And now, after having seen Apocalypto, all I can say is: you really have no idea. I mean, not to hyperbolate or anything, but … wow.

Update: There are going to be critics who say that the film is not historically accurate.  Where would they get that idea?  I will pretend to be shocked that the man who made Braveheart (a first-rate “fact-based” movie!) is taking liberties with history.  I will probably then go back and buy another ticket.

Jason Zengerle notes that Disney is selling Apocalypto as “Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto,” and even has Gibson himself narrating a TV spot. “Does Disney really think Mel Gibson is still a selling point?” he wonders.

Well, if they didn’t, they’d be out of their minds. It’s easy to forget, because he hasn’t appeared in any movies in a few years, but Gibson is one of the most bankable - and consistently bankable - movie stars in recent memory. Meanwhile, he’s directed three movies: the first, The Man Without a Face, wasn’t a big deal, but the other two are among the most successful movies of all time. Braveheart wasn’t a box office smash initially, but it won Best Picture and went on to be huge overseas and on VHS and DVD; there’s a reason it’s playing in what seems to be a constant loop on cable. The Passion of the Christ . . . well, you know how that one turned out. ~Ross Douthat

Ross is right about all of this, but I will add a little bit more.  Consider what Disney had on its hands: a movie so unusual and foreign for its intended audience that, if made by almost anybody else, it would be considered the most eccentric, possibly laughable project on the planet.  It is a movie about the Maya, which might be broadly interesting to those who know something about the Maya, and it is about the collapse of a civilisation, which would interest people who like disaster and action flicks, but it is filmed in Mayan dialect and, unlike The Passion, has no handy, easily-recognised and well-known plotline that allows the audience to skip the subtitles if they want.  If anyone else made it, it would be an automatic art-house release, a Mesoamerican answer to Russian Ark (an outstanding film in its own right, but as slow as Apocalypto promises to be fast-paced).  It is only because Mel Gibson succeeded in making a worldwide blockbuster out of a movie filmed entirely in foreign and largely dead languages that anyone would have been willing to back up a project like Apocalypto.  Plus, the entire cast is made up of actors whom no American audience would recognise, because many of them are appearing in a major film for the first time, so Gibson’s name is the only thing that will make the movie familiar to the audience.  To do anything other than feature Gibson’s involvement prominently in all advertisements would be marketing death.  Without his name tied to the movie title, one might very well think that this was some kind of Mexican horror flick.

Some conservative Christians want to blame the anti-Gibson, anti-Christian barrage on “liberals,” but this is silly. Two of the most vicious smears have come from the neoconservative columnists William Safire and Charles Krauthammer; Gertrude Himmelfarb, wife of Irving Kristol, has made a more reasonable case against the film, though she also calls it “sadistic” (without having seen it).

Safire, however, traces the Holocaust back to Christ Himself, who laid the groundwork for violent persecution with the words “I come to bring not peace, but a sword.” Safire neglects to explain that this is a metaphor; Jesus immediately goes on to explain that His teaching will set father against son, mother against daughter, and so forth. He also says (it’s in the movie) that those who live by the sword will die by the sword.

So our Lord once again proves to be “a sign of contradiction” — this time for the conservative movement. The dispute goes far deeper than politics.

Krauthammer is slightly less absurd than Safire, but more adroit in his insinuations. He blames the Catholic Church for the “blood libel” the Gospels “affixed upon the Jewish people [that] had resulted in countless Christian massacres of Jews, and prepared Europe for the ultimate massacre — six million Jews systematically murdered within six years — in the heart, alas, of a Christian continent. It is no accident,” he goes on, “that Vatican II occurred just two decades after the Holocaust, indeed in its very shadow.” [bold mine-DL] 

Gibson, he writes, has committed “a singular act of interreligious aggression,” “openly rejects the Vatican II teaching,” and “gives us the pre-Vatican II story of the villainous Jews.” The council had tried to “unteach the lesson that had been taught for almost two millennia: that the Jews were Christ-killers.”

Note what Krauthammer is doing here: He is turning a goodwill gesture of Vatican II into a smear of almost two millennia of Christendom. Evidently the council was summoned, “in the shadow of the Holocaust” (a word not even in currency until years after the council), for the chief purpose of “unteaching” what the Church had always taught, causing “countless” Christian slaughters of Jews. ~Joseph Sobran

Mr. Sobran’s article points out an important element in Krauthammer’s screed against The Passion that I did not stress enough in my earlier post.  To attack Gibson’s “pre-Vatican II” Catholicism, Krauthammer must necessarily indict, well, all of pre-Vatican II Catholicism and all those Christian confessions that have never made sufficiently satisfactory statements on interreligious attitudes.  Vatican II has to be made into some kind of consequence of and penance for the Holocaust, implying that all Catholics had done or believed something for which they should be repenting.  Where Krauthammer holds up evangelicals as a good example in all their Israel-supporting zeal, he seems to have no time for any other kind of Christian if such Christians were to consider The Passion as anything other than the crass anti-Semitic monstrosity that Krauthammer sees in it.  Christians are to be defended against ridicule when they are useful for other purposes, but their most important stories should otherwise be mocked and ridiculed and derided as expressions of utter hate and loathing for another people.  If that is not some kind of anti-Christian bigotry, I don’t know what you call it.  

With anti-Semitism reemerging in Europe and rampant in the Islamic world; with Iran acquiring the ultimate weapon of genocide and proclaiming its intention to wipe out the world’s largest Jewish community (Israel); with America and, in particular, its Christian evangelicals the only remaining Gentile constituency anywhere willing to defend that besieged Jewish outpost — is the American heartland really the locus of anti-Semitism? Is this the one place to go to find it? ~Charles Krauthammer

One does get the sense from this column and from the recent column by David Brooks that was filled with his pained agony at Borat’s mocking of evangelical Christians and other would-be “rubes,” whom Brooks has never met in real life, that the professional evangelical and Christian-mockers of the neocon and “moderate Republican” right, such as Krauthammer and Brooks are, are deeply jealous of their territory.  Amid his Sinead O’Connor-like cries of “fight the real enemy!” Krauthammer is really saying, “Sacha, go back to Britain and leave the mocking of American Christians and the imputation of evil anti-Semitic motives to conservative Americans to the experts, namely me.  This is our job, so let us get on with it.  Now you are going to make me write a column where I will have to say nice things about Christians, and this is something I try never to do unless it is absolutely necessary.” 

Sacha Baron Cohen has been caught poaching on their turf.  Just behind Krauthammer’s laboured defense of philo-Semitic America is his open contempt for that notable cultural sensation and focus of so much American Christian enthusiasm and secular American anti-Christian hate, The Passion of the Christ.  If he finds Baron Cohen’s claim about American “indifference” to anti-Semitism ridiculous (and it is fair to say that it is ridiculous), what can one make of his obsessed ranting against The Passion as “Gibson’s blood libel”?  If Krauthammer were right about The Passion–that it recycles all the worst anti-Semitic tropes and and was a “singular act of interreligious aggression,” that would mean that tens of millions of Americans, the overwhelming majority of whom were Christians, were indifferent to what Krauthammer regarded as an undoubtedly anti-Semitic film.  If Krauthammer were right about The Passion and, by extension, the “indifference” to anti-Semitism supposedly reflected in American Christians’ embrace and defense of the film, it would mean that Baron Cohen has something of a point.  In Krauthammer’s eyes, The Passion almost has to be a religious version of “Throw The Jew Down The Well,” but with the added bonus that its creator is not spoofing the anti-Semites but really is one himself.  Those whom Krauthammer called the ”local rubes” of Tucson are necessarily multiplied by the millions and make up a large proportion of the country.  He really cannot have it both ways.  It is this kind of damningly faint praise that Krauthammer and Brooks will offer to Christian conservatives to prove that they, the elite coastal pundits, are really on our side in the final analysis, when, of course, they never have been and would never want to be on our side.

Even if there are more promising targets for ridiculing anti-Semitism elsewhere in the world, Americans make for easy targets (and, if reviews are to be believed, easy marks) because, even when their alleged prejudice or “indifference” to prejudice is pointed out to them all that most Americans will do is laugh at the guy with the funny accent and the chicken in his suitcase.  It isn’t that Krauthammer’s “rubes” don’t get that they’re being mocked–they don’t care.  In some ways the mockery is so old that it probably hasn’t got as much punch as it might have had once upon a time; in other ways, it really is so misplaced that it cannot offend and so lacks the power that kernels of truth bring to all good comedy.  There is nothing very offensive about someone mocking Americans for their anti-Semitism or other prejudices, because we have been conditioned with a fear and loathing of these things to such a degree that the accusation is more tiresome than inflammatory.  For a joke to really be over-the-top and full of biting satire, it would have to refer to something that the audience genuinely can recognise in themselves.  There is hardly anyone in America, except those whom I will mention again in a moment, who has seen clips from previous Borat acts and still manages to believe that the scenes are the spontaneous “revelations” Baron Cohen would like to have us believe they are.  

Besides, mocking non-Americans for perceived or real anti-Semitism has its problems.  Some of these other people have an unfortunate habit of attacking and killing their critics, which makes jokes at the expense of Muslim anti-Semitism a bit more risky, and most Europeans are likely to be incandescently angry at anyone who hints that they are anti-Semitic.  Often, when the accusation is delivered in a mocking tone, those who feel burdened by a history of this attitude will respond sharply and those who genuinely possess this attitude will react violently.  Meanwhile, most Americans respond to claims of their “indifference” about anti-Semitism with, well, indifference.  Krauthammer protests on our behalf, but it seems almost as if he protests too much, as if he needs to convince himself of something he doesn’t really believe at the core of his being.  That is, he needs to believe that at least some of us are as philo-Semitic as he says we are.  About American philo-Semitism, Krauthammer actually happens to be right (for once).  That does make the adventures of Borat a bit less amusing, perhaps, but it also makes people who take Borat so seriously appear rather, well, silly. 

But what must be Krauthammer’s own loathing for American Christians cannot but lead him to conclude that Baron Cohen really has revealed something that Krauthammer, through his denunciations of The Passion, has acknowledged without saying as much.  Of course, we can be confident in the knowledge that Krauthammer is not right about The Passion.  We know this partly because he is right, to some degree, about Borat.

What one does get from all of this hand-wringing about Borat is that a whole lot of people, including the creator of the film, are taking the entire thing way too seriously.  My guess is that the people whom Baron Cohen mocks in the film wouldn’t want David Brooks and Charles Krauthammer for their defenders anyway, because these two are in their way no different from the snide elites who look down on most of this country as some benighted, unwashed mass of ignorance and prejudice and who think that Borat is not a comedy but a sociological research project.  For these elites, Borat is funny because they think it is true; for everyone else, it is funny because it is hysterically silly, campy and in extremely poor taste.  If you can think of a better summation of the makings of the modern American comedy, I would like to know what they are. 

These elites, like the Krauthammers of the world, seem to be so unflinchingly humourless that they cannot simply let a very stupid comedy be a very stupid comedy, even when, or perhaps especially when, the comedian wants it to be a Serious Statement About Society.  Even supposing all the worst accusations against Gibson were true, the claims about The Passion’s anti-Semitism would still ring false.  Even supposing Baron Cohen had deep and serious reasons for making a slapstick comedy film, Borat will never be anything other than a lowbrow collection of over-the-top jokes about the gullible and the trusting. 

A smart film critic called Borat Candid Camera on crack, which is about all that it is from what I understand of it (and, no, I have not yet seen it).  Borat is simply juvenile and entertaining.  Attempts to dig deeper into the “real meaning of Borat are the things that deserve the most ridicule of all.  

It’s no surprise to learn, for instance, that the film-makers were often tailed by the FBI on suspicion of being terrorists. ~Anthony Quinn, The Independent, reviewing Borat


Is Naice!

It’s good to know that the authorities were hot on Borat’s trail.  The anthrax investigation?  Who cares!  But the assassin Sagdiyev was always in their sights.

The Dixie Chicks, target of the (at least) Two-Month Hate back in 2003 for daring to speak against the autocrat, have a movie coming out called (in perfect contempt for Laura Ingraham’s book of the same name) Shut Up and Sing.  The trailer reminded me of the bad old days when war supporters, so hopped up on their own sense of moral superiority and their supposed superior claims to patriotic loyalty, were only too glad to accuse opponents of the war of treason, apologising for despotism and every form of hostility to America.  Those were the heady days when certain people wrote about the evil ”unpatriotic conservatives” (and, strangely enough, they were not talking about themselves).  Actually, those habits have not disappeared, but they have become muted as fewer and fewer true believers in the war remain.  It is easier to laugh them to scorn today, but in the ugly spring of ‘03 it was not the sort of thing people with careers to worry about did very often.  Perhaps that was why the story of the Dixie Chicks and the organised hate directed against them struck a chord, because they were people with quite a lot to lose (even if they didn’t realise what they were getting themselves into) who nonetheless said something, however minor and irrelevant it was.  Too many prominent people on the right who knew better and should have said something more significant bit their tongues and covered their own, er, interests to their everlasting discredit. 

The creepy little rallies where Dixie Chicks CDs were crushed or burned en masse were a perfect symbol of the lunacy that captured so much of the country at the time.  It was said that the freedom of speech does not entail immunity from criticism, which is perfectly true.  In a sane society, however, a few words of mockery of the Leader would be met with indifference because of their irrelevance.  The normal person’s response to this sort of statement would have been, “Oh, okay, some singer took a shot at Bush.  Why should I care?”  The jingo’s reaction to it was that this was an act of subversion to be punished with coordinated boycotts and hateful speech.  No, agreement with the policy is not enough for some of these people–lockstep obedience to the presidential cult must also be maintained.  I suppose it is perfectly within the rights of people to destroy their own property because the artist has offended their servile attachment to a political leader, though I have to wonder what it says about the intelligence or wisdom of the people in question that they think this is a necessary or important thing to do. 

In my little counter-protest, my impotent gesture against the collective madness, I bought the Dixie Chicks’ new album, never having particularly cared for their music before, but found their hit “Travelling Soldier” to be a genuinely decent country song.  For some reason that I believe was actually quite distinct, though never entirely separate, from my opposition to the war, I sympathised with the Dixie Chicks.  This was not particularly because I liked them all that much; they ought to have realised there would be a negative reaction (whether there should be such a reaction is a separate question), so their exclamations of disbelief that it was happening always struck me as rather strained.  But I instinctively resented the presumption of the jingoes that these women had somehow turned against their country because they had criticised the President.  What a disgusting notion that is.  It is the antithesis of republicanism.  It is certainly not a healthy understanding of patriotism to my mind.  The jingoes’ conflation of state and nation, and also the conflation of the state and the politicians that serve in government was all rather appalling to me.  We do not say, l’Etat, c’est Bush, but to see the reaction against the Chicks’ comments you might think that these folks were all hearty followers of Bodin magnifying the glories of the absolute ruler. 

I don’t much care for celebrities who think that we care what they think about politics and political leaders, but I have never assumed that there was something inherently wrong with their doing so.  Obviously, they do not forfeit their rights when they go on stage.  I have also never cared for the strange cult of the Presidency in this country, and I suspect I will never understand why it has such a hold over so many people, and here it reached such a level of hysterical excess that I was rather stunned.  On the topic of presidential cult, NBC has refused to run ads for the movie because they “cannot accept these spots as they are disparaging to President Bush.”  Disparaging to President Bush!  Not that!  Heaven forefend!

What sort of person identifies his country with its head of state?  Yes, the President represents the nation in certain respects, but he is not himself the nation; presidents, even as absurdly powerful as we have let them become, are not kings; they are not sacred and anointed embodiments of the people, and normally most of us would never dream of investing them with such significance.  But for some reason on the cusp of a war that our government was planning to start, the President acquired some sort of mystical significance that apparently made him unassailable.  So the Chicks’ lese majeste could not be tolerated.  But what sort of ideological fanatic destroys a music CD because the performers who made that CD made political comments he finds objectionable?  Would they burn their own copy of a book if its writer had said the same thing?  The question is not a trivial one, as it gets to the heart of the matter. 

Obviously performers run the risk of ruining their business when they enter into the political fray, but how pathetically sensitive and insecure were these president-worshippers that they could not stand to hear someone denigrate the President?  We are not speaking of a Jane Fonda who openly cavorts with the enemy in time of war, but someone who spoke against a servant of the people who was disgracefully precipitating a war.  Note that the words that caused them all their grief were not aimed at the war itself, much less the soldiers or the country they were supposedly betraying.  They did not say, “We are ashamed of Texas,” or “We are ashamed of America,” but rather quite appropriately as patriots of Texas said that they were ashamed that Bush was from their state.  As they should have been.  Many of us today are still ashamed to have Mr. Bush as the President of the United States.  He has brought dishonour and disrepute on the country that we love, and yet somehow in the warped understanding of our times it is we who are somehow lacking in loyalty to our country when we speak against him.  Even more outrageous than the appalling war that Mr. Bush started is the sick perversion in our politics that has tried to transform loyalty to the President himself into the working definition of patriotism.          

The trailer also reminded me of this item from Chronicles‘ website from 2003 by Aaron Wolf, who concluded with these lines:

The most telling comment, however, came from National Review Online’s Stanley Kurtz, who chose, of all things, to charge the Chicks with not being Dixie enough. “No part of this nation has a better understanding of honor than the South. Natalie Maines has impugned the honor of our president, and of our nation—and done so in front of strangers.” (As I recall, the Yankees arrested President Jefferson Davis and forced Dixie to be part of their “nation,” à la the Soviets and East Berlin.)“Doesn’t she understand,” Kurtz, the bold defender of the Southern way of life, continued, “that her remarks, although certainly political, have gone beyond politics to touch and harm something deeper [the limits of dissent? John Ashcroft, are you there?]. I would like her to try to make things right. But first she needs to understand what she’s done. If Natalie Maines is really a chick from Dixie, she’ll do the right thing.” Apparently, the “right thing” is to keep your mouth shut, unless you are part of the “coalition of the willing” and are ready to sacrifice American blood and treasure for dominion over palm and pine—or, in this case, dune and well.

I’m still trying to figure out why I reacted so strongly to these scenes. I’ve seen far worse on film, and been unaffected by it. I confess that part of it must be that Scarlett Johansson has to be the most boring major actress around. Had the cad been boffing someone like Kate Winslet, someone who had a modicum of wit or mystery about her, maybe it would have been easier to watch, instead of seeing a character betray his wife with such a dumb, dull bunny. But deep down, I don’t think that’s it. I think I just couldn’t stand to watch this creep betray his good wife like this. ~Rod Dreher

It’s probably best that Rod and his wife cut the movie short, since it doesn’t exactly get more edifying after that.  Personally, I found the movie rather engrossing as these things go.  It was simply a well-told story, and unusually coherent for a Woody Allen movie.  The Emily Mortimer character, Chloe, is adorable and Jonathan Rhys Meyers again excels at playing the arrogant bastard who exploits and neglects the woman who worships him just as he did in Vanity Fair.  We hate him just as much in Vanity Fair as we do here, but here we also pity him by the end in spite of the monstrous things he does.  Being lucky, as we see, is not exactly a substitute for being good, though it may bring you more victories in the world; Allen, known to all and sundry as the most depressing existentialist in the depressed existentialist club, was probably not trying to make this point, but that is what I took away from it.  

Chris is an unattractive sort of character to watch, but there was something Dostoevskyan or at least half-Dostoevskyan (i.e., sin, but no redemption) in the character as he plots and executes his crime (an idea not-so-subtly planted in our minds by a shot of the same character reading Crime & Punishment early on) that made me find it all strangely compelling.  Morally uplifting?  Not exactly.  Here is Chris’ speech to the ghosts who come to haunt him: “It would be fitting if I were caught and punished.  Then there might be some small hope of justice, some small hope for the possibility of meaning.”  Anyone who knows Allen’s thoughts on Life can tell you how the story will end, and it is not an ending that does much for the cause of justice or meaning.  On the plus side, Michael Dougherty’s ladyfriend will be cheering on the denunciations of ScarJo from now until Kingdom come.  From Michael’s article on celebrity adoration:

For some reason, knowable only to other women, my girlfriend loathes Scarlett Johansson. At first I was a typical thick male and believed we were engaged in playfully jealous banter, the type that is meant to elicit a small dramatic re-creation of courtship, in the threatened denial and then reaffirmation of loyalty and affection. This sort of thing always ends in a kiss. Unfortunately, as I came to discover, we were engaged in a theological debate with potentially eternal repercussions. Theological debates usually end with the launching of inanimate objects (blankets, shoes) and threats of excommunication (”Swear you reject Scarlett and all her perfidious works, or else”). We don’t talk about her anymore.

So Rod is in good company in not approving of her.  Personally, Scarlett Johansson doesn’t bother me (and Vinny from Entourage likes her, so she can’t be all bad, right?), but I understand that she is for some people what Gwynneth Paltrow is for me.  I cannot stand that woman.  Oh, she may be a perfectly good actress (though she deserved Best Actress for Shakespeare in Love the way I deserve the Nobel Prize for Physics and her role in Possession made me wish I had stayed home and read The Possessed), but her real voice–not her fake, British-accented voice that you hear in most movies–drives me up the wall.  Is there a person with a more annoying American voice in the movie business?  Is there someone else who could have made Proof more boring than it already was?  Was there anyone else who could have had you rooting for the main character in that movie to be institutionalised? 

Well, The Nativity Story film will be nothing if not novel.  First of all, there are not, to my knowledge, that many films dedicated principally to the story of the Nativity all by itself.  It might be interesting to ask why that is, especially given the greater American enthusiasm for Christmas.  It will be the first time, I am willing to bet, that a half-Maori actress (Keisha Castle-Hughes) plays the Theotokos.  The trailer gives the feeling of being in the Levant and already seems to succeed in creating the atmosphere of the period, which was one of The Passion’s strengths–of course, a trailer is not an entire film.  

If their accented English reminds Ross of Sayid from Lost, it is probably not promising for the movie’s success that the woman who plays Elizabeth is Shohreh Aghdashloo, best known to contemporary audiences as the character Dina Araz, the terrorist mother who turns on the conspiracy to save her son, from season 4 of 24.  Aghdashloo is an outstanding actress as far as I am concerned, but the association may be a bit much for an audience trying to see the mother of St. John the Baptist in her.  But as Ari from Entourage would say at this point, “They’re actors.  That’s what they do–they pretend.”  So here’s hoping that she is a good enough actress to make me forget that her last character wanted to nuke the U.S.

Update: I had entirely forgotten that she had a small role in the third X-Men.  If only I could forget the rest of that movie.

Reckless Nativity Story prediction: the ADL and associated friends will not castigate this movie as anti-Semitic and seek to drive it into the ground, in spite of portrayals of Jews such as Herod that might give people a bad impression.  Mocking the Passion Gospels is one thing for such people–attacking the True Meaning of Christmas would probably be a hysterical bridge too far.

Just got in from the FANTASTIC FEST screening of APOCALYPTO tonight.  From seeing the film for a second time in the same day. After the second screening, I have to say it plays even better. The themes about how the industrial needs of a civilization, even a primitive one - lay the groundwork for moral, societal and physical decay really begin to come out. ~Harry Knowles

Via Peter Suderman

In describing its portrait of a civilization in decline, Gibson said, “The precursors to a civilization that’s going under are the same, time and time again,” drawing parallels between the Mayan civilization on the brink of collapse and America’s present situation. “What’s human sacrifice,” he asked, “if not sending guys off to Iraq for no reason?” ~Reuters

Via Dan McCarthy

I’m glad to see that Gibson hasn’t lost his combativeness and his willingness to court controversy–at least of certain kinds.  But the interesting question is this: will his shots against the Iraq war be considered more offensive than his drunken tirade?  My guess would be that it is going to get him at least as much scorn and hostility.  I’m even more interested to see Apocalypto now than I was a few weeks ago.

Also, do you suppose the Mayas thought that their sacrifices would ward off the Toltecofascists?

If nothing else, he’s captured Allen’s self-absorption. Watching Garden State, it’s impossible not to remember that Braff is writing for himself and directing himself. As such, it’s kind of annoying that 80 percent of the shots are close-ups of Zach Braff. It’s also irritating, for that matter, that he created a role that requires Natalie Portman to fall in love with him. ~Josh Levin, Slate

This reminds me of the discussion of the “indie girl” stereotype, for which Portman in Garden State was the archetype (”manic depressive without the depressive“).  It causes me to wonder: if most every guy today supposedly wants the Natalie Portman ”indie girl,” does that mean that all of them have to become the “insufferable tool” Zach Braff? 

To follow up on Braff’s self-absorption with a different Natalie Portman connection, one gets the feeling that if Braff had co-starred with Portman in V for Vendetta all of the masks worn by V and the crowds at the end of the movie would have been reproductions of Braff’s face, not that of Guy Fawkes.  And V for Vendetta would have then managed to be even worse than it already is–if that is possible.

Well, the Duke’s fans should be a bit more wary of this particular film. There’s a fairly simple reason why The Searchers is so highly rated by critics. Whether by accident or design, it is ultimately a liberal telling of the settling of the western frontier.

Specifically, the film’s theme is race. It portrays the settling of the west as an explicitly racial struggle for dominance between the Indians and the whites. More to the point, it subtly but unmistakably subverts Wayne’s heroic image by making his character’s motivations all about race. Which is exactly why liberals love it. ~Sean Higgins, The American Spectator

So liberals love a movie whose premise is the savage raid and kidnapping of a young white girl by Indians?  They love a movie that valorises family vendetta and violent frontier self-help?  They love a movie where white men with guns seek to exact vengeance for the wrong done to their own?  Well, liberals certainly have changed!  Do they also love Birth of a Nation

But Mr. Higgins’ rather baffling interpretation of The Searchers does not stop here.  He goes on, quoting the maestro of PC film criticism:

As Ebert has noted: “Ethan’s redemption is intended to be shown in that dramatic shot of reunion with Debbie, where he takes her in his broad hands…and says, ‘Let’s go home, Debbie.’ The shot is famous and beloved, but small counterbalance to his views throughout the film — and indeed, there is no indication that he thinks any differently about Indians.”

It’s because of such unresolved questions that so many film critics — especially, yes, the liberal ones — love the film. How often do you get to see the assumptions of politically correct history played out in a film with a conservative icon like Wayne in the leading role? To create something comparable today Bill Bennett would have to appear dealing drugs in a gangster rap video.

Did it ever occur to anyone that, however forced the ending might be, it is a resolution that respects the importance of blood ties and that Edwards realises, in the end, that his niece is kin and therefore must be protected no matter what else has happened?  The lesson is not that of the bad racist who suddenly mends his ways, but that of the man obsessed who very nearly destroys the reason for his quest in the first place; viewed in this way, the ties of blood between him and his niece are the only things that restrain him. 

And I do hate to burst Mr. Higgins’ bubble, but a PC reading of the history of the West would have omitted the whole savage Indian raid-cum-kidnapping part to begin with.  In the true victimology of the West, Indians never did these sorts of things–or they were provoked into doing them–and the emphasis in history books has been for the last 20 years on the Trail of Tears, Sand Creek and Wounded Knee to the exclusion of anything else.  The decades of desultory violence between settlers and Indians are thus collapsed into a convenient morality tale of the oppressor stealing from the natives, pure and simple.  This is not to ignore white atrocities, but to recognise that they are hardly the entire story.  In a truly PC version of frontier life, we would be treated instead, Dances With Wolves-style, to the perfidy of the Bluecoats and the simple nobility of the Indians. 

To call The Searchers a liberal or PC telling of frontier history would be like calling Apocalypto a PC recounting of the fall of the Maya.  Though I have only seen snippets of the latter in previews, it is clear enough that Gibson intends to focus on the violent self-immolation of Mayan civilisation, complete with human sacrifice–all of which was something that was only a couple generations ago considered simply impossible, on account of what had to be the benevolent, peaceful nature of all Native American and Mesoamerican peoples.

It may be that liberal film critics adore the film because they themselves misread what it is saying.  That is hardly any reason to validate their interpretation or knock The Searchers simply because it has some notable liberal fans who see the anti-racist morality tale in it that they want to see. 

“A great civilization cannot be conquered from without until it has destroyed itself from within.” ~Will Durant

This is the line being used in the trailer for Gibson’s Apocalypto.  I wonder which contemporary civilisation Gibson might have in mind for this comparison.  (Hat tip: Ross Douthat)

These days, I think the best hope for the action movie lies in atheletic low-budget wonders like Ong-Bak and District B13 and grimmer, more serious entrees like The Bourne Supremacy. Which is to say that I’m definitely going to be hitting up Tony Jaa’s awesome-looking The Protector this weekend, a movie that, incidentally, seems to be playing directly to the Daniel Larison/Pat Buchanan school of “blood and soil,” at least from this summary:


His world shaped by ancient traditions, a young Thai fighter (Jaa) is called upon to defend his people and their honor after outsiders invade their home and destroy all that is sacred.


Because really, kids, when push comes to shove—or in this case, knee comes to face—who doesn’t love a paleocon-friendly Thai martial arts flick? ~Peter Suderman

The Protector does indeed sound tempting, but in the powerful Thai antiwar film Bang Rajan you find an even more intense version of the same themes of defending your people, your community and your land against foreign invasion (in this case, the unassisted defense of Siam by the villagers of Bang Rajan against the more advanced weaponry and superior numbers of the attacking Burmese army, c. 1767) plus a powerful indictment of the evils of warfare and imperialism.  It also has the advantage of being a fairly accurate recounting of the history of this invasion and serves as a paean to these patriotic Siamese heroes and thus also includes the important elements of “history and heroes” along with “blood and soil” to make this an important story of Siamese national identity.