Thursday, November 24, 2005

What's Happening to the Cinema?

A few weeks ago at the Virginia Film Festival, I attended a panel discussion led by NPR critic David Edelstein, and featuring several marketers and ultra-independent filmmakers (neither group seemed particularly willing to assist or accomodate the other). At one point, amid complaints over the general decline in filmgoing and concern over how to revive audience interest in the cinema, actor-filmmaker Andrew Bujalski (if you haven't heard of him, click here and here) quipped, "We sound like book people now. This is what the movie business has come to." Bujalski happens to be one of the most brilliant unsung cineastes in America, and he stated the problem facing the medium in a nutshell: Cinema, once a popular form, is slowly becoming a niche or elitist market, like literary fiction or contemporary art. And like those other art forms, it's beginning to alienate its audience.

Harold Ramis's new film The Ice Harvest offers some clues about the process. I won't go into great detail about the film, because yesterday, fellow blogger Rick Sincere was kind enough to post my review of the film. I was hoping the review would run somewhere on the film's opening day, if only to alert potential cinemagoers that the film's marketing campaign had completely misrepresented the tone, presenting The Ice Harvest as a comedy. (Most film critics are doing the same, sadly -- but that's matter for another post.) The Ice Harvest is actually a bleak thriller on the order of the Coen brothers' Blood Simple, only without the suspense, humor, convincing characters or visual flair. In fact, the only distinguishing characteristic of The Ice Harvest is that attacks the Christmas season with fangs bared.

It's depressing, but hardly surprising, to find that Ramis's sordid little crime drama has found champions on one side of the ideological spectrum. Left-wing e-zine Salon has run a typical puff piece on the film, touting it as a subversive antidote to treacly -- by which, of course, one means "conservative" -- holiday fare. After all, if Christmas is a holiday beloved by conservatives, it stands to reason that those who oppose the evils of conservatism must also oppose Christmas with all the fury they can muster. Which might explain how The Ice Harvest -- as sordid, bloody and misogynistic a product as mainstream Hollywood has yet foisted on an unsuspecting public -- could be seen as a commercially viable wide release in our ideologically polarized climate. After all, the 48 percent of Americans who voted for John Kerry have to watch something this Turkey Day. (As a bonus, the film is set in a series of strip bars in Kansas, simply to prove that red-state America is far more depraved than its neighboring blue states. If this film is any indication, "the matter with Kansas," as Thomas Frank would put it, is that liberals keep using the state as a punching bag.)

Seeing The Ice Harvest reminded me, oddly enough, of Sam Mendes's Jarhead, one of the most brilliant, relentless pieces of anti-American propaganda I've seen in a mainstream theater. The film can't help affecting audiences, and it may yet cause serious harm to American policy objectives -- or worse, to American citizens -- both here and abroad. In this case, however, I can't fault its marketing campaign, which effectively conveyed the tone and content. Misrepresentation would have been extremely difficult, given that Anthony Swofford's memoir (on which the film was based) has been widely acclaimed among left-wing "book people" for years. But I suspect this would come as small comfort to the audience of Marines and former Marines with whom I saw the film on opening weekend. For them, the word "jarhead" is an affectionate in-joke, and they were unaware that Swofford had turned it into a term of contempt. So they arrived at the theater in a good mood, ready to see people like themselves portrayed compassionately and truthfully onscreen. They left the theater silent and resentful, and they may think twice before coming back.

If you're a conservative who goes to the cinema on a regular basis, you're likely to feel like Malcolm MacDowell in A Clockwork Orange: The unwilling victim of an experiment in behavioral control, MacDowell is tied to his chair with his eyes pried open, forced to watch a parade of unpalatable images. Of course, the conservative cinephile actually pays for this experience, an irony which seems to please a good many left-liberals in Southern California. After all, if anyone is so benighted as to support the Bush administration, or believe that America's War on Terror is on the whole a "Good Thing," shouldn't such a person be confronted as often as possible with the Truth -- even if, or perhaps especially if, he doesn't see it coming?

Which brings me back to the question of declining box-office receipts. Grosses for Jarhead fell 57% in its second week of release, and I suspect that a similar fate will befall The Ice Harvest (though I doubt it will enjoy the same opening-weekend success). In general, moviegoers seem to have been unpleasantly surprised at this year's multiplex fare, and they've responded in the way consumers usually do when their basic trust has been violated: They've stopped buying.

It's hard to argue with the Manhattan Institute's Brian C. Anderson, when he claims that hardcore left-wing bias has all but taken over "serious" mainstream cinema (which is to say, films made for grownups instead of teenagers). It's also tough to argue with his claim that the box office has declined in proportion to the preachiness and ideological left-wing purity of the films offered. The most expensive bomb this year was Ridley Scott's Kingdom of Heaven, a film with all the elements of his earlier Gladiator (except for a strong protagonist), plus a dollop of left-wing appeasement. Scott's dubious account of the Third Crusade is clearly meant to parallel the current conflict in Iraq, with the nefarious Reynald de Chatillon in the role of George W. Bush, and the peacenik Orlando Bloom as the John Kerry-like figure who helps his people to make an honorable surrender to the Islamist foe. With Muslim characters who can do no wrong, and Christians who regularly commit atrocities without so much as a second thought, Kingdom of Heaven managed to alienate American audiences even before it opened -- and it collapsed at the box office.

Anderson claims that this year's box-office slump could easily be remedied if Hollywood would simply make conservative films instead of liberal ones -- if, in other words, conservatives would do unto liberals as liberals have done unto us. To that end, he cites the financial success of Spider-Man 2, with its "conservative" values of self-sacrifice and personal responsibility, and The Incredibles, with its focus on the family. Of course, calling these films conservative would presume that liberals don't value self-sacrifice or responsibility -- an absurd claim, since their primary criticism of conservatism is that it is deficient in both -- or that liberals either don't have families or don't care about them. As for The Passion of the Christ, its gratuitous violence and rabid anti-Semitism seem to appeal equally to the Left and the Right: Noam Chomsky has been hawking these particular wares for years.

The tepid grosses of Joss Whedon's Serenity, a Reaganesque space epic, may signal that right-wing values are not enough to carry a picture. But Anderson's theory will be put to its ultimate test with the release of the new Narnia movie. Like the C.S. Lewis books on which it is based, the film will have its greatest appeal among evangelical Christians, who like to see their Saviour not as the meek, sacrificial Lamb of the Gospels, but as the kick-ass Lion of Revelation. Still, with Lewis's talking animals rendered in hyperrealistic CGI, Narnia promises to be the silliest major Hollywood offering this year. If it crashes at the box office, we may see cinematic offerings lean even further to the left.

Still, it isn't as if 2005 has been bereft of box-office blockbusters. Spielberg's War of the Worlds is one of the top grossers of 2005, along with Lucas's Revenge of the Sith and Nolan's Batman Begins. What these films have in common is that their political content, such as it is, can be read conservatively or liberally, according to the viewer's own ideological bent.

The rampaging alien hordes of War of the Worlds have been compared to the US Army in Iraq -- an interpretation which H.G. Wells would surely have approved -- but they've also been compared to terrorist forces. Spielberg cribs his most potent imagery from video reports of the 9/11 attacks, whether it involves flying clothes and vaporized bodies, or the thin layer of toxic ash which covers characters after each devastating attack. Critics inevitably charged Spielberg with exploiting 9/11 for commercial gain (obviously true, and what the hell of it?). But War of the Worlds effectively depoliticizes its invasion-terrorism theme by centering its narrative on the family unit: Ultimately, it's about a father who rediscovers and reasserts his dormant manhood -- with the incidental assistance of malevolent alien invaders.

I didn't get the sense that Spielberg actually bought into War of the Worlds, in part because his earlier work Close Encounters of the Third Kind smashed this 1950s alien-invasion formula to bits. Instead of malign extraterrestrials confronted by an idealized father figure, Close Encounters featured benign UFO contacts and the ultimate in irresponsible parenting; at the end of the film, Richard Dreyfuss abandons home and hearth in order to board a spaceship and "light out for the territory." (War of the Worlds offers a chilling if largely unconscious parody of this abduction, reminiscent of the old "Twilight Zone" episode in which we learn that the seemingly helpful alien text "To Serve Man" is actually a cookbook.) But even if Spielberg never quite believes in War's basic premise, he goes through the motions well enough. While liberals saw the film as an attack on the Bush administration's militarism, conservative viewers saw a vindication of the Bush administration's paternalistic, pro-family morality. Meanwhile, War of the Worlds made over $200 million at the domestic box office.

The pattern continues with Revenge of the Sith, which proved a godsend for conspiracy-theory leftists and hardcore conservatives alike. Everybody hates an Emperor, whether it's Bush, Clinton, Kofi Annan, or some personification of the European Union -- and Lucas's film managed to leave all of these options available for viewers (while depending on none of them for its cinematic impact). Batman Begins, widely championed by libertarians for its portrait of an ubercapitalist straight out of Ayn Rand, is also a left-wing hymn to "double taxation," that condition in which the wealthy pay for the services they require while shelling out for charity and government services. Even as the film extols wealthy businessmen, it also demands that they "give more" to their communities -- for, as the film's villain reminds us, only by pouring out their wealth and energy can rich people thwart the forces of evil and ensure a better quality of life for everyone. Batman Begins has its class warfare and eats it, too.

This year's box-office champions should indicate that a film which accomodates liberal or conservative politics equally well, or which devises strategies to make political content irrelevant, can still be a major hit with filmgoers. But Hollywood is losing its ability, or its willingness, to muddle the message. No longer content with playing liberal and conservative ideas in tandem, it is developing a preachier, ideologically purer, left-wing cinema which admits fewer ambiguities -- and which is gradually losing conservative and liberal filmgoers alike who want stories, characters and images rather than endless agitprop.

With the current polarization in America, cinema must appeal to Left and Right alike if it is to maintain its viability as a popular art form. Otherwise, cinema will grow more rarefied and politically extreme, and we cinephiles will be just as marginal as "book people." I'm sure nobody wants that.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Wit and Wisdom of Wesley Clark, Revisited

Alan Sullivan insinuates that Bush administration critic Rep. John Murtha is a Colonel Blimp. Before we start casting such aspersions on the Pennsylvania Democrat, let's check in on the genuine item.

Yes, our favorite Generalissimo has his very own political action committee! It's called WesPAC -- which means, I suppose, that it stands for whatever its namesake stands for. Is Clark planning to run for President in 2008? We can only hope.

Alas, his PAC website keeps transcripts of his television appearances. An exchange with Sean Hannity last Thursday inspired me to add a few new quotes to the old "Wit and Wisdom" file. Let's learn more about Wesley Clark:

A man who knows the papers: In fact, well, there's a lot of quotes in the paper.

A man who knows what America wants: I think the American people are tired of partisanship. What they want is some leadership and some statesmanship.

A man who knows what America really wants: What's missing here is a little bit of leadership and a little bit of statesmanship.

A man who knows what America really, really wants: I think what we need to do is lay out the facts to the American people.

A man who isn't always quite sure what the facts are: I don't think any of those people [John Kerry, Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton] made that case [for war in Iraq].

A man who understands that free speech can be dangerous: Stop the adjectives.

Indeed, we must stop those pernicious adjectives so that we may put aside partisanship, lay out the facts and institute leadership and statesmanship. After all, descriptors like "asinine" and "self-contradictory" acquire an insidious relevance when placed in the vicinity of the proper noun "Wesley Clark."

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