Saturday, January 14, 2006

Conservative Movies of 2005

Over at, Jim Emerson has been having a bit of fun with this January 2nd article from FrontPage Magazine. The author, Don Feder, a former columnist for the Boston Herald, is probably best known for his claim in September that Hurricane Katrina was God's punishment for both Israel's withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and New Orleans's annual Southern Decadence festival (a cross between Mardi Gras and Gay Pride).

Now Feder is applying his considerable expertise in reading the mind of God to the film industry, giving us a list of the ten best conservative films of 2005. To be fair, Feder begins with a valuable question -- but his answer, I would argue, is dubious:

What is a conservative film?

Let’s start with what it isn’t. It’s not about men with bulging biceps and even bigger guns. It’s not cartoonish action heroes. It isn’t revenge tales masquerading as heroism.

Conservative cinema does more than entertain; movies that do no more are visual candy. It instructs and inspires.

Conservative films celebrate virtue. They tell timeless tales of individuals overcoming all manner of adversity to achieve true greatness. They’re about honesty, loyalty, courage and patriotism. They’re concerned with conservatism’s cardinal values – faith, family and freedom.

I'm not sure that Feder's list measures up to his own criteria. For instance, his inclusion of Memoirs of a Geisha, a gauzy fantasy of female sexual enslavement, seems predicated on the very strange idea that geishas are Western-style entrepreneurs who pull themselves up by their sandal straps. (Then again, Feder's top-ten list shows a strange predilection for female submission: The characters he most admires are glorified prostitutes, love interests, wifely homemakers or, in the case of Peter Jackson's King Kong, embodiments of womanly chastity. That a woman might be an interesting character in her own right seems not to occur to him.) But Feder's insistence that great art must teach and celebrate virtue, is at least as old as Plato.

Emerson's challenge to Feder comes on two fronts. On the one hand, he claims that the virtues of "faith, family and freedom" are hardly unique to conservatives, and that many of the human qualities and political values Feder praises actually cross ideological boundaries. On the other, he wonders whether Feder's films are as virtuous as he claims. Both points, I think, are well made, and well taken.

Feder is a flake, to be sure, but I think the business of discussing "conservative" movies of 2005 deserves a second chance. I don't want to ask which films were authentically conservative and which films were not: That way madness lies. It's fairly easy to identify a leftist movie -- one need merely look for unchallenged anti-capitalist, anti-American, or anti-military rhetoric. But, as Emerson has noted, conservative ideology in the cinema is much tougher to peg: Values which conservatives are quick to claim as their own may in fact be shared cultural products.

My question, then, is what sorts of films conservative filmgoers ought to see, and why.

One answer, of course, is that conservatives should see as many different films as possible, including left-wing movies. If a film we happen to see degenerates into propaganda (or even if it starts out that way), it's good for us to determine said film's grasp of reality, analyze its techniques of persuasion, and judge its success or failure accordingly. We gain nothing by shutting ourselves off from debate and disagreement.

Granted, the approach I've just described requires more vigilant, disciplined viewing than most audiences would care to exert. But for those who find that reading leftist cinema "against the grain" is not worth the effort, there is another approach -- namely, to seek out films on a basis of real-world truth. Limited-government conservatism tends to be (or at least, used to be) based on a "reality principle" -- its principles are based on what we know of the world, rather than what we would like the world to be. (This brand of conservatism may be anathema to a "theocon" like Feder.) So the important thing would not be to seek out films that tout conservative values per se. Instead, we need merely look for a "reality principle" in our entertainment, and assume that the truer to real life a film is, the more we'll find our understanding of the world in it. The advantage of this approach is that it requires relatively little of the films themselves -- merely that they not act as propaganda.

With that in mind, here are a few films from 2005 that I think a conservative might find enjoyable, or even profitable. Only one of these is on my top-ten list for 2005 -- and none are on Don Feder's.

The Forty-Year-Old Virgin. Judd Apatow's comedy is sexually frank, and occasionally delights in humiliating its title character (played by Steve Carell). Yet Apatow's film makes several astonishing statements in favor of sexual fidelity and chastity. Ultimately it comes down squarely on the side of marriage, family and delayed gratification -- not as a social requirement, but as a character's legitimate preference. (Available on DVD, but avoid the "unrated edition" and stick with the shorter theatrical cut.)

Serenity. This space epic from Buffy the Vampire Slayer creator Joss Whedon offers a chilling vision of utopian socialism run amok. Fans of Ayn Rand will find much to love here -- especially Chiwetel Ejiofor's performance as "The Operative," who gladly sacrifices himself for the good of the State. (Available on DVD.)

Squid and the Whale. Noah Baumbach's autobiographical film doesn't take a political stand on divorce. It doesn't have to. By portraying the consequences of one family's divorce with unflinching honesty, this film tells us everything we need to know about the importance of marriage and the two-parent family unit. (In theaters now.)

Paper Clips. Elliot Berlin and Joe Fab's documentary doesn't lecture us about red-state values. Instead, it shows us what those values are, by chronicling the development of an unlikely Holocaust memorial at a junior high school in southeast Tennessee. This film infuriates many liberals I know, simply because it shows patriotic, rural Americans as decent human beings. (Coming to DVD in March ... maybe.)

Rize. If you're looking for spiritual values, David LaChappelle's documentary on "krumping" -- a form of hip-hop street dancing popular in South Central Los Angeles -- offers them in abundance. The most fascinating section of the film belongs to "Tommy the Clown," a community activist whose positive outlook on life and strong anti-gang stance help to make his neighborhood a better and (marginally) safer place. Perhaps just as important, Rize documents a vital new artistic movement that (mirabile dictu!) grows and flourishes without assistance from the National Endowment for the Arts. (On DVD now.)

Young Rebels (Jovenes Rebeldes). Here's a documentary about the underground rap scene in Cuba, and the government's attempts to nationalize it. Young Rebels shows that Cuban rappers who criticize their country -- even in the most innocuous way imaginable -- are subject to some pretty harsh reprisals. I don't think the filmmakers meant to portray Castro as a repressive tyrant, or Cuba as an economic backwater. But it gives us a sufficient glimpse into Cuban society to let us draw those conclusions for ourselves. (No plans as yet for a DVD release.)

Again, I'm not sure that these films are exclusively conservative. But I can say that they seem true to real life, and therefore support conservatism and conservative values (however unintentionally) in the way that real-world examples often do.

Friday, January 13, 2006

Food Porn

burger&fries, originally uploaded by My Stupid Dog.

For those of you who resolved to lose weight in the new year, here's a photo of the ultimate temptation. A big, juicy hamburger with french fries and sweet tea is practically guaranteed to make your heart beat faster, and at Afton's, a funky-retro roadside diner just off I-81 in Salem, Virginia (exit 132), it'll set you back just seven bucks -- including tax and tip.

The doctors you can pay later.

Update (1/15). A loyal reader weighs in: Thanks, asshole. My cholesterol went up twenty points just looking at that.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Ten Best Films of 2005

1. Brokeback Mountain. I've already written a lengthy review of Ang Lee's anguished whisper of a movie, comparing its final scenes with Ozu's Tokyo Story. Brokeback represents the first new development in movie Westerns since Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch. It's flawed, but a masterpiece nonetheless.

2. Mutual Appreciation. Another film I've reviewed at length, Andrew Bujalski's second directorial effort is a frank, hilarious comedy about sexual mores, economic constraints and the decline of masculinity. Naturally, this movie hasn't found a distributor, so if you want to see it, you'll have to buy a screener DVD here. Of the films I saw over the past year, only Brokeback, this one and perhaps Moolaade (my #10 pick) seem destined for the ages.

3. Murderball. In a year filled with left-wing agitprop documentaries, Murderball offered a gripping human story about the brutal sport of wheelchair rugby (or "murderball"). This film took time and effort to make, and despite the apparent artlessness of its cimenatography it manages to satisfy on every level. Quadriplegic rugby champion Mark Zupan may be the year's unlikeliest sex symbol, with his potent mixture of charm and aggression. Meanwhile, aging coach Joe Soares provides enough emotional turmoil and catharsis for a dozen ordinary movies. Murderball is available on DVD.

4. Oliver Twist Roman Polanski's adaptation of the Charles Dickens classic manages to jettison the book's optimistic Victorian sensibility, along with a good deal of the plot (and, thankfully, the rabid anti-Semitism). It bears only a superficial resemblance to its source material, but it shows director Polanski in terrific form. Oliver Twist is as accomplished as Chinatown or The Pianist, and no less perverse, disturbing or impassioned. Polanski has stated publicly that he considers this a children's film; if so, it may be the darkest one ever made. It earns a PG-13 rating for its unblinking depiction of human misery -- but it's also, frame for frame, the most unabashedly entertaining movie I saw last year. Oliver Twist comes to DVD on January 24.

5. The Squid and the Whale. I have three films tied for my #5 slot, and they're all beautifully observed human dramas. Noah Baumbach's wrenching cinema-verite drama on the effects of divorce plays like a rough draft of Henry James's What Maisie Knew. Here, too, a family disintegrates into an "intricate pas de quatre," with two boys -- one teenaged, the other on the cusp of puberty -- caught in the psychological undertow. Baumbach is too quick to attack the father figure, played by Jeff Daniels: Compared to the other characters, he seems flat and obvious, which blunts the film's impact a bit. But Laura Linney is dependably excellent as the long-suffering (and somewhat unsympathetic) mother, while Jesse Eisenberg's performance as the teenaged protagonist is indisputably one of the year's best. The Squid and the Whale should be required viewing for any couple considering a divorce, or for any family-court judge who routinely grants "joint custody" arrangements.

5. Junebug. (tied). In Cameron Crowe's sentimental sapfest Elizabethtown, a disgraced young executive returns to the rural South to search for love and redemption. Thank God we had Junebug for a tonic: Director Phil Morrison and writer Angus MacLachlan turn the old story of "finding one's roots" upside down: This time, a Chicago art dealer visits her husband's family in rural North Carolina, and discovers material success -- along with a world of sin, guilt, self-loathing and death. Although early scenes are played for light comedy, the finale is emotionally devastating. Junebug comes to DVD this Tuesday.

5. Nine Lives (tied). Rodrigo Garcia, the son of Nobel laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez, is probably best known for directing several episodes of HBO's Six Feet Under, and fans of that series will find much to love in this ensemble drama. But even curmudgeons like me, who thought that Six Feet was too precious for its own good, can enjoy Garcia's Nine Lives, which takes a straightforward, unpretentious approach to character. (With this film Garcia establishes himself as the rarest of creatures: a writer-director whose direction is as intelligent as his writing.) The film is comprised of nine separate vignettes, each portraying a watershed moment in one woman's life. More important, each scene is filmed in real time with no edits of any kind, which gives Nine Lives some of the immediacy and urgency of live theater. Shot on a shoestring budget over eighteen days, yet possessing a dream cast (Glenn Close, Kathy Baker, Dakota Fanning, Sissy Spacek, and especially Robin Wright Penn, who gives an Oscar-worthy turn as a distraught housewife), Nine Lives was unfairly overlooked by audiences and not given the wide distribution it deserved. This film must be viewed on the big screen.

8. A Talking Picture (Un Filme Falado). Portuguese filmmaker Manoel De Oliveira was ninety-four when he shot this film in 2003, and he's still going strong, writing and directing a film every year. His recent work is strictly an acquired taste, but at 96 minutes A Talking Picture is relatively brief, and probably the most accessible of the lot. The minimal plot involves a sea voyage across the Mediterranean; the protagonists are a history professor and her daughter. But as the title would indicate, this movie is about conversation, dialogue and reason -- in short, the stuff of humanist thought -- and it does not hesitate to abandon plot and protagonists altogether when a good discussion might be nearby. There's a point to all this, of course: As the film unspools, De Oliveira shows how Islamist terrorism undermines the values upon which Western civilization is founded. By the final, horrifying freeze-frame, even language itself has collapsed: There is no more time for dialogue, because the terrorist war against the West has begun. De Oliveira's mood is pessimistic and elegiac; he is less interested in providing solutions to Islamofascism than in mourning the effects. As such, A Talking Picture may be the best film to date about 9/11 and the rise of global terror. It's available on DVD, though as with most of the offerings on my list it must be seen in a cinema to be truly appreciated.

9. Jarhead. I've written about Jarhead already, but sometimes once isn't enough. This is Sam Mendes's best picture to date, as well as his most reprehensible. So what if Anthony Swofford's alleged Gulf War "memoir" -- the source for this festering welt of a motion picture -- was phonier than Vanilla Ice and James Frey put together? Americans, myself included, spent $62 million to see this movie, making it the biggest moneymaker on my top ten list. The reason I included Jarhead in my top ten, instead of more widely praised agitprop like Syriana, Munich or The Constant Gardener, is simple: Of all the left-wing movies I saw last year, Jarhead was the only one I ever believed. Luckily, the former Marines with whom I saw the film weren't half as gullible: They looked disgusted as they left the cinema, and they had good reason. Jarhead is first-rate propaganda. It may not be on par with Michael Moore's Bowling for Columbine or Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will, but sometimes it comes very close.

10. Moolaade. Like A Talking Picture, this was technically a 2004 release. Since I saw it in mid-April, I'm including it on my 2005 list. Senegalese writer-director Ousmane Sembene -- possibly the most famous figure in African cinema today -- has fashioned a gripping tale of an isolated village and its ambivalent responses to the encroaching modern world. At the film's center is a young woman who offers the "protection" (or moolaade) of her house to several young girls who don't want to subject themselves to the potentially lethal practice of cliterodectomy. Moolaade moves at its own stately pace, allowing us to become acquainted gradually with the men and women of this village. Although it features a clear social agenda, the film seldom stoops to political boilerplate: Everyone has a point of view, and there are no easy villains. Moolaade is a truly courageous motion picture: It endorses women's social equality and opposes genital mutilation, in a part of the world where people can be imprisoned or executed for holding such liberal views. But any way you look at it, the film is powerful stuff. Moolaade is not available on DVD, and probably won't be for quite some time.

Honorable mentions go to Gregg Araki's Mysterious Skin (a fictional film about pedophilia that may have been the most unnerving thing I saw last year); George Lucas's Revenge of the Sith (the year's second-best political movie, after Jarhead); Craig Brewer's Hustle and Flow (the best film ever made about Memphis, Tennessee, with a near-miraculous performance from Terrence Howard); and Miranda July's Me and You and Everyone We Know (a sweet-and-sour, heteros-only romantic comedy with a quirky, postmodern sensibility). All of my "honorable mention" picks are currently available on DVD.

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