Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Happy Valentine's Day ... from the Far Right

National Review Online has published an impromptu "symposium," listing the "most conservative love stories ever told" -- and it's no surprise that for most of the participants, the very notions of romance and individual fulfillment have been thoroughly trumped by ideology. (Rick Santorum must be pleased.) Michael Medved nominates Anna Karenina as a great romance -- not for the story of Anna herself, mind (she's an adulteress, for heaven's sake!), but for the insipidly happy Levin family. Tolstoy also gets a warm embrace from Midge Decter, who likes War and Peace because it puts the flibbertigibbet Natasha firmly in her place: "Tolstoy, who knew everything there was to know about the human heart, could not deny Natasha her destiny as everyday wife and mother. This is what you might call the true romance." Deus volt!

In the world of National Review, contact between men and women is .. well, kind of icky. Danielle Crittenden, at the vanguard (if that's the right word) of the feminist stay-at-home movement, nominates Pride and Prejudice because the unmarried protagonists "never even exchange so much as a chaste kiss in its 388 pages." Wharton's The Age of Innocence merits two mentions, both because the love affair between a married man and a separated-but-never-divorced woman remains gloriously and utterly unconsummated. In what may be the best example I've seen of a commentator spectacularly missing the point, John J. Miller exclaims that Wharton's masterpiece "is a triumph of social mores over individualistic urges" -- the idea being that the former are good while the latter are bad. Ditto for Christine Rosen of the Ethics and Public Policy Center (what, Hadley Arkes wasn't available?), who says that "for those of a more conservative sensibility, who live in a modern world where self-gratification trumps virtue, it is in some ways more satisfactory to find two people who resist, rather than succumb, to their romantic yearnings — and in the process perform their duty." At least Rosen seems aware that Wharton might not have agreed with her assessment.

With all this talk about "duty," you'd think we were living in the old Soviet Union, where the only acceptable kind of love was between a boy and his tractor. (Well, technically it wasn't his tractor.)

Then we have Charmaine Yoest of the Family Research Center, who goes straight to the Bible -- written, she claims, by "love's original author" (and translated, one presumes, by good King James). In holy writ she finds that "the mystical one-flesh union between a man and his beloved bride is at once both earthy, and eternal." Yoest doesn't have much to say about David and Jonathan, natch, but David and Bathsheba (where David has a husband murdered so he can screw the man's wife) is a swoony tale of "lust and redemption." She also mentions the story of Isaac and Rebecca, though she omits the nasty little con game Isaac played on neighboring rulers by introducing his wife as "his sister" and sending her into their harems. It's in Genesis 26, and it's one of the most humiliating tricks played on any woman in the Scriptures. I'm surprised Yoest doesn't also mention Tamar (Genesis, chapter 38), who dresses as a prostitute and gets pregnant by her father-in-law, all to continue the line of her dead husband. Sacrifice, duty, a borderline-abusive vibe, and the humiliation of women for a greater good -- now there's a romance for you!

To be fair, there are a few choices that won't make your skin crawl. Former Ladies' Home Journal editor Myrna Blyth offers the marriage of John and Abigail Adams as one of the great romances in American history -- and a case of two equal minds and matching temperaments finding happiness in each other. Richard Brookhiser suggests Jane Austen's Persuasion and adds, "I don't know (or care) if it's conservative ...." By the lights of the other contributors, of course, neither story is particularly conservative. Abigail Adams was no adherent of "kinder, kirche, kuche": She was every bit as political as her husband, and many of her letters are milestones in the history of American feminism. As for Anne Elliott, the heroine of Persuasion, her marriage to a man of inferior social status is frowned upon by other members of her family. Brookhiser and Blyth seem more interested in the pursuit of happiness than the fulfillment of duty -- so no far-right brownie points for them.

Still, since National Review deigned to call this Valentine's Day colloquim a "symposium," I'm surprised that no one on the list bothered to cite another Symposium -- one presided over by an unusually festive Socrates nearly two and a half millenia ago. In this friendly dinner gathering of Athens's finest poets, warriors and philosophers, the discussion turns to the nature of love. Perhaps it's not surprising that the most profound and lasting contribution comes from a playwright, Aristophanes:
After the division the two parts of man, each desiring his other half, came together, and throwing their arms about one another, entwined in mutual embraces, longing to grow into one, they were on the point of dying from hunger and self-neglect, because they did not like to do anything apart; and when one of the halves died and the other survived, the survivor sought another mate, man or woman as we call them, being the sections of entire men or women, and clung to that. They were being destroyed, when Zeus in pity of them invented a new plan: he turned the parts of generation round to the front, for this had not been always their position and they sowed the seed no longer as hitherto like grasshoppers in the ground, but in one another; and after the transposition the male generated in the female in order that by the mutual embraces of man and woman they might breed, and the race might continue; or if man came to man they might be satisfied, and rest, and go their ways to the business of life: so ancient is the desire of one another which is implanted in us, reuniting our original nature, making one of two, and healing the state of man. (trans. Jowett)

For Plato's Aristophanes, love -- whether same-sex or opposite-sex -- was about the happiness, satisfaction and wholeness of human beings. How unconservative that seems right now.

And on the left ...

This Valentine's Day, Salon gives a big, wet French kiss to rioters and hooligans throughout Europe and the Middle East, courtesy of Hani Shukrallah, visiting professor of journalism at University of California, Berkeley. And where's Shukrallah visiting from? Egypt.

Shukrallah says that, "the bogus 'clash of civilizations' -- ludicrous, recycled, 19th century Orientalist racism as it may be -- is becoming all too real." (One might say that it became "all too real" when the first Danish embassy was burned to the ground.) But here's the real money quote -- guaranteed to make a freedom-loving American's jaw hit the floor:
How else could we explain the supposed confusion over demarcating between freedom of expression and racist hate speech, a distinction that one would have thought was by now well established in the "Western" democratic tradition?

With its various hate-speech codes and hidebound political correctness, U.C. Berkeley is hardly the best place to learn about American freedom of expression. But if Shukrallah believes the Jyllands-Posten cartoons qualify as "hate speech," or thinks they shouldn't be covered under the basic principle of free expression, then he doesn't understand what freedom of the press means. And this guy is teaching journalism.

The next time the American Left positions itself as a champion of free speech and a free press, let's remember what it has done over the past few weeks.

Monday, February 13, 2006

A few thoughts on Brokeback distribution and "marketing strategy"

Mickey Kaus claims that Brokeback Mountain is following the same "marketing strategy" as Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11: He claims that, as with Fahrenheit, the marketers of Brokeback have been trumpeting its box-office success in conservative areas of the country. Of course, over the past few weeks Brokeback has also been touting its Golden Globe wins and Oscar nominations, two things Fahrenheit never received (and as a summer release, didn't really need). That by itself would constitute a substantial difference in their respective marketing strategies. True, Fahrenheit won the Palme d'Or at Cannes, which carries slightly more prestige than the Golden Lion Brokeback received in Venice. But I doubt that Palme d'Or lured very many Americans into movie theaters. (It didn't do much for Gus Van Sant's Elephant in 2003.)

One presumes that the marketing and distribution of a film would be somehow connected, but the release patterns of Brokeback and Fahrenheit couldn't have been more different. During its first weekend, Fahrenheit opened in over 850 theaters, so that it played in "red" and "blue" states from the start. The film nearly doubled its venues the following weekend, and broke 2,000 screens by its third week of release (unprecedented for a nonfiction film). In contrast, Brokeback Mountain opened in five theaters on its first weekend, and by its fourth week of release was still playing in fewer than 300 theaters. The film was initially planned to "go wider" by late January or early February (in other words, right about now), but throughout late December and January, exhibitors pressured Focus Features, the company behind Brokeback, to expand the movie a few weeks ahead of schedule.

Initially, the marketing and distribution of Brokeback was more like last year's Million Dollar Baby, another arthouse offering turned sleeper hit and Oscar frontrunner. Eastwood's heavyweight Oscar contender opened in nine theaters, and expanded to roughly 150 theaters in major urban markets by its third week of release. Not until late January, the weekend before Oscar nominations were announced, did Million Dollar go wide on more than 2,000 screens. Like Brokeback, Million Dollar was marketed to women and older couples: Teenage boys, as a rule, do not go to see Best Picture nominees. (Eastwood's film also had a hook for Gay and Lesbian audiences, partly because of the Hillary Swank's role in Boys Don't Cry, and partly because those brutal boxing scenes between women upended the usual gender roles.)

As far as I can tell, the central difference in the marketing of these two films was that Brokeback became a media phenomenon well before it received its Oscar nods, while nominations for Million Dollar Baby took most audiences by surprise. Still, the Brokeback breakout was largely unplanned, as the stunned response from Focus Features (and the inital difficulty the studio had in meeting exhibitor demand) indicated. Although the company attempted to mount the sort of "stealth campaign" that made Million Dollar Baby a hundred-million-dollar hit, persistent media buzz and ecstatic reviews made Ang Lee's "gay cowboy movie" impossible to ignore.

Kaus has touted the alleged underperformance of Brokeback in the American "heartland" (I wish him luck defining that term) as proof of "the depth of cultural antipathy to homosexuality" -- and just as importantly, as vindication of his own "visceral" reaction against Gay-rights activism. But the box-office results don't seem consistent enough to justify such sweeping conclusions. Although (as Kaus notes) Brokeback has failed to draw audiences in Clovis, New Mexico, it attracted sizable crowds in Missoula and Billings, Montana. The difference might indicate that rural Montanans are more Gay-friendly than rural New Mexicans, but a more likely explanation is that Brokeback arrived in Clovis four weeks after its Montana debut, at a point when audience fatigue had begun to set in. (Of course, at the same time Brokeback opened in Missoula, it opened in Amarillo, Texas -- only a hundred miles and less than two hours' drive from Clovis. So a third possible explanation is that most moviegoers who would have seen the film there caught it in Amarillo instead.)

Still, Brokeback looks poised to attain a domestic box-office tally of between eighty and a hundred million dollars (perhaps more if it performs well at the Oscars). Considering that the film's $14 million budget was roughly half that of Million Dollar -- and that Brokeback recouped its production costs through foreign distribution deals prior to its US release (with DVD sales yet to come) -- the box-office take represents an impressive return on the producers' initial investment, despite Kaus's insistence on an anti-Gay zeitgeist.

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