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Essay: The Politics of Hollywood

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Jonathan Chait of New York magazine had an essay in this week’s issue called “The Vast Left-Wing Conspiracy Is on Your Screen.” In it, Chait argues that, yes, of course Hollywood has a liberal bias, and that conservative culture war cops have pretty much given up. I think he’s mostly right, but not completely right.

Of course Hollywood is liberal and Democratic-leaning. Anyone denying that is denying reality, and I’m not so sure most Hollywood liberals would deny it themselves. But movies aren’t the news media, which has a tradition and ethical standards of objectivity.

My beef isn’t with liberal movies pursuing a liberal agenda. It’s when the liberal agenda is more important to them than making a good film.

Chait, I should state at the outset, is a favorite political journalist of mine, who covers politics with an informed and often humorous take, spending years at the New Republic before jumping to New York, where he writes one of the best political blogs. His book-length take-down of supply-side economics, The Big Con, is a must-read, too. In the new piece, he turns to movies and their political tilt:

“You don’t have to be an especially devoted consumer of film or television (I’m not) to detect a pervasive, if not total, liberalism. Americans for Responsible Television and Christian Leaders for Responsible Television would be flipping out over the modern family in Modern Family, not to mention the girls of Girls and the gays of Glee, except that those groups went defunct long ago. The liberal analysis of the economic crisis—that unregulated finance took wild gambles—has been widely reflected, even blatantly so, in movies like Margin Call, Too Big to Fail, and the Wall Street sequel. The conservative view that all blame lies with regulations forcing banks to lend to poor people has not, except perhaps in the amateur-hour production of Atlas Shrugged. The muscular Rambo patriotism that briefly surged in the eighties, and seemed poised to return after 9/11, has disappeared. In its place we have series like Homeland, which probes the moral complexities of a terrorist’s worldview, and action stars like Jason Bourne, whose enemies are not just foreign baddies but also paranoid Dick Cheney figures.”

Speaking as someone in favor of the production of good movies and TV shows, this is good and bad. Of course it’s an objectively good thing that TV is more gay-friendly now than it was 20 years ago, with Will & Grace cited as a major reason for the vice president of the United States to now back same-sex marriage. And I’m glad the sort of subject matter covered by Girls is possible, because Girls is pretty damn awesome.

But on the other hand, from a filmgoing standpoint, it’s sort of tiresome that every thriller that’s produced has to have 1) a torture scene, and 2) a Dick Cheney stand-in villain who gives a Dick Cheney-like speech.

It’s gotten to the point where it’s predictable, where it’s not possibly to enjoy a movie because we know the exact turn it’s taking. If the Romney-Ryan ticket wins, I’m sure we’ll start seeing lots of Paul Ryan stand-in villains, which is probably excellent news for Topher Grace’s career.

By the same token, I’m dreading the “Red Dawn” remake not because it’s a conservative movie, but because the notion of North Korea mounting a successful land invasion of the United States is so completely laughable that it should really render the film unreleasable.

It’s also sort of gladdening that, as Chait writes, the whine-about-smut brigade has been reduced to increasingly impotent blowhards like the embarrassing Parents’ Television Council and the even more loathsome William Donohue. They’ve been joined of late by the gay-hating One Million Moms which- with its failed campaigns against J.C. Penney and Ellen DeGeneres- may be the least-effective pressure group in history.

My view- as a film buff and liberal myself- has long been that when Hollywood tries to put a liberal spin on movies, it usually fails, especially when it’s clear that the political agenda is more important to the filmmakers than making a good movie.

Just about every Hollywood attempt in the mid-aughts to address the war in Iraq and the Bush presidency in general- Robert Redford’s “Lions For Lambs,” Paul Haggis’ “In the Valley of Elah,” Brian DePalma’s “Redacted”- was an embarrassing disaster, until Kathryn’s Bigelow’s generally apolitical “The Hurt Locker,” which came out six years after the war began.

Michael Moore had a brief moment of relevance, before his tiresome public persona, problematic relationship with the truth and extremely shoddy filmmaking techniques rendered him basically irrelevant; now he’s reduced to writing embarrassing op-eds in defense of Julian Assange. The same could also be said for the co-author of that Assange piece, Oliver Stone.

In the 1970s, there were a lot of very good political thrillers, and also quite a few classic movies about Vietnam. Four decades later, Hollywood in many ways and for many reasons, failed to step up.

Political films can be excellent- look at Gus Van Sant’s “Milk,” which was not only super-relevant for its moment in the fall of 2008, but was a great movie ABOUT politics, in which the filmmaking craft was the most important thing. Screenwriter Dustin Lance Black wisely saved the speechifying for Oscar night. Did the movie convince anyone who didn’t already to support gay rights? Probably not, but I don’t hold that against it.

And in many ways, the movies’ liberalism isn’t as pervasive as Chait says it is.

Pacifism, for instance, isn’t a value held by many Hollywood movies. If producers and directors are anti-gun, those feelings don’t extend to the movies they make, and certainly not to their promotional posters. And unabashed Hollywood liberals- led by outspoken Obama supporters Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks- regularly produce major works which celebrate American patriotism and military power.

And look at the romantic comedy genre. Ninety-five percent of the time, it’s unquestionably pro-monogamy, pro-fidelity and pro-family. That even goes for dude-comedies from the likes of Farrelly Brothers or Judd Apatow- no matter how raunchy the dialogue, no matter many bare breasts or buttocks or bodily fluids are strewn across the screen, the underlying message is nearly always that love and family conquer all. And sure, there’s pre-marital sex, but outside of an esoteric indie film, you’ll almost never see the hero of a movie have an affair and not instantly become a villain.

If the romcoms don’t go that direction, it’s something like the execrable 2009 Katherine Heigl/Gerard Butler movie “The Ugly Truth,” which concluded that what frenzied career women REALLY want and need is an asshole to tell them how awful they are. Feminist propaganda, it’s certainly not.

The other important thing to understand is that Hollywood liberalism isn’t Communism and it isn’t Occupy Wall Street or ACORN, either. It’s a very specific, moneyed, social-issue-oriented type of liberalism, and frankly, it’s not the kind that’s especially helpful to achieving liberal goals.

And when when a piece of liberal pop culture is unbearably smug, liberal critics and audiences don’t give it a pass- see the backlash against Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom, for instance. And guess what- most liberals I know, much as they respect him as an actor, can’t stand Sean Penn either.

The sad fact is that “outspoken” actors, with few exceptions, sound like complete idiots who don’t know what they’re talking about when it comes to politics. Watch any episode of Bill Maher’s show- the guest actor or comedian is almost always the dumbest person on the panel, who grinds the discussion to a complete halt every time they speak. The same goes for Richard Belzer’s especially cringe-inducing appearance on Up With Chris Hayes last weekend.

(Not that conservative entertainers are much better on political shows; see Hank Williams, Jr., and Ted Nugent for examples just in the past year.)

That’s what the culture war was, essentially, for the entirety of the Bush years: Celebrity- usually someone like Janeane Garofalo or, more famously, the Dixie Chicks- says something mean about Bush. Fox News goes crazy that someone insulted the Commander-in-Chief while WE ARE AT WAR, and emboldened our enemies and put our troops in danger, and that they should just shut up and go back to their dumb movies, and why haven’t any Democratic members of Congress denounced them yet?

Here’s what neither side gets:What Hollywood celebrities say, and the messages they convey with their movies, isn’t so important at the end of the day. They’re not presidents or senators or Supreme Court justices. The Will & Grace example is an exception, and certainly not the rule.

Let liberals make movies, let conservatives complain, and if either side disagrees let them change the channel.

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