Life & Liberty: Conservative Villains
Conservatives have a grudge against Hollywood, and against movie critics, too. The obtuseness of the reviewer set was nowhere more clearly demonstrated in recent months than in the critical reaction to the comedy Top Secret! This outrageous satire of war movies, spy movies, Elvis Presley movies, and a great deal more, made by the creators of the first Airplane (but not its pallid sequel), is set in the present, in East Germany. An American rock star has been brought there for a "cultural" festival, in lieu of Leonard Bernstein, who wasn't available. That it is East Germany is repeatedly stressed, and the time is now. And who rules East Germany? Communists, of course. And whom do this movie's communists resemble in their officiousness and sterility of thought? The Nazis, that's who. You've got it! The Communists are, by analogy, the Nazis. Score one for the politics of William F. Buckley, who makes that all quite plain in his recent fun, fine novel, The Story of Henri Tod.
Ah, but what did the average reviewer make of all this? In Boston, only yours truly among the major reviewers noted that the villains are communists; my colleagues saw them, or wrote and spoke of them, as Nazis. Surprisingly, of the national journals, only the leftist Village Voice, in reviewer David Edelstein's column, made no bones of the fact that the villains are communists. Here, in the land where the (movie-fictional) national anthem goes: "Try to take a running jump at the wall./Forget it:/The guards will kill you if the electric fence doesn't first," here, surely, is a nice dig at communists.
And the reviewers miss the point. Do audiences? I don't know. But conservatives and other moviegoers who appreciate the nature of communism have to wonder about the critical facilities of the critics, or wonder about their politics. As for the movie-making community itself, only the recent Moscow on the Hudson, a comedy about a defector from Russian communism, has successfully mined more than a superficial lode of anticommunist sentiment. Taking conservatives at their word, that they find communism a major evil, we can see why they view film in our time as not politically friendly.
And there's even more to it than that for conservatives, as one can see by the published right-wing attitude toward film in general. The John Birch Society's weekly Review of the News has research director William B. Guidry at the movie desk, wherefrom he writes funny, literate, sprightly reviews. But they descend to frothing when anything even vaguely homosexual is to be found in a flick, and they terminate invariably with a description of the naughtiness in language and sex and, sometimes, violence, in the movie under examination.
The Conservative Digest no longer reviews films regularly, but New Right strategist Paul Weyrich and censorious preacher Don Wildmon periodically express disgust and amazement at what is coming out of Hollywood. Human Events touches on movies when they are overtly political, otherwise ignoring them. National Review has had only a few regular reviewers, among them the currently playing John Simon, who dislikes almost all movies, but not from an overtly conservative viewpoint. Mr. Simon just finds practically nothing likeable on screen, and he says so. There, in brief, is a potpourri of conservative organs of opinion, none of which really enjoys films qua films, and some of which regard the cinema as the enemy.
Conservative heroine Phyllis Schlafly periodically unleashes her fury at the movies, as in her syndicated column of late June of this year. She asks: "Are the moviemakers deliberately selling us left-wing, liberal propaganda on political and social issues? Or are they merely free-enterprise entrepreneurs who are interested only in making fast bucks by giving the public what it wants? Put another way, are the movies a maker of moral standards and social attitudes, or merely a mirror to reflect the changing mores of society?"
Using a study by Stanley Rothman, a professor of government at Smith College, and S. Robert Lichter, political science instructor at George Washington University, Schlafly informs her readers that the bias of the "movie elite," as she calls those who make movies, is significantly to the left of the American people. The members of this elite like Democratic instead of Republican presidential candidates, don't go to church, don't condemn premarital sex or abortion or homosexuality, want more government redistribution of income, and want to use TV to promote social reform. She concludes: "If you have suspected that moviemakers have a low regard for American institutions and values, now you have the proof. It's no wonder that more and more movies are dishing out political propaganda." Then she cites four examples (with which, as a critic who has seen them all, I must fully agree): "This year's propaganda films include 'Daniel' (which rehashes the Rosenberg spy case), 'Silkwood' (which attacks the nuclear industry), 'Deal of the Century' (which attacks the arms industry) and 'Under Fire' (which opposes our anti-Communist policies in Nicaragua)."
Other conservative commentators are heard from also, making points similar to those emphasized by Schlafly. Their message is that those who make movies aren't at all conservatives as we know conservatives; their movies are frequently left-wing; therefore, the reason their movies are frequently left-wing is that they are usually left-wing themselves. Evidence supports the contentions about the moviemakers' views and about the movies they make, but the connecting link is inferential, not demonstrated. The problem is more complex than the conservative commentators recognize or admit.
Consider the most phenomenal money-loser of all time, Inchon (1982), funded by Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church, virtually impossible to sit through, embarrassing even to those who liked its politics. Nobody went, no critic liked it, no audience could be manufactured for it. A wholly committed and hideously expensive anticommunist pro-conservative movie has become the biggest flop ever. On a lesser scale, a much better movie, from Britain, The Final Option (1983), stood forthrightly against the left and for the established verities, took mixed reviews, and despite its topicality—urban political terrorists and the fight to foil them—bombed.
Why? No audience, no box office. Why no box office? Because people who might be expected to enjoy such movies wouldn't go to them. I think we can safely conclude that conservatives don't generally go to movies. They rant and rave against movies, but they don't deign to see movies.
Liberals and leftists regard the cinema as part of the living culture, as intrinsic to the expression of values. Repugnant though she usually is, in her smugness and meanness, Phyllis Schlafly is on target in defining the values of the moviemakers and suggesting that the movies they make aren't going to make her kind of American happy. On the other hand, the undertone of many ostensibly nonpolitical movies is decidedly to the right: Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, this summer's megahit, affirms Western values and sneers at the mystic Orient. The Star Wars trilogy is basically the western up in the sky. Examples abound, but conservatives don't regard the cinema as friendly or, and this is more important just now, as incipiently convivial, politically.
As conservatives stand at their barricades shrieking about the evils of Hollywood, liberals and leftists and libertarians are going to the movies and conveying to those who make movies their preferences, which help reinforce the preferences of the moviemakers themselves. If the cinema is hostile territory to the right wing, it is partly, at least, because the right wing doesn't attend the cinema and doesn't, thereby, influence what next year's movies will be.
Contributing Editor David Brudnoy hosts a radio talk show in New England and reviews movies daily on radio and weekly in the Tab chain of newspapers.