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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson





Building façade in Cannes, France

Invasion of the Hollywood bashers

Well, they’re at it again.

Certain conservative voices are once more bashing Hollywood. Don’t they know that that’s my job? I hate it when other people bash Hollywood because it often means that I wind up defending Hollywood. And I hate that.

Writing in USA Today recently, radio talk show host Michael Medved noted correctly that the U.S. movie industry is currently experiencing a box office slump. Then, in a stunning bit of wishful thinking, he goes on to attribute this to a lack of values and of ideological balance in Hollywood movies. Yeah, right. I won’t waste time and pixels arguing the fact that, although individuals of every political persuasion can be found in the movie industry, the predominant viewpoint in Hollywood is left of center. (And, if recent national election results are to be believed, some portion of the population approaching 50 percent are okay with that.) But Medved’s assertion falls apart upon the application of a bit of logic. If people are staying away from cinemas in droves because of the liberal values espoused by movies, then how does he explain all the years that Hollywood was pulling in cash hand over fist? If Hollywood has a great year next summer, will he be writing that America has turned leftward? Somehow I doubt it.

Another problem with Medved’s thesis is that filmgoers are not a reflection of American society as a whole. Ticket buyers are a self-selected sub-group who tend to be much younger than the country as a whole. While teens and young adults are not monolithic, we would expect that demographic to skew more leftward anyway. And although Medved provides an impressive list of instances in which prominent industry people have supported Democratic candidates and causes, he never proves his point that these political leanings invariably find their way into mainstream movies. (Readers may want to revisit my May 5 column for a list of ideas that Hollywood regularly promotes even though no one in Hollywood actually believes them.) He seems to think that people are staying away from the movies because they are fed up with Michael Moore. I have no doubt that Medved desperately wants to believe this, but there are other reasons that can just as easily explain the box office downturn. Maybe the fact that practically ever major movie released this summer is a sequel or a remake or both. Maybe people feel like they’ve seen everything already. Or maybe the coveted youth demographic is too busy playing video games instead of going to movies. In that sense, maybe Democrats do have something to do with it. Hillary Rodham Clinton single-handedly probably sent millions of youths out to get a hold of Grand Theft Auto, looking for the pornographic bits.

Writing in U.S. News & World Report recently, John Leo expressed shock at comments attributed to screenwriter David Koepp in “Rue Morgue, an obscure Canadian horror magazine, apparently thinking nobody would notice.” Koepp wrote the screenplay for Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds remake, and according to Rue Morgue (but not repeated in any other Koepp interview), he said that for him the extraterrestrial invaders represent the U.S. military and the earth people being slaughtered represent Iraqi civilians. As one of Leo’s readers, I am getting this third-hand, so I will wait for more information before accepting that this was indeed Koepp’s actual intention. He has had a fairly successful career penning paranoid thrillers of all sizes and budgets (Apartment Zero, Jurassic Park, Mission: Impossible, Panic Room, Spider-Man, etc.). He has also directed a handful of films and previously explored the theme of the sudden breakdown of society in his 1996 film The Trigger Effect. That movie, starring Kyle MacLachlan, was more or less a low-budget, no-special-effects dry run for War of the Worlds, dealing with a massive electrical failure rather than an alien invasion. Obviously, these are themes that Koepp has thought about since well before the Iraq war or even the Bush administration.

If he actually made those comments (and to only that one magazine), it is amusing that think that he might have been pandering to the Canadian audience. But, at the end of the day, why does Leo care what Koepp was thinking when he wrote the screenplay? Can’t the movie stand on its own? I defy him to find anyone who has seen the film (apart from perhaps a few people in Canada) who came out of the cinema thinking, “Wow, those aliens were doing the exact same thing the U.S. military is doing to the Iraqis!” The movie was about American civilians dealing with an invasion. What lessons the viewer draws will depend entirely on the beliefs that viewer had going into the movie theater.

Leo goes on to find similar problems with Revenge of the Sith and Kingdom of Heaven. Not that George Lucas and Ridley Scott gave inflammatory interviews to Rue Morgue, but he found touches in each that made anti-Bush political points. But you know what? Either you will see parallels between Chancellor Palpatine and George W. Bush or you won’t. If you don’t, any lines lifted from a Bush speech will fall flat or won’t register. If you do then, yes, these lines will resonant, but only because you were already converted. As for Kingdom of Heaven, if anybody has their mind changed by anything in that movie, one way or the other, then they need to get professional help quick.

One gets the feeling that Leo would like to see the return of gung-ho, patriotic movies of the kind Hollywood turned out during the 1940s. But that was then, and this is now. Hollywood was playing to its audience then, but today’s filmgoers would almost certainly not be impressed by many of those movies today, except maybe for nostalgia purposes. An example of this would be film critic Richard Schickel. National Public Radio’s On the Media program recently replayed its 2003 interview with him, in which he talked about his memoir Good Morning, Mr. Zip Zip Zip: Movies, Memory, and World War II. (I wrote about another NPR interview with him two years ago.) Applying his own adult filter and the benefit of hindsight, he dismisses the Hollywood World War II movies of his childhood as “lies” and propaganda. And once again a film critics tells us more about himself than he does about any movie.

Personally, I don’t think it’s exactly that we are less patriotic or more cynical today (well, maybe we are), but tastes change. The world changes. Decades of serious media exposure, I like to think, have made us more savvy about propaganda and manipulation. People who did not want Bush reelected may not agree with that, but I really think it’s true.

Having said that, it is interesting to note that the best movie of the 1940s was probably Casablanca (even Schickel liked that one), and it holds up remarkably well, even today. It still speaks to us about the necessity to fight cynicism, to fight for something more important than merely yourself and to confront evil rather than to appease it or do nothing.

There is nothing inherently wrong with making films that take a stand for or against certain American government policies. The marketplace will judge such a film’s quality and reward it or punish it accordingly. And, frankly, I think that any movie that truly caused to damage to country would be severely punished.

But it’s the quality of its movies that Hollywood needs to look at, if it wants to do something about its box office slump.

-S.L., 4 August 2005


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