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Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Prometheus rebound

Oh boy! Two months ago I was forced, against my will, to defend Hollywood against charges of being too liberal. Now, I finally get the chance (again) to defend Hollywood against charges that it is too conservative.

Two Sundays ago, The New York Times published a piece by one of its film critics, A.O. Scott (no relation), in which he posited that “the myth of a monolithically liberal Hollywood is dead.” Exhibit A in his argument is the recent hit rom com Just Like Heaven, in which Reese Witherspoon plays sort of a Doris Day cum Terri Schiavo, whose eternal happiness is threatened by an unscrupulous doctor, who wants to pull the plug on her. Scott (no relation) offers further evidence in the animated entertainments, The Incredibles (celebrating “Ayn Randian libertarian individualism and the suburban nuclear family”) and Team America: World Police (satirizing “left-wing celebrity activism” and defending “American global power”). Clearly on a roll, Scott (no relation) then piles on with the documentary March of the Penguins (with the titular birds as “big-screen embodiments of the kind of traditional domestic values that back-sliding humans have all but abandoned”) and the Michael Bay flop The Island (“indirectly argues the Bush administration’s position on stem cell research”). The pièce de resistance is the thriller The Exorcism of Emily Rose (dispensing “lessons on intelligent design and other faith-based matters”).

Scott (no relation) notes that many of these elements have long been standard in movies but that they could always be brushed aside with the rationalization, “It’s only a movie.” But that formulation no longer works in this day of intense culture wars, he suggests. He concludes, “The arguments we are having among ourselves are too loud and insistent to be drowned out or silenced in the false comfort of the movie theater.”

For much of his article, I thought Scott (no relation) was having fun with these notions, the same way I try to in my own weekly missives, as he rebutted the oft-heard notion that Hollywood movies espouse liberal values. But his conclusion makes me think that perhaps he is actually dead serious. He seems to be saying, all those years of depicting ghosts and the human soul and Satan as real, literal things was fine in the old days. But now, he seems to be saying (at worst), we need to cleanse our entertainment of elements that can be taken as endorsing old-fashioned religious ideas. Or (at best) discerning moviegoers need to be aware of the political orientation of movies they are viewing and not be suckered by the allure of a good story.

If I was as excitable as Scott’s Times colleagues Frank Rich and Maureen Dowd, I might react by shouting that the fact that Scott (no relation) is using the weight and influence of his position as a Times critic to “censor” these movies. I could even argue that, in the case of The Island, this heavy-handed smear campaign has already worked, since apparently no one went to see it. This would neatly parallel Rich and Dowd’s insistence earlier this year on equating criticism of Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby by certain AM radio blatherers on political grounds (which Rich and Dowd were right to counter) as some kind of act of censorship. I think life would be a lot more pleasant for everybody if we would all just agree that everyone has a right to an opinion. AM radio hosts criticize movies for promoting liberal values, because that’s what AM radio hosts do. And New York Times critics berate movies for promoting a conservative agenda, because that’s what Times columnists do.

(Note: if the professional pundits on the right and the left actually listened to ordinary people who complain about movies, they might learn that most people don’t worry about whether films tilt left or right politically. They tend, instead, to complain about, on one hand, the artistic quality or, on the other hand, about the moral values portrayed, i.e. vulgar language, promiscuity, drug use, etc.)

The correct response, when talking about movies anyway, is to calmly and politely point out where you think the commentator is wrong. In the case of this article by A.O. Scott (no relation), I think the problem is that he seems to be subscribing to the idea (more closely associated with conservatives in the 1950s) that you can change people’s beliefs and attitudes through subliminal or near-subliminal messages inserted into popular entertainment. For example, people will go to see Just Like Heaven, get caught up in the romance and love in the story and come out of the cinema thinking, “Those awful doctors were completely wrong to kill that poor Terry Schiavo!” Or that they will get shudders and chills while watching The Exorcism of Emily Rose and come out of the theater saying, “Wow, that Satan seems pretty real! I better go to church and get saved and born again right away!”

Maybe some people actually will do these things. But if the mere act of seeing a movie is the only thing that forms these opinions for them, well, then their brains were pretty low hanging fruit anyway. Contrary to Scott’s conclusion and the increasing intensity of public debate on religious, social and political issues, I believe that most people are still perfectly capable of telling themselves, “It’s only a movie.” People can enjoy a movie about ghosts, possessions, mind/body switches, angels, Satan, miracles, sentient androids or even God (played by George Burns or Morgan Freeman) and enjoy them whether or not they believe that these things do or could exist. The Island, as I understand its plot anyway, is one of a long line of movies about science gone awry and threatening mankind because of man’s misuse of technology or because mankind is tampering with forces beyond its control and best left alone. Whether you are talking about any of the countless Frankenstein movies or the various versions of The Fly or any number of movies about computers gone mad (2001: A Space Odyssey, Tron, WarGames, The Lawnmower Man) or rebellious robots (Westworld, I, Robot) or genetic experimentation gone wrong (The Island of Dr. Moreau, Jurassic Park) or machines plain taking over mankind (The Terminator, The Matrix), there is one clear and consistent message in movies intended as popular entertainment. That message is: do not trust science or scientists. Technology will turn against you and try to kill you. Make this a major addition to our list of ideas that Hollywood regularly promotes but no one in Hollywood actually believes.

Even the Star Trek movies, which are based on a fairly optimistic view of mankind’s future, regularly feature some piece of technology that misbehaves or gets misused and has to be tamed by old-fashioned human blood and sweat. Indeed, to find a completely, unabashedly pro-technology movie, we may to go all the way back to 1981 and Jean-Jacques Annaud’s Quest for Fire.

After all these decades of being bombarded by movies with the message that technology is bad and dangerous, we could surmise that, if films did have some effect on people’s core beliefs, no one would have electricity (let alone television sets or computers) in their homes. Instead, people continue to spend money hand over fist to get the latest and coolest technically advanced digital gear to continue watching at home all those exciting movies telling them how dangerous technology is.

In other words, there is no conspiracy here to implant conservative and/or religious ideas into people’s heads. Hollywood is merely doing what it has always done. Yes, the major studios have an agenda, just as we established two weeks ago that the press has an agenda. And no, the studio agenda doesn’t coincide exactly with any political movement. As with the press, the studios’ agenda is to tell a good story. The difference is that the press’s specific agenda is to tell a good that is more or less true, while the studios’ specific agenda is to tell a good story that people will pay money to watch. Interestingly, sometimes these are the same stories. Obviously, there is some serious overlap between the respective agendas of the press and the studios.

So, Mr. Scott (no relation), you really can relax and stop worrying about Just Like Heaven (and all the other ones you mentioned). It really is just a movie.

-S.L., 6 October 2005

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