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Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

On the march

The penguins are finally coming to Ireland.

While March of the Penguins is already available on DVD in the States, it is only having its debut in Irish cinemas tomorrow. This is about normal for most movies.

Readers of The Irish Times were prepared for the event by an interview with the documentary’s director, Luc Jacquet, in last Friday’s entertainment section. Not too surprisingly, the article was dominated by the issue of the apparent appropriation of the movie by America’s religious right.

“So, how does it feel to be lauded by the same American fundamentalists who urge school boards to teach creationism?” Times critic Donald Clarke paraphrases himself as asking the filmmaker. For the record, Jacquet asserts, “I condemn completely that you can take this film hostage and use it to proselytise. Everyone is free to think what they wish afterwards, but I do not like when they find arguments to promote things that are not there. If you ask me what I think of intelligent design, it is taking us 300 years backwards.”

Now, I know I have been out of the loop, but has anyone actually offered this movie as an argument for intelligent design? As Jacquet notes, the film makes very clear that penguins’ convoluted, difficult and dangerous mating cycle is clearly a result of the birds’ adaptation to changing climate and topographical circumstances over time. In a word, evolution. In my own paragraph on the film, I made what I thought was clearly a joking reference to the idea of intelligent design when applied to this movie. Was the joke actually on me? I don’t know. Neither interviewer nor interviewee actually say that anyone has tried to use the film as evidence for creationism or other related beliefs. So, why bring it up?

I guess, to enjoy the irony of it. People who believe in “family values” flock to the movie and get a lot of pleasure out of it—even when these same people might reject the science that explains how the penguins got to where they are today. But there is something unsettling (to me anyway) about the way Clarke (who, as it happens, is by default my favorite Irish film critic) keeps pounding away on the American fundamentalist angle of the movie’s commercial success. It is as if he feels that there must be something wrong with the movie itself if evangelical Christians can love it. Yet, as he himself points out, people all across the political and religious spectrums love it. Not just the born again crowd. Personally, that makes me think that there is something very right with the movie if people with all sorts of different and conflicting points of view can love it.

There are two things to say about this. One is that it is understandable that politically engaged people on one side of the fence or the other might feel bothered if a movie they like a lot (or maybe they don’t like but is very popular) somehow gets identified in the mass media as “belonging” to their political opponents. Especially in a case, such as this, where the movie in question, adopted by “family values” partisans, could just as easily be adopted by people advocating everything from animal rights to the Kyoto treaty. (Interestingly, I first heard about the Penguins movie in an anti-corporate-greed context. People were delighting in the fact that a small-budget documentary—made by the French no less—had bested the major Hollywood studios’ bland summer offerings on a per-theater basis.) The other thing to say is that this particular interview is just another case of European discomfort with American evangelical Protestants. To be fair, this is not strictly a European thing. There are plenty of people in America who are not completely comfortable with those who profess their born-again-ness. And to be even fairer, many blue state residents and Europeans (who, for purposes of this discussion, can pretty much be considered the same people) can readily explain their discomfort by the fact that some of the evangelicals lobby very actively and vote very regularly to move the country in a direction that limits abortion rights and opposes expansion of gay rights, among other issues.

But the fact that people are starting to care about (and be bothered by) what movies people on the other side of the political divide like seems odd to me. After all, this documentary wasn’t directed by Mel Gibson. It’s about penguins, for goodness sake. Maybe political activists got so used to arguing about movies after last year’s Fahrenheit 9/11 and The Passion of the Christ, that it is now a reflex action. I fear that we are seeing an escalation of the phenomenon illustrated by an article by A.O. Scott in The New York Times that I discussed here two months ago. Obsessive readers will recall that Scott (no relation) more or less argued that Hollywood was in danger of becoming nothing more than a thinly veiled house organ for the Republican Party. Indeed, Scott (no relation) included March of the Penguins in his list of films offered in evidence for his assertion. And that raises the question: how did Scott (no relation) decide that March of the Penguins had a conservative message? It is one thing to condemn animators, like the guys who made The Incredibles and Team America: World Police as being shills for the Bush administration. But to make that charge against a French documentary filmmaker? Am I starting to detect a little paranoia here?

Actually, if we reread what Scott (no relation) actually wrote all those Sundays ago, we find that, despite including March of the Penguins in a list of movies that supposedly demonstrates that Hollywood is becoming increasingly conservative, he himself does not assert directly that the movie espouses conservative values but rather qualifies the assertion with “according to some fans.” In other words, it wasn’t the movie itself that bothered him in a political way. It was the politics of other people watching it and enjoying it and talking about it afterwards.

It has long been a pastime of politically engaged people to cheer movies that supported their point of view, whether it was patriotic fare like Sands of Iwo Jima or anti-war flicks like M*A*S*H. Conversely, it has also been standard practice to jeer movies that are aimed at the opposite side. And sometimes those jeers have been strange indeed, like when gung-ho military types adopted the supposedly anti-war Apocalypse Now or when certain Christian groups made a stink over Martin Scorsese’s very spiritual and reverent The Last Temptation of Christ. What is new is the jeering of movies not for their content but for the kind of people who are praising them. Things are definitely getting carried away.

I think we all need to take a deep breath and relax and just follow my advice. When you go to see a movie, forget what you have read about it. Forget what you have heard about it. Forget about what you know about the people who made it. Do not worry about whether the movie is helping “our” side or “their” side. Just watch the movie and decide whether you like it and why. And then read my web page to see if you were right.

-S.L., 8 December 2005

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