TCS Daily


Movie Magic: Metapolitics vs. Message Politics

By James Pinkerton - December 28, 2005 12:00 AM

"If you want to send a message, call Western Union." That's an old joke in Hollywood, dating back to the days when Western Union was a big deal. The idea is that the movies should be about making money, not making political or social points.

The old chestnut is being proven again in this Christmas season. Currently, the two movies duking it out for tops at the box office are avowedly apolitical: "The Chronicles of Narnia" and "King Kong."

By contrast, the overtly political films have done poorly. The Chomskyite "Syriana" isn't doing much, and neither did the p.c.-preachy "North Country."

The latest political movie is "Munich." If even the legendary director Steven Spielberg can't sell a "message" movie in 2005, then probably nobody can. Spielberg described his film as "a prayer for peace" in the Middle East. That it might be, but his fictionalization of the story of the Israeli government's effort to avenge the 1972 Munich Olympic massacre is certainly not going to be remembered as a prayer for money.

Why this lack of popular enthusiasm? First off, the Israeli assassins in the movie come off as little better than the Palestinians. As a headline in Israel Insider snapped, "With Tributes Like This, Who Needs Terror Attacks?"

And second, perhaps Spielberg bit off more than he could chew, in terms of comparing the 70s Mideast-related slaughter and counter-slaughter of the 70s, to the today's slaughter and counter-slaughter. Writing in The Washington Post, Stephen Hunter connects Munich to Baghdad: "The film arrives at, politically, today's classic liberal cri de coeur against the war in Iraq: It's taking too long. There's no plan. It's too violent. It's degrading us. We can't be like them. Too many people are dying. It'll never end. How did we get into this mess? Make it go away."

Indeed, Spielberg, who endeared himself to Jewish audiences with "Schindler's List"(1993), finds himself under attack from Jews over "Munich." In the pages of The Jerusalem Post, Calev Ben-David addressed Spielberg directly: "What I really suspect, Steven, is that you are using 'Munich' as a means of commenting, in your own way, on the situation of the United States in a post-9/11 reality. But by setting those concerns against the backdrop of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, you will cleverly sidestep having to contend with the kind of overwhelming backlash you would face if your movie made any direct politically charged controversial statements about America's own current war on terror."

Which is to say, "Munich," like "Syriana," may seem a bit too close to today's headlines to qualify as movie fare. Yes, the topic of the Middle East is important, but no, people don't want to pay money at the movies to see it. They can watch it on TV, if they want to (and many don't), and be depressed for free.

But wait a second, one might protest. Hasn't Hollywood always been making "message" movies? Almost all of them liberal message movies? The answer is yes, according to experts, including Michael Medved, author of Hollywood vs. America. But Medved's point is that such message-movies rarely make money. What happens is this: the moguls make piles of cash on dinosaurs or slapstick, and then, after they are safely rich, they seek to redeem themselves by making "serious" movies about an "important" political topic. Such politically laden movies usually lose money, of course, because no actual audience wants to see them. But that's not the point: The point is not to earn gilt, it's to expiate guilt.

A favorite guilt-expiating topic is the Hollywood Blacklist, which probably contains the highest ratio of cinematic hand-wringing to actual human-suffering of any topic imaginable. As Ronald and Allis Radosh detail in their piercing book, Red Star Over Hollywood: The Film Colony's Long Romance with the Left, it's almost a rite of passage for top movie people to eventually pay homage to the Blacklist, including such big stars as Woody Allen ("The Front," 1976) and Robert DeNiro ("Guilty By Suspicion," 1991).

Even a comic such as Jim Carrey, who is not even an American, felt compelled to pay his respects. Rich from flicks such as "Ace Ventura: Pet Detective" (1994), he then made "The Majestic" (2001). Even though Carrey & Co., aided and abetted by the critics, tried to conceal the film's true subject matter -- the Blacklist blackens box office prospects -- the folks in plex-land figured it out, and the movie died.

But of course, such movie-bomb manufacturing has its consolations: Films about the Blacklist, along with those about similarly liberal eat-your-spinach subjects, are inevitably well received by critics and film-society types. Oftentimes, he liberal-leaning Mainstream Media will join in. An almost self-parodistic example was the decision of ABC's "World News Tonight" to designate entrepreneur-turned-entertainment mogul Jeff Skoll as its "Person of the Week." What had Skoll done to deserve such plaudits? The eBay billionaire had financed no less than three "message movies" in the past few months: "Syriana," "North Country," and "Good Night and Good Luck," the story of Edward R. Murrow vs. Joe McCarthy. With the possible exception of the low-budget "Good Night," none of these movies are going to make anything close to a profit, but Skoll says that he wants to film "socially relevant" stories without regard to box office return. And since he's got $3.5 billion, he seems destined to win a lot of liberal awards before he runs out of cash. Skoll and his bank account don't just recall the old Hollywood quip about Western Union -- the ebillionaire could undoubtedly buy Western Union itself.

However, at the risk of spoiling Skoll's liberal-celebrating party, one might ask a difficult question: Do such agitprop movies really succeed even on their own terms? If they fail at making money, are they at least effective at sending a message?

We can start to answer that question by recalling the fate of past message-movies. Who watches "I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang" (1932) anymore? Or such a civil-rights-conscious pic such as "The Defiant Ones" (1958)? Or even AIDS-y "Philadelphia" (1993)? The problem with those films is that for all their merits as movies, they are mostly locked into their time and place. Once the hot issues that animated the movie -- chain gangs, Jim Crow-type segregation, or AIDS discrimination -- pass from the scene, the movies will, too.

The movies that are remembered most, and most fondly, are those that exist outside of any particular time and place. Movies with vivid characters -- not necessarily psychologically deep, but vivid -- are what resonate. Think about Dorothy and her Technicolor pals from "The Wizard of Oz," or King Kong, or Dracula, or Snow White, or Godzilla, or Darth Vader, or Indiana Jones, or Gollum. Such characters, comic-book-like as they might be, take full advantage of what film can do. And who knows -- maybe Aslan from "Narnia" will eventually join that pantheon.

The point here isn't to minimize the power of actors and their subtleties, although, of course, many of the best characters, such as those from Shakespeare, come from the stage. And yes, there are some subtly shaded characters in the pantheon of popular immortals, from Sam Spade to Margo Channing to Charles Foster Kane, but not all that many. Quick: in which movie did the aforementioned Margo Channing appear?

And so the largest movies tend to be those with the highest concepts: They are either outright sci-fi/fantasy films, such as "Star Wars" or "Lord of the Rings," or else they are driven by the evocative power of their genre: slashers. gangsters, cowboys, prisoners. That is, the plot and the scenery carry the characters along. That's certainly true for "Birth of a Nation" (1915) -- can anyone name a single character from that film? -- and "Braveheart" (1985). It's even true, dare I say it, for "Gone With The Wind" (1939); in the end, the Old South, before and after it was burned, emerges as the star of that epic. Yet there's always room to update a powerful genre; the Western, for example, has been successfully reworked as recently as "Brokeback Mountain," (2005). In the end, what carries any these movies is our deep collective knowledge of the basic outline of the genre.

Speaking of deep collective knowledge, let's not forget another genre in which the power of the story underscores the appeal of the movie: religion. People may not remember James Caviezel as the lead player in "The Passion of the Christ" (2005), but they sure remember Jesus.

So it's these movies -- about timeless, even eternal, themes -- that send the strongest messages. It's the movies about vampires, and Al Capone, and wizards, and misunderstood superheroes that affect us most deeply. We don't have to like all these characters; yet it's Alexander the Great, and Richard the Lion-Hearted, and Dr. Faustus, and even Hitler, who send Western Union-level messages right into our psyches.

A synonym for deep collective knowledge that looks right into us is "archetype." Indeed, the leading student of archetypes, Carl Jung, maintained that it's in our popular culture that we see the archetypes that define us most clearly, our never-slaked yearning for myth and fable.

Compare to our ideas about heroes, and villains, and romance, and good and evil, the political and even cultural issues of the day seem small and transient. What was important at the time because it was relevant is unimportant now, because the specifics of that date and place are irrelevant. That's why "Cavalcade," which won the Oscar for best picture in 1933, is all but forgotten now, while "King Kong," released that same year, is destined to live forever.

Some even go so far as to argue that even the most Jungian of movies -- in terms of archetype-rich robustness -- are, in fact, profoundly political, in the sense that they offer specific commentary on the age, even if they are disguised as fantastic escapism. Take "Kong." It may get going on Skull Island, but it ends in New York City. Moreover, it's hard not to notice that the word "Kong" is just about the same as "Congo." And "Congo," in addition to being a large country in Africa, was also the title of a widely known poem published in 1914 -- back in the day when poetry was an important popular medium -- by Vachel Lindsay, which begins with the words, "A Study of the Negro Race: Their Basic Savagery" and gets worse from there, ending with, "Mumbo-jumbo will hoo-doo you/Mumbo ... Jumbo ... will ... hoo-doo ... you."

While some might protest that King Kong is merely the story of a big black ape who falls in love with a pretty white girl, is captured by white people, is carried in chains back to a white country, and then is killed by the white people, it's hard to argue with Kwame McKenzie, who asserted last month that "the story feeds into all the colonial hysteria about black hyper-sexuality" and "touches the raw nerve of the Darwin-based association between black men and apes." McKenzie can be dismissed, but he can hardly be disproven. A few other intrepid writers have advanced the same argument, and while many will protest the thought of a racial edge to "Kong," perhaps they protest too much.

Others, of course, see politics, and cultural politics, in everything, even Donald Duck. And while it's possible to get carried away in such analysis, one obvious fact remains: These characters, and these movies, wouldn't stick with us, decade after decade, being remade and remade, if they didn't speak to us. And while we can argue about what these tales mean, we can't argue that they don't mean a lot.

So don't be surprised if the big movies of the future concern the perennial, archetypal characters that are etched into our heads. Long after today's political message movies are forgotten, audiences are likely to flock to another iteration of Le Mort d'Arthur.

There's a message in these consistent choices we make. We choose movies about heroes, honor, sacrifice, and spiritual quests. Such mighty themes leave partisanship and political ideology in the dust. These movies represent a metapolitics that defines much more than our contemporary existence -- it defines our civilization.

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3 Comments

I think the conclusion of the article is beautiful! ---Buttonwood
I think the conclusion of the article is beautiful! Yes, they are what we human forever long for even though they can never be fully attained in life!

Buttonwood

What about "Rememer the Titans"?
I want to suggest that the big exception to movies about political topics is movies made today about yesterday's political topics.

"Remember the Titans" is a good example of what I'm trying to get at. It was sucessful, though not wildly so. I predict it will will last as an appreciated family film for a long while, even if not forever. Racism isn't controversial anymore; it's still lurking around in little pockets (jerks), but practically no one anymore seriously tries to justify it.

Then there's "Schindler's List" and maybe "Amistad"--I don't remember, was "Amistad" successful. I know I liked "Amistad" when I saw it in 1998. I think movies about the heroes who overcame slavery and fought racism and fought against tyranny ("Braveheart" and "The Patriot" are going to be here for a while, and remember that freedom was once controversial as well) are remembered and loved and meaningful to us because we all know now that those things are bad. But we don't like movies that try to preach to us about topics that are still controversial today because we don't all know yet that they're bad (how about abortion? it's strange that Jeremiah, Hippocrates, Aristotle, and the Christian Church fathers know abortion is bad and so many people stil haven't figured that out yet).

I guess I'm not trying to make a point about movies--sorry for the disenguousness. I'm trying to say that some people are all gung-ho for supporting the right side in yesterday's great moral battles against tyranny, *****m, slavery--but back off when it comes to today's great moral battles because they would prefer being nice to being controversial. Sometimes I think we forget that being good is more than being nice, and being good requires being controversial (Gary Cooper, "High Noon").

Sorry I went off topic. Anyway, I loved the article. Thanks, Mr. Pinkerton.

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