It’s kind of sad that conservatives feel they have to co-opt popular culture just to seem hip. Aren’t they supposed to be above all that, above chasing the arbitrary, ephemeral nature of trendiness in order to affirm timeless values? Guess not, judging by the National Review‘s list of the best conservative movies of the last 25 years. There’s actually a lot of good movies on this list, but are they conservative? It takes a lot of wishful thinking, or deliberate obtuseness, to call some of these movies conservative. Mostly, it takes the assumption that conservatives have a monopoly on such virtues as heroism, patriotism, self-sacrifice, and opposition to terrorism and totalitarianism. It also takes willful ignorance of the ambiguity inherent in most movies.
For example, Juno makes the list because its heroine chooses adoption over abortion, but I was taken to task not long ago by a conservative critic (responding to this article) who insisted that Juno was a liberal movie because it depicts teen pregnancy as no big deal and men in general as feckless and weak. Team America: World Police skewers both liberals and conservatives. Gran Torino is about a bigot who learns to appreciate immigrants and their culture. The listmakers like Brazil for saying that a Big Brother government is bad, but they also like Dark Knight for saying it’s good. They like 300‘s militarism but breathe not a word about its extreme homoeroticism. They like Metropolitan‘s celebration of class privilege and noblesse oblige but don’t notice the movie’s simultaneous lampooning of the debutante set for being hopelessly out-of-touch dinosaurs. Even the ultraconservative Red Dawn (see trailer above) — which the opportunity to praise was, I suspect, the excuse for drawing up this list in the first place — has some mixed messages, particularly in the character of the general (played by Ron “Superfly” O’Neal) who comes to doubt the rightness of his invasion and sympathize with the occupied. Seems that imperialist invasions of other countries for no good reason are bad no matter who’s doing the occupying, but that’s a message that conservatives have somehow missed despite 25 years of watching that movie over and over. “Wolverines!”
What’s also interesting is what’s not on the list. Where are the Tyler Perry movies? (Do the NR staffers not go to see movies with all-black casts?) Where are the romantic comedies? (Liberal critics often complain that today’s chick flicks are all about showing independent career women that they’ll never be happy until they find a husband and embrace consumer capitalism.) Where are the documentaries? (No one at NR wants to give a shout-out to Expelled?) Aside from The Lives of Others, where are the foreign/art-house movies? Is that whole sphere hopelessly leftist in comparison to mainstream Hollywood movies, or is the assumption just that modern moviegoers (liberal and conservative alike) are just too film-illiterate to know or care about art-house and foreign films. For that matter, modern moviegoers must not care about movies made more than 25 years ago, or else the NR would have included classic films, like it did when it tried this exercise back in 1994. But film literacy is apparently no more important to conservatives than it is to the public at large.
There’s a worthy companion piece to this list at the Wall Street Journal, where the authors cite a study saying that the movies with the best average domestic box office last year were the conservative ones, while audiences spent comparatively little money on liberal movies. As with the NR list, it takes a lot of creative reinterpretation, as well as statistical fudging, to make this claim. (Having Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull on the conservative list certainly skews the gross average upward, but who chose to see that movie just because Indy happened to be kicking commie butt instead of Nazi butt? Shouldn’t Sex and the City and Mamma Mia skew the liberal list the same way? And why is The Visitor considered anti-American — just because it criticizes our post-9/11 immigration policy? (A lot of Republican presidential candidates did that last year; are they anti-American too?) The Visitor (like Gran Torino) is about how America is so great that people from all over the world still want to move here, and when they do, they enrich our lives in ways we can hardly imagine.
Here’s a question: If all the great mainstream movies and all the lucrative movies are conservative, then what are the folks like, oh, every single writer at this website, complaining about? Where is that liberal-dominated Hollywood that you guys are always whining about? If the market is truly making liberal movies obsolete, then what’s the problem? The problem, of course, is that none of this is actually true. Yes, family movies always do well, and so do ones that adhere to traditional Hollywood conventions (in which the rule of law is ultimately upheld and traditional marriage ultimately reaffirmed), but Hollywood is not just making movies for McCain voters, it’s making them for the whole world. So most movies will take pains not to have an ideological axe to grind, in order to avoid alienating anyone. The result is movies that are politically neutral, or at least poltically vague and slippery.
So why try to co-opt them? “Because conservatives love movies…” suggests NR‘s John J. Miller. Um, no. Conservatives don’t love movies. They love the notion that movies can be used for propaganda purposes, and they distrust movies that don’t talk their talking points, or that merely try to create art (or even escapist entertainment) for its own sake. Trouble is, meaning in movies is not so easily harnessed and shoehorned; sometimes it escapes even the intent of the filmmakers. Movies are not telegrams with neat messages all wrapped up; they’re more like Rorschach tests. The listmakers are entitled to see what they want in them, but that doesn’t mean it’s really there.