Although I rarely say this in public, I must admit Republicans do some things very well. I can't think of any right off the top of my head, but I'm sure there's something. But one thing they do particularly badly, is social and cultural criticism.
One thing partisan Republicans do spectacularly badly, is understand cinema. Their film criticism is generally so incredibly shallow and superficial that it borders on error for that reason alone, not counting the times when their interpretation is grossly mistaken from the start, favoring a default position of finding insult and injury to themselves and their imagined folk (or sometimes praise for those they delude themselves into believing they champion, rather than providing insight and understanding of the work at hand.
The Establishment liberals, like the editors of Newsweek aren't much better (see: The Boomer Files and 1968: The Year That Changed Everything), but at least their criticism is insipid and superficial, obvious and cautious without being idiotically juvenile. They look at the surface and respond to it. (I suppose we all have to sit through another wave of Baby Boomer "analysis" thanks to that perfect representative of state-the-obvious Establishmentarianism, Tom Brokaw.)
And while establishment liberals tend to re-state the obvious and pride themselves for that, quite a bit of paleo-conservative cultural criticism is interesting, indeed, profound, if also occasionally misguided. George McCartney, a paleo-conservative, is a fine and honest film critic. I Love My Mother; his review of Sicko, is worth reading even if you don't agree with it.
But partisan Republicans pretty much don't get it. They are unsatisfied with the obvious but unable to discern deeper truths. They scratch the surface, then imagine they find the same thing underneath every time, mostly imagining it anyway. So then all you end up with is scratched surface.
This seems to be not just a failing of one or two Republicans but a widespread tendency. The conservative National Review ballyhooed a cover story on "The 100 Best Conservative Movies" in 1994 followed shortly afterwards by the conservative Heritage Foundation's Policy Review listing their 80 favorite conservative movies. Then National Review came up with a second list of another 100 conservative movies generated by readers' suggestions.
One amazing fact is that out of this list of well over 200 films (with some overlap), not one person thought to include one of the best and most interesting of all conservative movies, despite the fact that all three articles include a category of "anti-Communist" movies: the Italian-made adaptation of Ayn Rand's We The Living (Noi Vivi), which I saw a couple of times on late-night Canadian television, and which, scratchy subtitles and fuzzy print and all, is surprisingly faithful to the original. The conservatives, if they weren't ignorant of the film's very existence, might have been slightly embarrassed by the fact that most film scholars believe the film to have been at least partially financed by Mussolini's Fascist regime, but if that inconvenient fact doesn't bother a liberal like me, why should it bother them?
William Bennett (former chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities!) urged former Republican presidential nominee Senator Robert Dole to see Independence Day, claiming it was a movie about "marriage" and "American ingenuity" and "American leadership."
Huh? There is a throwaway marriage scene in which two longtime cohabitants finally receive the benefit of clergy, and where a spectacularly mismatched divorced couple reconcile, thereby compounding the mistake they made the first time they got married, but No--this movie is not about marriage, it's about kicking alien ass.
Of course, Bennett only wanted to make sure that Senator Dole's updated critique of Hollywood films wouldn't be subject to the same very minor criticism his original denunciation suffered, namely, that he hadn't seen the films he presumed to comment on. And that little oversight led to the Senator making the rather embarrassing mistake of praising Forrest Gump for being about family values and attacking Quentin Tarentino's True Romance for being about loveless sex. But: Forrest Gump is the movie about loveless sex, and True Romance is the one about family values.
When a narrative consists mainly of a string of random events, unlikely coincidences or acts of Providence, the theme is defined, or at least most clearly evident, in the exercise of Free Will which almost invariably begins this style of narrative. This is because--except for a few existentialist works--a narrative consisting of a random series of events implies a random universe, life without meaning (that could be true by the way, but it doesn't sell books or movie tickets). Any sophomore literature student reading works from Homer's Odyssey to Robertson Davies' Deptford Trilogy knows this. So what, I ask, is the act of Free Will that propels the young Forrest Gump on his remarkable career? When Mrs. Gump prostitutes herself to Principal Hamilton to ensure Forrest's admission to the regular school. Loveless sex. By the same token, True Romance has to be about family values, because if Clarence and Alabama don't love each other, don't marry, don't create a family, then the film is completely incoherent, random and meaningless, in other words, it would not speak to a mass audience, which it certainly did.
But the best evidence of Republican misunderstanding is in the introduction to the original list of 100 in the National Review, written by Spencer Warren, in which he identifies the film Easy Rider as one of the seminal influences on "Hollywood's nihilistic themes and chaotic styles." But Warren is entirely mistaken. As is Michael Medved, famously right-wing famous movie critic.
In Right Turns: From Liberal Activist to Conservative Champion in 35 Unconventional Lessons , his recent autobiography, Medved tells us that:
On a Saturday night in the Fall of 1969, during my first semester in law school, I went out with a half-dozen fellow students to see the new movie sensation Easy Rider. I hated almost everything about the movie, and we argued about it over burgers and fries. I specifically remember that my classmate Hillary Rodham felt especially enthusiastic about what she understood to be the message of the film: when the violent rednecks in their pick-up truck with its prominent gun rack, murder the two hippie bikers (Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper), she thought the movie made a powerful statement about intolerance and conformity and the repressed rage among the exploited yahoos of the American underclass. I insisted that the cruelty and viciousness depicted in the film bore no connection to the heartland or southern communities I knew, and suggested that the local townsfolk would be more likely to feed and welcome long-haired visitors than to shoot them. The argument continued into the night with most of my friends defending the movie and attacking our "sick society" but I stubbornly held my ground. [emphasis added]
Here we see at once both the banal obviousness of the of establishment liberal interpretation and the patronizing offense-taking of neoconservative complainers at an imagined insult to "American" culture supposedly lurking just beneath the surface of a cultural artifact.
The most famous line of dialogue in the film is probably "We blew it," spoken by Wyatt (Peter Fonda) to Billy (Dennis Hopper) by the campfire just before the final scene. The late Terry Southern, who wrote the original treatment and shares screenwriting credit with both Fonda and Hopper, literally went to his grave refusing to explicate this cryptic line. In 1995, with an enigmatic smile, Peter Fonda also refused to even speculate on the meaning of the line despite persistent questioning by Charles Grodin on his old CNBC show.
But I think I may have misspoken: Fonda's smile wasn't enigmatic, it was a condescending and patronizing smirk. And Terry Southern surely died with that same grin on his face because the answer to that question is right there for all to see. Southern--witness Doctor Strangelove--was a great satirist and all great satirists are moralists at heart, as is evident from the Ancient Roman satirists Horace and Juvenal, through the Enlightenment's Jonathan Swift and Alexander Pope to HBO's Bill Maher and Comedy Central's Jon Stewart. Fonda and Southern are laughing because they played a great joke on us, and for almost 30 years, nobody's gotten it.
The joke is this: Easy Rider is a CONSERVATIVE movie. It is not "nihilistic" and "chaotic." Not only does this movie celebrate family values, it celebrates traditional family values. But even more than that, Easy Rider argues for the enduring strength and power of faith in God as it explicitly rejects hedonism, atheism, and nihilism. This theme is evident throughout the film from the moment the travelers leave Los Angeles to the final climatic scene.
The first episode in Wyatt and Billy's journey to Mardi Gras occurs at a desert ranch where the travelers are briefly stranded by a flat tire. The rancher provides the necessary tools, then invites the men to supper with his large family. After prayer around a large outdoor table--before which the ignorant and impious Billy had to be reminded to remove his hat--Wyatt insistently and sincerely compliments the rancher on his "spread" and the life he has built there, repeated for emphasis.
Then picking up a hitchhiker, the wanderers stop for gas at Sacred Mountain, with the word "Sacred" from the gas station's sign splashed in big red letters across the screen as they pull in. Camping on the mountain, the cryptic hitchhiker admonishes Billy for disrespecting the site; once again Billy's irreverence and impiety are exposed to criticism. Reaching the hitchhiker's destination, the travelers find a commune hard at work planting crops. The laughter of children animates the episode until Wyatt and Billy join a second Circle of Prayer, movingly and famously depicted by a 360-degree pan of the inhabitants as they pray for the wherewithal to be as generous to others as others had been to them. The commune is a family as traditional as the rancher's family: underneath the beads and tie-dyed fabric is the agrarian extended family functioning in a classic pastoral.
But, although invited to stay, the travelers move on. They meet George the drunken liberal lawyer (Jack Nicholson) before continuing on towards New Orleans, stopping to camp, where George is killed by locals. Using a free pass inherited from George, they decide to visit a brothel--to the tune of "Kyrie Eleison," ("Lord have mercy"), drawn from the Electric Prunes psychedelic but authentic and respectful version of the Latin Catholic Mass in F Minor--where they encounter two prostitutes under cathedral ceilings and within walls covered by religious icons. Visiting a church graveyard, they drop acid and commence an unpleasant trip of weeping, shuddering and anxiety--amid frame after frame of sacred imagery and a comforting voice-over of a young girl saying a Rosary as a funeral unfolds before them.
On Mardi Gras night they camp, and Wyatt speaks those famous words, "We blew it" in response to Billy's shallow, juvenile excitement at the fact that "We're rich, man!" "We're free," Billy goes on, claiming to be "set for life" and ready to retire to Florida, but Wyatt quietly repeats his judgment: "We blew it." The next day, Ash Wednesday--the Christian Holy Day of atonement and repentance, the day when Catholics memento mori, that is, "contemplate death"--the story ends suddenly and shockingly on a country road in Southwest Louisiana.
If this narrative had been Medieval, could there be any doubt at all of the theme or the moral teaching intended? Sinners wander the countryside on a secular quest, encountering God's message but failing to acknowledge Him. They seek worldly pleasure at the expense of spiritual fulfillment, finding treasure and discussing it under a tree, only to finally to die a horrid death by the wayside.
As a matter of fact, such a tale was written in the Middle Ages, by Geoffrey Chaucer within the Canterbury Tales (the first "road movie"?), in "The Pardoner's Tale." Chaucer, unquestionably a moralist, was also a great satirist, as we see in the vicious lampoon of the venal and grossly hypocritical Pardoner, who preaches all his sermons on the theme of "The love of money is the root of all evil" (1 Timothy 6:10) while selling indulgences and false relics to his ignorant congregations.
Admittedly, many of the parallels may be mere coincidence. The Pardoner claims (lines 344-45):
similarly to the way Southern flavors the brothel scene with Latin. Although in both cases the tale itself concerns "a compaignye / of yonge folk" (443-44), more specifically, "riotoures thre" (661), it may be mere coincidence that both sets of wanderers enjoy the charms of "tombesteres" (477), that is, dancing girls, and that both companies chance to encounter a funeral or that both encounter an old man who causes their death. And the presence of an oak tree at a critical juncture in both stories may likewise be coincidence.
But can it be coincidence that Billy in Easy Rider and the "worste of hem" (776) in "The Pardoner's Tale" express the exact same sentiment at the climax of the narrative under that oak? Where Billy gleefully talks about being rich, that they were set for life and "free," upon discovering the treasure the older brother declares (779-80).:
The riotoures of "The Pardoner's Tale" were as convinced as Billy that their futures were of leisure and comfort, and their fate was as suddenly and violently--and immediately--proven otherwise. Thus, by accepting Hillary's premise that Wyatt and Billy had been "senselessly" murdered simply to dispute the verisimilitude of the murder, Medved had already rejected the deeply conservative interpretation in favor of an empty understanding that must indeed leave one feeling the movie is "nihilistic" and "chaotic."
Wyatt and Billy were given choices, opportunities to find meaning in their lives beyond that gas tank filled with money, beyond the pleasure of the brothel or the bottle, beyond the aimless wandering, meaning offered through spiritual commitment. Could there be a more conservative theme? The rancher and his family, the commune: first they were given a model of a meaningful life, then they were given an invitation to build that life. Invited to stay and join a family and find God, they refused. Wyatt learned in no uncertain terms from George's beaten body and the mausoleum funeral service they chanced to witness while on the LSD trip the end that awaited them: For the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23).
He knew it.