Thursday, November 16, 2006

You Want Your Culture Back? Engage it!

By Jason Apuzzo
Libertas - A Forum for Conservative Thought on Film

Here is what it’s been like (until now) to be a conservative in Washington: you have access to the White House, and to the most powerful members of Congress. You have money - oceans of money - that flows through the coffers of PACs and think tanks. You have Fox News, compliant talk radio hosts, conservative authors, and internet gurus who will do your bidding. First and foremost, you have power.

Here is what it’s like to be a conservative in Hollywood: you have access to … none of the studios, nor to the most important independent producers, agencies, or film finance sources. You actually have no money; your films are frequently financed on VISA and American Express cards. You’re scrappy, and have to live by your wits, ideas and talent. Basically you have The Liberty Film Festival and LIBERTAS pulling for you, and a few odd people scattered throughout the system - most of whom are deeply fearful for their careers. Other than that, you’re on your own …

Perhaps now you’ll understand my attitude. The Republican Party lost spectacularly last week - with, I would note, the striking exception of one Arnold Schwarzenegger (and California Republicans generally) - because Republicans nationally are now bereft of ideas. They are no longer the party of Ronald Reagan. Republicans have become a pastiche of their former selves, riffing on the past, play-acting at being conservatives rather than actually being conservatives. If Republicans had a genuinely conservative record to run on, they would’ve won last week. But Republicans have no such record in 2006.

“Oh well!”

That isn’t really what I want to discuss, however. My concern is chiefly the media, and the state of filmmaking. Republicans, and conservatives generally, no longer take the arts or media seriously (nor do they take higher academia seriously) - and now it’s actually beginning to hurt them at the ballot box. ... I have gotten to know many conservative leaders over the last few years. A striking number of them have told us some variation of the following: that they like Hollywood and the media being run by the Left, because that gives Republicans ’something to run against.’ That the steady, unending stream of left-wing agitprop coming from Hollywood, along with the celebrity liberal activism, has been a great thing for Republicans … because after all, it riles up the base!

For example, Republicans are still convinced Michael Moore helped them win in 2004 by turning the public against Hollywood. I’ve personally heard this countless times from politicians in private, repeated to me like a mantra. Washington Republicans prefer having Hollywood as an issue to complain about rather than making a serious effort to change the situation. This has left conservatives in Hollywood holding the bag, working without resources or wide-spread networks of power, creating small organizations like the Liberty Film Festival or LIBERTAS to turn the tide.

But I wonder how these Washington Republicans feel now. Now that they’re out of power, I wonder if Republicans will remain so sanguine about Hollywood and the media being against them.

Let’s be frank: Hollywood does not support the war effort. And why is this a problem? Because ... America did not win a major war in the 20th century that Hollywood didn’t support. The operative examples here are: World War I, World War II and Vietnam. Hollywood backed the war effort in the two World Wars, and we won those wars. Hollywood either took a powder or outright opposed the Vietnam War, and we lost. [Similarly, Hollywood half-heartedly supported our efforts in Korea, and our military victories were correspondingly mixed.]

This should come as no surprise, because what Hollywood does is shape the nation’s narrative. And right now, as we fight the War on Terror and fight in Iraq, the narrative being shaped by Hollywood is this: that America is an imperialistic, war-mongering, ruthlessly profiteering, neo-fascistic Christian theocracy that does not merit the world’s admiration or allegiance. And frankly, it’s hard for America to fight and win a war when Hollywood shapes the war-narrative that way.

Conservatives simply haven’t taken this issue seriously. Instead they’re comically enamored with Fox News, talk radio and the blogosphere; and frankly I’d trade all of those in a heartbeat for Paramount, Warner Brothers or Sony. Or a magazine like Vanity Fair, or People. Why? Because that’s where attitudes are being molded - in cineplexes and at supermarket checkout stands, usually without conservatives even being aware of it.

Hollywood’s ‘war effort’ these days is not what it was in the past, to say the least. We’re getting no films like Casablanca or Across the Pacific or Action in the North Atlantic. We’re not getting Notorious or The Sands of Iwo Jima, nor Destination Tokyo or Operation Pacific. Instead we’re getting Syriana, Fahrenheit 9/11, V For Vendetta, Jarhead, The Road to Guantanamo, Flags of Our Fathers, The Good German, Death of a President, Shut Up and Sing, and on and on. How are we supposed to win a war like this? How are even supposed to be entertained with drivel like this?

It wasn’t always this way, of course. Conservatives once ran Hollywood, back when the industry’s titans were people like Clark Gable, Gary Cooper, Barbara Stanwyck, Cecil B. DeMille, Frank Capra or Louis B. Mayer. They gave the country the movies it needed. Conservative producers like Merian C. Cooper (King Kong), for example, created films like the John Ford/John Wayne cavalry trilogy that self-consciously promoted an American mythology of individualism and bravery - to stand in contrast to the anti-American propaganda then coming out of the Soviet Union.

But conservatives don’t run movie studies anymore. Now we run The Weekly Standard. We’ve got Fred Barnes; the other side’s got Angelina Jolie, or Natalie Portman.

So this is generally what we see nowadays: conservatives write trenchant columns about tax policy while George Clooney romances starlets in film and on magazine covers. This week, for example, People Magazine will again declare George Clooney ‘The Sexiest Man Alive!,’ while Peggy Noonan will write another windy Wall Street Journal column about post-election malaise. I’ll let you guess which article will get more attention …

Until this sort thing changes, Republicans are going to seem out of touch, distant, old and irrelevant. The reason? Because the culture war conservatives say they want to fight isn’t being fought in Beltway think tanks or at National Review - in fact, it isn’t even being fought in elections, per se; it’s being fought in multiplexes, in People Magazine, on Xboxes, at Netflix and on YouTube. Conservatives not only aren’t fighting the culture wars, they don’t even seem to know where the battlefields are.

I’ve taken a lot of heat here at LIBERTAS, for example, because I occasionally find excuses to post pictures of Jessica Simpson. You want to know why I do this? I’ll make it really simple for some of you: because she’s a Republican, and because she’s hot. Find me a few more chicks like her - i.e., entertainers who don’t spend their days writing columns on eminent domain - and I’ll post pictures of them, too. But right now I don’t see many others.

You want your culture back? Engage it. Stop whining about it - go pick up a camera and try something new. Or better yet, since a lot of us out here already have picked up cameras - I’d ask conservatives on the east coast and elsewhere to invest in film. It also wouldn’t hurt if some of you back there on the east coast - say, at the Wall Street Journal, or at National Review or The Weekly Standard - actually covered what we do out here, particularly since your own world seems to be in the process of crumbling. Take this stuff seriously, take the culture seriously - or don’t whine about losing it, afterwards.

For you filmmakers: Godard once said the only elements you need to create drama in a movie are a gun and a girl. It’s that simple! And with digital technology, moviemaking is cheaper than ever. So go make some movies, make an impact, and perhaps some of the problems everybody’s so worried about in Washington will eventually solve themselves.

I’m reminded of the way some people seem to think that New York firefighters are the front-line warriors in the War on Terror. They’re not. The firefighters deal with terrorism when it’s already too late - and that’s what Republicans in Washington are like. They deal with cultural problems (typically through legislation) after it’s already too late. They refuse to engage the culture, get their hands dirty. They retreat into their east coast Ivory towers and think tanks and talk radio studios to analyze the culture, without making an effort to shape it. Those two activities are not the same thing. The culture is being shaped out here in California, not in Washington.

Republicans have been kidding themselves for a long time with lies like, “Michael Moore and George Clooney and Sean Penn actually help our cause!” Really? How are you feeling about that now that you’re out of power?

The preceding is an excerpt from a Nov. 16, 2006, blog post at Thanks to Graybrook Institute Film Critic Graham Moes for calling our attention to this important analysis.

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