August 20, 2006
Inadvertent Exposure: Liberalism's Flaws in MoviesBy Mark Butterworth
There is either an arrogance or ignorance on the part of liberal storytellers which occasionally makes it impossible for them to conceal their moral madness. Three recent movies display the flaws inherent in the dogma in liberal lives onscreen.
Conservatives know who the culprits are, those who alter morals, standards, and venerable traditions, but having lost control of the justice system, the education establishment, mass media, and the entertainment industry, there has been little the naturally conservative majority of Americans have been able to do to counter that loss.
We see this clearly in motion picture and television entertainment. When was the last time you saw a major studio pro—life movie that illustrated the horror of an abortion, the destruction of an unborn child, and the emotional effect such a choice has upon women? Perhaps, it was in 1961 in A Raisin in the Sun when Walter's wife considers an abortion because of his fecklessness as a provider. The moment is presented as a tragic horror if she were to make such a decision.
Yet, when the play was recently revived on Broadway, Peggy Noonan reported that the audience failed to effect any feeling for the drama at that moment. A woman agonizing over a prospective abortion? It must have seemed unbearably quaint. Certainly anachronistic like something out of Hawthorne's, The Scarlet Letter.
Or how about television dramas that illustrate the ravages of communism upon humanity, and how the more mitigated and fair—seeming forms which masquerade as socialism, progressivism, social justice movements, and environmentalism are revealed from behind their thin veils which hide the totalitarian, utopian demands inherent in them?
We would have to go back to the late 40's and early 50's, and B movies at that.
I have three recent movies which will demonstrate my point. They are: Mona Lisa Smile which starred Julia Roberts (which hardly any one went to see and was widely panned by critics); Winter Passing starring Ed Harris (which very few saw, but which did garner favorable reviews as a small movie); and the highly acclaimed independent film The Squid and the Whale starring Jeff Daniels and Laura Linney.
Mona Lisa Smile
Let's start with the worst movie as a movie and then finish with the best.
The movie fails to create compelling characters, and Roberts as the lead is saddled with a leaden personality. The plot revolves around four college seniors, their love lives, and their teacher's attempt to liberate and empower them. They prove to be impervious to such influence, which doesn't say much for the screenwriters. The girls' choices were certainly in their hands to make Julia Roberts come off as a great savior. She comes off instead as a boorish didact.
The action in the movie is dull and makes for a desultory period piece which gets much of the period wrong.
The movie, though, is very rich in exposing the pretensions of a smug, superior world view, and in one scene, its patent presumptions are eviscerated as Julia Roberts stands in shock at having her philosophical guts ripped out of her body.
Set at Wellesley College in 1953, Betty (Kirsten Dunst) narrates the arrival of Katherine Watson (Roberts): 'this bohemian from California was on her way to the most conservative college in the nation.'
In order to prove just how hidebound and puritanical the school is, Betty manages to get Katherine's new friend and roommate, the lesbian school nurse, Amanda, fired for passing out illegal contraceptives (a diaphragm) to the students.
Betty is a pursed lipped, prim, and repressive snitch, you see; and a young, moralistic scold—in—training by her prune faced, termagant mother.
Amanda is a heroic victim, but if she had the actual courage of her convictions why be a scofflaw who doesn't intend to suffer any consequences, and is disappointed when she does? This is the liberalism that seeks to subvert authority while being on its payroll.
It's bit like the Left's complaint that when they voice outrageous opinions and are criticized for it, other people are infringing on their freedom of speech (See Dixie Chicks, et al.), or censor them by refusing to buy their CDs or go to their concerts.
In another scene, Katherine has a conversation with Bill, who teaches Italian. They are mutually attracted to each other, but she has to admit leaving a boyfriend in California. She bristles when Bill asserts that if he were her man, he'd never have let her leave, asserting the dominant male prerogative, of course. He being a rather charming cave man.
His riposte is devastating and the scene abruptly ends. How did that get in there? All the wind in her sails is completely gone, yet the movie now rows forward as her mission gasps along.
She complains that Wellesley is a finishing school for girls, a way station in which they have four years to hook a husband. She insists that she has been patiently trying to pry open up the eyes of her students (and the faculty) to the glories of Modern Art while they insist on their philistine ways of preferring classic forms.
Of course, the notion that one of the Seven Sisters of Ivy League women's colleges would maintain in its art department an animus to Picasso, Matisse, Pollock, and so on is patently absurd. These are the very colleges that embraced the New with force and fervor as part of the cognoscenti. The screenwriters re—write history to present Julia Roberts as a cultural warrior in the midst of addle—pated antediluvians.
Ms. Watson is miffed, and sniffs to her class,
Fat, dumb, happy, barefoot and pregnant housewives, she means; having used a series of slides from magazine ads to illustrate her point.
One of her projects has been to get Joan, an exceptional student, to go on to law school. Joan applies and is accepted by Yale, but she chooses to marry instead. Katherine is deeply hurt by that, but bounces back undaunted, and brings Joan application forms for law schools in the Philadelphia area where she'll soon be living.
Her compulsion to interfere, to direct Joan, takes on an almost pathological quality, and you see another reason why the movie was a flop: Katherine Watson is a little tin god and budding martinet. Not exactly the stuff commercially successful characterizations are about.
Joan explains to her,
Julia Roberts stands there looking like someone just murdered her children.
Again, how could this have happened? Everything this movie is about, is critical of, gets hoisted on its own petard and shot between the eyes. In an effort to be fair in its characterizations of Joan and Bill, the writers let them defend themselves, not with conservative rhetoric, but genuine conviction in their own beliefs and feelings. They are granted enough humanity that they don't get trumped by Roberts' egotistical agenda. It is Ms. Watson who appears foolish, narrow minded, and ungenerous of spirit.
Katherine, also, has been having an affair with Bill. It has been revealed to her that he isn't any kind of war hero she thought he was, having spent the duration on Long Island in an office because of his language skill. He never claimed to have been anywhere near combat, but that he simply failed to correct those who may have thought he had. An act of omission, but not a mortal sin as he complains,
Again, the scene abruptly ends. She has no response to make to the truth nor does she concede a thing. She drives everyone away from her or simply drops them, and then tries to appear heroic and unique.
During the final credits we get a montage of supposedly ridiculous images from the 50's of women in bourgeois circumstances in advertising, beauty contests, with baby carriages —— the veritable cornucopia and optimism that is America. It makes it clear that the movie's intent was not to reveal Katherine as an unforgiving, humorless bohemian with delusions of grandeur, but that all the liberal stereotypes of middle class life in America are accurate and prove it to be an empty and mindless promise. The good life is the dumb and dull life. Katherine leaves Wellesley to go to Paris. She will be so much happier in Europe. America is a land of drones. The movie is hopelessly snide in character and tone.
Does Mona Lisa Smile inadvertently expose egregious flaws in liberalism that will result in a vast, national revelation? Hardly, but it is a bit marvelous to wonder how this travesty occurred. It's as if CNN ran a special on how Ted Kennedy's political success in creating liberal policies and programs have done irreparable harm to the country. Something has seriously gone awry if that ever happened.
Obviously, no one sat down in Hollywood and said, here's our liberal agenda we want this movie to support. But on the way to creating a rather stock criticism of the 50's confident, material and uxorious culture, a few liberal critiques broke down.
It's been a long time since Diary of a Mad Housewife (1970) came out, and quite awhile since An Unmarried Woman (1978) and so all that feminist sturm und drang has had a chance to dissipate at large while precipitating into fortress—like study programs in academia.
Perhaps enough writers who are the products of divorced or dual working parents have developed picturesque notions that a woman choosing to be with her children might not be such an awful thing. Perhaps they are nostalgic for what they missed themselves?
What are people mocking when they attack the relative innocence and decency of the 50's as a fool's paradise? Might we not think there is an unconscious envy at work? The 50's is the only decade that ever comes under such withering scorn, unless you count a few films sneering at Reagan in the 80's like Oliver Stone's Wall Street. The 70's are merely ridiculed for being the disco decade, but the greatest loathing is always directed at the 50's.
Which is very odd in that its seeming protection of innocence was provided by a nation of men and women who had suffered and survived the enormous atrocities of war on a scale never seen before. They were hardly the people of Mayberry, RFD, although they were the people who created such entertainment.
Disdain of the 50's is rather like men fiercely animated with hatred toward their fathers who also reveal how deeply they still want to be loved by them, the sense that they have missed something crucial.
Because Mona Lisa Smile doesn't actually manage to hate the 50's as it had hoped to, it isn't able to denigrate all those who represent it. Joan in particular.
In the movie, Joan is smart, self—directed, discerning, and understanding. Even liberals sometimes fall in love with characters who have goodness in them and can't bear to trash their sweetness and light. Ask yourself, who is the real heroine in Gone With The Wind? Melanie or Scarlett? I enjoy Scarlett, she drives the movie, but I adore Melanie, she's an angel. It is her death which ends the movie.
Winter Passing is a gloomy, depressing, and pathetic film. It is an assemblage of mostly emotionally unhealthy people limping along in front of cameras.
Reese is finishing up a run in A Winter's Tale as we watch her slink around dingy New York streets, bars, and apartments while being promiscuous, doing drugs, and in a moment of self—loathing slamming her hand in a desk drawer to cause injury. It takes us awhile to learn that her mother has recently died, she didn't attend the funeral, and then much later to learn the mother committed suicide.
Reese is propositioned by a book editor with a hefty offer (100K) to buy a series of letters her father had written to her mother over a period of a few years that the mother had left to Reese.
After mulling it over, having more dingy, desultory sex, and then taking a kitten she had rescued from the street and putting it in a gym bag and throwing it in the river, Reese takes a bus home to somewhere in Michigan. It is winter. The prodigal daughter returns to her father's house.
To her surprise, she is met at the door by Corbit (Will Ferrell), a live in handyman and caretaker who sports an affective personality disorder, and later meeting Shelley, a young housekeeper who had been one of Tom Holdin's (Ed Harris) writing students.
Tom doesn't live in the house anymore but holes up in a garage in the back sleeping on an uncomfortable looking couch. We meet him as a gaunt, old man with long, white, stringy hair and near drunk in a dirty bathrobe. While Reese is talking to him, Shelley arrives and gives him his replacement quart of whiskey. A daily allotment.
Father and daughter don't have much to say to each other, so Reese reclaims her old bedroom, learns some things about Corbit and Shelley.
There is some question whether Tom is still writing novels, and it appears that he tries, but is painfully slow and agonizes in the effort. Considering the stuporous state he keeps himself in, and his later exhibitions of near catatonia punctuated by hysteria, the conceit that the Great Man has still got it creatively strains credulity.
As part of Tom's eccentricity, he plays golf every day before dinner in an upstairs bedroom. He and Corbit, donned in protective gear like batting helmets, catcher's equipment and trash can lids used as shields, hit drives against the pocked plaster walls. THWACK!
Where'd the furniture go? Reese asks. Oh, Tom had us put it out in the back yard. She looks. Yup, there it sits in the middle of winter, the four post bed with bedclothes and pillows, the dresser near by, lamp and end table.
That night at the dinner table she is astonished that her father, an atheist, allows Corbit, a Christian, to say grace at dinner.
This is supposed to be funny, perhaps a little comic relief in this dreary family drama, but it falls as flat to the audience as it does to the others at the dinner table.
Reese starts hunting for the letters in the house and Shelley comes upon her going through a box of keepsakes. They chat a little and Shelley observes to Reese,
The conversation then shifts as Shelley asks if Reese's parents were competitive in their writing.
After finding the treasure trove of letters and reading those which are her mother's back to her father, she learns that her mom had strong suicidal tendencies from the start, and that seems to upset her more, but it's hard to understand why.
Reese has an understandably bitter conversation with her father.
The movie ends with Reese returning to New York with her father's novel, Golf, to sell instead of the letters. The odd little menagerie of Tom Holdin remains intact and life goes on, tra la la.
We are supposed to attach meaning to the idea that the deadness of winter is passing and life is thawing out. Reese has confronted her demons and is moving on with her life with a fresh sprig of mint in it. It's just that easy to bury the hatchet —— never mind the booze, the drugs, the sex, the helpless kitten drowned in the river —— we all know that Reese is going to be just fine. No more smashing her hand in a drawer.
This movie unabashedly puts its cards on the table shouting —— Look! Look at how screwed up really pretentious liberals are and how they mess up their kids' lives! All that Save the Whales crap and Make Love Not War protests result in what? Unmitigated narcissism and hopeless, scarred children made into timid, cowed copies or fervid with rage, as we often see in someone like Sean Penn, profiled by John Lahr in a New Yorker article titled, Citizen Penn:
Sean Penn is forty—five years old and the father of two.
Were Penn's parents as awful as Reese's? I don't know, but the article mentions that both mom and dad each consumed a bottle of alcohol every night, and there were raging battles between mother and son as he was growing up. Doesn't sound like Sunnybrook Farm around that household, either.
It's that 'socially conscious' which is scary.
I know a divorced man who has a ten year old son. On the occasion of a family wedding in Orange County, the boy was instructed not to say to anyone, 'George Bush is a f****** idiot.'
But what completely ill mannered and undisciplined boy could possibly resist? That boy will one day be saying his dad was 'socially conscious' and raised him to be 'good on humanity,' too, I bet.
Lahr's article is actually an encomium to Penn proclaiming him a genius of an artist with the soul of a hero, and not as the immature, emotional bed wetter the article accidentally illustrates.
Winter Passing, in slighter measure, tries to portray Tom Holdin as a tormented talent bravely forcing himself to produce fine work while his mind is fading and he mourns his dead wife. That he may have been an absent and idiot father is rather beside the point. After all, with the right script, everybody can be healed and redeemed in the last act.
Roger Ebert, a well known liberal critic, writes,
I'm a little at a loss in explaining how much sympathy the literati can have for damaging characters in story and reality. We ought not to tell tales about wounded, weak, and cruel people in celebration of their very flaws, but either as badges of honor in having survived them, or as cautionary tales of the disasters they leave in their wake.
Or we invent and listen to stories because we are bored and need a pass time, and as one writer told about that hour of the afternoon when the children turn from innocent play to torturing the cat, so too, we feel like being clever and perverse, and make Delilah a heroine, or re—tell the story of the Exodus from Dathan's point of view against the tyrannical Moses.
The romance of the agonized artist, ambiguous intellectual, anti—heroic warrior, or cynical professional does untold damage itself by encouraging anyone with ambition, a lick of talent or smarts, and a few family scars toward self—indulgence, childish behavior, and arrogant self—importance.
One thing America has probably produced in greater abundance than anyone else is drunken, self—pitying writers and artists (although the English and Irish are no pikers on that score).
That Winter Passing even hints at contributing to that idiot romance is a shame, but is saved by Reese's withering pieces (sorry, I could not resist) of bitter denunciation of Tom's core values that had no value at all in the raising and love of one's offspring. She exposes his selfishness to us, but it has no effect on him.
The Squid and the Whale
Noah Baumbach is a thirty—seven year old New Yorker, the son of a novelist and film critic father, and a mother who was a film critic for the Village Voice. Apparently they had a messy divorce and Baumbach fictionalizes it in The Squid and the Whale, a tale of two insufferably conceited adults and their narcissists in training progeny, two boys, Walt, sixteen, and Frank, twelve.
The critics adored this small, independent movie which was nominated for a 2006 Academy Award as best screenplay. Billed as both a comedy and drama, the movie is fascinating to watch. Your mouth stays open pretty much through out in a kind of horror and disbelief that these people could be real (yet they ring very true), and you do laugh as one disturbing thing tops another after another.
The director/writer seems peculiarly unaware of how bizarre his tale is, how utterly despicable Bernard (Jeff Daniels) and Joan Berkman (Laura Linney), the parents, are. In an interview for Bomb Magazine, Baumbach said,
Okay, let's take a look at some of those scenes.
The movie is set in Park Slope, Brooklyn, 1986. Bernard teaches a college creative writing class, and his son, Walt, has just sat in on it. Afterwards in the car, Bernard talks to him about the reading that they listened to by Lili (Anna Paquin)where she had used obvious similes to describe her vagina.
Bernard always delivers his lines in a flat tone, and Walt responds similarly as he has absorbed his father's manner of speaking.
What kind of a father talks to his son like that? Bernard is of the conviction that no subject or material is beyond the ken of a child. It is clear that Bernard and Joan are of the belief that nothing is taboo or inappropriate for discussion with their children. Bernard has made Walt read books he is incapable of understanding, and supplied him with the opinions to hold about them. And Walt parrots his father in tone and attitude of arrogant and smug superiority, all on matters he is clueless about.
Neither of the parents have any regard for the innocence of their sons. The parents are incapable of recognizing their own corruption and its influence, just as the director seems not to notice anything fundamentally sick about it.
Jonathan Lethem (Bomb Magazine interviewer):
Bernard is an experimental writer which explains his lack of commercial success, but drives him to consider himself as in Kafka's class. One of his predecessors, indeed.
Soon thereafter, the divorce ensues. Walt, in speaking to his mother after learning the difficult custody arrangements his parents have made for him and Frank, tells her,
But there is no real warmth, solace, or sorrow in Joan's response. She is pretty much indifferent to whatever consequences her actions have on others, and demonstrates this further after Bernard tells Walt all about his mother's affair with a psychiatrist who lives on the block.
When Walt confronts his mother and bitterly accuses her of ruining the marriage, the mother confesses to many other adulteries and is willing to provide details as though the children are completely entitled to know them.
Later, the twelve year old Frank talks on the phone to Walt about the mental pictures he now has of his mother performing oral sex on men, or being used anally. He starts drinking beer, masturbating at school and smearing his semen on books in the library and on a girl's locker.
When he has been caught at it and the principal meets with the parents, they don't seem at all disturbed by Frank's behavior. They blame it on the divorce and dismiss any further concern about Frank who graduates to drinking hard liquor and masturbating on his mother's panties.
How can an adult not sit, mouth agape in wonder about how this kind of material is treated in such a matter of fact, no big deal, isn't this what everyone's childhood is like manner?
You laugh because it is impossible to believe the director/writer doesn't seem to register any concern as to damage and the quiet inculcation towards sexual distortions which will no doubt have serious consequences later on in Frank's life.. We witness the formation of a pervert which Baumbach treats as a relatively natural matter. It's simply an acting out of the emotional disturbance the divorce creates, which is to be expected (and the movie seems to lean towards a conclusion that Walt and Frank will eventually be all right as adults). Water under the bridge.
But few people watching this movie, those with any wisdom, can believe for a second that these two males will ever be just fine given how twisted they've been made. At best, they will be smart enough to fool others into thinking for a little while that they are not oddballs, but we know if stressed, these boys will revert to form. We never see any formation of good character in them, no development or respect for virtue and honor, and they will adopt the kind of consciences which make serious self—examination unnecessary.
Walt wins a school talent contest by playing and singing a song he claims as his own, but is actually by Pink Floyd. When Walt is exposed and the parents are told this by the teacher responsible for the show, Bernard claims, 'It was his own interpretation.' As if that excuses the plagiarism.
Walt has to see a school psychologist who asks him,
Exactly how and when is Walt going to learn that such rationalizing is a terrible flaw? It might not go by unchallenged this time, but how often will other, more clever justifications slip past in the world? Much more often than not.
No one in this movie ever suffers a solemn consequence for their actions. The parents' separate lives continue in the same way as before. The children's violations go uncorrected. Baumbach expects us to infer that something will fix them along the way, but what that might be, he can't say. Life just fixes itself with time, he is saying at the end.
Something beautiful. Let's savor that for a few seconds.
The Squid and the Whale is a brilliantly conceived and executed film. It is not too long, is packed with telling details and fine performances, and is immensely revealing about certain kinds of personalities; and a director who is incapable of exercising any negative moral judgment towards his characters. How can he? They're his parents and he isn't bitter towards them, but grateful instead for their having provided him with raw clay.
Baumbach is recently married to the actress, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and has no children. He is now immersed in an inner circle of the clever and anointed which Ms. Leigh's movie, The Anniversary Party illustrated so well, it being a vanity project of Hollywood friends and their smart self—congratulation. The problem with his movie is that while it's smart, it's also shallow, having lots to say on the surface, but nothing underneath it to emphasize or stress any good, truth, or beauty.
It is more like an anthropological excursion to witness a slice of New York intellectual life, and rather than taking a turn to visit the Hasidic, we get a different kind of Jewish orthodoxy, the liberal literati.
The film's amorality seems to be what so many critics enjoy about it. There is no sense of it being a descent into depravity in their reviews. No, it's films like Sin City which tickle that palette with unabashed delight in exploitation of evil. The Squid and the Whale gets a free pass as a study of liberals behaving badly.
After all, conservatives have messy divorces, too, no doubt. And do and say things which are venal, petty, selfish, and manipulative.
True, but such characters in a movie would not get a free pass. They would be set up to be harshly judged as a confirmation that conservatives are nasty to the core.
Joan and Bernard are set up to be seen finally as just plain silly, and not seriously degenerate people. They may be selfish, but they don't mean to be cruel (except when Bernard means to be). But even he is more a pitiable cuckold than a rotten bastard most of the time. The parents are made to look childish, not especially vile.
How can you not love a movie which demonstrates so well the nature and results of nihilism, narcissism, and hedonism? No conservative satirist could ever have done this as successfully as Baumbach does in this roman a clef where he inadvertently exposes the emptiness and vanity of the worldview he was raised with. As his friend said about all that, 'experimentation, truthfulness and mess.'
Three bleak movies.
Mona Lisa Smile which unexpectedly subverts itself while it is trying to mock the Dark Ages before rugged feminist individualism; Winter Passing which attempts to provide renewal of some sort to a menagerie of wasting souls; and The Squid and the Whale, whose easy acceptance of the immoral as amoral illustrates the great gulf between soul and self in a certain kind of person, where an idea or belief in such a thing as virtue never enters the picture.
It is as if the filmmakers were completely unaware that an audience brings certain archetypes of understanding with them to every story they audit. Traits such as honor, goodness, what is moral action and immoral action — qualities which are read instantly from types and their character — effortlessly inform us as to who is good or bad, who we will like and who we won't.
Humans really aren't that complex. People aren't evenly balanced between their good and their evil. They fall to one side or the other; but many artists who fall to the side of selfishness attempt to present characters as ambiguous, neither fish nor foul but a hybrid which is superior to both because it is ironic or sardonic, detached, Olympian, and relativistic.
Artists who believe themselves to be greatly complex and fascinating for it, create reflections of themselves in their work which intends to deceive the viewer just as it does the creator. But it rarely works. The many critics applaud, but no one else buys it because people are much simpler than the narcissist realizes, and they prefer stories which reflect something of reality they understand — that good should triumph over bad; that life doesn't just happen to us; that weakness may be human, but it isn't anything to be proud of.
The three movies I've examined are fine examples of inadvertent exercises in sterile philosophies which reveal themselves as unattractive as Frankenstein's monster cobbled out of odd parts and clumsily sewn together. It walks, talks, and hungers, but is ultimately soulless and pitiless.