October 18, 2008
Deconstructing the Liberal Media's Funny BoneBy Oleg Atbashian
A unanimously negative media response to the political slapstick movie American Carol reinforces my theory that humor -- and satire in particular -- is an accurate litmus test of one's political and ideological convictions, even if one insists on having no convictions at all. If you want to check your friends' politics, take them to see this conservative comedy and watch the reaction.
Committed liberals won't laugh at conservative humor and vice versa. If they don't agree on the joke's basic philosophical premise, the sting will miss the spot and the joker will be shrugged off as a pathetic fool (for reference see conservative reaction to any of the David Letterman shows in the last ten years).
Besides, what kind of satire is that which doesn't show President Bush as a cross-eyed war-mongering idiot with a Hitler mustache? Without that minimum requirement film critics can't really be expected to rate a political comedy as groundbreaking, original, and funny. Looks like they all had prior commitments.
Am I implying that all American film critics are committed liberals? Not just yet -- we must psychoanalyze them first.
The fact that all critics -- who otherwise are a rather disunited bunch - displayed a monolithic unity in declaring American Carol "unfunny" speaks not so much about the new film as about their old allegiances in culture wars. Their infuriated braying from across the political minefields helps to identity their species and gives away the locations of minefields. The mischievous comedy worked like a flare sent from behind the enemy lines, exposing hostile fortifications and troop movements, causing commotion, and providing additional comic relief. It would be worth making American Carol just for that.
But if you're an academic pacifist and prefer a highbrow, non-violent analogy, consider likening American Carol to a yardstick that allows us empirically to measure the disconnect between the media and the American public.
On the one-stop movie website RottenTomatoes.com that rates films on a 100% scale, American Carol scored an almost unprecedented 0% from top critics, a miserable 13% from all critics, and a whopping 72% from the RT community (the community score would probably be higher if liberal activists didn't bomb it with zero ratings). For added objectivity I also made a comparative list of critical quotes. The results will astound you -- but more on that later.
To continue with analogies, American Carol can also be compared to an X-ray tool for studying the disparity between differently shaped funny bones in liberals and conservatives -- a phenomenon I had mentioned in my earlier analysis of liberal reaction to conservative humor.
Our perception of "funny" is part of our overall perception of reality and is inseparable from our values and beliefs. In this sense a random chuckle can be as telling as a knee jerk in the doctor's office, betraying our prejudices, attachments, and stereotypes. The switch that prompts us to either laugh or cry is the same one that prompts us to either love or hate. The selection is automatic, based on what we hold true or false, right or wrong, good or evil -- the subjective beliefs we all have, whether we are aware of them or not.
Subjective beliefs are shared by large groups of people: nations, cultures, political parties, and Oprah fan clubs. It's only natural to gravitate toward people who share our beliefs; we feel more comfortable with those whose reactions are consistent with ours. On the flip side, however, it's just as natural to see those who don't share our beliefs as wrong, depraved, and stupid.
And that's precisely what film critics must have felt when they were forced, due to the lack of screenings, to see American Carol in theaters, sitting next to the cheering and laughing fellow Americans: wrong, depraved, and stupid. Feeding off a different belief system than the rest of the country, the "mainstream media" critics were not amused with the jokes whose premise they didn't condone or even understand.
It's true that what makes people in one culture laugh may very well make people in another culture cry. But is there a kind of humor that is shared universally? Humor that can be equally funny to all nations, cultures, political groups, and film critics? Are there jokes that, instead if dividing us, can bring us closer together in celebration of our common humanity? Of course there are -- only such jokes usually involve pulling a finger. Anything above that level is liable to be found divisive, insensitive, and morally depraved.
For a better perspective let's take a step away from American Carol and look at Chevy Chase who was in raptures over the recent SNL lampooning of Sarah Palin, but slammed the parody of Hillary Clinton because it went against his moral beliefs. At the same time, my conservative friends and I found the SNL Hillary jokes hilarious -- just as we thought that American Carol was very funny. Some of the funniest people I know loved it as much as I did.
Now that we've agreed that our funny bones are shaped differently by our biases, let's review American Carol's cultural and historical premise -- the lingering, bitter ideological standoff between conservatives and liberals that permeates every aspect of American cultural and political discourse.
While this is an undoubtedly historic conflict of epic proportions, Hollywood is mostly keeping it under wraps of a mythical "mainstream" culture. The rare appearances of conservatives in mainstream movies and TV shows are limited to hypocritical, narrow-minded hicks who attack graceful liberals but lose in the end because liberals are intellectually, culturally, and morally superior to them and represent the majority of Americans. Paradoxically, outlandish intolerant rants by brain-dead liberal celebrities in real life are also presented as mainstream.
If the notion of two antagonistic cultures within this country is news to you, please be reminded about the reality of culture war and the fact that any war requires a minimum of two adversaries. There surely are other factions -- but for now they are all aligned into two distinct opposing camps that are loosely and rather misleadingly labeled "conservative" and "liberal."
Conservatives are trying to conserve the American revolutionary tradition of small government whose main duty is to make sure people are free to take care of themselves. Liberals, on the other hand, want to impose a foreign tradition of a massive government that takes care of the people in exchange for their liberties. Did I mention that labels were misleading?
To see who the aggressor in this culture war is, notice who is trying to preserve cultural values and who is trying to change or replace them.
Hollywood was one of the first American territories occupied by liberals in culture wars. The last conservative insurgency was briefly fought there back in the 1950s. That episode was later rewritten in a classic Hollywood fashion to present liberals as modest and noble heroes fighting the roaring conservative Goliath.
Soon thereafter Hollywood was churning out dozens of agitprop culture-war movies annually, showering money and Oscars on able radicals. But this year a small band of conservative Hollywood insurgents, risking their careers, produced one openly counter-propagandistic comedy about the very culture war that had forced them into the trenches in the first place. Of course American Carol was booed in Hollywood. What did you expect, an Oscar for best literary adaptation?
Denunciations by major film critics in the national media were echoed by an army of internet wannabes who tend to flock around the shortest rout to fame and fortune: liberal activism.
Brian Orndorf, whose film reviews appear on prestigious movie websites, calls American Carol a "lousy, hopeless movie, easily one of the worst films of the year" that "reinforces how needlessly divisive our country has become." But if the cultural division is so sizable that both groups can't even understand each other's jokes, isn't it best to acknowledge this fact and act accordingly instead of continuing to pretend and live in denial?
And what's with this "needlessly"? Aren't we supposed to "celebrate our differences"? What happened to the liberal doctrine of diversity? Or are there different kinds of differences and some differences are more different than others? Should we only celebrate those differences that conform to the party line and obfuscate those that are perpendicular to it? And isn't the latter closer to the actual meaning of "being diverse"?
The party line on this subject is clear: beat conservatives into pulp and if they resist accuse them of being "needlessly divisive." Anything less would legitimize conservatism and make it an equal partner in the cultural narrative. Because if the liberal narrative monopoly is shattered, down will go the "mainstream" cover of the liberal media, exposing decades of deception and hidden skeletons. Once you realize how high the stakes are, the sadistic critical beating of American Carol no longer looks like an overreaction. In the words of Karl Marx it was "historically inevitable."
To get a better perspective I looked up reviews of a liberal comedy Religulous with Bill Maher that opened in theaters simultaneously with American Carol (in case you're wondering, Religulous was never labeled as "liberal," "left-wing," or even "political").
Bill Maher's idea of funny? A hundred and one minutes of bashing religion by a sad confused comedian who thinks that faith is "a neurological disorder." Orndorf's reaction? He admonished Maher for not going far enough:
"Religulous is the type of film to be sent off into the world to crack open a few eyes and change some lives. In reality, only those patient with Maher and already free of devotion will be receptive to the message. It's a missed opportunity."
No complains about "divisiveness" here, although the "crack open a few eyes" remark aptly describes the liberal idea of unity and cultural dialogue.
Curiosity prompted me to compare quotes by other critics who reviewed both American Carol and Religulous; I placed them next to each other in two columns. The results are astonishing:
But enough about Bill Maher's all-American funniness. Considering that one of American Carol's satirical targets is Michael Moore I also checked what reviews the Carol-bashing critics may have written about Moore's "mainstream" films:
Other reviews didn't have a readily available pair, but it's worth reading them if only to understand the level of spiritual and intellectual unanimity a right-wing comedy can provoke among the otherwise disjointed critics:
An American Carol is about as not-funny as a comedy can get.
Steven Rea, Philadelphia Inquirer - Top Critic
As entertainment, An American Carol ranks below YouTube clips of Sarah Palin.
Amy Nicholson, Boxoffice Magazine
What makes An American Carol overtly depressing rather than merely lame is its allegiance to a diseased political discourse built on crude dichotomies: Either you're a bellicose, God-fearing patriot or a troop-hating, traitorous hippie.
Sam Adams, Onion AV Club
This movie's level of political discourse makes Couric/Palin look like Frost/Nixon.
Scott Foundas, L.A. Weekly
Forget about politics for a moment...Carol is first and foremost a terrible piece of filmmaking, marred by bad performances, cringe-inducing dialogue and amateurish direction.
Ethan Alter, Film Journal International
Poorly made indie production has a script that feels like a list of ripostes collected over the last several years to liberal criticisms of the U.S.: The whole enterprise feels far more agenda- than entertainment-driven.
Todd McCarthy, Variety - Top Critic
I can't imagine anyone -- Democrat or Republican, liberal or conservative, red-state or blue-state, earthling or E.T. -- finding An American Carol anything other than 'not funny.' And idiotic. And demeaning. And aggressively, persistently crummy.
Rene Rodriguez, Miami Herald
Cheap shots and mean spirits abound, as do celebrity cameos. But it's the laziness of the writing that most offends.
Nathan Lee, New York Times - Top Critic
Is there any filmmaker alive, whether Democrat or Republican, conservative or liberal, capable of producing a truly incisive, intelligent satire about our politically polarized times?
Rafer Guzman, Newsday - Top Critic
Given that this supremely silly satire directed by The Naked Gun's David Zucker plays more like something slapped together to beat an expiration date, it's hard to get too worked up about it.
Gary Goldstein, Los Angeles Times - Top Critic
Ultimately, the problem with An American Carol is the problem with far too much political discourse in this country, left or right: It highlights the worst excesses of the opposition for the sole purpose of discrediting the vast middle.
Ty Burr, Boston Globe - Top Critic
Although it's refreshing to encounter a parody that doesn't use tired movie genres for inspiration, An American Carol squanders its comedic potential with a near-total absence of laughs.
Frank Scheck, Hollywood Reporter - Top Critic
I'm giving it a just-barely-recommended grade not because it's terribly funny (which it isn't), but because it's fascinating as a cultural artifact.
Eric D. Snider, EricDSnider.com
In case you were wondering what "media bias" consists of, movie critics have just articulated it for you in clear terms. Not a single critic made the intellectual effort to step outside the liberal frame of reference and examine the other side's premise in order to get the joke. Isn't that what open-mindedness means? It's not as difficult as it seems -- conservatives have been doing it for years, ever since liberals took control of the movie and TV industries.
Don't get me wrong; all critics have the right to their opinions and it's great that American Constitution guarantees them the freedom to parade a maniacal knee-jerk aversion to traditional American view of this country's place in history and the world. It's diversity, right?
Having an opinion is not a problem. The trouble is that all these critics have one and the same opinion. Without a hint of diversity.
When suddenly, as if by command, formerly diverse critics cease being all over the board and are drawn, like paper clips to a magnet, into a far left corner where they begin to march in ordered formations -- that's a huge red flag over Kodak Theater.
It exposes more than just differently shaped funny bones. This is a sign of a total takeover of the national media by leftwing ideologues whose hiring and editorial policies have terminated intellectual diversity and populated offices with goose-stepping drones -- achieving a monolithic ideological purity that rivals only that in the corridors of the glorious party organ Pravda.
Now that we're clear on our domestic differences, let's turn to our foreign audiences.
To an outsider, the lasting resentful dispute between the two conflicting American voices coming out of a single American head may seem like schizophrenia, which should confuse even a well-meaning observer. And the foreigners are confused. Some abandon all efforts to understand this country; others use the confusion to stir anti-American sentiments to strengthen their own political power; yet others want to end all uncertainty by either destroying America or converting it to Islam, which is practically the same thing.
Whether we like it or not, this is the sad political reality we have to live with. Foreigners need to realize what the two voices are and what ideas they really represent before they even begin to understand anything about America's actions on the world arena and at home, including the rubbish coming out of Hollywood. Americans, too, need to realize how confused the outsiders are before they begin to understand anything about the origins of America's image abroad and the foreign reactions to their country.
Need a clue where to begin the un-confusion? Watching An American Carol might be a good start.
Oleg Atbashian is proprietor of The People's Cube.