As David Lynch knows, there’s nothing scarier than white picket fences, old-fashioned red fire engines and a grandfatherly figure hosing down a manicured green lawn. Hidden behind his innocuous vision of Americana lies an insidious layer of viciousness, perversity and oppression.
On the eve of mid-term elections, the opening of Lynch’s 1986 classic “Blue Velvet” offers a vivid reminder of the rosy-hued mystique of the right-wing dream machine embodied in the type of campaign commercials that stake their reputation on anachronistic fantasies of idealized suburban and rural life that, as Lynch revealed, conceal far more sinister ideologies at work.
But Lynch is the exception, of course, not the rule. Despite the claims of conservative media, Hollywood is not always a liberal bastion. Where can you find airbrushed images of American wholesomeness, supposed racial harmony and gender equality, and flag-waving triumphalism come from? Mainstream movies, of course.
Salon film critic Andrew O’Hehir‘s recent review of Randall Wallace’s “Secretariat,” which he called “a quasi-inspirational fantasia of American whiteness and power,” was attacked around the blogosphere as “crazy” and “over the top” — Roger Ebert called the piece a “fevered conspiracy theory.” But O’Hehir’s bit of politically informed criticism was far from paranoid — it simply reflected what many of us already know. As O’Hehir puts it in his response to Ebert’s attack, “The most effective kind of propaganda depicts normal life, or rather an idealized vision of normal life…. Viewed that way, of course, a very large proportion of Hollywood movies could be considered propaganda.”
That’s not to suggest that left-wing ideologies don’t seep into Hollywood product — see just about everything with George Clooney — but it goes both ways, folks. Much of the time, the studio’s brightest and widest releases adhere to what the National Review‘s Larry Kudlow once described as “conservative art”: “It’s not the negative pessimistic crap that too often passes for art in blue states like New York… These are just beautiful, calm, pleasant pictures. Stuff you can enjoy looking at.”
Kudlow’s flowery description applies to “Secretariat,” as it does to similar pap such as Oscar-winners “Driving Miss Daisy” (1986) and “Forrest Gump” (1994), glossy, pleasant pictures that obscure the harsh, complex realities of history, race and class in America during the eras and locations in which they’re set.
Just as “Secretariat” reduces the tumultuous ’70s to a few anti-war sentiments voiced by the protagonist’s daughter, “Forrest Gump” compacts 50 years of major historical events into a saccharine box of chocolates. As Entertainment Weekly critic Owen Gleiberman wrote of “Gump” at the time: “Do we really want to see an episode as fundamentally ugly as George Wallace’s public display of racism subjected to this kind of beer-commercial flippancy?” Gleiberman goes on to sum up director Robert Zemeckis’s method: “He’s making the last 30 years feel good again.”
While “Driving Miss Daisy” includes plenty of scenes that feature the cruelties of racism, the film ostensibly arrives at the same place: Prejudice may have persisted throughout the decades, but by the film’s end (set in 1973, the year that “Secretariat” takes place), we can seek comfort in the inevitable reconciliation of black and white, rich and poor, and leave the theater feeling, some 15 years later, racial conflict is a thing of the past.
This kind of sanctimony feeds directly into conservative mythmaking. Like “Forrest Gump,” “Secretariat” appeals to the mystical as a significant saving grace in our lives. Just as Forrest Gump magically brakes free from his braces to escape bullies early in the film and later avoids bullets and bombardments in Vietnam without a scratch, the famous racehorse Secretariat is born into the world with god-graced fortitude. (Should it be a surprise that in the midst of Secretariat’s final turn at Belmont, the soundtrack surges with a chorus of “Oh Happy Day! When Jesus Walked”?)
This is a politically ominous maneuver, worthy of Karl Rove and a dozen libertarians, suggesting that it’s only a rugged, individualist spirit combined with a little divine intervention — and not government programs, such as, welfare, social security or, say, the fire and police departments — that can carry us to victory. From “Die Hard” and “Rambo” to the more recent “The Expendables” and “RED,” when have government institutions ever been shown as a force for good?
Over-interpretation, you say?
It’s certainly no stretch to see other Oscar winners, such as “Braveheart” (1995) and “Gladiator” (2000), as glorious right-wing testaments to military might, the sanctity of family, and the lone individual standing up to big bad governments. “Braveheart,” of course, is so steeped in Christian mythology, with its brutal eye-for-an-eye Old Testament violence and Christ-like sacrifice of its protagonist, who dies with the final Glenn Beck-ian cry of “Freedom!” that it’s taught in Bible study classes around the country.
While “Gladiator” doesn’t have the Christian pedigree of Mel Gibson and Randall Wallace behind it, the film is based on the same Red State meat: a master soldier fights against a corrupt political leader; he avenges the murder of an idealized (and underwritten) wife and child (“I will have my vengeance,” he says at one point, repeating Braveheart’s modus operandi); and finally, he, too, dies for our freedom — only to be resurrected with his family in an afterlife of golden heartland-inspired wheat-fields and scored to Lisa Gerrard’s Enya-like angelic paean “Now We Are Free.”
And these aren’t fringe pictures, outliers in an industry that is supposed to be dominated by leftists, Jews, homosexuals and atheists. These are big-budget Best Picture winners produced by the biggest studios in the industry — Paramount Pictures, 20th Century Fox, Dreamworks, Universal — all well before “Passion of the Christ” showed the ticket-buying power of the Christian audience. This is standard Hollywood practice at work.
Other Oscar champions are just as reactionary: Clint Eastwood’s multiple 2004 Academy Award winner “Million Dollar Baby” includes one of the most damning, prejudicial portraits of welfare recipients this side of Reagan-era propaganda, as well as some suspicious racial stereotyping: with Morgan Freeman’s kindly old black hand on the narrating side-lands and a caricatured black nemesis (real-life fighter Lucia Rijker) whose character isn’t just mean, but an ex-prostitute.
Not unlike “Million Dollar Baby,” “Crash,” from “Baby” screenwriter-turned-director Paul Haggis, views the world in the same simplistic black-or-white terms that recycle endlessly on Fox News. Think he’s a horribly racist cop? No, he’s caring for his ailing dad and deserves your sympathy. One day, you’re an uncaring, tough-talking boxing coach, the next, a completely redeemed mercy-killer — all in about two hours. It’s just so easy! In the world of Haggis and Hollywood, resolutions come fast and furious — sprain your ankle, heal your prejudices and hug your Hispanic maid — letting audiences indulge in the pathos, and feel better about themselves and their world.
Relieved of conflict and complexity, we are lead to believe that all our problems can be effortlessly solved, that policies like corporate deregulation, tax cuts for millionaires, and anti-immigration laws, will miraculously help us all ride off into the sunset to the unforeclosed homes that we always dreamed about. Now that’s scary.
[Additional photos: “Forrest Gump,” Paramount, 1994; “Million Dollar Baby,” Warner Bros., 2004]