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“Secretariat” Isn’t Hollywood’s Only Secretly Conservative Blockbuster

“Secretariat” Isn’t Hollywood’s Only Secretly Conservative Blockbuster (photo)

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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.

10282010_forrestgump1.jpgThis 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.

10282010_milliondollarbaby1.jpgOther 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]

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WTF Films

Artfully Off

Celebrity All-Star by Sisters Weekend is available now on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Sisters Weekend isn’t like other comedy groups. It’s filmmaking collaboration between besties Angelo Balassone, Michael Fails and Kat Tadesco, self-described lace-front addicts with great legs who write, direct, design and produce video sketches and cinematic shorts that are so surreally hilarious that they defy categorization. One such short film, Celebrity All-Star, is the newest addition to IFC’s Comedy Crib. Here’s what they had to say about it in a very personal email interview…


IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Celebrity All-Star is a short film about an overworked reality TV coordinator struggling to save her one night off after the cast of C-List celebrities she wrangles gets locked out of their hotel rooms.

IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Sisters Weekend: It’s this short we made for IFC where a talent coordinator named Karen babysits a bunch of weird c-list celebs who are stuck in a hotel bar. It’s everyone you hate from reality TV under one roof – and that roof leaks because it’s a 2-star hotel. There’s a magician, sexy cowboys, and a guy wearing a belt that sucks up his farts.


IFC: What was the genesis of Celebrity All-Star?

Celebrity All-Star was born from our love of embarrassing celebrities. We love a good c-lister in need of a paycheck! We were really interested in the canned politeness people give off when forced to mingle with strangers. The backstory we created is that the cast of this reality show called “Celebrity All-Star” is in the middle of a mandatory round of “get to know each other” drinks in the hotel bar when the room keys stop working. Shows like Celebrity Ghost Hunters and of course The Surreal Life were of inspo, but we thought it
was funny to keep it really vague what kind of show they’re on, and just focus on everyone’s diva antics after the cameras stop rolling.

IFC: Every celebrity in Celebrity All-Star seems familiar. What real-life pop personalities did you look to for inspiration?

Sisters Weekend: Anyone who is trying to plug their branded merch that no one asked for. We love low-rent celebrity. We did, however, directly reference Kylie Jenner’s turd-raison lip color for our fictional teen celebutante Gibby Kyle (played by Mary Houlihan).


IFC: Celebrity seems disgusting yet desirable. What’s your POV? Do you crave it, hate it, or both?

Sisters Weekend: A lot of people chase fame. If you’re practical, you’ll likely switch to chasing success and if you’re smart, you’ll hopefully switch to chasing happiness. But also, “We need money. We need hits. Hits bring money, money bring power, power bring fame, fame change the game,” Young Thug.


IFC: Who are your comedy idols?

Sisters Weekend: Mike grew up renting “Monty Python” tapes from the library and staying up late to watch 2000’s SNL, Kat was super into Andy Kaufman and “Kids In The Hall” in high school, and Angelo was heavily influenced by “Strangers With Candy” and Anna Faris in the Scary Movie franchise, so, our comedy heroes mesh from all over. But, also we idolize a lot of the people we work with in NY-  Lorelei Ramirez, Erin Markey, Mary Houlihan, who are all in the film, Amy Zimmer, Ana Fabrega, Patti Harrison, Sam Taggart. Geniuses! All of Em!

IFC: What’s your favorite moment from the film?

Sisters Weekend: I mean…seeing Mary Houlihan scream at an insane Pomeranian on an iPad is pretty great.

See Sisters Weekend right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib

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Reality? Check.

Baroness For Life

Baroness von Sketch Show is available for immediate consumption.

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GIFs via Giphy

Baroness von Sketch Show is snowballing as people have taken note of its subtle and not-so-subtle skewering of everyday life. The New York Times, W Magazine, and Vogue have heaped on the praise, but IFC had a few more probing questions…

IFC: To varying degrees, your sketches are simply scripted examples of things that actually happen. What makes real life so messed up?

Aurora: Hubris, Ego and Selfish Desires and lack of empathy.

Carolyn: That we’re trapped together in the 3rd Dimension.

Jenn: 1. Other people 2. Other people’s problems 3. Probably something I did.

IFC: A lot of people I know have watched this show and realized, “Dear god, that’s me.” or “Dear god, that’s true.” Why do people have their blinders on?

Aurora: Because most people when you’re in the middle of a situation, you don’t have the perspective to step back and see yourself because you’re caught up in the moment. That’s the job of comedians is to step back and have a self-awareness about these things, not only saying “You’re doing this,” but also, “You’re not the only one doing this.” It’s a delicate balance of making people feel uncomfortable and comforting them at the same time.


IFC: Unlike a lot of popular sketch comedy, your sketches often focus more on group dynamics vs iconic individual characters. Why do you think that is and why is it important?

Meredith: We consider the show to be more based around human dynamics, not so much characters. If anything we’re more attracted to the energy created by people interacting.

Jenn: So much of life is spent trying to work it out with other people, whether it’s at work, at home, trying to commute to work, or even on Facebook it’s pretty hard to escape the group.

IFC: Are there any comedians out there that you feel are just nailing it?

Aurora: I love Key and Peele. I know that their show is done and I’m in denial about it, but they are amazing because there were many times that I would imagine that Keegan Michael Key was in the scene while writing. If I could picture him saying it, I knew it would work. I also kind of have a crush on Jordan Peele and his performance in Big Mouth. Maya Rudolph also just makes everything amazing. Her puberty demon on Big Mouth is flawless. She did an ad for 7th generation tampons that my son, my husband and myself were singing around the house for weeks. If I could even get anything close to her career, I would be happy. I’m also back in love with Rick and Morty. I don’t know if I have a crush on Justin Roiland, I just really love Rick (maybe even more than Morty). I don’t have a crush on Jerry, the dad, but I have a crush on Chris Parnell because he’s so good at being Jerry.



IFC: If you could go back in time and cast yourselves in any sitcom, which would it be and how would it change?

Carolyn: I’d go back in time and cast us in The Partridge Family.  We’d make an excellent family band. We’d have a laugh, break into song and wear ruffled blouses with velvet jackets.  And of course travel to all our gigs on a Mondrian bus. I feel really confident about this choice.

Meredith: Electric Mayhem from The Muppet Show. It wouldn’t change, they were simply perfect, except… maybe a few more vaginas in the band.

Binge the entire first and second seasons of Baroness von Sketch Show now on and the IFC app.

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G.I. Jeez

Stomach Bugs and Prom Dates

E.Coli High is in your gut and on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Brothers-in-law Kevin Barker and Ben Miller have just made the mother of all Comedy Crib series, in the sense that their Comedy Crib series is a big deal and features a hot mom. Animated, funny, and full of horrible bacteria, the series juxtaposes timeless teen dilemmas and gut-busting GI infections to create a bite-sized narrative that’s both sketchy and captivating. The two sat down, possibly in the same house, to answer some questions for us about the series. Let’s dig in….


IFC: How would you describe E.Coli High to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

BEN: Hi ummm uhh hi ok well its like umm (gets really nervous and blows it)…

KB: It’s like the Super Bowl meets the Oscars.

IFC: How would you describe E.Coli High to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

BEN: Oh wow, she’s really cute isn’t she? I’d definitely blow that too.

KB: It’s a cartoon that is happening inside your stomach RIGHT NOW, that’s why you feel like you need to throw up.

IFC: What was the genesis of E.Coli High?

KB: I had the idea for years, and when Ben (my brother-in-law, who is a special needs teacher in Philly) began drawing hilarious comics, I recruited him to design characters, animate the series, and do some writing. I’m glad I did, because Ben rules!

BEN: Kevin told me about it in a park and I was like yeah that’s a pretty good idea, but I was just being nice. I thought it was dumb at the time.


IFC: What makes going to proms and dating moms such timeless and oddly-relatable subject matter?

BEN: Since the dawn of time everyone has had at least one friend with a hot mom. It is physically impossible to not at least make a comment about that hot mom.

KB: Who among us hasn’t dated their friend’s mom and levitated tables at a prom?

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

BEN: There’s a lot of content now. I don’t think anyone will even notice, but it’d be cool if they did.

KB: A show about talking food poisoning bacteria is basically the same as just watching the news these days TBH.

Watch E.Coli High below and discover more NYTVF selections from years past on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

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