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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.”

Indeed.

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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Hard Out

Comedy From The Closet

Janice and Jeffrey Available Now On IFC's Comedy Crib

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She’s been referred to as “the love child of Amy Sedaris and Tracy Ullman,” and he’s a self-described “Italian who knows how to cook a great spaghetti alla carbonara.” They’re Mollie Merkel and Matteo Lane, prolific indie comedians who blended their robust creative juices to bring us the new Comedy Crib series Janice and Jeffrey. Mollie and Matteo took time to answer our probing questions about their series and themselves. Here’s a taste.

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IFC: How would you describe Janice and Jeffrey to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Mollie & Matteo: Janice and Jeffrey is about a married couple experiencing intimacy issues but who don’t have a clue it’s because they are gay. Their oblivion makes them even more endearing.  Their total lack of awareness provides for a buffet of comedy.

IFC: What’s your origin story? How did you two people meet and how long have you been working together?

Mollie: We met at a dive bar in Wrigley Field Chicago. It was a show called Entertaining Julie… It was a cool variety scene with lots of talented people. I was doing Janice one night and Matteo was doing an impression of Liza Minnelli. We sort of just fell in love with each other’s… ACT! Matteo made the first move and told me how much he loved Janice and I drove home feeling like I just met someone really special.

IFC: How would Janice describe Jeffrey?

Mollie: “He can paint, cook homemade Bolognese, and sing Opera. Not to mention he has a great body. He makes me feel empowered and free. He doesn’t suffocate me with attention so our love has room to breath.”

IFC: How would Jeffrey describe Janice?

Matteo: “Like a Ford. Built to last.”

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

Mollie & Matteo: Our current political world is mirroring and reflecting this belief that homosexuality is wrong. So what better time for satire. Everyone is so pro gay and equal rights, which is of course what we want, too. But no one is looking at middle America and people actually in the closet. No one is saying, hey this is really painful and tragic, and sitting with that. Having compassion but providing the desperate relief of laughter…This seemed like the healthiest, best way to “fight” the gay rights “fight”.

IFC: Hummus is hilarious. Why is it so funny?

Mollie: It just seems like something people take really seriously, which is funny to me. I started to see it in a lot of lesbians’ refrigerators at a time. It’s like observing a lesbian in a comfortable shoe. It’s a language we speak. Pass the Hummus. Turn on the Indigo Girls would ya?

See the whole season of Janice and Jeffrey right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

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Die Hard Dads

Inspiration For Die Hard Dads

Die Hard is on IFC all Father's Day Long

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Photo Credit: Everett Collection, GIPHY

Yippee ki-yay, everybody! It’s time to celebrate the those most literal of mother-effers: dads!

And just in case the title of this post left anything to the imagination, IFC is giving dads balls-to-the-wall ’80s treatment with a glorious marathon of action trailblazer Die Hard.

There are so many things we could say about Die Hard. We could talk about how it was comedian Bruce Willis’s first foray into action flicks, or Alan Rickman’s big screen debut. But dads don’t give a sh!t about that stuff.

No, dads just want to fantasize that they could be deathproof quip factory John McClane in their own mundane lives. So while you celebrate the fathers in your life, consider how John McClane would respond to these traditional “dad” moments…

Wedding Toasts

Dads always struggle to find the right words of welcome to extend to new family. John McClane, on the other hand, is the master of inclusivity.
Die Hard wedding

Using Public Restrooms

While nine out of ten dads would rather die than use a disgusting public bathroom, McClane isn’t bothered one bit. So long as he can fit a bloody foot in the sink, he’s G2G.
Die Hard restroom

Awkward Dancing

Because every dad needs a signature move.
Die Hard dance

Writing Thank You Notes

It can be hard for dads to express gratitude. Not only can McClane articulate his thanks, he makes it feel personal.
Die Hard thank you

Valentine’s Day

How would John McClane say “I heart you” in a way that ain’t cliche? The image speaks for itself.
Die Hard valentines

Shopping

The only thing most dads hate more than shopping is fielding eleventh-hour phone calls with additional items for the list. But does McClane throw a typical man-tantrum? Nope. He finds the words to express his feelings like a goddam adult.
Die Hard thank you

Last Minute Errands

John McClane knows when a fight isn’t worth fighting.
Die Hard errands

Sneaking Out Of The Office Early

What is this, high school? Make a real exit, dads.
Die Hard office

Think you or your dad could stand to be more like Bruce? Role model fodder abounds in the Die Hard marathon all Father’s Day long on IFC.

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Founding Farters

Know Your Nerd History

Revenge of the Nerds is on IFC.

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Photo Credit: Everett Collection, GIFs via Giphy

That we live in the heyday of nerds is no hot secret. Scientists are celebrities, musicians are robots and late night hosts can recite every word of the Silmarillion. It’s too easy to think that it’s always been this way. But the truth is we owe much to our nerd forebearers who toiled through the jock-filled ’80s so that we might take over the world.

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Our humble beginnings are perhaps best captured in iconic ’80s romp Revenge of the Nerds. Like the founding fathers of our Country, the titular nerds rose above their circumstances to culturally pave the way for every Colbert and deGrasse Tyson that we know and love today.

To make sure you’re in the know about our very important cultural roots, here’s a quick download of the vengeful nerds without whom our shameful stereotypes might never have evolved.

Lewis Skolnick

The George Washington of nerds whose unflappable optimism – even in the face of humiliating self-awareness – basically gave birth to the Geek Pride movement.

Gilbert Lowe

OK, this guy is wet blanket, but an important wet blanket. Think Aaron Burr to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton. His glass-mostly-empty attitude is a galvanizing force for Lewis. Who knows if Lewis could have kept up his optimism without Lowe’s Debbie-Downer outlook?

Arnold Poindexter

A music nerd who, after a soft start (inside joke, you’ll get it later), came out of his shell and let his passion lead instead of his anxiety. If you played an instrument (specifically, electric violin), and you were a nerd, this was your patron saint.

Booger

A sex-loving, blunt-smoking, nose-picking guitar hero. If you don’t think he sounds like a classic nerd, you’re absolutely right. And that’s the whole point. Along with Lamar, he simultaneously expanded the definition of nerd and gave pre-existing nerds a twisted sort of cred by association.

Lamar Latrell

Black, gay, and a crazy good breakdancer. In other words, a total groundbreaker. He proved to the world that nerds don’t have a single mold, but are simply outcasts waiting for their moment.

Ogre

Exceedingly stupid, this dumbass was monumental because he (in a sequel) leaves the jocks to become a nerd. Totally unheard of back then. Now all jocks are basically nerds.

Well, there they are. Never forget that we stand on their shoulders.

Revenge of the Nerds is on IFC all month long.

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