A Collection of Essays on Film, Television, Popular Culture and Political Ideology
By David Swindle
Now seems like as good a time as any to pull together a compilation of my Front
Page articles and blog posts on looking at film and television in an ideological context.
For this collection I’ve included various images to illustrate the titles discussed.
Lessons from the Dragons’ Den
FrontPageMagazine.com | Wednesday, December 03, 2008
The federal government’s recent $700-billion “bailout” of the financial industry has opened up a Pandora’s
Box. Next in line for a taxpayer handout have been U.S. automakers General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler.
On November 19, executives from the Big Three met with Congress to beg for an additional $25 billion in
government loans to match the $25 billion they were granted this September. They, too, demand their
“Bailout” is a somewhat misleading term, however. But
replace it with “investment,” and suddenly the task before
Congress becomes clearer. Should we, the American
taxpayers, invest our money in keeping the Big Three afloat?
To answer that question one must learn to think like an
investor. And there is no better introduction to this mindset
than the endlessly entertaining BBC America show
Capitalists “Dragons’ Den.”
Spun off from the Japanese show “Money Tiger,” the British version of “Dragons’ Den” features five
multi-millionaire investors who listen to pitches from entrepreneurs and inventors. The “dragons” then
question their money-seeking supplicants, critique their product and business model, and decide if they’re
going to make them an offer. In exchange for the dragons’ capital – usually the requested amount is
between £50,000 and 250,000, or between $74,000 and $370,000 – and business guidance, the contestants
offer a percent of equity in their company. The critical “Dragons’ Den” rule is that the entrepreneur must
seal a deal for at least the amount they initially requested – otherwise, they get nothing.
“Dragons’Den” is the ultimate reality show because it’s a game played with live ammunition. The dragons
are real investors with their own money at stake. Similarly, the products and businesses being pitched are
real-life dreams to which their creators have committed themselves to pursuing. For many participants, the
dragons are a live confrontation with the hard realities of the business world.
This realistic format is only half of what makes “Dragons’Den” so much fun. The show really gets
entertaining when the personalities of the individual dragons are on display. The show’s 43 episodes,
produced over the course of six series, feature a continually shifting group of dragons. The two constants in
the den have been Duncan Bannatyne and Peter Jones, both of whom have remained with the series from
the beginning. Bannatyne, a Scottish entrepreneur, is best known for his chain of health clubs, though he
owns numerous other businesses, as well. Jones found success in the telecommunications industry. Both are
worth several hundred million pounds. Other dragons include YO! Sushi-founder Simon Woodroffe,
Californian software entrepreneur Doug Richard, Australian investor Richard Farleigh, Greek Cypriot-born
Theo Paphitis, and Pakistani-born James Caan. The Den’s female dragons are Rachel Elnaugh and multi-
millionaire businesswoman Deborah Meaden.
Most pitches go in one of three directions. The first and most common scenario is an entrepreneur who gets
roasted by the dragons, leaving without an offer. The dragons punch holes in the business model or the
product, and quickly declare themselves out. Sometimes, it’s an absurd idea. One entrepreneur, for
instance, proposed a plastic cone for cucumbers to keep the ends from spoiling quickly. An unimpressed
Theo Paphitis mocked the idea as a “condom for a cucumber.” It was laughed out of the den.
Other times it’s the entrepreneurs rather than their ideas that invite failure. A case in point was London-
based Jonathan Aster, who sought an investment in his advertising company, but was told by the dragons
that he was too confrontational. Dragon Peter Jones delivered what has become his trademark, sarcasm-
laden rejection. Referring to Aster’s casual attire, Jones said, “I’m pleased to see you’ve clearly dressed up
for the occasion today. It obviously means a lot for you to be here.” Then he dashed Aster’s hopes of
securing an investment: “You get one chance and one chance only, and you blew it for me.”
Other contestants fare better. There are times when promising ideas are presented and the dragons actually
show some interest. Still, this does not necessarily translate into success. Often the entrepreneurs are so
confident in their business that they refuse to meet the dragons’ equity demands. When two young
entrepreneurs presented a prototype for an inflatable concrete shelter, their idea attracted the attention of
Richard and Paphitis, who joined together to contribute £40,000 to meet the £80,000 requested. The
problem was that the dragons, given the high risk of the business, demanded an equity stake of 50 percent
instead of the 10 offered. The entrepreneurs rejected the offer immediately.
Every episode features at least one successful pitch. In such cases, the dragons are impressed by the idea
and make an offer that the entrepreneur is willing to accept. Sometimes the business idea is so good that
several dragons present multiple offers and undercut one another to sway the entrepreneur. When an
entrepreneur proposed his business of a wireless internet service for marinas, he received three competing
offers from Richard, Paphitis, Jones, and Elnaugh. These role reversals – when it’s the dragons trying to
woo the contestant – are an exiting change of pace in the den.
Aside from the personalities of the dragons and the creativity of some of the business pitches, much of the
fun of the show comes from putting yourself in the dragons’ position. Presented with each business
opportunity, would you invest your money? As Congress considers investing taxpayers’ money in the Big
Three automakers, the lessons from the “Dragons’ Den” have never seemed more relevant.
Agnostic For a Stalinist?
David Swindle’s Notepad | Thursday, January 8, 2009
Today my second article for David Horowitz's Front Page Magazine was published. (For
those who missed it, my first article, "Lessons from the Dragons' Den" is available here.)
In "The Cinema of the Fellow Traveler" I discuss the films of director Steven Soderbergh
in the context of political ideology and his new film starring Benicio Del Toro, "Che."
For many years now Soderbergh has been one of my favorite filmmakers. I especially
enjoyed "Traffic" and "Ocean's Eleven" and thought "Solaris" failed to get the credit it
deserved. I appreciated his experimental style and the creativity of his vision. Further, I
enjoyed the many films he produced. "Michael Clayton" was one of the best films of
This year he released his newest film, "Che," a two-part, four hour film dramatizing the
life of Ernesto "Che" Guevara. I'm not too happy about it. Guevara was a Marxist
revolutionary who helped found a totalitarian government. He was an executioner who
justified killing people without trial. Politically he was a Stalinist.
In my article I discuss Soderbergh's political ideology as it manifests itself in his films
and as he describes his views in recent interviews. One of these comments that he made
explaining his approach to Guevara and the making of his films stuck in my craw a bit.
At the Cannes film festival he said, "I’m an agnostic. I’m not personally invested in
building him [Guevara] up or tearing him down." I didn't call out Soderbergh for this
abuse of agnosticism in my article but I will now.
My deep appreciation for a philosophy of general agnosticism toward everything is
something I've pontificated on quite a bit. I've argued on behalf of a mystical Christian
agnosticism. I've described my variation of centrist liberalism as a kind of political
agnosticism. So therefore, my friends who frequently disagree with this disposition, are
now in a position to ask, "Well gee, Dave, it sounds like your mind's made up about Che.
You obviously believe he was a bad guy. Where's your great philosophy of agnosticism
Here's the important thing to understand about this analytical approach: agnosticism is
not the same as neutrality. I do not know that Che was an evil man. I don't believe that he
dedicated his life to a political philosophy that history has demonstrated to be a
totalitarian failure responsible for millions of deaths. Rather, I simply have abundant
evidence to support both propositions.
The agnosticism that I advocate considers all ideas not on a dualistic, yes/no, good/evil,
black/white understanding but rather a sliding scale of probabilities. The question is not
"Is this true?" But rather, "How likely is it that this is true?" and "How much evidence do
we have that this is true?"
All ideas fall somewhere between 0% False and 100% True. I don't think we can ever
have enough evidence to place anything at 0% or 100%. The more evidence you have in
support of an idea, the higher the probability of its truth. Yet we cannot reach certainty
because the equipment we have in gathering our evidence is imperfect and incomplete.
Our senses and our minds are not always correct in what we think we're perceiving.
Further, we simply do not have enough information available to us. We never have a
complete picture of anything.
So on the question of Guevara, we have an awful lot of evidence that he really wasn't a
figure we should celebrate. There are plenty of books written about Guevara, Cuba, and
Marxist-Leninist ideology. And Soderbergh, who claims to have spent years researching
for his project, should have read them. So what's to be agnostic about? We're talking
about a specific person and specific events. We're not talking about whether God exists,
whether Jesus rose from the dead, or complex philosophical ideas. Did Guevara execute
people without trial? Yes. Did he help found a totalitarian dictatorship? Yes. Did he fight
on behalf of an ideology that fails to produce functioning societies? Yes. Are each of
these "yes" answers a 100% on the truth scale? No, they're each probably somewhere
between 90 and 99.99% in their probability for truthfulness. (Is anyone going to argue
that Guevara didn't help found the Castro regime? I suppose it's possible but the
likelihood of such a historical fraud is minute.)
In describing my thinking to some people sometimes I get the line of questioning, "Well
if you think this way how can you even take a step? After all you don't know 100% that
the floor is even there." We don't live our lives based on absolute certainty, we live it
based on probabilities. We go to the store to buy a carton of milk because there's a
relatively high probability that they'll have milk in stock. You don't know for 100% about
anything. But you don't need to know something 100% in order to hold a position, make
a decision, or take an action.
The Cinema of the Fellow
FrontPageMagazine.com | Thursday, January 08, 2009
Making a movie about the twentieth century's most idolized radical icon has consequences for a filmmaker.
Suddenly formerly-unnoticed leftist trends in previous films show up more clearly. Further, reporters are
likely to pose probing questions asking the filmmaker to explain just what he believes and why he would
make such a picture.
Since he helped jumpstart the '90s independent film revolution with 1989's "sex, lies, and videotape" the
prolific Steven Soderbergh has emerged as one of modern cinema's most fascinating visionaries.
With his newest film, though, Soderbergh finds himself in the middle of a very different revolution with
much more unpleasant consequences. This month filmgoers will have the opportunity to see Benicio Del
Toro play Ernesto "Che" Guevara, the 20th century's most famous Stalinist executioner in the four hour epic
"Che." The film opened December 12 in New York and Los Angeles to ensure eligibility for this year's
Academy Awards. It will expand this month to additional markets and has also been split to be shown in
two parts. In a move similar to recent Soderbergh films,
"Che" will be available as a "video on demand" purchase
through all major cable and satellite providers.
The problem for Soderbergh is that he's an auteur. Since
the '60s, film critics and aficionados have almost
uniformly embraced the "auteur theory." In this mode of
film appreciation you follow the career of individual
writers, directors, or producers and see themes and
patterns emerge. One film relates to another and you get
into the "director's vision." Now Soderbergh has crafted a
love letter to the left's most popular icon and a pattern of
leftist themes can emerge more clearly in a reading of his
produced and directed films.
After the initial success of "sex, lies, and videotape"
Soderbergh wandered around in the cinematic wilderness
for much of the '90s, directing unsuccessful misfires Fellow
("King of the Hill," "Kafka," "Underneath") and odd, low-
budget experiments ("Schizopolis.") Two more successful
crime thrillers in the late '90s – "Out of Sight" and "The
Limey" – lent him the stronger grounding to make the two films that would prove he was not a one hit
In 2000 Soderbergh released two films, both of which brought him Academy Award nominations for best
director: "Erin Brockovich" and "Traffic." He would win the Oscar for "Traffic." Both films had left-wing
themes. "Erin Brockovich" told the "true" story of a far-Left attorney, portrayed by Julia Roberts as a
sympathetic single mother who, through hard work and ingenuity, was instrumental in the biggest
settlement ever in a direct-action lawsuit. The film embraced the common Hollywood narrative of a noble
"common person" triumphing over an evil corporation deliberately poisoning the innocent. "Traffic"
attacked the war on drugs from a left-wing perspective with three interconnected stories. One plot thread
featured Michael Douglas as a conservative politician who only came to realize the error in his position
when his own daughter became an addict who prostituted herself to pay for her habit.
This success gave Soderbergh the ability do
whatever he wanted. He founded the production
company Section Eight with George Clooney
who he'd befriended on "Out of Sight." The first
film from the company by Soderbergh would be
decidedly mainstream and would allow for the
funding of less commercial projects. The fun
2001 heist flick "Ocean's Eleven," a remake of
Wealth the Rat Pack classic, would star Clooney and
generate $183 million and two similarly
profitable sequels. On first viewing, the
Redistribution "Ocean's" trilogy seem like apolitical
entertainments. When considered in the context
of leftist themes some strange questions emerge.
Why is it that the villain in all three pictures is a despicable, rich capitalist? Is it coincidence that the third
film, "Ocean's Thirteen," involves a plot by Danny Ocean's gang to rig the games in Al Pacino's casino, so
that the evil owner loses $500 million in one night? The whole premise is to redistribute the money away
from the corrupt rich guy...who earned it.
In the films that Soderbergh didn't make himself but instead decided to produce through Section Eight, we
see this pattern continue. In 2002 there was "Far From Heaven," a revisionist, Douglas Sirk-style film that
looked at racism and homophobia in the 1950s. In 2005, audiences got a veiled jab at the Bush
administration with "Good Night and Good Luck," a Clooney-directed, one-sided depiction of
McCarthyism. That year also brought "Syriana," an anti-Iraq War film in the style of "Traffic" that
advanced the left's "no blood for oil" argument. For 2006, "A Scanner Darkly" adapted a paranoid, drug-
addled story by '60s countercultural writer Phillip K. Dick. And one of the best films of 2007, "Michael
Clayton" featured Clooney as a cynical lawyer who discovers a corporation's guilt in a class action lawsuit
that bares similarities to that of "Erin Brockovich." "Michael Clayton" goes further than reality would allow
with Brockovich, featuring a corporation so driven in its pursuit of profit that it hires assassins to kill those
who threaten it. Like Soderbergh's directed films, these Section Eight productions are fantastic pictures in
any critical measure – artistically crafted, well acted, often entertaining, and undeniably left-leaning.
The leftist tendency to smash working traditions and evolved, functioning systems finds an intriguing
expression in Soderbergh's business model. In 2005, Soderbergh released "Bubble" a low-budget thriller he
directed, filmed, and edited. The film was simultaneously released in theaters and through "video on
demand." It arrived on DVD a few days later. This flies in the face of the conventional strategy of releasing
a film into theaters exclusively before expanding into other venues in later months. Soderbergh is
contracted to do more of these "simultaneous release" films. The strategy didn't really work for "Bubble,"
one of Soderbergh's least commercially successful films (and deservedly so).
This radical tendency for experimentation finds further expression in many of these smaller Soderbergh
pictures. When he's not trying to make a profit Soderbergh loves to have his actors improvise or to adopt a
loose, fly-on-the-wall camera approach. In "Schizopolis" he demonstrates an affection for that all too
common leftist habit of deconstructing narrative and conventional structure until it reaches
The marginal success of "Bubble" has been characteristic of Soderbergh's recent non-"Ocean," directed
work. In 2002, he did the experimental "Full Frontal" and the underrated sci-fi romance "Solaris." In 2004,
he contributed the short "Equilibrium" to the three-part film "Eros," an anthology of erotically-themed
shorts. In 2006, he released "The Good German," a film made to look like a black and white 1940s film
noir. None of these films drew very much attention or box office. The subject matter of his upcoming films
might be more successful. "The Informant" is another anti-corporate film, this time a black comedy starring
Matt Damon as a whistleblower. "The Girlfriend Experience," Soderbergh's current project in development,
is to be another micro-budgeted venture, this time starring porn star Sasha Grey as an expensive call girl.
All of these pieces on the table, what is to be made of Soderbergh the auteur?
He claims that he doesn't agree with Guevara's actions and ideas. In an interview with the film gossip
website Ain't it Cool News Soderbergh noted that Guevara despised films and artists. He said, "Well, first
of all, I wouldn't be walking the red carpet at Cannes, if I believed a twentieth of what he believes." At
Cannes he told the press corp, "I'm not personally invested in building him up or tearing him down."
After a showing of "Che" at the New York Film Festival in October he showed his hand:
I don't think the economic policy that flows from Marxist-Leninist doctrine works...It's an ideology that
worked in a very specific place, in a very specific time, in an industrialized situation. Mostly it works on
paper because as soon as you start adding human beings to it, it falls apart. Do I support his ideas when a
system is in place in which profit is only possible through the exploitation of the weak and the poor? I'd
say, yeah, I want to see that eradicated. But his methodology, and his economic belief system, I don't think
His answer reveals why he devoted so much time and energy to make a film about Guevara, and why a
totalitarian sociopath still holds so much meaning for the left. For Soderbergh, Guevara was wrong about
the solution and the method, but correct in diagnosing the problem.
Guevara's leftist fans can forgive his violence and failed Stalinism because they agree with his overall
mission of destroying capitalism and America. Toward that misguided goal Guevara fought harder than any
figure the left has ever known. Such a feat is apparently enough to warrant a four-hour-long epic from one
of the most talented filmmakers working today.
Looking at Film Ideologically
David Swindle’s Notepad | Friday, January 23, 2009
Today David Horowitz's Front Page Magazine published my third article for them, "Clint
Eastwood's Libertarian-Conservative Vision." In the piece I discuss the actor-director's
career in an ideological context, looking at the conservative and libertarian themes that
appear throughout his films.
The essay can be seen as in the style of analysis that I first developed in my previous
Front Page piece on the leftist themes in the films of Steven Soderbergh. I hope to
continue writing pieces in this fashion on filmmakers that interest me and plan to develop
this mode of criticism. It wouldn't be difficult to expand the pieces on Soderbergh and
Eastwood to book-length chapters that looked at all of their films in much greater depth.
However, there are some hazards to this approach which I'd like to get out of the way
before I continue down this road any further. I'm going to articulate what I'm not doing:
1. I'm not making the argument that a director is always trying to push a political
agenda on his audience. In my Soderbergh piece I note that the "Ocean's" trilogy
features a malevolent capitalist as the antagonist in each film and that the third film
features a plot by Ocean's gang to redistribute the wealth away from the rich guy that
earned it. In my Eastwood article I point out how in "Million Dollar Baby" the film
depicts a protagonist who works hard to improve her lot in life; she's juxtaposed with her
trailer trash family who stay at the bottom because of their laziness and immorality. Now,
when Soderbergh and Eastwood were making their films, did they do so with the idea in
mind that they were going to use their films to advance political points? Possibly, but
more likely not. Films certainly can be made with the goal of promoting a political
agenda, but unless the filmmaker all but admits it -- and sometimes they do -- then we
can't really know for sure. I prefer a less malevolent explanation. Films are an expression
of the people that make them. Their philosophy and world view will manifest in their art
often without even their intent.
2. I'm not saying that one should avoid a film because of its ideological character or
that because a film leans heavily in one political direction it's inherently bad.
Nothing could be further than what I'm trying to say with these essays. In my Soderbergh
article I talk about how he produced 2007's drama "Michael Clayton," a film with such an
anti-corporate outlook that it features a company that hires assassins to kill people who
threaten it. "Michael Clayton" is a film that I love passionately. It's a great film because
of the compelling characters it creates, the talented acting performances that bring them
to life, the elegance of the cinematography, the literary quality of the dialogue, and the
excitement of the plot. To avoid seeing it or to allow the film's leftist sub-plot to seriously
taint one's enjoyment of the picture is to throw the baby out with the bathwater.
3. I'm not saying that the themes I'm seeing are "actually there." It's perhaps on this
point where I get a tad postmodern and English-majorey. How do you know when you
see an idea in a film, book, or other piece of art that it's actually there? Well the only
honest answer is you don't. Art is about the interaction between artist and audience. It's a
meeting of minds that results in the creation of something that was not there before.
That's why it's so exciting, every time a different person sees a film they're going to walk
away with different ideas and interpretations. Because I think we'll all agree that the ideas
in a piece of art are not limited to what the artist intended to put in them. Sometimes
outlooks slip in without an artist realizing it. I don't think that last sentence is something
particularly controversial or anything too outlandish with which anyone would disagree.
This last point in mind, I suppose it's only fair to ask then what is it that I am doing with
this style of film analysis. And for that I only need a single point to explain myself. Ideas
only work when they are made tangible through people, art, history, and symbols. The
value at looking at films ideologically is that it allows for a discussion and demonstration
of ideas. It's an excuse to talk about ideas. And that's what I hope to continue through
looking at films.
Clint Eastwood’s Libertarian-
FrontPageMagazine.com | Friday, January 23, 2009
With all the productions made by Hollywood's leftist actors and filmmakers, it's often easy to
overlook Conservatives in the industry. With the widespread release of "Gran Torino," Clint Eastwood's
first acted film in four years, the public will receive a bold reminder of a filmmaker who has managed to
both act and direct in films with conservative themes for 40 years.
"Gran Torino," also directed by Eastwood, features the iconic
actor as Walt Kowalski, a retired autoworker and Korean War
veteran recently widowed. The traditional Kowalski is
perpetually scowling at the world in which he finds himself. He's
disgusted by the new generation's lack of respect – one of his
grandchildren shows up at a funeral in a Detroit Lions jersey,
another with bare midriff.
Returning home is no better. The mildly racist Walt is horrified
to see his neighborhood filled with Asian immigrants, the
younger generation of which have resorted to gang life. Walt
gradually sheds his prejudices, though, as a series of events
bring him into contact with his neighbors. In teenage Thao, he
finds a boy who respects his elders and is concerned about his
family's honor. Walt begins to mentor Thao, teaching him in the
Capitalist ways of masculinity and setting him up with a construction job.
Thao's opportunity to make something of himself, though, is
threatened by gang members who seek to draw him into their
Cowboy lifestyle and react violently when he resists. The Korean War
veteran realizes that his neighborhood has become a war zone.
Walt, now invested in the boy's future, realizes that Thao's
opportunity to participate in the American Dream is threatened
and reacts to defend him.
"Gran Torino" is noted as a return to the aggressive masculine persona that Eastwood first developed in the
late '60s and early '70s. After first drawing attention for his role in the TV show Rawhide, Eastwood
established himself in film by starring in Italian director Sergio Leone's "Fistful of Dollars" in 1964.
Eastwood's Man With No Name was a new kind of Western protagonist, a bounty hunter who was
motivated by self-interest. Eastwood would reprise the character in 1965's "For a Few Dollars More" and
1966's "The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly." This refocusing of the Western would lay the groundwork for
the libertarian Westerns he would direct himself later in his career.
The urban setting of "Gran Torino" perhaps reminds viewers more of Eastwood's other iconic role as
Detective Harry Callahan in director Don Siegel's "Dirty Harry" and its sequels. The film featured Callahan
on the trail of Scorpio, a sadistic serial killer. When one of the murderer's victims was supposedly trapped
with a limited oxygen supply, Callahan ignored legal bureaucracy and regulations, breaking into the killer's
home without a search warrant and engaging in some "enhanced interrogation techniques" to try and push
the madman into revealing the girl's location. It seems clear how a contemporary film might apply this
attitude to a terrorist with knowledge of an
impending attack. For portraying such a
character the film was famously attacked by
prominent film critic Pauline Kael as "fascist."
Longing for control of his artistic vision,
Eastwood founded The Malpaso Company,
later renamed Malpaso Productions, and began
his directing career with 1971's "Play Misty
for Me." In 1976, Eastwood would star in and
direct "The Outlaw Josey Wales," a revisionist
Western that showed a different facet of his
libertarian vision. The hero of the film is a
man who just wants to be left alone after the
Civil War. The villains are a Union brigade
that has abused its powers – representative of
excessive government – that pursue Wales,
wanting him to surrender to them.
We see a similar vision of man against
government power in one of Eastwood's most
celebrated films, the 1991 Best Picture Oscar
Winner "Unforgiven." In that film, Eastwood
puts a more human face on his "Fistful of
Dollars" persona. He plays an aging gunslinger
pursuing one final job, to kill two men who
mutilated a prostitute and escaped with
minimal punishment. Again, it's Eastwood
conflicting with a corrupt government, this time in the form of the sheriff of Big Whiskey, Little Bill
Daggett (Gene Hackman.) Second Amendment advocates will likely get a kick out of the fact that the
sheriff enforces draconian gun control laws – all visitors to the town are required to surrender their
firearms. Thus the tyrannical government is allowed to dominate – until Eastwood shows up.
It was Eastwood's more recent Best Picture winner, 2004's "Million Dollar Baby," that drew the attention of
a faction of the conservative movement. The film's third act included content which infuriated social
conservatives who interpreted the film as a defense of euthanasia. In an interview with Philip French of The
Guardian, Eastwood responded to the criticism: "I heard people criticize me who hadn't even seen 'Million
Dollar Baby.' I've heard people say he's done this thing about euthanasia, and they'd get all upset. I'd go -
wait a second, have you seen the picture? Are you interested in the people? Are you interested in the plight
of a man who has never had a relationship with the daughter he wanted to have a relationship with?"
In an interview with New York Times columnist Frank Rich, Eastwood laid out the film's conservative
vision. Eastwood pointed out that the film features a character "willing to pull herself up by the bootstraps,
to work hard and persevere no matter what." He further pointed out, "And the villains in the movie include
people who are participating in welfare fraud." The film juxtaposes the working class boxer Maggie (Hilary
Swank), who fights to improve her situation as opposed to her poor family members who remain at the
bottom because of their participation in a culture of laziness and immorality.
In these interviews, Eastwood makes clear his philosophy of limited government. In a more recent
interview with Fox News's Neil Cavuto he explains the origin of his political ideology: "Well, it's — you
know, I started out in — my first voting was for Dwight Eisenhower in 1952. And the — so, I became a
Republican then. And I always liked their kind of philosophy of less government, and watching the
spending, and not spending more." Eastwood is noted for actually having political experience; he served as
mayor of California's Carmel-by-the-Sea in the '80s.
Eastwood hesitates to embrace the conservative label, though. In the interview with French he said, "I'm
not really conservative. I'm conservative on certain things. I believe in less government. I believe in fiscal
responsibility and all those things that maybe Republicans used to believe in but don't anymore."
Within Eastwood's films, though, we see the transition from libertarianism to libertarian-conservatism. One
can start out with a vision of freedom – that we must have a society in which individuals have the
opportunity to pursue their own destinies and "everyone leaves everyone else alone," as Eastwood likes to
sum up his views. Yet one becomes conservative when he comes to the realization that that freedom must
be defended from those who threaten it; it must be conserved. We see this first manifest in "Dirty Harry"
when the Eastwood character goes to extreme measures to confront a sociopath who threatens a city's
It's ultimately in "Gran Torino," though, that this idea gets its clearest expression. We want a society in
which the next generation has the same opportunities of individual liberty to pursue their dreams. In order
for the next generation to enjoy that freedom, we must confront sociopaths and nihilists – whether they be
international Islamofascists or just local criminal gangs – who would threaten that fundamental American
FrontPageMagazine.com | Friday,
February 06, 2009
“Towelhead,” now available on DVD
When filmmaker Alan Ball’s directorial debut
“Towelhead” opened in September of last year it
didn’t make much of a splash in spite of its
incendiary title and shocking subject matter.
The independent black comedy only played on
100 screens and had a worldwide gross of just
over half a million dollars. This wasn’t the same
The Middle East reaction writer-director Ball has received
recently with his work. He won an Oscar and a
Golden Globe for writing the acclaimed
“American Beauty.” “Six Feet Under,” the popular HBO show he created, was a regular fixture of award
shows during its five season run. In rather quick turn around, “Towelhead” was released on DVD on
December 30 where perhaps it will find a larger audience.
The film stars Summer Bishil as 13-year-old Jasira, a girl with an American mother (Maria Bello) and
Lebanese father (Peter Macdissi.) “Towelhead” begins disturbing and doesn’t let up. The opening scene
features Jasira’s mother’s boyfriend helping to shave the teenager’s bikini line. When her mother discovers
the indiscretion she sends Jasira to live out in
Texas with her father Rifat.
Jasira, who is fascinated by her developing
sexuality, clashes with her traditionalist,
physically abusive father who demands she
dress more modestly. He watches her like a
hawk and grows weary when Jasira begins
dating an African-American boy.
It’s in the character of Travis Vuouso (Aaron
Eckhart,) Jasira’s next-door-neighbor and a
patriotic army reservist, that the film gets
America much of its controversy. When Jasira moves
in she starts babysitting Travis’s son Zack
who regularly hurls at her the racist insult of
the title. Jasira discovers that one of Zack’s
favorite pastimes is perusing his father’s
collection of pornographic magazines. She joins Zack and one day Travis comes home to catch her. This
sets him on a path to pursue her sexually, eventually leading to molestation and rape.
Not all of Jasira’s neighbors are malevolent. Toni Collette plays Melina, a pregnant neighbor who takes an
interest in Jasira’s wellbeing and suspects Travis’s intentions.
The film has mostly been considered in two contexts. The first is as “transgressive cinema” that presents
graphic depictions of sexuality. “Towelhead” received pretty mixed reviews – only 47% of its critical
reviews were positive according to Rotten Tomatoes – with most critics tending to feel that the movie’s
jolts weren’t backed by any serious substance.
The second avenue for understanding the film is as a coming of age story. Based off of the novel of the
same title by Alicia Erian, the film depicts a young girl struggling with her emerging sexuality.
What really hasn’t been discussed as extensively is the film’s political symbolism and ideological content.
Why is it that Travis, the neighbor who pursues, molests, and rapes Jasira is an aggressively patriotic army
reservist who has a flagpole in his front yard? Set during the first Gulf War, what significance is there in
Jasira confronting Travis, a married man, for keeping a bunch of condoms in the knap sack that he’ll take
over to Iraq? Where do these details fit into this coming of age story? The answer is they don’t, they
provide the entry into the film’s political comment.
Travis is America and Jasira is the Middle East. Travis is representative of a vision of America that swoops
in to a young Middle East, just beginning to develop itself, and rapes it. Travis doesn’t really care about
Jasira, he just wants to take advantage of her, to exploit her for his own pleasure. This is how many people
both in and out of America view it – as the imperial force that seeks nothing more than the rape of those
weaker and more vulnerable.
Also brought to mind by Travis is the character of Col. Frank Fitts (Chris Cooper) from Ball’s previous
film “American Beauty.” Why is it that in both of his films the antagonist is a violent, disturbed, super-
patriotic military man who disrupts the happy existence of the protagonist? This depiction is an act of
symbol warfare. How do you attack America artistically? Depict the American soldier as a racist child
But other characters also have symbolic roles to play. Jasira’s father Rifat, who isn’t a Muslim, but a
Christian, is symbolic of the fundamentalist religion that seeks to dominate and control the Middle Eastern
world. Rifat exhibits the same sexual hypocrisy of Orthodox Islamists. He demands purity of his daughter
and voices conservative social views while engaging in pre-marital, casual sex with his own girlfriend.
When Jasira seeks to express her sexuality and be free he reacts with violence and intimidation. This is
analogous to a fundamentalist view that allows for both female circumcision and polygamy.
Of course the film’s hero is in the character of Melina and her husband, symbolic of the Left. They’re
clearly identified when they invite Rifat and Jasira over to dinner to celebrate the end of the war. Further
Melina buys Jasira a sex education book for her birthday and even lets her keep it at her house so her
disapproving father won’t find it. Melina begins to suspect Travis’s intentions early in the film when she
sees Jasira getting out of his car. In the film’s third act Melina’s home acts as a safe retreat for Jasira when
she flees both her father and Travis. In this we see the leftist fantasy for the Middle East – to escape both
the rape of capitalist America and the domination of Islamism. It’s an expression of the radical desire to
redeem the world and rescue its oppressed.
Ball’s film fails on most of the fronts it intended. As a commentary on racism – the supposed justification
of its inflammatory title – it says little. Yes, we know that racism is bad, derogatory terms are unacceptable,
and we shouldn’t make assumptions about people because of their skin color. What more is there to say
really? As a coming of age story it doesn’t break much ground either. Jasira is so quiet and ill-defined that
it’s hard to really understand her as a person. The film doesn’t even have the laughs of “American Beauty.”
Where the film succeeds is as an example of the “progressive” worldview of America the rapist, the Middle
East the virginal victim, Fundamentalist Islam the oppressive father, and the Left as the savior and
protector. I guess Ball really did make a black comedy.
FrontPageMagazine.com | Friday, February 13, 2009
On March 6 audiences will experience “Watchmen,” the most political comic
book movie yet made. The film, based off of the acclaimed graphic novel, considers
superheroes in the “real world,” and
imagines a 1980s Cold War world in
which the presence of superheroes has
given the United States an edge over the
The film is not the first to
consider the superhero in a political
context. As the genre developed
especially since when Watchmen was
first published in the mid ‘80s stories
and characters have gone well beyond
simple escapism. And as superhero films Neo-conservative
started being adapted more regularly some ten years ago – now that cinematic special
effects had caught up with the imagination of comic artists – these more intellectual and
political themes began popping up in superhero adaptations.
We see certain ideas in particular in last year’s three best superhero films, “The
Dark Knight,” “Iron Man,” and “The Incredible Hulk.” And just what is the political
vision that appears? One that’s fundamentally conservative, albeit in very different
“The Dark Knight,” director Christopher Nolan’s sequel to 2005’s “Batman
Begins,” set the conflict between Batman (Christian Bale) and the criminally insane Joker
(Heath Ledger) in decidedly contemporary terms. The Joker is more than just the silly
prankster or bank robber as many viewers know him best. The Joker is a terrorist. He
plants bombs all over Gotham city, assassinates public officials, and sends out frightening
videos of himself in which he rants and threatens. He’s like a more manic Osama bin
Laden, except with clown makeup.
Further, it’s his objective to bring people down to his level. One of his plots
involves two ferries armed with bombs. One is filled with prisoners, the other with
civilians. He instructs the passengers that each boat has the other boat’s detonator and
that that they each have until midnight to blow up the other boat or else he will set off
both bombs. Like all terrorists he’s trying to recruit more people to his murderous vision.
The lengths that Batman goes to stop the Joker’s terrorism are as unsettling as
they are familiar. He develops a surveillance tool based off of Gotham city’s citizens’ cell
phones that allows him to see and hear everything. Further, at one point in the film the
police capture the Joker and Batman’s interrogation methods fall well outside the limits
of the law.
Like all great art the film asks the question instead of preaching simple answers.
Are such measures of enhanced interrogations and increased surveillance acceptable to
deal with terrorist threats like
the Joker? The film leaves
that to the viewer to decide
but it certainly doesn’t say
no. And what of the motives
of the people (Batman in the
film, conservatives in real
life) who advocate for these
terror-fighting tools? The
film depicts them as they are,
individuals more concerned
with protecting their
Terrorist communities than their
In another of 2008’s most popular superhero films, “Iron Man,” we see clear
political themes emerge in the character of its protagonist Tony Stark (Robert Downey,
Jr.) One of the bonus features provides an extensive look into the origins of the character
and the last four years of his comics history.
Stan Lee, Iron Man’s co-creator described in one of the featurettes on the “Iron
Man” DVD how he intentionally made a conservative character: “Well it was a funny
thing. I think I gave myself a dare. It was the height of the Cold War. The readers -- the
young readers -- if there was one thing they hated it was war, it was the military, or, as
Eisenhower called it, the military-industrial complex. So I got a hero who represented
that to the hundredth degree. He was a weapons manufacturer. He was providing
weapons for the army. He was rich. He was an industrialist. But he was good-looking guy
and he was courageous… I thought it would be fun to take the kind of character that
nobody would like – that none of our readers would like – and shove him down their
throats and make them like him… I kind of had Howard Hughes in mind – without being
crazy, he was Howard Hughes.”
Right from the beginning of the
film Stark is depicted as a man of the
Right. As the CEO of Stark Industries he’s
a capitalist. Not only is he a business
genius but an inventor as well, continually
developing new inventions and
He’s also a patriot, having come to
the realization that the American Idea
allows for the freedom that has given him
Capitalist such a wonderful life. And so he applies
his genius to develop weapons which he
then sells to the military.
Stark certainly isn’t a social
conservative, though. A bit of a
womanizer, he makes a habit of seducing
the attractive, leftist journalists who start out insulting him in their interviews.
In the film Stark’s origin story is updated from taking place in Vietnam in 1963 to
Afghanistan in modern times. While in the deserts demonstrating his newest missile for
the military he’s kidnapped by a terrorist group who then try and force him to build
weapons for them. Instead, Stark secretly builds his first Iron Man suit which he uses to
Stark returns traumatized from his experiences. His first reaction is one of
pacifism – to announce that his company will no longer make weapons. It’s an
understandable response for someone who’s just been on the receiving end of the
products he’s made a fortune selling. Once he gets his head on straight, though, he comes
to different conclusions. It’s not the weapons which are to blame, but the malevolent
people using them. So he develops better weapons – in the form of a more advanced
version of the Iron Man suit – to defeat them.
In the film we see a particularly entertaining depiction of a conservative truth: the
need to have superior firepower drives technological innovation. How many present-day
technologies that make our lives better and easier have their origins in military
development? It’s no coincidence that the same innovative energy source that powers
Stark’s suit also keeps his heart running.
“The Incredible Hulk” is perhaps the least obvious in its political comment. It
doesn’t have such clear political references as the war on terror nods of “The Dark
Knight” or the openly conservative protagonist of “Iron Man.” However in the film’s plot
we do see a central conflict of man versus government and an interesting argument for
The film starts out with scientist Bruce Banner (Edward Norton) living a life on
the lam. An experiment gone wrong has given him the ability to transform into the Hulk,
an invincible behemoth of limitless
power driven by rage. Banner’s
transformations are triggered by stress
and usually result in millions of dollars
of damage to public property so he’s
hiding out in Brazil while he struggles
to find a cure.
He’s pursued by General Ross
(William Hurt,) a good-intentioned Limited
man, who wants to utilize Banner’s
technology that created the Hulk to Government
develop superhuman soldiers. He’s
aided by Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth,) a
darker man and career soldier past his
prime who lusts after the power
Banner has discovered to give him the
glory he has yet to find. And in the film’s third act we see what happens when Blonsky
gets what he wanted. He transforms into the Abomination and goes on a rampage with
only the Hulk capable of stopping him.
The challenge that motivates Banner throughout the film is keeping this amazing
power he’s discovered away from the government. And why does he does this? Because
of a conservative understanding of human nature. Why limit the power of government?
Because government is made up of people and people have a capacity to abuse the power
they have. This truth is demonstrated when the power Banner has discovered falls into
the hands of a man like Blonsky.
These are three examples of conservatism manifest in superhero fiction but
they’re not the only ones. On first glance Superman, the most famous protagonist of the
genre, appears like more of a leftist than a conservative. After all, he makes it a mission
to fly all around the world doing good and fixing problem. He doesn’t seem to accept the
imperfectability of the world. Or has he? Looking a bit closer one realizes that Superman
isn’t using his powers to create a perfect world but to merely maintain the imperfect one
we have. This is especially demonstrated in 2006’s “Superman Returns” in which the
villain, Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey,) plots to engineer a new world by spontaneously
creating a new continent in the middle of the Atlantic ocean. Like other radicals of
history he’s indifferent to the fact that billions of people will die in pursuit of his new
world. It’s up to Superman (Brandon Routh) to stop him and conserve the world we
Why does the superhero genre bend to right? Quite simply, because the
conventions upon which it has been built force such a trajectory. Almost all superhero
stories involve a clash between good and evil or order and chaos. The superhero genre
acknowledges evil’s existence and the need for it to be opposed, usually with force.
Further the stories of the genre often struggle with the question of what to do with power.
Superhero fiction is also built on innovation and individualism – concepts
intimately bound with capitalism. Frequently the protagonists of the genre are people
who develop their suits or powers through their own creativity. Often it only makes sense
to make them billionaire industrialists like Stark or Bruce Wayne who can conceivably
afford to create the advanced technology needed for their crime-fighting.
The classic superheroes of last year’s blockbuster film adaptations were generally
not conceived with political intentions in mind. (Lee, in his creation of Iron Man, seemed
more interested in being original than political.) These themes just gradually drifted
toward the characters over time as they were developed by various writers and artists.
That was not the case with Watchmen, though. When writer Alan Moore conceived his
story he intentionally wrote his superhero characters as representative of different
political ideologies in conflict. One was something of a leftist utopian, out to save the
world no matter the cost. Another was heavily inspired by G. Gordon Liddy. And the
book’s most unforgettable character was an uncompromising, Objectivism-inspired
libertarian. Look forward to these characters and the further political themes of
“Watchmen” to be discussed in a piece shortly before the film’s release in March.
Watching the Watchmen
FrontPageMagazine.com | Friday, March 06, 2009
For most of the genre’s existence the superhero story
represented almost the peak of escapism.
Superheroes were perfect, often inhuman figures who
lived in worlds alien to our own. Even those without
powers, like Batman and Iron Man, were possessed of
genius and determination well beyond any real person.
For generations the genre remained the favorite of
children and teenagers.
Then these kids grew up, started thinking about the
complexity of the world, and took their superheroes
with them. One such reader was Alan Moore, who as a
child growing up in the poorest area of England’s
Northampton found an escape in American comics. As
an adult Moore embraced the medium and provided it
with a sophisticated, literary approach, earning
numerous awards and eventually becoming the
medium’s most celebrated writer with such books as V
Anarchist for Vendetta, From Hell, Swamp Thing, and The
League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.
Moore’s books are most noted for their complex nature. He’s the James Joyce of the comic book medium,
only thankfully more prolific. And Watchmen, whose long-anticipated film-adaptation opens Friday, is
Moore’s Ulysses, his most popular and important book. It’s also the only comic to appear on the Time list
of 100 greatest novels.
Because Moore’s work embraces the reality of a complex world, the fact that Moore identifies as an
anarchist and has political opinions that fall well within the Left (as this Salon interview demonstrates) is
unlikely to detract from a centrist or a conservative’s appreciation of his work and the upcoming film.
Moore also intentionally tried to avoid a clear cut message in Watchmen, saying:
We tried to set up four or five radically
opposing ways of seeing the world and let the
readers figure it out for themselves; let them
make a moral decision for once in their
miserable lives! Too many writers go for that
“baby bird” moralizing, where your audience
just sits there with their beaks open and you
just cram regurgitated morals down their
Cold Warrior throat. … What we wanted to do was show all
of these people, warts and all. Show that even
Conservative the worst of them had something going for
them, and even the best of them had their
Watchmen is set in an alternate 1985 in which the presence of superheroes has given the United States an
edge in the Cold War. On its side the US has Doctor Manhattan, a glowing, blue man with all but limitless
power. Doctor Manhattan was formerly part of a costumed hero team that featured such members as the
Comedian, Rorschach, Ozymandias, Nite Owl, and the team’s only female, the Silk Spectre. Within the
characters of the team, who are the novel’s central figures, we see numerous political ideologies in conflict.
The story begins with the mysterious murder of the Comedian, a character Moore admits was inspired by
G. Gordon Liddy. The Comedian is a cigar-chomping, muscled tough guy whose comic models can be seen
in such characters as The Peacemaker and Nick Fury. When a 1977 law bans costumed adventurers the
Comedian becomes one of two government-sponsored heroes. In the first issue of Watchmen, Dan
Dreiberg, the now-retired Nite Owl says, “I heard he’d been working for the government since ’77,
knocking over Marxist republics in South America.” At one point we see that the Comedian was
responsible for rescuing the hostages in the Iran Hostage Crisis. The Comedian is representative of the Cold
Warrior, aggressively supporting government force in confronting evil at home and abroad.
These clues about possible motives for the killing of the Comedian are mulled over by Rorschach, his
former teammate and a costumed hero who continues his crime-fighting, regardless of the law. Rorschach
is the protagonist of Watchmen and his investigation of who
murdered the Comedian will drive the plot. Politically he’s
inspired by such Steve Ditko comic creations as Mr. A. and The Libertarian
Question. Ditko is an Ayn Rand devotee who expressed his
interpretation of her philosophy in his comics. Moore, who
personally disagreed with the politics, still found the characters
and ideas exciting.
Rorschach is without question the book’s coolest character. He
appears in a dirty trench coat and wears a white fabric over his
face with continually shifting black splotches. This black/white
pattern is symbolic of the character’s world view. Rorschach
abhors moral relativism and divides the world into clear
definitions of right and wrong. He sees it as his role to oppose
evil, pursue his vision of justice, and deliver his “retribution.”
He sympathizes with the Comedian’s conservatism and
patriotism but parts ways when it comes to government. He’s the book’s libertarian. Two other
philosophical strains that pervade the character are an inability to compromise and a tendency toward
conspiracy-thinking. These two traits will serve him well
over the course of the book as sometimes conspiracies do
exist and often one should not compromise with evil.
The superhero genre has a propensity for a world-saving
mentality and Watchmen is no different. In the character
of Ozymandias we see the leftist desire to unite, save, and
redeem the world. (The character more than reveals
himself when he slurs the Comedian as a “Nazi,” as
leftists are known to label conservatives.) Ozymandias
thinks of himself as the most intelligent man in the world
and sees it as his duty to radically solve the problem of
the Cold War. In doing so he’s willing to go so far in this
pursuit that he’ll sacrifice innocent people and anyone
strong enough to stand in his way.
Amidst these left-right conflicts another philosophy
hovers in the background, seemingly transcending them. Utopian
In the character of the super-powered Dr. Manhattan
Moore gives us a man who lives Quantum Theory the
way physicists talk of it. The book’s fourth chapter,
“Watchmaker,” focuses on Dr. Manhattan’s origin and
perspective. We see how Dr. Manhattan perceives time in a nonlinear fashion. The past, present, and future
are all happening simultaneously for him, represented by comic panels telling the character’s story by
continually jumping back and forth from year to year. The ideologies of Rorschach, the Comedian, and
Ozymandias are all irrelevant to Dr. Manhattan. His power and perspective isolate him from humanity and
it’s up to his former lover, the Silk Spectre, to try and persuade him to intervene. She contributes the
emotional, feminine component to this already boiling ideological stew.
When Alan Moore wrote Watchmen he did intend for something of an anti-Reagan critique. How was he
attacking a figure so beloved by the conservative movement? The profoundly amusing answer is in a way
that those on the Right should embrace. Amidst the book’s complex themes and multiple world views there
actually is a fairly coherent message that does emerge in the style Moore chose to fashion his characters:
we should not trust people to save us. Moore was critiquing the very idea of superheroes. He thought we
should not look to superheroes to protect us and fix our problems for the simple reason that such figures are
just as human as we are. In his depiction of costumed adventurers with neuroses and problems Moore
embraces one of the central philosophical
truths of conservatism: people are flawed.
And so we should be cautious in granting
them the power to change, “improve,” or
police the world.
The book’s superheroes are analogous to
our politicians. Moore’s principle attack on
Reagan was to say that Americans should
not look to him as a heroic god who’s going
to fix everything. Politicians are not heroes
Quantum we can trust and embrace. They’re human
and thus no better than the rest of us. And
that message is an important one to
remember at the dawn of the Obama
administration, especially for the President’s
supporters. It’s fine to like or support a
politician and his policies. What’s not acceptable is to get so wrapped up in defending your president
against the constant wave of attacks against him that you begin seeing him as The One Who Will Save Us.
So will this rich thematic tapestry make it to the screen on March 6? Or will Moore’s vision be perverted
into an atrocity on par with that of his second film adaptation, “League of Extraordinary Gentlemen”?
When we consider the film’s director, Zack Snyder, and his previous film, “300,” we get an answer that
inspires some confidence. “300” was also based off of a comic book and the style employed by Snyder was
to all but use the book’s pages as storyboards. His method was to be as faithful to the comic as possible. It’s
also worth noting that one of the most vocal supporters of “300” was the conservative author Victor Davis
Hanson, whose thoughts on it can be read here and here. While many viewers may have missed it amidst all
the ultra-violence and beheadings, “300” did have a philosophical component.
This approach of zealous loyalty toward the source material worked for “300,” a film that generated $456
million worldwide and became a new cult classic. If there’s any other comic book that can match such
success it’s one as intellectually challenging and exciting as Watchmen.
If You Can’t Handle
You’re Going To Have A Real Hard Time with
FrontPageMagazine.com | Thursday, April 09, 2009
Comedian and talk show host Bill Maher has made religious jokes
for years but with the success of such “New Atheist” books as
Christopher Hitchens’ god Is Not Great and Sam Harris’s The End of
Faith, now was the time for a documentary critical of religion.
In “Religulous” – a portmanteau of “religion” and “ridiculous” –
Maher travels the globe to interview people of faith, challenge their
often dogmatic ideas, and pitch a joke here and there.
Maher starts out at home, talking with his mother and sister about the
Dogma but his family’s ambivalent attitude toward religion. From there he begins a
series of often confrontational, usually hilarious interviews with true
One of the most amusing interviews in the film is when Maher goes
after “Dr.” Jeremiah Cummings’ defense of his expensive clothes
and jewelry: “Jesus dressed very well,” the preacher asserts.
Maher laughs out loud: “So my image of Jesus as a man who
championed the poor and walked around in simple garb, that’s wrong?” The film then mocks Cummings
with joke subtitles and excerpts from old biblical films of Christ talking about the camel passing through
the eye of the needle.
Other Christians Maher challenges include an ex-gay minister, an actor who plays Jesus at a Christian
amusement park, an “Ex-Jew for Jesus” who runs a Christian store, and Senator Mark Pryor (D-AR.) Pryor,
who campaigns on an Evangelical Christian platform, contributed one of the film’s most memorable lines
when defending his creationist beliefs: “you don't have to pass an IQ test to be in the Senate, though." I bet
whoever he runs against in the next election is going to want to license that one for a campaign
Wanting to be an equal-opportunity critic of religion, Maher moves on from Christians and challenges
Mormons, Jews, and, in the film’s final third, Muslims.
In a discussion with Muslim rapper Propa-Gandhi Maher challenges the controversial artist when he hides
behind “the right to dissent” to justify his violent, pro-terrorism lyrics. Maher asks if that right exists within
Islam and brings up the fatwa against author Salman Rushdie for writing The Satanic Verses. Propa-Gandhi
refuses to condemn the act, and Maher finally says, “All you have to do is say it’s wrong for someone to
have to suffer a death threat for writing a book. But apparently it’s more complicated than that… You don’t
see that there’s a fundamental hypocrisy for you asking for the right to dissent and someone else getting a
In the DVD commentary Maher doesn’t mince words in his judgment of Propa-Gandhi: “He’s really one of
the most full-of-shit people.”
One interview subject who doesn’t get any joking disrespect from Maher in the film or its commentary is
Dutch parliamentarian and critic of Islam Geert Wilders. “Religulous” features a brief interview with
Wilders who, answering Maher’s question of whether Islam wants to take over the world, says, “They don’t
even make a secret of it. We are infidels. And we should either become Islamic or be killed. This is what
they say, this is what they are a part of.”
The Christianity sequences of the film stand in compelling juxtaposition to the Islam scenes. Whereas
Maher principally confronts Christians on what they believe, he’s more concerned about challenging
Muslims for what they do. This presents a challenge for secularists and those more liberally-minded on
spiritual matters: the things that irritate us about fundamentalist Christians pale in comparison to the things
that should disturb us about orthodox Muslims.
Christian fundamentalists oppose gay marriage and argue that homosexuality can be “cured” through
spiritual treatment. In Saudi Arabia gays are routinely executed. Some “Bible-believing” Christians don’t
like the idea of women as pastors and support traditional gender roles – keep the women in the kitchen. In
Africa and the Middle East millions of women every year are forced to have their genitals mutilated and
honor killings abound. Those that oppose the relatively rare occurrences of fundamentalist Christian
terrorism – abortion clinic bombings – have to react with far greater condemnation toward the more
widespread problem of Islamofascist suicide bombings.
Included amongst the DVD’s bonus features are a collection of deleted interviews and extended Maher
monologues from around the world. Some of these cut interviews are great. Be sure and check out Maher’s
talk with The Lucifer Principle author and Islam critic Howard Bloom. There’s also a fun exchange with
my favorite conspiracy theorist, the notorious David Icke who believes a race of inter-dimensional lizard
humanoids (George Bush being one of them) secretly run the world. In one of these cut scenes Maher
addresses an oft-heard criticism of secularism from believers:
One of the common arguments in defense of religion is that Hitler wasn’t religious and neither was Stalin
or Mao and they were bad so religion is good. But like religion itself it’s really an argument that depends a
lot on not thinking too deeply… Twentieth century fascism and communism, although not strictly religions
as we come to think of religion, really were religions. They were state religions… We shouldn’t get too
hung up on the word ‘religion.’ The bottom line is whether people think and act rationally or not. And
whenever people organize their lives around what could be described as groundlessness, bad things happen.
The comment points in the direction of a sequel, one I doubt Maher would star in since it would critique the
religious faith that he himself possess: Leftism. “Religulous” demonstrates that an effective way to get
people to consider ideas is through jokes and a charismatic star. The format and approach of “Religulous”
could be adopted to make a film that challenges not those with out-there religious convictions, but those
with outlandish political faiths. Combine “politics” and “ridiculous” and you have “Politulous.” Take a
right-leaning comedian as funny as Maher – perhaps P.J. O’Rourke or Ann Coulter – and set them loose
interviewing high-profile leftists in a humorous manner. It could accomplish the same feat as “Religulous”:
challenge people to critically examine their dogmas and provide a few laughs doing it.
Not Selling Teen Sex
Parcbench.com | Wednesday, May 27, 2009
In his recent article “Selling Teen Sex,” Michael O. Powell
claims to remember seeing “American Pie” and “The Girl
Next Door” but I have to wonder if he recalled watching
“Superbad,” the third teen sex comedy he singled out for
While there are many films worthy of attacking for
trivializing the realities of sex, “Superbad” is not one of
Yes, the plot line of the film involves two high school
Stealth seniors’ pursuit of sex and alcohol but those who actually
watch the film to the end will find a clear example of a
Conservatism recent trend I dub “stealth conservatism.” (Warning:
Much of the point of “Superbad” is to subvert the
traditional hedonism of teen sex comedies. At the film’s
climax Evan (Michael Cera,) finally has the opportunity to
enjoy the sex he and his buddy Seth (Jonah Hill) have
chased for the entire film. He has a willing – and drunken –
Becca (Martha MacIsaac) in bed, eager to consummate
their lusts. And suddenly he has an attack of conscience.
Evan realizes A) he’s drunk, B) she’s drunk, C) this is not
how he wanted his first sexual experience to be, and most importantly, D) this isn’t right.
For Powell’s easy reference the scene in question is chapter 24 on the Unrated DVD, about 92 minutes into
the film. There’s that “Damascus moment” he was unable to recall when responding to his first “Superbad”
defender in his article’s comments.
“I think we’re not thinking clearly,” Evan says. Becca then proceeds to throw up on the bed. If this is a
sales pitch for teen sex then I’m Billy Mays. A film that lures audiences in with the promise of celebrating
drunken debauchery ends up instead condemning it. Isn’t that a message that Powell wants teens to see?
This trend of conservative themes seemingly hidden in R-rated sex comedies isn’t limited to “Superbad.”
Its especially prevalent in the work of the film’s producer, Judd Apatow. “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,”
Apatow’s 2005 blockbuster comedy seems at first to be making fun of the idea of waiting to have sex. By
the film’s end, though, the choice to wait for the right person has been affirmed as entirely legitimate, even
preferable to the promiscuity of the protagonist’s friends.
Apatow’s follow-up to his success, 2007’s “Knocked Up,” was also a stealth conservative wolf in a sex
comedy sheep’s clothes. When a night of thoughtless, drunken sex between a slacker pothead and a career-
driven E! Network anchor results in an unplanned pregnancy the reluctant couple decides to keep the baby
despite pressure to abort. This responsibility ethos isn’t limited to sex. In the Apatow-produced “Pineapple
Express” two stoners actually come to realize the folly of their weed-based lifestyle. Only through sobering
up will they be able to overcome the challenges into which they’ve stumbled.
But stealth conservatism isn’t limited to the House of Apatow. Cult writer-director Kevin Smith’s most
recent film, “Zack and Miri Make a Porno,” also had conservative themes for those who could get past the
nudity and profanity. Audiences going in are expecting a movie that will celebrate the XXX world, instead
by the film’s third act the characters have been mugged by sexual reality. They begin the film thinking of
sex as a meaningless force but when best friends Zack and Miri finally do the deed they learn that the act
has consequences – it changes everything in a relationship. Suddenly they can’t accept the other having sex
with someone else for the film. Surely this is a message Powell would want teens to hear.
Powell doesn’t really have a very coherent idea for reforming the culture of promiscuity in America and its
alleged Hollywood representations. Totally without any evidence at hand he blames films like “Superbad”
for teenage STD rates. He also doesn’t think condoms should be readily available to teenagers, believing
that that will only encourage teens to have sex more. He instead offers vague notions of how “Youth should
be encouraged to build strong relationships, independence, and most importantly, to get jobs.”
Powell is halfway there. Teens certainly do need to have the right ideas in their heads about sexuality,
relationships, and personal responsibility. But how are we going to get them there? It’s not going to be by
bashing their favorite movies but rather by promoting better movies like “Knocked Up,” “Zack and Miri,”
and, yes, “Superbad.” (Powell is already going down this path with his promotion of such excellent films as
“Bad Santa” and “Juno.”) It’s going to be by respecting their intelligence and not thinking of them as
puppets on Hollywood’s strings. That’s a strategy that might actually be effective in winning minds and
The Lies Sasha Grey Tells
Herself and Her Fans
Parcbench.com | Thursday, June 4, 2009
To those of us with any kind of libertarian bone in our bodies, when it comes to debating pornography, we
know which side we’re usually on. Whether it’s Christian puritan radicals or feminist puritan radicals both
arguing for the criminalization of pornography, we’re usually going to have to stand with the Larry Flynts
of the world. It’s a defense of personal freedom and limited government.
However, as one of the most popular porn
stars makes a bid for mainstream acceptability
I find it difficult to again side with the XXX
Porn star Sasha Grey recently made her
mainstream film debut in independent director
Steven Soderbergh’s new low-budget,
experimental picture, “The Girlfriend
Conservative Experience.” Grey plays a high-price call girl
living in Manhattan days before the 2008
in Denial election. A recent profile in Rolling Stone’s
May 14 issue promoted the movie.
posing as a Grey sought to justify her life of extreme
pornography with a whole host of rather
leftist for cash laughable – and somewhat dangerous – ideas:
“I want to tell young women that sex is OK,”
she says. “It’s OK to be a slut. You don’t
have to be ashamed. People think that young
women can’t understand sex, that there will
be consequences for our actions, but we can
be as analytical as anyone.”
Grey envisions herself as a performance-art
Camille Paglia exploding the categorizations
of second-wave feminists and female pop
icons like Tyra Banks, who claims that
women in porn are largely victims of sexual
abuse. Tina Fey has weighed in too, on Playboy models: “These women aren’t doing it for the money,” she
said on “Weekend update.” “They’re doing it because they were molested by a family friend.”As far as
sexual abuse is concerned, Grey insists she has never suffered at anyone’s hand. “I am a pervert,” she says.
“If I am working out any issues through porn, it’s anger at society for not being open about sex.”
There are many problems with all this. The canard that society isn’t open about sex might have flown thirty
years ago, but it sounds reactionary in today’s culture. Further, the idea that there’s anything “feminist”
about what Grey is doing is an absurd joke to anyone that’s seen any of her videos.
I’ll defend hardcore pornography any day of the week. I’ll defend couple’s rights to use porn to spice up
their love life. I’ll defend single people’s rights to have a sexual outlet. I’ll defend pornographers’ right to
express their sexuality on film and sell it to those who want to buy it. What I will not defend, though, is the
idea that the fantasy of porn should serve as a model for anyone’s life. Women – and men for that matter —
shouldn’t be sluts and they should be ashamed with having sex casually with just anyone. Sex does have
consequences and is a powerful mental, psychological, and spiritual force. Real life isn’t a porn set where
everyone is STD-tested and goes in with the same ideas about what they’re doing. I’m not advocating for
abstinence until marriage or some Christian utopian fantasy of a 1950s America that never really existed –
just sexual sanity.
And Grey probably knows all this. The fact is she’s not a “slut” herself – she’s certainly not giving
anything away. She’s a capitalist. (The article goes on to say that Grey is in a committed relationship and
has only had sex with six men off camera.) So Grey isn’t even buying the silly ideas she’s selling. Grey
won’t have sex with anyone as a “slut” would. She has sex at $5,000 a scene. And her performance in the
Rolling Stone article with all its absurd, half-baked, philosophical justifications is just about creating Sasha
Grey the product.
The almighty dollar seems to be her main pursuit. So she concocts this radical leftist, pseudo-intellectual
sexual persona (she claims to read Nietzsche and watch Godard films) to distinguish herself from the other
porn stars. She then makes the bid for the mainstream – if Soderbergh pictures are to be considered
“mainstream” in comparison to porn. Doesn’t sound like a particularly radical approach now, does it?
Distinguish yourself within the free market, make yourself a valuable commodity, and rake in the financial
And maybe it’ll work for Grey and she’ll get the opportunity to make some interesting films. The
consensus is that her performance in “The Girlfriend Experience” isn’t anything special but who knows
what she’ll do in the future. And if that’s the case then it’ll be worth tolerating – and ignoring — the idiotic
political ideas she spouts, just as we do with other celebrities.
Why Conservatism Can’t Be Cool
And Why It Doesn’t Need To be
FrontPageMag.com | Thursday, June 4, 2009
I’m not much of a concertgoer but if a
friend has an extra ticket then it’s
usually not difficult to twist my arm to
get me to go.
That’s what happened this past weekend
when my friend and co-worker Jimmy
Neo-Communists Miles invited me to join him for the
Jane’s Addiction and Nine Inch Nails
show at the Verizon Wireless Music
Center in Noblesville, Indiana.
So Saturday evening we drove down
early so we could tailgate before the
show. As we stood out in the parking lot,
Jimmy with his beer, me with my energy
drink (my wife had insisted if I was to be
the one driving then I wouldn’t be drinking) other concertgoers blasted their music in
preparation for the show that was about to start.
One of the songs we heard was from the leftist band Rage Against the Machine, no doubt
because the evening’s opening act was a new group called Street Sweeper Social Club,
co-founded by Rage guitarist Tom Morello. As we finished our drinks, stuck the cooler
back in the car, and began walking toward the concert I said to Jimmy, “You know even
though I understand now that the guys in Rage Against the Machine are a bunch of
Stalinists I still enjoy their music.” The same sentiment could be said of Morello’s new
Street Sweeper Social Club is a joint project of Morello and Raymond “Boots” Riley, the
lead singer of the radical hip-hop group the Coup. And Riley is so far to the left that he
makes Rage lead singer Zack de la Rocha look like Pat Buchanan. Throughout Street
Sweeper’s short set Riley declared his political positions, at one point arguing that the
government needs to have “a people’s bailout, not a corporate bailout.” They also played
a cover of the popular M.I.A. song “Paper Planes,” a catchy track that’s become the
leftist anthem of late.
Riley’s quite open and blunt about his political religion:
"I am a communist. I have been a communist/socialist since I was 14 years old. I think
that people should have democratic control over the profits that they produce. It is not
real democracy until you have that. And the plain and simple definition of communism is
the people having democratic control over the profits that they create. When you first
have a revolution, you are heading into socialism. People who were against communism
have defined communism for us. People that are for communism and who have dedicated
their lives and given their lives to giving people power, they are the ones that created the
The rest of the concert was fun. If Street Sweeper Social Club tagged the communist base
then Nine Inch Nails covered nihilism and Jane’s Addiction took care of hedonism.
Driving back home after the concert Jimmy and I couldn’t help but reflect on these bands
that we’d enjoyed so much but whose politics and ideas we could no longer take
seriously. And we realized that you could never really have a conservative version of
Rage Against the Machine or Street Sweeper Social Club. Sure, you’ve got conservative
musicians like Ted Nugent and Toby Keith but what conservative rock band places their
politics ahead of the music itself? With Rage and Street Sweeper Social Club the
musicians are quite frank about their priorities. Neo-communist politics first, music
second. It’s as though the music is the spoonful of sugar to help the poison go down. Tom
Morello might as well be a radical Mary Poppins.
The reason why you won’t find a right-leaning activist band is not one most young
conservatives – and even many older ones – would want to hear or accept: conservatism
is not cool.
There are many reasons why this is the case. First and foremost is that the radical
approach is principally concerned with two concepts, both of which are the foundations
of cool: destruction and creation. It’s cool to destroy things and ideas. It’s cool to
reinvent something, to create something new. (This is why what’s considered “cool” is
always changing.) Thus the entire premise of leftist radicalism – the destruction of the
existing society and the creation of a new, better, utopian one – is endlessly cool.
What’s cool about maintaining what we have? What’s cool about defending systems,
ideas, and behaviors that work? What’s cool about personal responsibility, caution, and
moderation? The very foundations of conservatism are the antithesis of cool.
Usually conservatives only become cool when they imitate the style or approach of the
Left – when they get aggressive, confrontational, and edgy or attempt acts of destruction
and creation. They become cool when they seek to either destroy the Left or reinvent the
Right. Thus, David Horowitz and Ann Coulter – in their New Left-style attacks on the
Left -- hold the current monopolies of cool on the Right. And William F. Buckley, Jr.,
because he created the modern conservative movement, remains a figure or
This cool deficiency isn’t a problem, though. Movement conservative leaders and GOP
strategists don’t need to start figuring out how to make the philosophy of Buckley,
Reagan, and Goldwater hip for Generation Y. And the reason for this is simple:
eventually as people grow up they become less concerned with being cool and more
focused on being happy. (Further, not everyone bases their political decisions on the
temptation of radical chic.)
It was not cool that my wife twisted my arm into not drinking at the concert. It’s not cool
to be the sober one at the Nine Inch Nails show while so many people around you are
falling over drunk or stoned. But I managed to walk away from the concert and get home
safely to the wife who loves me. That certainly generates a lot more happiness than I
would have gotten had I been the guy on his knees outside the concert with cops shining
a flashlight into his eyes. And that’s ultimately the conclusion – both personal and
political – that most people will eventually make. They’ll learn to abstain from getting
drunk on the radical dreams of nihilistic destruction and utopian creation.
Sarah Palin Vs. David Letterman
Parcbench.com | Friday, June 12, 2009
The most famous alum of my alma mater Ball State isn’t the brightest crayon in the box
by his own admission. But when I’d heard that David Letterman had made a joke about
Governor Sarah Palin’s daughter being raped I couldn’t believe it. Had the old man
finally lost his mind?
No, Ball State’s Fighting Cardinal of Late
Night had just been doing his usual, cracking
jokes and making America laugh. But
apparently the Palins couldn’t take the satire
that comes from choosing to make oneself
and one’s family public figures. They had to
strike back. Todd Palin had to lie about the
Centrist jokes that were made in order make his
family appear to be the victim of a cruel
“Any `jokes` about raping my 14-year-old
are despicable. Alaskans know it and I
believe the rest of the world knows it, too.”
The governor herself also had to step in to slander one of America’s most beloved
“Concerning Letterman`s comments about my young daughter (and I doubt he`d ever
dare make such comments about anyone else`s daughter): `Laughter incited by sexually
perverted comments made by a 62-year-old male celebrity aimed at a 14-year-old girl is
not only disgusting, but it reminds us some Hollywood/NY entertainers have a long way
to go in understanding what the rest of America understands — that acceptance of
inappropriate sexual comments about an underage girl, who could be anyone`s daughter,
contributes to the atrociously high rate of sexual exploitation of minors by older men who
use and abuse others.`”
Here’s the infamous joke that’s allegedly about child rape:
“One awkward moment for Sarah Palin at the Yankee game. During the seventh inning,
her daughter was knocked up by Alex Rodriguez!”
Now granted I can see where the confusion comes from. Letterman was obviously
referring to Bristol Palin in his joke. That’s the Palin daughter who recently had an
unplanned pregnancy – who had gotten “knocked up.” But the Palin daughter who
accompanied the governor to New York was 14-year-old Willow. Oops. But within the
public consciousness “Sarah Palin’s daughter” will always refer to Bristol, not Willow.
Anyone hearing the joke will immediately think of Bristol and her unplanned pregnancy.
No one – except hyper-partisan Palin true believers with an anti-media ax to grind –
would suggest that Letterman was talking about a tween being raped by A-Rod.
Here’s a video of Letterman defending and explaining himself. The side conservatives
should be on is obvious.
It shouldn’t be difficult for even passionate Palin boosters to realize that their hero has
erred here in taking on Letterman. She and Todd overreached widely in their smear of
Letterman as someone who would make jokes about a 14-year-old being raped.
The episode could be seen as a microcosm of the problem Palin presents to the GOP and
the Conservative Movement.
Conservatives are right when they declare that the Left hates Palin. They’re right in
pointing out her media maltreatment. They’re right in identifying her as a voice of an
important constituency who inspires a different kind of “hope.”
Where they’re wrong is when they insist that only an America-hating leftist could have a
problem with anointing Palin as the Queen of the GOP. (Centrists and libertarians
certainly have legitimate concerns.) They’re wrong when they say with any seriousness
that she was really the most qualified, best choice for a vice presidential candidate last
time. She was a political gambit that failed
to pay off.
This Letterman incident demonstrates a
radical tendency of Palin’s of which true
conservatives should be cautious. First,
Letterman is a beloved public figure. And
Palin chose to leap before looking. She
didn’t give him the benefit of the doubt,
didn’t acknowledge that her and Bristol as
adults in the public sphere are legitimate
satirical subjects, didn’t consider that her
attack on him would alienate non-movement
conservatives. She and her husband just
unleashed a brutal takedown. This isn’t how
one wins over mainstream America and the
political Center – the task now before the Christian Radical
GOP. (And Letterman isn’t a leftist. He’s an
obvious symbol of the Center.) Her behavior
is representative more of radicalism than
conservatism. Isn’t the Right supposed to be
against political correctness after all?
Make no mistake, Palin does deserve a place at the table. If she makes the transition from
Governor to Senator of Alaska then by all means. But let’s banish any thoughts of a
President Palin from our heads. Such a doomed quest will not bring the GOP back into
power. It will only make the party more fodder for late night talk show hosts.
Believe Michael Moore About
Capitalism Like You Believe Ted
Haggard about Homosexuality
Parcbench.com | Friday, July 14, 2009
So Michael Moore has a new film coming out this fall about the recent economic crisis. It
is called Capitalism: A Love Story, you can see a teaser trailer right here.
In it Moore presents a satire of the pre-screening commercials in which movie theatre
patrons are asked to donate money to a noteworthy cause. And then – twist! – it turns out
that the needy ones are corporate CEOs! Yeah you’ve just given them money through the
government bailouts, but they’re suffering and need more of your money, because,
y’know they’re capitalist vampires
who will suck the life out of you.
And apparently Moore’s the Van
Helsing, out to slay these
corporate Twilight rejects. (There
we go, two more crappy movies
on par with Moore’s output.)
Those are kind of the terms you
have to use when dealing with
Moore. He makes jokes at us, thus
we have to make jokes back at
him. Be careful, though, you don’t
want to hit him back too hard.
Defenders of the free market face
a problem when dealing with
Moore. Whenever you fight
something you empower it. So the
Millionaire tone needs to be carefully kept in
Capitalist Selling check. Strike too hard with too
forceful a tone and he’ll only be
Anti-Capitalist able to use it against us.
And so while David Horowitz
might be right – and hilarious –
when he slams Moore as a “fat communist pig,” ultimately the jab just bounces off, not
unlike when the snow leopard villain Tai Lung is fighting the jolly Po at the end of
“Kung Fu Panda.” It doesn’t work to call Moore what he is. It’s a waste of key strokes to
explain in depth how Moore has merely replaced “proletariat” and “bourgeoisie” with
“average Americans” and “corporate executives.” He employs the exact same structure of
discredited Marxist class warfare between noble working people and exploitative
But Moore’s not an intellectual dealing in the world of ideas. He’s a capitalist selling a
product — himself. He’s come to dominate the anti-capitalist market with his books and
films. And he’s made millions of dollars for not just himself but for many a corporate
CEO along the way. “Fahrenheit 9/11” is the most successful documentary of all time,
bringing in $222 million worldwide.
Moore is so dense that he doesn’t realize that his very life is a refutation of everything in
which he claims to believe. Moore’s open about his dislike for capitalism. As Horowitz’s
Discover the Networks points out:
One of Moore’s most strongly held convictions is that, as he declared on the CNN
program Crossfire in 2002, “Capitalism is a sin. This is an evil system.” In his 2003 book
Dude, Where’s My Country? Moore wrote: “Horatio Alger must die! We’re addicted to
this happy myth … that anyone can make it in America, and make it big. … Listen,
friends, you have to face the truth: You are never going to be rich. … The system is
rigged in favor of the few, and your name is not among them, not now and not ever.”
An ad hominem argument is when one attacks the speaker in an attempt to discredit his
ideas. Am I doing that here? I don’t think there’s anything illegitimate about this
argument. I’m just pointing out something indisputable: By his own actions Moore
doesn’t believe his ideas himself. He started out as a college-drop out, a troublemaker
that ran a leftist newspaper, The Flint Voice. Now he’s a millionaire who lives quite
comfortable on Manhattan’s upper west side and sends his kids to private school. He’s
someone stuffing his face with the fruit of the tree as he tries to convince others to chop it
down. He’s selling the lie that others aren’t capable of doing what he did – reaching up
and grabbing the fruit themselves.
I’ll be honest. I don’t think it’s worth taking the time to engage Moore’s anti-capitalist
fantasies with any seriousness. The intellectual contest between communism and
capitalism was fought by our parents’ and grandparents’ generations. All the arguments
one could conceive of have already been made. (Just read Horowitz’s The Politics of Bad
Faith or Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom or any number of texts.)
Capitalism won. Regardless of the recent downturn in the economy, capitalism has
demonstrated itself to be a system that works to create wealth, inspired individuals, and
prosperous societies. Let’s just acknowledge that, move on, and stop continuing our
parents’ ideological battles.
Capitalism certainly paid off for Michael Moore the millionaire, just as it can for every
American. Work hard, develop yourself, participate in the market, and you can provide
for yourself and your family. You can succeed and be part of the American Dream. But
Moore will never acknowledge that – it’d be too bad for his business.
America’s Greatest Film Critic is
One of its Weaker Pundits
Parcbench.com | Thursday, July 16, 2009
By Chris Yogerst and David Swindle
For decades one film critic has been synonymous with the
occupation: the Chicago Sun-Times’ Roger Ebert. The
Pulitzer-prize winning writer, perhaps best known as half of
the famous duo Siskel & Ebert, has helped millions of
Americans better appreciate the cinema. He’s also served as
Becoming What an example for young critics like us, showing how to make
intellectual ideas about film accessible to the masses.
To Destroy In his reviews over the years Ebert hasn’t hesitated to reveal
his political positions – which is fine. (And his expressed
views usually put him in the left wing of the Democratic
Party.) Critics shouldn’t be afraid to express their political or
philosophical ideas in their reviews – we all certainly do from time to time. It makes film
criticism more interesting to consider movies in a political context.
Now, in the age of internet blogging, Ebert has an easier forum to voice his political
opinions. In a recent entry titled “The O’Reilly Procedure” Ebert decided to turn his
critical eye on Fox News’ star anchor Bill O’Reilly:
I am not interested in discussing O’Reilly’s politics here. That would open a hornet’s
nest. I am more concerned about the danger he and others like him represent to a civil
and peaceful society. He sets a harmful example of acceptable public behavior. He has
been an influence on the most worrying trend in the field of news: The polarization of
opinion, the elevation of emotional temperature, the predictability of two of the leading
cable news channels. A majority of cable news viewers now get their news slanted one
way or the other by angry men. O’Reilly is not the worst offender. That would be Glenn
Beck. Keith Olbermann is gaining ground. Rachel Maddow provides an admirable
example for the boys of firm, passionate outrage, and is more effective for nogt shouting.
Ebert claims he’s not critiquing O’Reilly’s political opinions. That’s not really true,
though. He claims to be challenging O’Reilly’s bullying and name-calling style. If that
were the case, though, then his essay would target O’Reilly and Olbermann equally –
instead of just name-dropping Olbermann once in an obvious attempt to cover his ass.
He’d also throw in Beck from the Right and Michael Moore from the Left. And he’d
have a “fair and balanced” critique.
And if he did that then that would be fine. We’d applaud him. The trend he’s highlighting
– the angry demagogue politio — is one worthy of condemnation. O’Reilly and
Olbermann might be entertaining to the True Believers of their ideological religions but
they both sell intellectual junk food which only brings down the standard of discourse.
According to Ebert, the nation has cut back on reading and “most eighth graders can’t
read a newspaper.” First of all, some facts would be nice. Second, there is a new
generation that was brought up with new technology. Newspapers are outdated in the age
of the World Wide Web.
There is no question that Ebert has a level of contempt for today’s society. He feels that
people are more stupid than they were back in his day when more people read and trusted
the New York Times. This is absurd. Yes, pop culture has grown tenfold over the last few
decades and accessibility to it has grown even faster. However, accessibility to news has
also grown. There are simply more outlets and avenues to choose from now. Just
because people get their news from sources other than their morning paper doesn’t mean
Ebert also subscribes to the idea that O’Reilly’s coverage of Dr. George Tiller aided in
the abortion doctor’s assassination last May. Calling O’Reilly a bully who would “like to
force others to do their will, while they can stand back and protest their innocence,” Ebert
shows us how delusional he is by even entertaining the idea that O’Reilly condones
Ebert comes crashing down when he gets to the real meat of his blog post: comparing
O’reilly to the fascist, pro-Hitler, anti-Semitic radio broadcaster Father Charles Coughlin.
Would O’Reilly compare Olbermann and Moore to such a figure?
In making the comparison Ebert becomes what he seeks to condemn. He seeks to slap
one of his ideological enemies with an intolerable image – that of a fascist radio
broadcaster of the 1930s. This is something that O’Reilly and Olbermann do all the time
– compare their ideological rivals to Nazis. Ebert’s principle subject in college was
English. Surely he can recognize when a metaphor overpowers its subject and distracts
more than it helps.
It is clear that Ebert might want to stick to his roots in film criticism. That is where he is
well known and widely respected. However, if he wants to give his political opinion then
fine – that’s why blogs exist. If he’s going to attack O’Reilly then he shouldn’t take a
page from the O’Reilly playbook. He should provide the same reasoned, creative analysis
that we’ve come to love from his decades as America’s most trusted film critic.
What’s So Conservative About
Revitalizing the GOP through Cinema
Part 1 of a 2-Part Series
A DVD review of "Taken"
AmericanThinker.com | Saturday, July 18, 2009
When the action-thriller "Taken" emerged this past spring it wasn't difficult to understand
why conservatives got so excited about it.
The film stars Liam Neeson as Bryan Mills, an ex-special operative agent who's retired so
he can rebuild his relationship with his 17-year-old daughter Kim (Maggie Grace.) He's
served his country at the expense of his family and now it's time to make up for lost time.
As the film begins we see the care he takes in the smallest details regarding his daughter.
He obsesses over getting her the right karaoke machine for her birthday and then
wrapping it up with precision. Despite this it's difficult for him to compete with her step-
dad, a millionaire who throws her a lavish party and buys her a pony.
When Kim travels to Paris we'll see which dad can really take care of her. While talking
on the phone with Bryan upon arriving at her apartment, Kim is kidnapped by a gang of
Eastern European criminals. After she's snatched Bryan hears that one of them has picked
up the phone. He then delivers a line that will become as classic as anything uttered by
I don't know who you are. I don't know what you want. If you're looking for ransom, I
can tell you I don't have money... but what I do have are a very particular set of skills.
Skills I have acquired over a very long career. Skills that make me a nightmare for people
like you. If you let my daughter go now, that will be the end of it - I will not look for you,
I will not pursue you... but if you don't, I will look for you, I will find you, and I will kill
Bryan the special ops man now merges with Bryan the loving father. Using clues from
the phone conversation -- which he recorded and sent to his special operations friends to
analyze -- he jets to Europe where he begins a one-man investigation to find his daughter,
rescue her, and deliver retribution to those who took her. Along the way he'll bump up
against corrupt French bureaucracy and the seedy, disturbing world of sexual slavery.
He'll also take out whatever thugs get in his way.
The film is the second directorial effort of Pierre Morel, a protégé of Luc Besson, the
filmmaker behind "The Professional" and "The Fifth Element" who also co-wrote and
produced "Taken." Those who loved "Taken" are required to see Morel's previous film,
2006's "District B13," a French-language film whose electrifying sequences rank among
the decades most exciting action scenes. Despite the often fair characterization of the
French as "cheese-eating surrender monkeys" they can make action films that are
frequently far superior to the special-effects drenched crap ("Transformers 2"?) that
Conservatives loved the film. Chris Yogerst, my colleague at Parcbench, wrote an
enthusiastic review. Jonah Goldberg - who popularized the "surrender monkeys" jab --
gushed about it at Big Hollywood. And Erika Holzer raved in the Atlasphere.
"Taken" is now available on DVD and Blu Ray, including in an unrated director's cut.
Having seen both the PG-13 film in theatres and the uncensored version I had a hard time
picking out the differences. There weren't any additions of sex, nudity, or profanity.
Perhaps there were a few extra gunshots in the action sequences and maybe a little more
blood. All in all the experience of the film seemed identical. Also included on the disc are
two audio commentaries by the filmmakers and an informative, brief featurette. But this
isn't exactly a disc one would buy for the bonus features. The film itself warrants a
If it's a good time to take a second look at "Taken" the film perhaps it's also a time to
question why conservatives seem to so eagerly embrace films and characters that
approximate vigilantes. Whether it's Clint Eastwood starring in "Gran Torino" and the
"Dirty Harry" series or Jack Bauer saving America on "24", the Right seemingly always
embraces the action hero that lives by his own rules. And it's pretty easy to understand
why. In the ‘70s the popularity of "Dirty Harry" emerged as a vigilante reaction to a
leftist legal culture which favored the criminal's rights over the victim. Similarly the
aggressive anti-terrorism and "enhanced interrogation" of "24" was a reaction to a left
more concerned with terrorists' rights than preventing another 9/11. Bryan Mills clearly
falls into this tradition - more concerned with protecting his daughter than following the
proper bureaucratic procedures.
But for every conservative value one could draw upon in favor of the Vigilante Hero,
there are conservative ideals that would stand against him as well. The vigilante isn't
conservative, he's radical. He discards the laws the society lays down in pursuit of his
own utopian vision. The rule of law -- a core conservative principle -- is all but forgotten.
Vigilantism also puts tremendous faith in human beings to do what is right -- a faith that
conservatives, with their view of human nature, absolutely should not have. To celebrate
one man assuming the roles of judge, jury, and executioner with a .44 magnum in his
hand is to have the foolish faith in human nature of a leftist. One man cannot be trusted to
do what is right and administer proper justice.
And conservatives know this stuff. My friend Brent Smith, a libertarian-conservative,
recently bought his own copy of "Taken" and observed that he and other right-leaning
fans of the film don't like it because they're pro-vigilante. Conservatives love "Taken,"
the "Dirty Harry" series, and Jack Bauer because they love the fantasy of the vigilante.
They know what people and the world are like and appreciate the chance to escape from
it that a motion picture allows. They know that you could never have someone like Mills
who's perfect and able to act as a vigilante, bypassing the proper procedures and laws that
society has established, meting out justice and saving the innocent. On the one hand
conservatives are too hyper-aware of the realities of human nature and human failings to
regard vigilantism as anything other than entertaining fantasy.
That there are intellectual arguments within conservatism both for and against the
Vigilante is indicative of a key aspect of the movement that needs to be highlighted: its
diversity. Within the same conservative movement you find religiously-driven social
conservatives, secular libertarians, hawkish neo-conservatives, and traditionalists. When
the movement is functioning at its best these disparate factions complement one another
and manage to act as informal checks and balances. The libertarians and the social
conservatives check each others' excesses. The neo-conservatives and the isolationist
traditionalists check each other on foreign policy. And the budget conscious fiscal
conservatives keep an eye on the bottom line as everyone pursues their policy objectives.
A sense of balance and moderation is achieved without any one faction running wild with
the power of the federal government in their back pocket.
It's this diversity of thought -- among other reasons -- that draws a centrist like me more
toward the movement. This tolerance for a variety of seemingly conflicting ideas is also a
trait that must be played upon if more from Generation Y are to be drawn into the
Coming off a defeat in the past presidential election the diversity within the conservative
movement is not acting as the strength it should be. Important questions abound about
which is the proper path to take to return to power. Will it be in the figure of Sarah Palin?
Will it be in focusing on taxes and economics ala the Tea Parties? Will it be in
impressing on the populace that the GOP is the party of national defense?
How to unite the disparate groups of the conservative coalition once again? And how to
bond the Right with the Center -- as Reagan did -- to challenge the Center-Left coalition
of President Obama? There is an answer. And I'll provide it in a review of the DVD I'll
discuss next week, a title that's even more essential conservative viewing than "Taken."
Looking to the Future Through
Reviving the Past
Revitalizing the GOP through Cinema
Part 2 of a 2-Part Series
A DVD review of "John Adams"
AmericanThinker.com | Saturday, July 25, 2009
What's fast becoming part of my morning routine is playing Internet Eris. I delight in
throwing a Golden Apple of Discord out, stepping back, and watching the ideological
wars that erupt.
As I peruse through the morning's news and blog posts I come across items that I know
will provoke discussion. So I click the "post to facebook" button in my browser, type
some innocuous comment like "Interesting" or "Intriguing article" and wait for my
motley crew of politically-minded friends across the political spectrum to start
commenting and arguing with one another.
Of course I can always predict how these little internet Trojan Wars will go whenever I
post something about Governor Sarah Palin. My leftist friends will lob a few insults --
some wittier than others. My Christian conservative and traditionalist Republican friends
will mount a fierce defense and talk about how Palin excited them like no politician in
recent memory. And my libertarian-conservative friends will lament the direction they
see the GOP taking.
How can this conflict be resolved? What can be done to unite the moderates with the
base, the libertarians with the social conservatives, the Palin True Believers with the
Answer: sit them down together to watch HBO's "John Adams" miniseries, just recently
released on Blu Ray. Based on Pulitzer Prize-winning author David McCullough's
biography, the 501-minute miniseries follows Adams' life from 1770 with his successful
defense of the British troops in the Boston Massacre until his death on July 4, 1826 -- the
fiftieth anniversary of the birth of the country he was so instrumental in founding.
Adams is portrayed by Paul Giamatti, an actor
best known for his critically-acclaimed roles in
"Sideways," "American Splendor," and
"Cinderella Man." Giamatti is paired with Laura
Linney ("Mystic River" and "You Can Count on
Me") as Abigail Adams. Their touching marriage
and friendship forms the anchor of the miniseries,
giving it a tender center as the drama of
The American Idea revolution swirls around them. It will also
demonstrate the vital role played by the founding
mothers -- Abigail was every bit the intellectual
equal to her husband.
The push toward the founding of the United
States begins in Part II, as Adams assumes a
position in the Continental Congress and begins
making connections with other key founders,
particularly Benjamin Franklin (Tom Wilkinson,)
General George Washington (David Morse,) and
Thomas Jefferson (Stephen Dillane.) We see how Adams' often blunt, forceful nature was
often critiqued with Franklin's sense of restrained political diplomacy. We also relish in
the chance to see these historical personalities come to life at the hands of some of the
best actors working today.
Parts III, IV, and V focus on the war, Adams' role as ambassador to England, and his
often frustrating time as Washington's Vice President. This continual personal struggle
characterizes the miniseries. It's no wonder that executive producer Tom Hanks saw the
cinematic quality of McCullough's book: Adams is a protagonist who must face one
challenge and disappointment after another. And we're with him every step of the way,
feeling his pain and connecting with him not as some abstract historical figure, but as a
The series concludes with Part VI, "Unnecessary War," which examines Adams' difficult
presidency, and Part VII, "Peacefield," a look at his tragic retirement years and
reconciliation with Jefferson in the form of their now famous correspondence. By the end
of the series one's appreciation for the founders and their formulation of the American
Idea is thoroughly reenergized.
The 3-disc set features all seven episodes as well as some bonus features that truly
enhance the series. The first is the "Facts are Stubborn Things" feature. Turn it on and
throughout each episode boxes will appear on screen to provide additional historical facts
to illuminate the series' drama. (The recent Blu Ray release has expanded this feature
from the original DVD.)
Second is an absolutely essential making-of featurette and "Painting with Words," a
feature devoted to McCullough. Unlike the quality of many DVD extras -- which turn out
to be little more than back-patting puff pieces -- these two both yield significant insights
on the making of the miniseries.
"John Adams" is essential viewing for conservatives for many reasons. That Adams is an
icon to the movement is but one. During a garden conversation between Adams,
Jefferson, and Franklin in France in Part V it should be clear who among them modern
conservatives would most identify. Jefferson reprimands Adams for not trusting in men
to which Adams shoots back, "And you display a dangerous excess of faith in your
fellow man, Mr. Jefferson."
More importantly, though, the miniseries allows for an opportunity to reconnect with the
founders and their ideas at not just an intellectual level, but an emotional one. It's a
chance to remember what our forefathers actually did. And it's endlessly exciting. This
thrill -- both an emotional and intellectual one -- can and should be utilized for political
The Right needs to define Conservatism as the movement that seeks to celebrate the
Founders and the American Idea. It needs to make it so when people think "conservative"
they don't think of Dick Cheney or George W. Bush, but Adams and Jefferson.
Some on the Right are already pursuing this. Talker Glenn Beck is an example with his
recent book Common Sense, which draws inspiration from Thomas Paine, another
founding father. Others should follow and begin the process of seeking to educate the
populace about who founded our country, why they did it, and what the ideas were that
drove them. (Don't assume that people really know this stuff! Yes, it was put in front of
us as children and teenagers in school but it needs to be rediscovered with the mind and
life experiences of an adult.)
An active debate needs to be engaged going to the root of our Republic: what is the
American Idea all about? What did our founders think it was about? How is it enshrined
in our founding documents? And how should our government's policies flow from it?
(The Tea Party Movement, with its inspiration drawn from the founding era, would be
wise to highlight this aspect of itself even further.)
A key component in this refocusing would be to especially draw on one of the most
important facts about the founders: they did not agree about everything. There was a
great deal of diversity of ideas. The views of Adams, Jefferson, Franklin, Alexander
Hamilton, and the other founders were often at odds. And these differences were vital in
creating the working government that we have today. Conservatives have to be vocal in
embracing this tendency. If you embrace the American Idea of freedom and individual
liberty then you have a place at the table. Ideological uniformity was not a value of the
founders, nor should it be an American value today.
This task -- of reuniting the Conservative Movement -- pursued in this fashion has an
additional benefit that's arguably more important: the ability to reengage the Center, and
thus eventually recapture political power. A conservatism defined by social issues, or the
shrinking of government, or anti-tax sentiment, or a fierce engagement with
Islamofascism will always be a conservatism of controversy and division. But a
conservatism defined as a celebration of the founding is a vision that can attract the
apolitical and the independent center. It's a conservatism that stands for something, not
Republicans can create a coalition of the Right and the Center. And they can do it
without abandoning their principles. And the way to begin to get excited about it is by
watching "John Adams."