September 25, 2005

STILL THE SAME OLD STORY:

Reading From Left to Right (A. O. SCOTT, 9/25/05, NY Times)

Hunting for ideological subtexts in Hollywood movies is a critical parlor game. Many a term paper has been written decoding the varieties of cold war paranoia latent in the westerns and science-fiction movies of the 1950's. Now, thanks to the culture wars and the Internet, the game of ideological unmasking is one that more and more people are playing. With increasing frequency, the ideology they are uncovering is conservative, and it seems to spring less from the cultural unconscious than from careful premeditation.

Last fall, "The Incredibles" celebrated Ayn Randian libertarian individualism and the suburban nuclear family, while the naughty puppets of "Team America" satirized left-wing celebrity activism and defended American global power even as they mocked its excesses. More recently we have learned that flightless Antarctic birds, according to some fans of "March of the Penguins," can be seen as big-screen embodiments of the kind of traditional domestic values that back-sliding humans have all but abandoned, as well as proof that divine intention, rather than blind chance, is the engine of creation. I may be the only person who thought "The Island," this summer's Michael Bay flop about human clones bred for commercial use, indirectly argues the Bush administration's position on stem cell research, but I have not been alone in discerning lessons on intelligent design and other faith-based matters amid the spooky effects of "The Exorcism of Emily Rose." That movie, by the way, came in a close second behind "Just Like Heaven" at the box office last week, following an initial weekend in which it earned more than $30 million, one of the strongest September openings ever.

The objection to such message-hunting, whether it seeks hidden agendas of the left or the right, and whether it applauds or scorns those agendas, is always the same: it's only a movie. And what is so fascinating about "Just Like Heaven" is that it is, very emphatically, only a movie, the kind of fluffy diversion that viewers seek out on first dates or after a stressful work week. Its central couple - Ms. Witherspoon and Mark Ruffalo - meet cute in a gorgeous apartment to which both lay claim. Their blossoming romance faces the usual obstacles, as well as some that are not so usual. For one thing, they can't stand each other; for another, one of them is a disembodied spirit visible only to her unwilling roommate.

So far, no obvious Republican Party talking points. This is not a movie that, at least at first, wears its politics on its sleeve. It takes place in San Francisco, perhaps the bluest city in one of the bluer states in the union, in a milieu of entitled urban professionals. Mr. Ruffalo, sad, scruffy and sweet as ever, brings a decided alt-culture vibe with him wherever he goes. With his dark, baggy sweaters and his slow, tentative line readings, he represents a new movie type decidedly at odds with the norms of movie masculinity: the shy, passive urban hipster as romantic ideal.

But a movie that looks at first like a soft, supernatural variation on the urban singleton themes of "Sex and the City," by the end comes to seem like a belated brief in the Terri Schiavo case. (If you insist on being surprised by the plot of "Just Like Heaven," it might be best to stop reading now). Elizabeth, as it happens, is not dead, but rather in a coma from which she is given little chance of awakening. To make matters worse - and to set up a madcap climax in which Donal Logue rescues the film's faltering sense of humor - she has signed a living will, which her loving sister, urged on by an unprincipled doctor, is determined to enforce. But Elizabeth's spirit, along with Mr. Ruffalo's character, David, has second thoughts because she is so obviously alive, and the two must race to prevent the plug from being pulled, which means running through hospital corridors pushing a comatose patient on a gurney.

Would I have been happier if Elizabeth died? The very absurdity of the question - what kind of romantic comedy would that be? - is evidence of the film's ingenuity. Who could possibly take the side of medical judgment when love, family, supernatural forces and the very laws of genre are on the other side? And who would bother to notice that the villainous, materialistic doctor, despite having the religiously neutral last name Rushton, is played by Ben Shenkman, a bit of casting that suggests a faint, deniable whiff of anti-Semitism? Similarly, it can't mean much that Elizabeth, the ambitious career woman, is sad and unfulfilled in contrast to her married, stay-at-home-mom sister. Or that the last word you hear (uttered by Jon Heder, first seen in "Napoleon Dynamite") is "righteous."


It's hardly surprising that whenever Hollywood wrong foots itself and has to go back out in search of audiences it is forced to return to the one true myth, nor that every great movie derives from it in some way, shape, or form.

Posted by Orrin Judd at September 25, 2005 12:00 AM
Comments

He manages to pick out just about the only movies released in the last 12 months w/ any sort of conservative message.

Then there's this gem:

"celebrated Ayn Randian libertarian individualism and the suburban nuclear family"

Wow, it really must be a big tent, if Randians and traditional family can both in it.

Posted by: Jim in Chicago at September 25, 2005 11:34 AM

Jim:

Even if George Lucas is clueless, his Star Wars series is basically just a story of Good vs. Evil. It's #1 at the Box Office this year on a chart crowded with super hero films and children's movies.

Posted by: oj at September 25, 2005 11:55 AM

Twenty years ago, some New York reviewer was angry about "Ghostbusters" because they made bureaucrats at the Environmental Protection Agency into semi-villionous dupes, so even the mildest hint of non-PC plotting has been the subject of complaints like this for a generation or more.

Scott at least does get the irony of setting the film in San Francisco, and the plot that makes people on the tube-removal side of the Schiavo case at the very least a little uncomfortable. But he hasn't figured out that after 30 years of making ridicule of both religion and pro-life stances a source of thousands of movie and TV plots, there's a gold mine of unexplored territory out there for doing the same to people on the other side of the issue.

Posted by: John at September 25, 2005 12:25 PM

Long time reader, first time poster.

Hollywood box office has been markedly down for awhile now. One of the few bright spots last year were the successes of PASSION OF THE CHRIST and FAHRENHEIT 9/11. Thus, this year we are seeing more politically aware movies from both sides of the spectrum. The movies Scott talks about certainly fit the bill: I would also include the Star Wars movies and SPIDERMAN 2 from last year (all about duty and the call of higher ideals over personal desires). Recent lefty movies include CONSTANT GARDENER (drug companies are evil and exploit Africans), LORD OF WAR (arms dealers are evil and ply their evil trade with the connivance of the West), and the upcoming GOOD NIGHT AND GOOD LUCK (a paen to Edward R. Murrow and more beating up of Joe McCarthy). (There's also some boring-looking thing coming out with Charlize Theron suing miners for sexual harrassment.)

What's interesting about all this isn't so much that these are getting made (I'm sure the hippies in Hollywood would rather not make celebrations of Christianity like EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE, but their main concern is money, and in an era of declining audiences this kind of gamble would've been inevitable, sooner or later) but that the conservative movies are doing reasonably well at the box office while the liberal Great Hopes aren't. ROSE, for example, looks to be a genuine sleeper.

(Well, it's also interesting that Mr. Scott wants to talk about conservatism in movies but doesn't mention this equal trend of liberal oriented fare. Presumably for him criticizing capitalism and America is just business as usual.)

doug

Posted by: Doug Bassett at September 25, 2005 5:58 PM

doug:

Indeed, if you look at the top 10 grossing movies thus far this year it's almost impossible to explain why Hollywood isn't making more traditionally heroic fare if it wants to get Americans to come to the movies. Even the widely panned Fantastic Four is in the top 10.

Posted by: oj at September 25, 2005 6:33 PM

Doug: Whenever the left gets in trouble, they dig up tail gunner Joe and abuse his corpse again.

Posted by: Robert Schwartz [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 25, 2005 10:52 PM

Hey all,

Though decidedly NOT Conservative messages, the underlying messages of both the "Alfie" remake and "Crash" hint at the same type of depth that we are looking at here.

The truth is starting to creep through. Even the silly "Constantine" was theologically correct in it's most important parts. (not ot mention that all the shallow dingy kids who watch it will believe in Hell after walking out of the movie.

A clever Christian could make it a 'documentary.'

Posted by: Bruno at September 26, 2005 1:18 AM
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