Who would have predicted that while socialist-realist art forms disappeared from most communist systems (even before the systems themselves collapsed), didactic and politicized movies and other products of mass culture would proliferate in the United States through the 1970’s and 80’s? Similar ironies can be found in regard to Marxist scholarship, which in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union is thoroughly discredited and outdated while remaining in vogue in American universities.
Not only was the politicization of the entertainment industries unexpected, it remains unremarked by the public at large. Yet fashionable left-liberal films, filled with tendentious political messages tailored to the specifications of a variety of social critics, continue to pour from the movie and television studios. Many of these films radiate aversion to existing American society, to capitalism, and to Western culture, although they suggest reverence for an idealized America that has never existed.
Like all socialist-realist art, these films blatantly misrepresent and invert reality. Yet, in a departure from Soviet style, the political message of American movies typically has not been ham-handedly didactic; instead, it has been introduced in the guise of the supposed verities of our time. The few films that deviate from this mold (such as Hanoi Hilton, Red Dawn, Top Gun) have been greeted with relentless scorn and hostility by critics objecting to their political content, not to their aesthetic shortcomings.
The gradual absorption of the New Left radicalism of the 1960’s into the cultural mainstream of the 1970’s and 1980’s has been one of the adversary culture’s greatest victories in the past quarter-century. Also, since the 1960’s, the meaning of what is “political” has been greatly expanded to include, for example, certain sexual preferences. Richard Grenier is one of a handful of critics who have steadfastly observed and commented on these trends as they manifest themselves in contemporary American culture. His latest book is a rich collection of his critical writings, mostly but not exclusively dealing with American film. There are also pieces on a Havana Film Festival, on various art exhibits, on the PEN Club congress in New York, and on Broadway theater; a substantial introductory essay lucidly ties together the themes of the shorter pieces that follow.
Grenier defines his “central subject” as “the spiritual quest of the artistic class for a more meaningful world, and the estrangement of this class from the traditional values of its own society, which it finds unworthy . . . a class of people who have high opinions of themselves . . . but think the society from which they emerged contemptible.” It may be historically unprecedented to find a concentration of social critics in the world of popular entertainment, but ours after all is the land of opportunity. One may surmise that many of these alienated individuals begin their careers aspiring to nothing loftier than making it to the top and making big bucks; it would indeed be interesting to trace the transformation of the Hollywood celebrity into the self-appointed conscience of his time. One explanation Grenier offers for this transformation is that “our society fails to satisfy the ‘need to believe.'” While I thoroughly agree with this diagnosis, and have myself addressed the issue in its connection with literary and academic intellectuals, it seems more difficult to grasp why this malaise has made such headway among those in the entertainment industry—among, that is, people generally lacking in profundity and in intellectual or artistic distinction, people whose way of life is scarcely conducive to critical reflection. It is possible that the entertainment industry attracts a type of person more sentimental and guilt-ridden about his huge income than business and professional people in similar income brackets, and who finds solace and compensation in left-liberal political activism. There is also the historical factor—the popularity of leftist causes in Hollywood dating from the 1930’s—although during the 30’s, 40’s, and 50’s these attitudes found scant expression in Hollywood movies, which remained resolutely cheerful, apolitical, and often outright patriotic.
Grenier’s talent for spotting and explaining political bias or deceptiveness is well-honed. Of the much-acclaimed Gandhi, he writes that the film “grotesquely distorts both Gandhi’s life and character to the point that it is nothing more than a pious fraud.” He recalls that “when Gandhi’s wife lay dying of pneumonia and British doctors insisted that a shot of penicillin would save her, Gandhi refused to have this alien medicine injected into her body and simply let her die. (It must be noted that when Gandhi contracted malaria shortly afterward, he accepted for himself the alien medicine quinine, and that when he had appendicitis he allowed British doctors to perform on him the alien outrage of an appendectomy.)” While the movie dwelt on the oppressiveness of the British, it failed to show how, “As soon as the oppressive British were gone, the Indians—gentle, tolerant people that they are—gave themselves over to an orgy of bloodletting.”
The makers of the movie Reds intended the audience to glean that, “If one has noble intentions, and means well toward one’s fellow man, and one’s heart is pure and generous and filled with love, then that is what matters. If one’s ideas are unworkable, bring social disruption, disaster, and even tragedy on a colossal scale—one can’t be expected to foresee all that, can one?” Of the numerous anti-CIA films, Grenier notes: “the trick, if one wants to make a movie showing American society as brutal and aggressive, is to concoct a story without the faintest hint of an adversary, revealing a tranquil, peaceful universe, in which we, only we, disturb the loving order of nature.” By the same token, “The message of E.T. . . . is that except for us, it is a benign and cuddly universe. Gentle, loving E.T. . . . is treated roughly by a bunch of insensitive aggressive Americans, who think that everything outside their narrow world is dangerous.”
We are also indebted to Grenier for having introduced the concept of “treason chic” in the wake of British movies about the lives of Guy Burgess, Donald Maclean, and Kim Philby. In the BBC television play “An Englishman Abroad,” treason “seems to have been reduced to the level of minor misdemeanor, entirely forgivable as an upperclass peccadillo—at least if committed by a gentleman with verve and the right sort of tailor.” In the recent Costa-Gavras film Betrayed, “The crowd wears KKK robes and sings ‘Amazing Grace,’ and we realize with horror that all of these elements together make up an American fascist front: the KKK, Nazis, Christianity, and American patriotism.”
The PBS series The Africans leads him to ask: “Are you an admirer of Muammar Qaddafi? Are you looking forward to a world where Africans (from Africa) will be the new ‘Brahmins’ while Westerners are the new ‘Untouchables’? . . . Do you believe that a person of even partly African ancestry can live in America ‘for a thousand years’ without becoming an American? In short, are you a vengeful black racist? Perhaps a masochistic white flagellant? If so look no further. I have found the impartial television show of your dreams.”
But there is far more to these essays than fun at the expense of trendy political messages. Grenier’s commentary helps us to confront and to understand better what Judge Robert Bork described in his introduction as, “One of the wonders of the modern world”; namely, the hostility of the intellectual and cultural elites of the Western democracies toward their own societies.
[Capturing the Culture: Film, Art, and Politics, by Richard Grenier (Washington, D.C.: Ethics & Public Policy Center) 392 pp., $24.95]