Movies and Middle America

It's a fairly common right-wing claim: Hollywood is out of touch with Middle America. Hosts and pundits typically trot it out each awards season, fueling the Republican base's notion of a liberal elite that, in their eyes, doesn't care about the average American.

People like movie critic and Republican radio personality Michael Medved, for instance, have made a nice career out of using their highly funded, big-city-housed positions to speak for the common man. Their thinly veiled opinions mask homophobia, anti-Semitism and jealousy.

Misguided in their notion of how Hollywood works and what art actually is, they appeal to the lowest common denominator to great success. They champion a return to a style of art that, to say the least, has roots in movements they'd rather you not know about. What's more, they're just wrong.

The thesis of last night's discussion on "Scarborough Country" can be found in a quote from guest host Michael Smerconish. The host, when asked what he meant when he discussed the "disastrous year for Tinseltown," said, "I mean that movies that are a bunch of losers that nobody goes to see are about to win all the awards." He later added, "Michael, these are movies that I don't even want arriving at my house in the sealed Netflix envelope, you know, lest the postman knows I'd be watching them, for goodness sakes."

This line of thinking can be found in this exchange between Smerconish and Time's Belinda Luscombe, who perfectly rebuts the host's right-wing talking points:

SMERCONISH: Hey, Belinda, let me get you in on the action here and ask you a question. What about my movies? You know, what about "The 40-Year-Old Virgin"? What about "Wedding Crashers"? What about some of the greats like "Caddyshack," and "Animal House," and "Slapshot"? Why are they never represented?

LUSCOMBE: Oh, they're represented, all right. What you're asking here basically is: Why don't sort of food critics go and eat at McDonald's? There's different types of food for different people.

You know, what is it about the Academy that is surprising you here? Even the word Academy - these are filmmakers. They're at the top of their game. They want to honor the films that are good films.

Look, I like the movies Smerconish mentions. I pay to see them. I have a good time. I laugh my ass off. But I know their place. So does Luscombe. The Academy Awards, accordingly, aren't the place for Best Picture That Appealed to the Widest Audience and Starred Will Ferrell and/or Vince Vaughn. They're the place for Best Picture. The year's best movie, as chosen by filmmakers, not Joe Sixpack. It seems what Smerconish is suggesting is that the Nobel Prize should go to the next bozo that lights his farts on fire.

But Medved, another "Scarborough Country" guest Thursday, wasn't far behind Smerconish, arguing "there were populist films that were critically acclaimed that could easily have been nominated." Films like "Walk the Line" and "Cinderella Man," a movie Medved said was "pro-faith, pro-family and that connected with mainstream Americans in a way that the nominated films don't." There, in that statement, is the hypocrisy inherent in the right-wing argument. Critically acclaimed films that offer viewpoints similar to Medved's: Good. Critically acclaimed films that offer viewpoints different from Medved's: Bad. The only agenda he wants Hollywood to pursue, therefore, is his.

The mistake people like Smerconish and Medved make is blaming select movies - the critical successes with themes running counter to their conservative mindset - for Hollywood's dwindling box-office results. In other words, they're blaming the working parts of the machine for a failure caused by an overabundance of faulty parts. It's a classic right-wing shell game.

People aren't going to the movies because of films like "Brokeback Mountain,""Syriana,""Good Night, and Good Luck. " and "Capote". They're not going because the rest of the movies - from big-budget blockbusters to comedies to thrillers - are flat-out terrible. They're bland, they lack good stories, they're nothing more than excuses to try the latest special effects.

Looking past the Stalinist and Nazi heritage at the base of the right-wing argument, you'll find a more modern conceit: The average is better than the special. That notion is the converse, of course, of the anti-elitist argument the right loves to use. And it can be found everywhere, from reality television to the music industry to the White House.

As I wrote before, "In the last 25 years, America has drifted from a nation of experts to a nation of amateurs. We've gone from the best and the brightest to the so-so and the mediocre. We've traded our admiration for intelligence for a love of the lowest common denominator. And it should stop as soon as possible, or else our once-great nation's slide toward irrelevance will proceed unabated."

I don't watch the Food Network to see people like me cooking. I watch to see experts making great food. I don't listen to music to hear what an "American Idol" winner has to offer. I listen to hear good acts making good music, now a rarity. I don't watch television to see what I could see if I walked into the apartments across the street. I watch to see talented actors acting in well-written, thought-provoking shows.

But those are the more trivial examples of this maddening trend. The best example resides in the White House. Supporters of President Bush argue that he's a man of the people, that he says what he means and means what he says, that they'd like to have a beer with him. Nevermind the fact that Bush came from a privileged background, that what he says borders on incoherent and that he's a dry drunk who probably shouldn't be within arm's length of a bottle of booze.

I find it distressing that, during recent presidential campaigns, more emphasis has been placed on pancake flipping, hunting and football throwing than on whether or not the candidate has a brain in his head. Sure, some people like that Bush is just like them, but I don't. I'd prefer someone who knows how to respond to a disaster or who has more than an elementary knowledge of foreign policy. The president is our leader. Not our wingman.

That desire to champion the average is exactly what's wrong with America. And it's what's wrong with the right-wing critique of Hollywood as well. At a time when we should be demanding more, some are demanding less. Be it movies or be it politics. And the less we demand of others - and ourselves - the more we sink into the quicksand.

"Why doesn't Hollywood get the message?" Smerconish said Thursday. It would make sense to ask him the same question.

Tags: Culture, George W. Bush, Hollywood, Michael Medved, Michael Smerconish, movies, music, Republicans (all tags)

Comments

1 Comment

Re: Movies and Middle America

I went to see King Kong last year, and before I left, I was watching TV, and CNN had a person from the Concerned women for America on explaining how seeing this movie would make children have nightmares. It's not hollywood not getting it, it's the conservatives who don't understand that most movies aren't real.

by liebermanlives 2006-03-04 05:34PM | 0 recs

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