Hollywood: Land of Libertarianism

Posted: Dec 05, 2009 12:01 AM
Hollywood: Land of Libertarianism

 “I like the libertarian view, which is to leave everyone alone.” 
                                                                        -- Clint Eastwood

          Actually, that’s kind of my view, too.  And equally to the point, it’s also the view of a very large part of Hollywood.  That might be news to certain people who pride themselves on never going to the movies, but it’s indicative of a tendency that a great many readers of this distinguished website have been misled into ignoring.  Allow me to digress.

Culture War polemicists who imagine themselves to be carrying the torch of liberty frequently proclaim that today’s film producers and directors “mock” and “ridicule” our nation’s cherished values.  A latter-day Comintern, they inform us, roams the studios with terrifying power, making sure all scripts toe a far-left party line while forcing conservatives to hide their views in the closet to stay employed.  (Apparently, Bruce Willis and Sylvester Stallone never got that memo.)  Thus, shrieked Wes Vernon in a 2006 column for Accuracy in Media:  “Americans often wonder exactly why so many of Hollywood’s self-anointed political sages bash America, bash this country’s traditions, bash Christians, bash Western Civilization, bash corporate America, bash traditional marriage, bash anti-communists (of course), and above all bash conservatives of every stripe…known identified religious or political conservatives believe they must try harder to succeed or…stay ‘in the closet’ about their beliefs.”  Whew!  Who knew there was so much bashing going on?  Conservative novelist Andrew Klavan likewise groused last year in the Washington Post, “Hollywood moviemakers…have been telling lies – loudly, constantly and almost always in support of a left-wing point of view…(For conservatives) the door is shut, the fix is in, and the blacklist – or least a graylist – is alive and well.”

Put a sock in it, mates.  If mainline film studios have been mocking anything all this time, it’s been their own world.  Starting with the late Robert Altman’s darkly amusing takedown of his industry, The Player (1992), we’ve seen a raft of witty Tinseltown self-parodies.  Think of The Muse (Albert Brooks), Bowfinger (Steve Martin), State and Main (David Mamet), Tropic Thunder (Ben Stiller) and What Just Happened (Barry Levinson).  Unfazed by reality, Culture War pundits, especially those writing for the blog site Big Hollywood, are convinced they speak for a persecuted minority within the film industry and a persecuted majority in America as a whole.    

What’s reprehensible about these bomb-throwers is less their lack of knowledge about the film industry (which in many cases is painfully evident) than their dyspeptic, accusatory tone and lack of elementary logic.  The best one can say on their behalf is that most don’t claim to be film critics.  More accurately, they are cultural politicians.  And their perpetual campaign is maintaining their familiar David-vs.-Goliath narrative on a high boil, casting the amorphous “average American” as David and the “Hollywood elite” as Goliath.  In this way, they can convince their audiences of the need for a changing of the studio guard as a path to political power.  Big Hollywood proprietor Andrew Breitbart, for one, admits to holding such a motive.       

My own Hollywood ambitions, sadly, go no further than seeing a new movie once or twice a week.  And, no, I don’t have moral qualms about my attendance.  If Must Love Dogs, The Proposal and Iron Man have “assaulted” my basic values, I must not have noticed.  Most Americans, for that matter, haven’t noticed either.  Domestic box office continues to soar, this year hitting a record-high summer-season record of $4.2 billion, a figure not including $5.8 billion in foreign receipts. 

Yet anti-Hollywood pugilists continue to assert, typically without even seeing the movies they denounce, that the film industry is bent on advancing, if covertly, a “Leftist agenda” out of step with the Real America.  Unable to distinguish the films of, say, the Coen brothers from those of the Farrelly brothers, these activists demonstrate an unusual eagerness to lecture studio executives on the need to reorient their moral compasses. 

Actually, the “agenda” of today’s American filmmakers, aside from making money, is storytelling.  That’s also the agenda of playwrights, novelists, painters, songwriters and opera singers.  If the politics of certain longtime filmmakers (Mike Nichols and Spike Lee come to mind) veer leftward, that’s not propaganda.  It’s called a point of view.  And everyone has one.   

Now for the main point:  Hollywood does have a reigning political sensibility.  It’s called libertarianism, or more accurately, individualist libertarianism.  Now before your jaw drops further, I’m not saying that audiences regularly exit local multiplexes ready to storm the barricades for Ron Paul.  That’s not the way film, even political film, works.  Studios aren’t, and shouldn’t be expected to function as, dispensers of agitprop, Right or Left.  But it is an underappreciated fact that the fight for liberty is a common theme in recent movies, and not just those directed by Clint Eastwood or starring (Cato Institute supporter) Kurt Russell.  By recognizing as much, we on the Right of reasonably libertarian instincts can deepen our understanding of film and recognize that the people who make it happen are not enemies.

If you want hard evidence, the best place to look would be the celluloid heirs to George Orwell’s 1984.  Recent feature films such as Enemy of the State, Minority Report and Eagle Eye each revolve around a latter-day Winston Smith, forced on the run from a centralized force armed to the teeth with hyper-sophisticated surveillance technology.  In each case, the resistor and his allies (unlike poor Winston) prevail.  I can’t imagine anyone disputing these films’ libertarian intent any more than their superb execution.  In a more science fiction vein, resistance to Big Brother-run technocratic dystopia animates Demolition Man, The Sixth Day, Blade Runner, Dark City, The Matrix trilogy, Escape from New York, and its sequel, Escape from L.A. (God bless Kurt Russell, aka “Snake Plissken”). 

There is also a low-key variation on this theme of an individual rebelling against his controlled existence:  naïve Everyman awakened.  Outstanding examples include Groundhog Day, Stranger than Fiction, Pleasantville, Gattaca and The Truman Show.  Each film is, at bottom, a libertarian critique of how modern video culture blurs actual and simulated reality to the detriment of the individual.  In Gattaca, for example, written and directed by Andrew Niccol, Ethan Hawke plays a young man who awakens to the fact that he is an anamoly (an "in-valid") to an egalitarian genetic experiment.  Similarly, in The Truman Show (also written by Andrew Niccol and directed by Peter Weir), Jim Carrey comes to realize that his entire life, right down to his “marriage,” has been a continuous reality-television soap opera, his community a voyeuristic police state.  In each case, the hero spurns his “perfect” guinea-pig existence in favor of something more human.   

A conservative strain within the theme of libertarian resistance to the centralized perfection of mankind also finds expression in movies based on the science fiction of Michael Crichton.  Trained as a physician, Crichton, who died last fall at age 66, knew the power of science, especially biotechnology, to create – and to destroy its creators.  His later work bears a strong influence of chaos theory.  Popular films based on his novels or screenplays include The Andromeda Strain, Jurassic Park, The Lost World, Rising Sun, Congo, Sphere and Timeline, each in its own way a cautionary parable first explored nearly two centuries ago by Mary Shelley in Frankenstein:  Mess with nature, and nature pays you back.     

Romance also has a strong undercurrent of libertarian drama.  As distinct forms, the romantic comedy and its close cousin, the romantic drama, typically follow a three-part sequence:  falling in love, encountering the potentially crippling obstacle to the ever after, and overcoming the obstacle (when it comes to man-woman stuff, Hollywood still prefers happy endings).  Though potentially clichéd, it’s also a gold mine of endless variation.  Yes Man, Love Happens and many other recent films make the intuitive point that finding, and keeping, a mate first requires finding one’s self.  It’s a job nobody else can do.  What is “Leftist” about that? 

Sometimes, as with the current hit comedy, Couples Retreat, this theme blends with resistance to central control.  If a marriage is on the rocks, the antidote isn’t joint endurance of a tight regimen of New Age counseling on some pristine remote island paradise.  The antidote instead is wandering to the wild side of the island where the Club Med singles come to play.  In other words, by reliving the experience of how you and your spouse came to meet and fall in love, you can recharge marital batteries the right way – with spontaneity.  There is nothing “anti-family” about this engaging libertarian film.       

Films based on the work of British cartoonist/novelist Alan Moore are a cottage industry in itself.  The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, From Hell, Constantine, V for Vendetta, and Watchmen all are products of the mind of this odd, misanthropic anarchist.  The libertarian theme of these highly complex alternate universes is palpable.  Note in particular the tag line for V for Vendetta:  “People should not be afraid of their governments. Governments should be afraid of their people.”  Our own Founders wouldn’t have argued.     

These examples, I might add, barely scratch the surface.  Recent westerns, such as Unforgiven, Open Range and Appaloosa, contain a strong undercurrent of libertarian moral realism; in the Wild West, where even lawmen can be lawless, an honest man has to defend himself with whatever it takes.  Libertarian realism also can be found in the supposedly “anti-American” movies of the last few years that depict what our soldiers face in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Many full-length animated productions, especially Disney/Pixar’s The Incredibles, palpably celebrate liberty.  And has the spirit of libertarian anarchism ever been depicted with more sweetness and joy than Richard Linklater’s 2003 film, School of Rock?  Every kid in America should have a teacher as wise as Jack Black’s character.  

In the face of all this, why, then, do self-styled culture warriors insist that Hollywood is a vast anti-American Leftist monolith?  Aside from sheer intellectual laziness, the most plausible explanation lies with their need to rouse the rabble.  It’s an unfortunate fact that many leading pundits prefer to incite rather than enlighten.  Generating resentment, after all, sells copy and advances one’s career.  And the entertainment industry is as much an appealing a scapegoat for the Right as “rich corporations” are for the Left.  The intent in each case is politicizing envy in the name of virtue to create a bandwagon effect.  Selective use of information, an aggrieved tone of voice, and repetition of the same handful of examples – in other words, techniques of modern propaganda – are intended to project fear and loathing onto an external enemy.  And since there is an already-established “consensus” that Hollywood is a separate kingdom of sex-obsessed socialist ghouls, even skeptics might come along for the ride.   

The proper response to such panic-peddling is that the “mainstream” negative perception of Hollywood is itself stage-managed illusion, not reality.  The “Hollywood vs. America” trope bears no more than a passing relation to the way movies in this country get made or received.  Put it this way:  If the vast majority of Americans really were “offended” by today’s films, every major studio, multiplex and video chain would have gone into Chapter 11 bankruptcy years ago.         

Now it’s true that certain among the anti-Hollywood attack dogs concede the existence of a libertarian impulse in contemporary film.  But they quickly assert that the libertarianism on the screen is mere juvenile-level libertinism.  Better filmmakers should celebrate Friedrich Hayek than induce audiences to salivate over Salma Hayek.  Today’s cinematic debauchery is supposedly anti-American because it rejects traditional sexual and other norms – or so say insufferably smug, moralizing antiquarians such as James Bowman, S. T. Karnick, Mark Gauvreau Judge and Spencer Warren.

Frankly, I find the distinction between “libertarian” and “libertine” to be a waste of time.  All art – all art that aspires to greatness, at any rate – in a sense is “libertine.”  That is, a true artist works within the boundaries of established forms, yet also fearlessly wants to exceed them, to expand the medium’s stylistic, thematic and emotive range and with his own personal stamp.  If that makes Burton, Cameron, Coppola, Demme, Eastwood, Hallstrom, Lasseter, Scorsese, Spielberg and other giants of contemporary cinema “libertines” or “nihilists,” then bully for them.  They are exercising artistic license – and doing it well.  Thankfully, this sort of license doesn’t require government permission.   

Even if we could resolve hair-splitting distinctions between libertarianism and libertinism (as if depiction of the latter somehow constitutes their advocacy), the point remains that the latter-day American silver screen is a repository of inventive libertarian story-telling.  It’s time to recognize as much.  What Ludwig von Mises wrote of socialism – “the grandiose rationalization of petty resentments” – just as easily could describe the ravings of anti-Hollywood cultural politicians.