Wednesday, December 29, 2004

HITSVILLE G.O.P. As we have seen, the trend in culture war is toward the managerial rather than the militaristic: while some benighted souls still crudely bash the impure, contenting themselves with condemnation of entartete Kunst, the new breed posit a conservative aesthetic, cite as positive examples current works that seem to fit its guidelines, and bid artists supply more of the same, please.

Even the old culture-warrior Maggie Gallagher is getting with the program -- though she can only follow it up to a point.

In September Gallagher was encouraged by the rightwing doc In the Face of Evil: Reagan's War in Word and Deed, calling it "The must-see movie of the season for zeitgeist watchers." Even this pull-quote did not launch Face of Evil into box-office heaven, but Gallagher remains confident that films like this represent "an unserved market" for people like herself.

In her latest take, Gallagher suggests that Hollywood's current obsession with schmutz is tapped out. "Gay sex, or sympathetic portrayals of pedophilia may still win critical accolades, but the buzz is no longer big box office," she writes. One stops at this: when were guy-on-guy and guy-on-kid films big box office? But Gallagher is on a roll:
Every human heart hungers to be part of a story, to take the disconnected dots of human existence and weave them into a meaningful drama. Yet millions of Americans never, ever see anything of the great aspirational stories of their lives reflected in America's premier storytelling genre, the movies.

Americans are an overwhelmingly religious people, for example, yet the drama of sin and salvation, of divine grace and purpose, is conspicuously absent. Millions of American men and women strive to connect sex, love, marriage and babies into a coherent story for their own life. And yet the particular intense kind of eros that can be experienced only by those so committed to such a connection is almost never glimpsed on television or film. Perhaps Hollywood does not even know it exists.
Now, by changing very few words -- maybe by making "religious" into "spiritual," or denuding the second graf of words reflecting Gallagher's highly particular POV on marriage -- this could be made to resemble the longings of many indie filmmakers and critics. How often have you been implored, in some small corner of Entertainment Weekly or a local free paper, to attend some earnest film about ordinary people, because this is the kind of movie Hollywood doesn't make but should? From Forbidden Games to Sounder to In the Bedroom to The Secret Lives of Dentists runs a thin but unceasing river of smallish films whose makers' point of pride is their relevance to real life.

Hollywood of course prefers noisy pop sludge, and has since it began fighting to lure audiences away from the quotidian dramas of early television, pretty much. If there have been more tits and taboos in the cinema since the MPAA went to letter-coding in 1968, that's because tits and taboos were things you couldn't get from the idiot box in those days.

A variety of factors, cable among them, have had their impact, but movies are still something you have to get out to the house and pay for, and Hollywood moviemakers still tend toward steroidal entertainments as a means of luring us to them. If you want to see ordinary Joes and Janes hashing out Life As It Is Lived, you're asking for niche entertainment. You can get it, of course, at the local art house or on IFC.

So Maggie has a point, but she also has an agenda. The strategy of playing the noble outsider has served conservatives well in recent years -- which is why, even as they control nearly every part of our Government, so many of them still make a decent living bemoaning their oppression by the ACLU. In the Gallagher version, Hollywood is not just something that evolved out of her liking, but a corrupt institution ripe for reform. And she is not content to watch the stuff on PAX or wait for Mel Gibson's latest Romanist epic -- she demands that Hollywood become "the next domino to fall" in the march of freedom.

So in the last ditch, the old Culture Warrior reverts to fixed bayonets. Still, she has played the Culture Manager role better than I expected. The only question is, why does she bother? The multiplexes are liberally stocked with feature-length cartoons that will not offend her, nor any breeder's or brat's, tender sensibilities -- and some of them are even approved by the Central Committee. There is also, as she approvingly notes, a strong Christian counterculture ready to keep her in Veggie Tales and Billy Ray Cyrus till kingdom come.

I think it's because she's not just looking for something good she can watch. She wants us all to watch it. And like it, and tell her we like it. For Managers as well as Warriors, perhaps, the prefix is nowhere near as important as the root. Culture is just another domino, insignificant but for the pleasure to be had in making it fall.

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