Sunday, February 15, 2009

THEY DON'T MAKE 'EM LIKE THEY USED TO. National Review's latest list of "conservative movies" reminds me of their first such adventure in 1994. Back then the magazine still employed respectable arts correspondents like D. Keith Mano and John Simon, and was less inclined than now toward identifying works of art by politics to brace up casual conservative consumers of culture.

But we had a hint of where National Review was going in 1993, when James Bowman proclaimed Rush Limbaugh "The Leader of the Opposition" in a cover story. "To a surprising number of conservatives," wrote Bowman, "there is a solemn appropriateness about Reagan's passing the torch to the 42-year-old former disc jockey and college dropout." Just so. After their long Reagan-Bush summer, the unthinkable ascendancy of Bill Clinton shocked right-wingers into recognizing that they hadn't destroyed their enemies with tax cuts and sunny patriotism, and they needed new ways to get the punters back on their side.

So they began to heed Pat Buchanan's call to "take back our culture" -- though, unlike Buchanan, they didn't expect to do it with National Guardsmen, but by appropriating existing cultural artifacts in their cause. At the writing of the 1994 list, the Gingrich uprising was still fresh, conservative populism was in season, and some of the brethren may have felt as if the tide could be turned back in their favor if they could just make conservatism look cool by associating with works of pop art.

We see what National Review has come to since then: you certainly don't look to it for serious arts criticism, but for essays on how Adam Sandler movies promote family values it's your best bet. In between imputations of liberal fascism, Jonah Goldberg yammers about the relationship of "Battlestar Galactica" to the War on Terror. Junior operatives are sent hunting after conservative messages in other TV shows.

And though the new NR list is graced by contributions from heavy thinkers as well as hacks, it's remarkably dumbed-down from the original. The 1994 list of 100 movies included films by John Ford and Wajda, Cavalier's Therese, There Was a Crooked Man, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, etc. These were in most cases woefully misapprehended by the editors, but at least they showed some interest in film history. The oldest films on the current list are 1984's Red Dawn and Ghostbusters. The Lives of Others, a favorite of William F. Buckley, is the lone art-house entry. Most of the honorees were originally released after right-wingers started mining movies for affirmation and have already been through the conservetkult's cultural appropriation mill, e.g. The Dark Knight, United 93, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, A Simple Plan, etc.

I don't blame laziness so much as a weary awareness, after all these years of similar work, that they are no longer breaking new ground. Real critics would be excited by any opportunity to reexamine film culture, but propagandists are more easily bored. As culture-war detail is only a part-time job for most of them, why re-invent the wheel? So they grabbed what was handy and did a quick, web-friendly Top Whatever list. Later on they'll get someone to write about the supply-side economic message in Confessions of a Shopaholic, and if it plays they can use it again later.

I notice that National Review is again calling Limbaugh the Leader of the Opposition. This suggests a switch on the old saying: If the first time was farce, what does that make the second time?

1 comment:

  1. Heh, ...I always thought there was something absurd in Limbaugh's rebellious self-presentation. A conservative ought to take more responsibility for the values they promote than to just play rebel.