To the editors:
If "overt politics of any kind in a movie are deemed suspect," as Jonathan Rosenbaum writes ["Our Man in Nicaragua," December 4], it's no less true that some movie reviewers find the covert sort in every other film with an ease that, in truth, makes it covert only to a person who is not that sort of movie reviewer. At the mall quadruplex, we are given to believe, mass America inertly absorbs bad politics like subliminal popcorn advertising.
Comstock movie crit from the Left keeps publications like the Reader in a half nelson. The painful pressure can be applied at will, and often is. The Deer Hunter, which Rosenbaum pushes aside as "right wing," was a target from the early days. It was, of course, a very odd film; a preposterous film well directed, in which a group of kids go to war and get captured by sadists on a betting jag. The sadists are enemy soldiers. The other few Vietnamese in evidence are civilians with the same mania for Russian roulette as the soldiers. Nowhere do we find the common folk, gamely preserving their humanity under the ravishment of an imperial power. Conclusion: the film is racist and jingo.
If The Deer Hunter came out today it could hardly get by so lightly. Set in a small manufacturing town, it said nothing about declining union membership. It ignored animal rights, depicted the Eastern Orthodox laity as drunkards, remained mute on the question of handgun control, set the gay movement back by not moving it forward, advanced sexist stereotypes by not letting any of the girls go hunting, and tacitly sanctioned open beer in the car. I point out that, in their way, these claims are incontrovertible.
"Progressive" political movie crit, as widely practiced, spurts from the same well of American pietism as various youth purity movements, the Anti-Saloon League, school-library book-banning groups, the Moral Majority, and the radical antipornography squads. As an emergent minority orthodoxy, the Left is new to the tradition but does it proud, nevertheless.
The motivating assumption is that no pleasure or vice is purely private, that our fantasy and artistic life, our entertainments, although protected by the First Amendment, demand the same sort of public scrutiny, direction, and criticism as any deliberations of a zoning board. Behind that assumption, on the Left, we find the axiomatic belief that rational democracy is a chimera. Greed, stupidity, carelessness, ignorance, and apathy by themselves fail to explain the perversity of an electorate that doesn't vote right. Image bombardment must be to blame.
Therefore, if a movie, painting, poem, book, or television show brushes up against any topic under debate, it had better get it right. In a media society you can claim to like sports and prove it by watching 25 hours of television every week. As a political activist, you can devote your time to voicing opinions on the probity of media items.
Rosenbaum demonstrates the tendency, ex cathedra. Platoon is said to be composed of "half-truths," as The Color Purple is said to be composed of "quarter-truths." Why? He doesn't say. Having read numerous movie crit reviews of The Color Purple, I'd like to have a go at it. While the film is to be commended for encouraging black women not to stay home and take beatings, the film is to be condemned for depicting black men at home, beating black women. The civil rights movement can't possibly benefit from this. I can't credit Rosenbaum with this insight, but it was the common material of movie crit analysis, and shows the dogged illogic and unreasonableness of the school of thought.
One could never argue that particular movies, or the movies per se, lack political content. One can hardly object to reasoned discussion of that content, or the effects it might have. Some caution and precision are called for. On the subject of Raiders of the Lost Ark, for instance, Rosenbaum might have discussed the aggregate, vague influence of a certain movie format (white man shoots red-yellow-brown man) and from there concluded that the format makes a probable, perhaps discernible contribution to a racist climate. He might have placed Raiders of the Lost Ark within the genre, defending its inclusion. Instead he points out that numerous Arabs get shot and concludes: it is racist. This grave pronouncement in movie hermeneutics moves straight through argument to coercion. The Pauline Kael quote that inspires the conclusion goes ignored. Her point was: Raiders of the Lost Ark is a silly movie about old silly movies. The doubly ironic distancing that occurs in a parody of movies, that were never themselves better than self-parodies, counts for nothing. The public is that stupid, that susceptible. A fine irony; in calling the movie "thoughtless but not racist" Kael was herself observing the Left movie crit pieties. But of course, heresy and nonbelief are hardly comparable crimes. She is guilty of "doublethink." (You can get accused of that sort of thing when you exhibit your reasoning.)
I can't say that I objected to Rosenbaum's review half so much as the omniscient, attitudinizing preamble. By the time he gets to the stuff about the "intensity of horror" he feels when contemplating the careers of North, Reagan, and "even Hitler," I had become inured to the rhetoric. As I read I tapped my foot, impatiently waiting for the movie to get a full measure of attention. It never did, exactly, but as an otherwise skilled reviewer, Rosenbaum gave me some sense of Walker. He liked it and I didn't, but we did see the same movie.
So each to his taste, but when he defends those Coke bottles, Marlboros, and Time magazine covers I have to doubt his critical disinterest: "The mocking use of contemporary Latin pop music and other anachronistic details makes perfect sense in this context, because Walker's grim sincerity is every bit as up-to-date as Ollie North's." The point here is that the movie is actually about the present. That is the "context." The execution is justified by the intent; the film gets special dispensation.
If I wanted to convince people that Walker was a bad film, I'd mention the half-wit dialogue, the inept acting, the always embarrassing comedy, and the arrogance of a would-be auteur who supposes that the public's grasp of history and politics is even more crude than his own. I can't prove it's a bad film by disapproving its politics.
Undoubtedly the career of William Walker was the most precise metaphor in American history for 150 years of imperial aggression. A straight-up Hollywood epic might have given the story, sufficiently bizarre and timely to give the American public a chance to have a thought on its own. As either an overt, or covert political strategy, that would have been better than driving away the audience.
Any man who was a physician, lawyer, and abolitionist newspaper editor by age 24, who went on to reform the corrupt judiciary of California, invade Mexico, and conquer and rule Nicaragua before the age of 32 is, by definition, interesting. By some negative miracle of creation, William Walker, in Walker, never seems less obvious than political movie crit. Two workmanlike biographies of Walker, by Albert Carr and Noel Gerson, as well as a fine novel called The Nation Thief by Robert Houston, deserve a reading public and a competent screenwriter.
Disclaimer: For whatever reason, people are inclined to consider the source. I'm against paying for the murder of Nicaraguan peasants with my tax dollars, as I support the right of the sovereign government of Nicaragua to maintain itself as a crypto-Leninist regime, without outside interference. I object to bad movies, and movie criticism that would dictate and not examine movie morals and politics.
Question: Rosenbaum says the film was shot in Nicaragua with the assistance of the government, under no constraint. That's a revealing disclaimer. Can he prove that the production would have been censored, or was under threat of censorship in Mexico? I'm astounded.
Jonathan Rosenbaum replies:
Perhaps Mr. Name Withheld would be even more astounded if he read the Walker press book, which reports that the filmmakers anticipated censorship problems if they shot in Mexico. (For the same reason, Dennis Hopper chose to shoot his 1967 The Last Movie--a noble precedent to Walker in more ways than one--in Peru rather than Mexico.)
Otherwise, Mr. Withheld seems so eager to put words in my mouth (as well as his own) that I'm reluctant to replace too many of them--except to point out that (1) my passing crack about the "quarter-truths" of The Color Purple was mainly provoked by having spent the first 16 years of my life in the deep south and not by the "dogged illogic and unreasonableness" that Mr. Withheld had to create in order to find, and (2) I was not reviewing Raiders of the Lost Ark, but commenting on a questionable, characteristic, and (I still believe) Reaganite gloss on it by Pauline Kael that implies that racism is simply a matter of intent rather than one of effect.