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Phoney Baloney
By Mark Steyn
National Review, Feb. 27, 2006

In Heinrich Mann’s novel Der Untertan, written just before the Great War, the central character, Diederich, is asked by Buck, “You do not know whom history will designate as the representative type of this era?”

“The Emperor,” says Diederich.

“No,” replies Buck. “The actor.”

And how. George Clooney’s triple Oscar nominations are said to be a significant moment in the life of the nation, and not just by George Clooney, though his effusions on his own “bravery” certainly set a high mark. “We jumped in on our own,” he said, discussing Good Night And Good Luck with Entertainment Weekly. “And there was no reason to think it was going to get any easier. But people in Hollywood do seem to be getting more comfortable with making these sorts of movies now. People are becoming braver.”

Wow. He was brave enough to make a movie about Islam’s treatment of women? Oh, no, wait. That was the Dutch director Theo van Gogh: he had his throat cut and half-a-dozen bullets pumped into him by an enraged Muslim who left an explanatory note pinned to the dagger he stuck in his chest. At last year’s Oscars, the Hollywood crowd were too busy championing the “right to dissent” in the Bushitler tyranny to find room even to namecheck Mr van Gogh in the montage of the deceased. Bad karma. Good night and good luck.

No, Mr Clooney was the fellow “brave” enough to make a movie about - cue drumroll as I open the envelope for Most Predictable Direction – the McCarthy era!

How about that? I don’t know about you but I was getting so sick of the sycophantic Joe McCarthy biopics churned out year in year out – Nathan Lane in McCarthy! The Musical was the final straw – that thank God someone finally had the “bravery” to exercise his “right to dissent”. I only hope George Clooney isn’t found dead in the street at the hands of some crazed nonagenarian HUAC member.

He’s got some tough competition, of course. This year’s five Best Picture nominees are all “films that broach the tough issues”, as USA Today puts it: “Brokeback and Capote for their portrayal of gay characters; Crash for its examination of racial tension; Night for its call for more watchdog journalism; and Munich for its take”.  Whoops, my mistake. That should be “Munich for its take on terrorism”. In their combined take at the box-office, these Best Picture nominees have the lowest grosses since 1986. That means very few people have seen them. Which in turn means these Oscars are likely to have the lowest audience ever. Okay, maybe not ever. In 1929, they handed them out to an audience of 270 in the Blossom Room at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, and no doubt by the time you add in overseas viewership from the many chapters of the Jon Stewart Fan Club this year’s audience will be up around 309.  

The fact that hardly anybody has seen these films does not in and of itself mean that they’re not artistic masterpieces. That’s why the Oscars are important: they can shine a light on undeservedly neglected art-house jewels that might otherwise get overlooked. But you couldn’t exactly call Brokeback Mountain overlooked. It’s the Jungfrau, it’s the peak of cinematic achievement. It’s an Everest papered from base camp to the summit in rave reviews. And in the week the Oscar nominations were announced the world’s most ballyhooed art-house obscurity added another 435 theaters to its outlets – and business declined 13%.

Maybe it’s because Americans are homophobes. Or maybe it’s because these films are not as “controversial” as Hollywood thinks. The more artful leftie websites have taken to complaining that the religious right deliberately killed Brokeback at the box-office by declining to get mad about it. Look at Tinky-Winky in the Teletubbies: those fundamentalist whack-jobs denounce him as an obvious fruit and the guy never looks back – he’s at his beach house in Malibu sipping margaritas and eyeing up the poolboy. But make a film that’s hailed as a gay masterpiece and Pat Robertson can’t even arrange a lousy multiplex in Dubuque that gets struck by lightning just for showing it.

Well, who knows? Perhaps next time they should make it two gay sheep herders in, say, Medina, or a gay Pushtun goatherd and a gay Uzbek warlord: The Mohammedans Go To The Mountain – that should light up the box-office. Or perhaps they could make Broke Back Toutin’, a film about an American media utterly exhausted by its frantic efforts to flog these movies to a general audience. As it is, Hollywood’s new reputation for “serious” “challenging” “works” seems merely the dinner-theatre production of the usual self-reinforcing Democrat-media bubble. A film-maker makes a film about a courageous pressman and the pressmen hail him as a courageous film-maker for doing so. Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhall have nothing on the romance between George Clooney and the world’s press. The “serious” press, that is, even though they sound like a cover story in Forty-Seventeen. Here’s The Observer in London:

How A Heart-Throb Became The Voice Of Liberal America: George Clooney was once famous for his party lifestyle and the beautiful women that he dated. Now it’s politics that increasingly sets his pulse racing.

And evidently the reporter’s too. That ran not in the entertainment section but on the news pages. “I’m an old-time liberal and I don’t apologize for it,” Clooney told Newsweek.

Good for him. And certainly, regardless of how liberal he is, he’s “old-time”. I don’t mean in the sense that he has the gloss of an old-time movie star, the nearest our age comes to the sheen of Cary Grant in a Stanley Donen picture, but that his politics is blessedly undisturbed by any developments on the global scene since circa 1974. Clooney’s other Oscar movie, Syriana, in which he stars and exec produces, reveals that behind a murky Middle East conspiracy lies …the CIA and Big Oil! In Good Night And Good Luck, he’s produced a film set in the McCarthy era that could have been made in the Jimmy Carter era. That’s to say, it takes into account absolutely nothing that has come to light in the last quarter-century – not least the relevant KGB files on Soviet penetration of America. To take one example that could stand for Clooney’s entire approach to the subject, Good Night includes shocking scenes of Senator McCarthy accusing Annie Moss, who worked in a highly sensitive decoding job in the Pentagon, of being a Communist, and the heroic Edward R Murrow then denouncing McCarthy’s behavior.

But we now know, from the party’s own files, that Miss Moss was, indeed, a Communist.

What should we conclude from the absence of this detail in the picture?

That Clooney, who goes around boasting that every moment in the screenplay has been “double-sourced” for accuracy, simply doesn’t know she’s a Commie?

Or that he does know but that he thinks it’s harmless? That she, like he and Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon, is merely exercising her all-American “right to dissent”, in her case in the Pentagon Signals Corps’ code room. If so, that’s a subtly different argument than Murrow was making: it’s one thing to argue that it’s all a paranoid fantasy on the part of obsessed Red-baiters, quite another to shrug, hey, sure they were Commies, but what’s the big deal?

Or is it that Clooney doesn’t care either way? That what matters is the “meta-narrative” – the journalist as hero, “speaking truth to power”, no matter if the journalist is wrong and wields more power than most politicians. Even if one discounts the awkward fact that these days CBS News is better known for speaking twaddle to power – over the fake National Guard memos to which Dan Rather remains so attached – the reality is that the idea of the big media crusader simply doesn’t resonate with any section of the American public other than the big media themselves. Indeed, if you wanted to create a film designed to elicit rave reviews from the critics, you could hardly do better than a McCarthy era story built around a Watergate-style heroic reporter, unless you made the reporter gay. The media seem to have fallen for it, with the splendid exception of Armand White in The New York Press who said Clooney was far more hagiographic of his subject than Mel Gibson was in The Passion Of The Christ.

This is the Platonic reductio of political art. Say what you like about those Hollywood guys in the Thirties but they were serious about their leftism. Say what you like about those Hollywood guys in the Seventies but they were serious about their outrage at what was done to the lefties in the McCarthy era – though they might have been better directing their anger at the movie-industry muscle that enforced the blacklist.  By comparison, Clooney’s is no more than a pose – he’s acting at activism, new Hollywood mimicking old Hollywood’s robust defense of even older Hollywood. He’s more taken by the idea of “speaking truth to power” than the footling question of whether the truth he’s speaking to power is actually true.

That’s why Hollywood prefers to make “controversial” films about controversies that are settled, rousing itself to fight battles long won. Go back to USA Today’s approving list of Hollywood’s willingness to “broach tough issues”: “Brokeback and Capote for their portrayal of gay characters; Crash for its examination of racial tension…” That might have been “bold” “courageous” movie-making half-a-century ago. Ever seen the Dirk Bogarde film Victim? He plays a respectable married barrister whose latest case threatens to expose his own homosexuality. That was 1961, when homosexuality was illegal in the United Kingdom and Bogarde was the British movie industry’s matinee idol and every schoolgirl’s pin-up: That’s brave. Doing it at a time when your typical conservative politician gets denounced as “homophobic” because he’s only in favor of civil unions is just an exercise in moral self-congratulation. And, unlike the media, most of the American people are savvy enough to conclude that by definition that doesn’t require their participation.

These films are “transgressive” mostly in the sense that Transamerica is transsexual. I like Felicity Huffman and all, and I’m not up to speed with the latest strictures on identity-group casting but isn’t it a bit condescending to get a lifelong woman (or whatever the expression is) to play a transsexual? If Hollywood announced Al Jolson would be playing Martin Luther King, I’m sure Denzel Washington and co would have something to say about it. Were no transsexual actresses available for this role? I know at least one of my acquaintance, and there was a transsexual Bond girl in the late Roger Moore era who looked incredibly hot, albeit with a voice several octaves below Paul Robeson. What about that cutie with the very fetching Adam’s apple from The Crying Game? And, just as Transamerica’s allegedly unconventional woman is a perfectly conventional woman underneath, so the entire slate of Oscar nominees is, in a broader sense, a phalanx of Felicity Huffmans. They’re dressing up daringly and flouncing around as controversy, but underneath they’re simply the conventional wisdom. Indeed, “Transamerica” would make a good name for Hollywood’s view of its domestic market – a bizarro United States run by racists and homophobes and a poodle media in thrall to the Administration.

You can certainly find new wrinkles on “racial tensions” – Abie’s Wahhabi Rose? – but Hollywood “controversy” seems more an evasion of controversy. If you want it in a single word, it’s the difference between the title of George Jonas’ original book – Vengeance – and the title of the film Steven Spielberg made of it – Munich. Vengeance is a point of view, Munich is a round of self-applause for the point of view that having no point of view is the most sophisticated point of view of all – a position whose empty smugness is most deftly summarized by the final shot of the movie, the Twin Towers on the New York skyline. For a serious film, it would be hard to end on a more fundamentally unserious note.

But then it’s hard to be serious when you’ve made a virtue of dodging the tough choices of the age. The BritLit blockbusters currently keeping Hollywood afloat – Harry Potter, Narnia, Lord Of The Rings – may be ghastly Multiplex crowd-pleasers unworthy of great artists like George Clooney but they’re not a retreat to the periphery in the way that Hollywood “seriousness” is. Spielberg’s lingering shot of the World Trade Center wasn’t even the most equisitely framed banality of the year. That honor goes to The Constant Gardener, which may yet win Rachel Weisz an Oscar for her role as a passionate anti-globalization activist who dies in mysterious circumstances. At one point Ralph Fiennes is doing his signature stare, peering elliptically into the distance, when the camera pulls back to show him as a little stick-figure dwarfed by the mega-multinational pharmaceutical company’s corporate headquarters he’s standing outside.

Oh, come off it. The Constant Gardener is distributed by Universal Pictures. Don’t they have a big office? If Kong Kong’s standing outside waiting to get past security to find out why his residuals check has bounced, then Universal might look like some little mom’n’pop operation. But stick any of the rest of us on the sidewalk and we’d be like Ralph Fiennes outside Big Pharma. That’s Hollywood: no-one lavishes more care and expense on saying nothing.

Three months after 9/11, George Clooney was asked what he wanted for Christmas. “I want,” he said, “one day when nobody is getting shot at. Call a truce for a day.” Our own Jay Nordlinger remarked at the time that this was “a child’s response”, correctly noting “the implied moral randomness… People are just shooting at each other, you know, and shooting at each other is bad.” If you want stories about journalists, nobody was shooting on the day The Wall Street Journal’s Daniel Pearl had his head sawed off. If you want stories about “racial tensions”, nobody was shooting on the day British expat Ken Bigley was similarly decapitated. Hollywood’s “bravery” is an almost pathological retreat: it’s against segregated drinking fountains in Alabama and blacklisting writers on 1950s variety shows. It’s in danger of becoming an oldies station with only three records.

I noticed the other day that Nigeria now has the third biggest film industry in the world, after Hollywood and Bollywood. In the showbiz capital of West Africa, you can make a feature for 40,000 bucks. What talk radio did to network news and the Internet is doing to monopoly newspapers, someone will eventually do to the big studios, and one day we may wind up with a Hollywood in which, as Clooney might say, nothing is getting shot. In the meantime, Danish cartoonists are in hiding for their lives but George Clooney will be televised around the world picking up an award for his bravery.


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