Saturday, July 19, 2008

A Moral Sense of the World (by Phila)

Like all of our best cultural commentators, L. Brent Bozell III contrasts the hotheaded excesses of the Left and Right with the cool wisdom of the Center. The topic today is popular culture: on the Left, we have "nutty left-wing professors performing exotic Marxist autopsies on the imperialist dynamics of Donald Duck comic books." On the Right, we have "conservative academics" who are busy "teaching and writing about Homer the Greek poet," and refuse to lean down from this Parnassus long enough to guide us through moral crises like the popularity of Wall-E.

Don't drink that bottle of Liquid Plumbr yet, though; help is on the way!
Fortunately, there is Thomas Hibbs, a professor of ethics and culture at Baylor University — and a film critic for National Review Online.
What Hibbs has done, see, is he's written a book about film noir, which argues that despite the genre's dark themes, "there is a strain in many noir films of a quest to arrive at a moral sense of the world."

Well, yeah. It doesn't take much critical acumen to discover a preoccupation with morality in films like The Big Heat or On Dangerous Ground or The Reckless Moment or Act of Violence. I'm familiar with the conservative need to make art palatable by turning it into an ideological billy-club, but that tactic usually involves far more strenuous exegetical contortions ("The Incredibles is an attack on the Welfare State!"); this is simply a matter of representing films that are explicitly concerned with morality and justice as films that are implicitly concerned with morality and justice. (Which is apparently what Bozell hails as "interpretive talent.")

The inevitable sleight of hand comes with the assumption that this concern automatically dovetails with conservatism as it existed then, let alone now. On Dangerous Ground, for instance, is about nothing if not the attempt "to arrive at a moral sense of the world"; that moral sense, however, is utterly at odds with movement conservatism as set forth in rags like NR: A cop who routinely breaks the law in order to brutalize criminals is redeemed after he tries to protect a young murderer from a lynch mob. (To put it in terms Jonah Goldberg might understand, he's feminized by pity.)

Ayn Rand would've instantly recognized this film as "a glorification of depravity," in that it creates sympathy for a murderer and implies that he couldn't help his actions. As wrong as she is, she's more right than the likes of Bozell and Hibbs, who believe that they can claim neutral or nonconforming art for conservatism by invading and occupying it, and then use it as a base for incursions against whatever "secular and hedonistic (and often nihilistic)" cultural productions remain untransmuted by hard-right aestheticians into Triumphs of the Will.

Having uncovered decades of hidden Hollywood conservatism right where it occurred to him to look for it, Hibbs goes on to suggest that at long last, "Hollywood may be veering away somewhat from nihilism." Exhibits A through Y are The Passion of the Christ, which Bozell and Hibbs offer, with rare invention, as a path to understanding that the Nazis were bad.
Hibbs notes that the Romans saw their Jewish subjects as subhuman, an inferior race devoid of humanity....

"Indeed, the scenes of the Roman soldiers cackling with glee as they scourge Christ and rip hunks of skin from his body is most reminiscent of the depiction of the Nazi soldiers in 'Schindler's List.'"
No wonder it turned Hollywood on its ear, and earned full-throated acclaim from the Fucking Jews. And no wonder so many recent Hollywood films have religious overtones:
Hibbs cites everything from the Harry Potter series to "The Lord of the Rings" and Narnia to comic-book superhero films like the Spider-Man movies.
Bozell hails this as proof that "that moviegoers can use their own quest for redemption to drag some fraction of Hollywood out of the dark swamp of despair." But this notion of "a quest for redemption" seems to me to apply more to our current bumper crop of conservative hermeneuticists than it does to the average moviegoer (the box-office receipts of The Love Guru notwithstanding).

In his interminable gushing over The Golgotha Chainsaw Massacre, Bozell unwittingly hints that what one gets out of movies may have something to do with what one brings to them:
Unlike so many blood-spurting films where the viewer is encouraged to laugh or be dazzled at the mechanics of death, "The Passion" compels the viewer to feel the need for repentance, that this bloody sacrifice was both his fault (through his sins) and yet his hope for eternal life.
With that in mind, I believe I'll go and watch The Third Man, which I'm told is about the brutal crushing of postwar anarcho-capitalism by the nascent European Nanny State.