Ed Driscoll

Not Only Did The Pictures Get Small--So Did The Audience

In the latest “dead tree” issue of National Review (available online, but subscription required) Mark Steyn has a superb piece that examines just how badly Hollywood’s needle is stuck in the grooves of an ancient 45–maybe 78:

“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 undeniably “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 are 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 Lee 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 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 Signal 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 Armond 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 by 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 the 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 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 pinup: 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.

So savvy that, as World magazine recently noted, the five Academy Award best picture nominees “reached a combined U.S. box-office total of just over half of what 2005’s top-grossing film, Star Wars [Revenge of the Sith], raked in. None of them makes it into the top-40 grossing films of the year”.

Norma Desmond didn’t know the half of it: not only did the pictures get small–so did the audience.