DALLAS – Call them Ishmael, the fans of director Mike Wilson, transported on a quest of mad righteousness rivaling that of Herman Melville's Ahab. Just as Melville's hoary old sailor took to the seas to hunt down a murderous white whale, Wilson goes in search of a similarly terrifying nemesis: the elusive, bloated doppelganger that scarred his soul and smashed his dream of home. The beast in question? Michael Moore.
Moore was the unseen but omnipresent bogeyman at the American Film Renaissance (AFR), the nation's first conservative film festival, where he was like a great black hole that pulls everything, inexorably, into its gravitational field. Some of the draw was a sort of attraction. A number of the younger conservative filmmakers expressed exasperated admiration for Moore's films and looted from the director's bag of signature tricks to craft their own documentaries -- a hopeful bit of artistic exchange that seemed to run counter to the notion of a whistling, impossible gap between the conservative world and the liberal one.
But the overwhelming majority at the AFR wouldn't brook even this slimmest of cultural bridges. Every screening and question-and-answer session I attended featured some jab at the filmmaker's girthy greasiness, his god-awful documentaries. For many, Moore was a convenient Goliath upon which to project conservative rage at America- and religion-hating, traditional-values-shredding left-wingers. So when one wit at a screening of Wilson's Michael Moore Hates America asked if Wilson's favorite book was Moby Dick, I had to marvel at the erudition of the barb. It was, after all, the cleverest iteration of what the majority of the AFR's moviegoers and filmmakers -- inflamed with rage but muzzled by the nice manners characteristic of many conservatives -- were dying to say: Michael Moore is a fat fuck.
As the fan's Ahab reference makes clear, just as important as the chance to see conservative films was the merry mythmaking that accompanied them. For the three-day duration of the AFR festival, founders Jim and Ellen Hubbard ran through the festival's creation legend with a weary cheerfulness. A year and a half ago, the two former law students got the idea to start up their pro-American film festival after they saw that their local theater in Little Rock, Arkansas, was screening only two movies: Frida, about a “communist artist,” and Moore'sBowling for Columbine.
“Where were the films for normal people?” Ellen Hubbard asked.
Sadly, not at the AFR. Among the cinematic offerings were plenty of conspiratorial tracts -- discourses on the potential fall of Western civilization due to the forces of immigration, terrorism, and a low birth rate for native-born U.S. citizens (The Siege of Western Civilization); on Bill Clinton's cover-up of the Islamic terrorist operations behind the Oklahoma City bombing (The Mega Fix); and on the astounding thesis that the genocides of Rwanda, Cambodia, and Bosnia stemmed from gun-control laws (Innocents Betrayed). When they weren't weaving an unlikely web of cause and assumption, the films banged on single-note themes: the piousness of our president, the heroics of our veterans, the insanity of the “Islamo-fascist” agenda of the anti-war left.
Underlying the AFR's films was a sense of disenfranchisement at being cut out of the circles of the “cultural elite” in Hollywood, on campuses, and in the blue states. Adding a dose of additional heat was a touchy outrage at the left's criticisms (perceived or made) of the righteousness of American policies, the accessibility of the American dream, and the honorable conduct of the American military in forays past and present.
In their identification with being downtrodden, they would be displeased to know, the festival attendees have much in common with the hated Moore, the self-made Everyman champion of minorities and the underclass. Just as this rich, white man indulges a sense of ersatz oppression to speak for the “voiceless,” so the AFR moviegoers displayed a curious myopia to the larger situation in America -- that for the imbalance of Republican views in Hollywood, a conservative president sits in the White House and Republicans have control of Congress. Conservative power in the government mattered little to the attendees, who saw only their second-class status in Hollywood. They roared with righteous anger when keynote speaker and conservative culture columnist Michael Medved railed that those on the right are “just now, as creative people, getting out of bed.”
Medved, however, pointed out opportunity for conservatives in the overt cultural partisanship inspired by Moore's documentaries, and in the success of The Passion of the Christ, before he veered into an anti-gay-marriage diatribe that left half of the audience cheering and the other half squirming. (“I hope you don't judge all of us by the ayatollah,” said one filmmaker critical of Medved's views, who declined to be identified by name. “That was just wrong. People are going to think we're a bunch of right-wing gay bashers.”) Liberal gatekeepers were behind both the unfailingly positive portrayals of gays in the media and the stifling of right-leaning perspectives in Hollywood, Medved argued.
One filmmaker, however, pointed to other causes for the conservatives' game of cultural catch-up. “It's a business, and liberals have been smarter than conservatives about it,” said David Balsiger, head of the Grizzly Adams production company, which uses polling by Gallup to identify which of its family-friendly pitches will be a success. “You have to meet what the network wants … have good production values, and good quality.”
Entertaining content is nice, too, said Anne Maddox, an ebullient flight attendant and pajama designer whose tales of meeting President Bush on a charter flight and persuading him to do the quirked-pinky Dr. Evil face were far more interesting than most of the films we watched. Maddox's favorite film? The ones that featured confrontations between conservative counter-protesters (The Protest Warriors) and inane left-wing activists, or showed Republican students taking on the draconian speech codes on college campuses. “The films need more stories,” she said. “They're just so absurd, and so funny.”
Michael Moore Hates America, for its shrill title, was just one such film -- the cinematic documentation of filmmaker Wilson's quest to provide damning context to some of Moore's past work and to hunt down the filmmaker and ask him why he insisted on painting such a bleak picture of America. While I disagreed with Wilson's “the lack of personal responsibility in America is its biggest problem” stance, his film had an unusual humility and nuance. He couldn't help but stack the deck sometimes (picking imbeciles to represent opposing opinions, for example), but was often unafraid to expose his own moral failings or to let viewers make up their own minds without bludgeoning them into submission -- a refreshing change after the bullying oeuvre of Moore.
Despite its opposition to Moore's views, Michael Moore Hates America was a consciously black homage to its titular character -- the guerilla filmmaking style, use of cruelly funny found footage, the editorializing, even the central conceit of trying to pin down Moore himself is straight out of Roger & Me. Maddox's favorites also drew on oddly familiar techniques, springing interviews on the unsuspecting, or rigging up situations to make sitting-duck opponents look horrifyingly bad. The films by these younger directors gave me a sense of cinematic déjà vu. They seemed like the work of … right-wing Moore Mini Mes?
“Yeah, we're using the techniques of the left to get out the message of the right,” said Jude Rolfes, when I asked him about some of the seeming lefty stylizations of the films. Rolfes is one-half of an affable duo launching a Web site “channel” dedicated to streaming conservative media and video content. When I first met Rolfes and his partner, J.T. Ehrman, they were struggling to hang up a large banner.
“Oh, crap. There's a typo,” said Rolfes.
“The Rightway.tv,” read the banner. “There is a wrong way and there is the The Rightway … .”
The two, both 24, gave half-chuckling, half-serious descriptions of themselves as “Arnold Republicans” -- “dominant in fiscal policy, laissez-faire in social policy, and with a dominating physical presence.” But they also emphasized the importance of creating “conservative art” for young people; they had originally thought of launching a conservative T-shirt company.
“The state of conservative T-shirts was really sad,” said Rolfes. “You could get something that said ‘Bush Country' on it. Lame.” The T-shirt they had wanted to develop was a bold, black-and-white graphic portrait featuring Bush's face.
“Like the Che Guevara thing?”
“Like that volunteer's shirt?” I pointed out a red T-shirt, emblazoned with Ronald Reagan's face and the slogan “Viva La Reagan Revolucion.” “Isn't that sort of just copying? Where's some original conservative art?”
“Liberals have a monopoly on the marketplace of ideas. They have cooler shit, it's true,” says Ehrman. “Republicans focus on other things: They go get jobs and shower. … I'm kidding, I'm kidding!”
“But now we're trying to create our edgy, conservative art, too,” says Ehrman. “And it's OK to use lefty tools to do the job.”
I took it as a hopeful sign, this seepage of lefty forms into young conservatives' attempts to express themselves artistically. Perhaps along with those techniques would come a little of the attitude that created them: the “power to the people” sentiment behind the agit-prop monochromatics, the indie groove of making noncorporate art, some of the playfulness. Or maybe not. But in the era of what I'll call cultural gerrymandering -- you take your conservative talk radio, we'll take our progressive documentaries, and split up the country that way -- the traces of mutual artistic influence, of cultural interdependence, seemed a subversive element that belied the divide between blue and red states.
A heartening thought, because earlier in the festival I had been lamenting the fact that many conservatives here hadn't seen Fahrenheit 9/11 yet were reviling it, and that so few liberals were in attendance at the AFR.
“It's a problem,” said Aaron Zelman, director of Innocents Betrayed. “This cultural balkanization. The one-sided views in documentaries. I would do a Bill of Rights festival instead. Those are the values we're supposed to espouse in America -- real freedom of speech. Anyone from Michael Moore to Jerry Falwell would be welcome. We'd watch each other's films. And then we'd talk.”
But perhaps a little of that is already happening, even if we are only watching one another's films and listening to one another's radio programming to co-opt useful techniques. At least we're tuning in.
“You make a documentary to argue a point,” said James Lambert, the volunteer in the Reagan T-shirt, who is also studying documentary filmmaking at the University of North Texas. “But it should also make you feel like you're seeing something you never see.”
That sounded a lot like the seemingly liberal-leaning Louis Menand, who argued many of the same points in a New Yorker essay. “Did you read that?” I asked.
But it didn't matter. Lambert reminded me that I was indeed seeing something I felt like I wasn't meant to see, especially in the documentaries by younger filmmakers: a hint of cultural cross-pollination across a supposedly insurmountable political divide. After all, even Ahab, hunting Moby Dick with a single-minded determination, still had a leg made of whalebone.
Noy Thrupkaew is a Prospect senior correspondent.