Dispatches From the Konservetkult

Given the recent renaissance of overtly political films, it was inevitable that we would also have a renaissance of overtly political film commentary, especially with blogs acting as a force multiplier. It's easy to understand why blogospheric debates would rage over whether Michael Moore lies (as MooreLies.com contends) or hates America (as MichaelMooreHatesAmerica.com contends).

But you might wonder what the political angle would be for, say, Knocked Up. Or 300. Or the new Harry Potter movie, or the old Chevy Chase chestnut Fletch, or comic book movies ...

Well, wonder no more -- welcome to the right-wing school of movie criticism! In this burgeoning genre, the sort of stuff that concerns ordinary critics -- characters, dialogue, cinematography -- pale in importance when compared to a film's potential to further right-wing political goals. Much like the Proletkult of the early Soviet Union that filtered all art through the lens of Marxism, today's Konservetkult sees ideological subtext in everything they watch.

Take, for example, 300. Did you think its opening-weekend success was due to its dazzling comic-book violence and histrionics? Not so, says Victor Davis Hanson of National Review, who explained that its financial triumph really represented a national reaction to the moral degeneracy of our time. "There is a great yearning among the public," he intoned, "for just a small, rare chance to see some issue presented in terms other than moral ambiguity." He cited "the Iranian hostage taking" of British sailors at the time of the film's release as another factor in its financial victory. One wonders why he did not make the same claim for the following weekend's box-office champ: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

Hanson isn't alone in his desire to see hit films converted to the conservative cause, of course. Libertas, the blog sponsored by the right-wing Liberty Film Festival, makes a mission of finding the political talking points in loud summer blockbusters. "The films politics are decidedly pro-American, pro-military, and even *gasp* pro-freedom," says one review at Libertas. "[The director's] affection for the American military is obvious in every scene they're in. They are uniformly portrayed as heroic, extremely competent, selfless, and even kind to Arab children. The theme of the film is spoken out loud more than once: No sacrifice, no victory." Which film is he talking about? Why, the robot smash-'em-up Transformers, of course. Of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Libertas reported, "The bottom line is that Harry's readying his troops for war here. The word 'war' is even used. They're going to fight evil even if the Democ– er … Ministry of Magic won't." At Libertas, every popcorn clash of Good and Evil has some relevance to the War on Terror, whether the combatants use guns, magic wands, or overgrown Hasbro dolls.

In an effort not only to agitate for right thinking in film but also cast out wrongthink, conservative commentators will sometimes look back to avail the classics, or take them on. For instance: Fletch. Reihan Salam devoted a lengthy Slate column to the dual propositions that the 1985 Chevy Chase comedy is no good because "hipster liberalism just doesn't mesh well with screwball comedy," and that good comedies like Animal House and Wedding Crashers are examples of "classic right-wing populism."

As odd as Salam's criticism may seem, it fits in perfectly with Konservetkult's recent affinity for coopting jokes about feces and groin-shaving for their own purposes. In a post over at the National Review's blog, Kathryn Jean Lopez praised the raunchy comedy Knocked Up for delivering allegedly positive messages about family and responsibility. Though she has some reservations about the film's many crude jokes about sex and drug use, Lopez is mostly pleased to see a film where a character got pregnant and didn't seriously consider getting an abortion. "It's a vulgar comedy, so this pro-life, pro-marriage, essentially conservative message is reaching people a piece in First Things never would," she writes. "This is what conservatives in Hollywood should be doing, making funny movies that no one would ever ghettoize as conservative -- really engage the culture."

Not to be outdone, Berry College political science professor Peter Lawler extolled the film as a "piece of art that celebrates secular, sophisticated America's pro-life awakening," where "lovable babies are chosen over even lucrative designer careers."

Though film criticism is a staple among modern right-wing pundits, many of them have also branched out to critiquing classical art. National Review's Larry Kudlow broke serious ground with with his 2004 encomium to "Conservative Art." "Conservative art," in Kudlow's mind, traces back to "the post-Civil War period, when we became the premiere global economic power. There was no income tax... Religious virtues governed our culture. Unbelievably good literature and art were produced." In contrast with "the negative pessimistic crap that too often passes for art in blue states like New York," Kudlow argues that Con Art produces "beautiful, calm, pleasant pictures. Stuff you can enjoy looking at, which is what I think art should be."

Since modern painters apparently no longer produce "unbelievably good" art, some conservatives have begun looking for it in TV shows. One particularly odd example comes from the New York Post's Julia Gorin, who praised the show "Medium" by stating that "RED[-state] Americans feeling under served by the entertainment industry have less to whine about these days." And what's the reason folksy Red-staters should feel so upbeat by this show, you ask? Because Patricia Arquette's "pro-military, pro-gun wife and mother of three reports that when she is asked whether her being used in jury selection stacks the deck against the defense, she answers, 'I hope so' (and snaps us out of our foggy coma of moral equivalence between victim and assailant)." And while National Review's Rebecca Cusey complains of a "Grey's Anatomy" character who "admits that unexplained miracles do happen" but "never allows that a higher power was behind them," she is heartened that "[a]t least the characters are generally moving toward marriage."

It's clear that most of these critics regard works of art, high and low, as reductive political objects that have been invested with cultural power -- and since movement conservatives don't produce many such objects themselves, these must be claimed for their cause. Classic examples include National Review's "50 Greatest Conservative Rock Songs," which appropriates tunes like "Sympathy for the Devil" and "Gloria" ("a rock song that's about faith and whose chorus is in Latin"), and blogger Solid Surfer's conviction that, had John Lennon lived, he "would have become a card-carrying Republican and voted for President Bush in the 2004 election."

Of course, when conservatives do attempt to create original art, the results are often disastrous. Consider the recent, spectacular failure of "The ½ Hour News Hour," a right-wing "comedy" show that attempted to mirror the success of Comedy Central's "The Daily Show." The show, whose "jokes" mainly consisted of linking liberals to homosexuality and drug addiction, was so unfunny that even its target conservative audience found it dreadful.

"[½ News Hour creator] Joel Surnow told NRO on Friday that he wanted to produce a program that would set Michael Moore's hair on fire," wrote former Bush speechwriter David Frum. "He has not done it. More seriously, he has failed to do something much more important: create a conservative institution with cultural power."

What the Konservetkult has failed to grasp through all this is that art is most successful when it is not put slavishly in the service of political ideology. To be sure, art and politics have commingled in the past, from Beethoven's symphonic tribute to Napoleon to Goya's graphic depictions of war, to South Park's barbed libertarian social satire. But lasting political art uses politics as its inspiration; in the Konservetkult's calculus, politics must always use art. Normal people look at a piece of art and ponder how it changes their view of the world, or how it deepens their appreciation for life. The right's culture critics look at art and ask, "How can this help us win?"