JONAH GOES TO THE PICTURE SHOW
Movie reviewing is tricky business. It’s different from book reviewing. These days most people don’t want to read whole books. Not only do readers want to know what the book is about, they want to know the best parts of the book too. But nobody wants to have some pain in the butt reviewer spoil the movie for them before they see it.
For example, yesterday Joel Siegel of ABC’s Good Morning America reviewed the Blair Witch Project. Coming out of the clip from the trailer, he told viewers “And if you’re curious why she’s talking into the camera that way it’s because…” Now, I won’t tell you how the sentence ended because I don’t want to spoil the movie for you. But he clearly didn’t care — of course Siegel is such a jerk he got that wrong (Note: My longest-held personal grudge is against Siegel, going back more than twenty years. See this coming Friday’s File). Or, for another example, in today’s review of Deep Blue Sea, the reviewer for the Washington Post tells the reader what he thinks the best scene in the movie is. But by explaining it, he ruins it.
The truth is that most good movie reviews, like the ones in National Review, The New Republic or the New Yorker (or even some magazines that don’t begin with N) are more interesting to read after you’ve seen the movie — or if you have no intention to see it at all. If I read a review by, say, The New Republic’s Stanley Kaufman, before I see the movie, I end up trying to see whether he got it right, rather than enjoying the film. Conservative reviewers have an especially difficult problem. It was first pointed out to me a few years ago by my good friend and old boss Ronald Bailey — now with Reason magazine. “You know what happens to conservative movie reviewers don’t you?” he asked when I told him I was writing about some film for a conservative magazine.
“What?” I asked. “They become grouches.”
He was right. The downside of conservative movie reviewing illustrates the biggest problem with conservatism generally — too often we can’t get outside our politics. Have you ever heard of a leftist movie reviewer? Probably not. Certainly not someone who considers him or herself a “Leftist movie reviewer” — unless you subscribe to the sort of magazine that requires you to smoke clove cigarettes and exhale existential sighs while you read the letters from reformed Fourieists who object to the cover stories on the resonance of lesbian hermaphroditism in fin de siècle Paris. While most reviewers are, in all likelihood, liberal democrats, they don’t feel the need to bring their politics with their popcorn. But conservatives have a degree of distance, if not alienation, from Hollywood culture. So they constantly find themselves complaining about the sex and the drugs and the lesbian goat love rather than critiquing the movie on its own terms. Sometimes this is fine; some movies are political statements and therefore should be discussed in political terms. But most films are made by and for people with other than overtly political aims. So, like the 1930s Communists who used to complain that Mickey Mouse was a capitalist tool intended to distract the workers from the goal of international revolution, conservatives find themselves complaining about the sizzle rather than the steak.
So how does a conservative movie reviewer, who doesn’t want to spoil the movie, write a review? The same way he takes the lamb chop from rottweiller — carefully. Another way is to fill two-thirds of the column with irrelevant woolgathering about other topics so that you only have room for a paragraph for the real review. So, I saw the Blair Witch Project yesterday. It is entirely apolitical. It is very scary. It is very stressful. It is very well done. It does for the woods what Jaws did for the ocean. It’s about three film students who go into the woods to make a documentary and never come out. There is no soundtrack and there is almost no set. It is the most consciously real horror film I can remember, the clove cigarette crowd would call it cinema verité, which, as we all know, is French for “I surrender.” Because the conceit of the film is that it is merely the recovered footage from the students’ film project, BWP simply glides over plot holes and questions that would be big problems in other films.
In a sense its technique is similar to Jaws. Jaws succeeded because the shark wouldn’t work. So Spielberg had to make the conscious decision to become Hitchcockian. He turned the camera around and showed the fear of the victims — often from the shark’s point of view. Constrained by even greater, mostly budgetary, restraints, the makers of the Blair Witch Project uses the fear of the victims to even greater effect.
It is no wonder that the big studios are so scared of this little, low budget movie, which threatens to crowd out other big budget fare. It is quite simply the scariest movie of the 1990s.
THE TRUE FACE OF HATE
Okay, so I’m done reading all of the Kennedy mail. Positives out-paced negatives by a high margin — my guess about three or four to one.
Quite a few of the thoughtful people who disagreed with me felt that because of politics or my age I am unable to comprehend the feelings for the Kennedys in this country, hence my insensitivity. There’s certainly some merit there (witness how soft even The Weekly Standard was on the Kennedy legacy).
But that just highlights my point. Even the most thoughtful of my critics offered few to no facts to dispute my assertion that the coverage of JFK Jr. was maudlin, distorted, and over the top. In the scores of critical emails, nobody said, “Douglas Brinkley was right! George was read by Pittsburgh steelworkers and Fort Worth cowboys.” Nobody said “JFK Jr. was a great district attorney and here’s why.” At least nobody with any facts on their side. (By the way, the Washington Post reported this week that George magazine may not last more than two more issues.) Facts are stubborn things. Which brings up the most fascinating aspect of my unfriendly critics. They are crybabies. They think that facts are cruel. It seems that facts wake them from the slumber of their dreams and that makes them cranky and mean.
Unlike the civil email I received, the really angry stuff was almost homogeneously asinine. The vast bulk of the hundred or so hate emails stemming from the Kennedy columns had three things in common. First they accused me of being jealous of John Kennedy. Second, they asserted that I am a hater. And third, they used the sort of language and terms I — as a supposed hater — would never dream of using.
There is a great consistency here. As Hannah Arendt pointed out (yes, again with the Arendt allusions), the great accomplishment of the Left in the 1930s was the gift for dismissing questions of fact with accusations about motive. This was a vital tool for Communists, Leftists, and fellow-travelers. It changed the argument from whether in fact there were Communist spies in government to “Why do you want to know?” The Clinton Administration mastered this tactic by making the motives of Linda Tripp and Ken Starr more important than the actual crimes committed by Bill Clinton and his cronies.
And, it seems, their heirs have picked up on the trick too. How else to explain the sort of vile hate-filled accusations I’ve received? How else to explain the confidence with which people pronounce on my internal motivations? How else to explain the utter lack of factual armament on the other side? It is pointless for me to deny that I am jealous of John Kennedy because it is so utterly irrelevant. Even if my house were a veritable envy-shrine to John-John, how did I make so many important journalists say such stupid things? How does my seething jealously change the items on JFK Jr.’s resume?
Which brings us to the second commonality — the charge that I am a hater. So what? Let’s just assume I like telling kids there’s no Santa Claus. Besides, there’s plenty of bi-partisanship out there. The list of personally mean and vicious leftists who “care about the children” is vast.
Which brings us to the last universal of my hate-mail. Marshal McLuhan said that the medium is the message. Sometimes that’s true. But sometimes the message is the message. These people talk about how I should be ashamed for saying such “mean” and “hate-filled” things about Bill, Hillary, John-John, Big Bird et. al. But in the course of doing so they tell me to “go back to Israel,” about how my birth and conception were, shall we say, unconventional. They say the most awful things about my family — things a family website could never print — in the most graphic and hate-filled terms (use your imagination, then make it dirtier).
Especially interesting is the fact that these people who bemoan my intolerance, think the worst thing they can call me is gay (though that is never the term they use). When I expressed curiosity in the past about this (I mean in regard to the accusation rather than a “I could get into that” sort of thing), readers explained to me that it must be because the hate-mailers think that all conservatives are homophobes and so that’s the worst thing they can say. But I don’t think so anymore. These people seem to enjoy — a bit too much — writing about the bizarre sex acts they think I perform.
But what I find so interesting about the hate-mailers is that their tune changes when I respond. I give most of the haters a chance to try again, since I suspect that many of them think I won’t read the email at all (which makes the violent homo-eroticism all the more interesting, no?). The same pattern emerges almost every time. They get very defensive and embarrassed that I’ve engaged them.
One fellow, let’s call him Mike Brewer, is typical. His first email explained in graphic and angry detail about I was born by “defecation” and how my “sleazy” mother is a “sow.” He went on to inquire about my preferred gay practices and other such niceties.
I quickly responded about how I thought his email spoke volumes about him. His immediate response was to critique my grammar and inform me that his friends really like him, “something I doubt the Washington Press corps would say about you and your mother.” Again, I responded. And this time he replied saying he had tried to give me the benefit of the doubt but unfortunately I couldn’t get beyond name-calling.
The conventional wisdom is that I shouldn’t give the mouth-breathers the satisfaction of writing about them. But I just find the whole phenomenon so fascinating. These people attack me for being angry, bitter, hate-filled, and intolerant. And yet, with all the anti-semitism, homophobia, vicious name-calling, etc., they seem to have at their fingertips, it’s as if they’re talking about themselves.