A decade ago, two movies changed everything
Decades of Hollywood’s and the news media’s chasing after uneducated youth, fostering an undiscriminating market (disguised as populism), have finally paid off with a culture in which nothing is learned or remembered. Nothing is valued past opening weekend, and the cultural fragmentation that sorts moviegoers by age, political proclivities, race, and gender cannot be mended by taste or education. All entertainment now reflects our political division.
How did we arrive at this abyss?
Think back ten years: In the spring of 2004, there was the media’s lynch-mob excommunication of Mel Gibson and his film The Passion of the Christ, soon followed by the Cannes Film Festival’s ordination of Michael Moore’s anti–G. W. Bush documentary Fahrenheit 9/11. These events proved the effectiveness of pre-release hype, furthered acquiescence to cultural authority, and discouraged social unity. This was a moral, aesthetic, intellectual, and political shift — a break and a decline.
Through these two films, religion and politics — topics one had never argued about in polite company — became the basis for categorizing moviegoers as members of factions. Beliefs and positions calcified. Passion became a red-state movie, and Fahrenheit became a blue-state movie.
That turning point may also be where the canard of calling for a “conversation” (about race, sex, violence . . . take your pick) began. The need for such “conversation” stemmed from the disorienting wallop of the terrorist attack on September 11, 2001. Pundits collectively responded by saying, “Nothing is the same,” which meant that people whose livelihoods were made on directing popular opinion were irreparably hard-hit. Self-absorbed, they lost their ability to think straight or fairly. Ironically, post-9/11 “conversation” (essentially, “Let me set the terms for you”) started with a priori conditions that prevented most people from reacting to Gibson’s and Moore’s movies with anything like independent thought.
Attacks on Gibson’s film had begun several months earlier, with The New Yorker’s smear campaign besmirching the filmmaker’s character. This tipped off the liberal press to torpedo the film’s upcoming release and alerted them that the film deserved no respect as a work of art or expression of faith. The Passion of the Christ was eventually a box-office success, primarily because churchgoers and Gibson fans defied the pundits and found value in the movie’s story and meaning. But a rift between secular media and spiritual moviegoers had opened up — evident, among other places, in reviews that loftily disparaged the film and questioned the principles on which it was based.
Glib assessments of the story of Christ’s agony and its spiritual and historical basis used simplistic terms that dismissed any suggestion of divinity. The New Yorker’s David Denby stooped lowest, calling it “a snuff film,” a deliberate insult to Gibson’s professionalism and his Christianity. The sting of this affront was camouflaged by the disingenuous claim that the topic under consideration was “violence.” Such denigration, proffered by a venerable publication and followed by numerous negative articles in the newspaper of record, laid waste to civil discussion. Movie discourse has not been the same since.
Blunt attacks on sensitive matters formed a pattern of intolerance from media normally expected to be cautious and respectful (even when not fair). Journalistic ethics were trashed, and formerly assumed rules of public dialogue and cautious conduct fell by the wayside. Even worse, reviewers’ hostility had a disturbing air of anti-religious bias; their snide rejections incited a mean collective contempt that deepened schisms in our ongoing culture war.
It was moral vandalism, sullying ideas and totems sacred to many. Such a fundamental offense devastated civilized behavior in ways many still have not realized. It drove a wedge between the public and the elites who make movies; the very ground we walked upon as enlightened, cultured people was scorched like Ground Zero at the World Trade Center.
Had 9/11’s unsettling impact loosed some barely suppressed contempt? Or was something less mysterious at work? Since George W. Bush’s 2000 election, the liberal media had moved toward retaliation and gradually discarded what remained of their pretense to fair-mindedness. Did the Left’s need for reprisal in the wake of Bush v. Gore conjure the furies of 9/11? Many leftists certainly shared, to an alarming degree, the terrorists’ antipathy to America, even to the point of rationalizing the attacks as if they were cosmic vengeance. The Left’s misbehavior became so evidently self-serving and undemocratic that essayist Charles O’Brien ridiculed the termagants as “the Vichy Left” in First of the Month. In their mission to “get” Bush, they clamped down on all opponents, now perceived, in the growing antagonism, as enemies.
Gibson and The Passion of the Christ were the Left’s initial targets in 2004; the pseudo-documentarian Michael Moore provided the anti-Bush Left its ultimate salvo.
Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 was the first documentary to win the Cannes Festival’s top prize, the Palme d’Or, since the international film gala’s beginning, in 1946. Recall that Quentin Tarantino was the Cannes jury president in 2004 and that Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction — distributed by Miramax, then owned by brothers Harvey and Bob Weinstein — had won the Palme d’Or in 1994. To celebrate his ten-year anniversary, Tarantino returned his distributor’s favor by utilizing his discretion as jury president to break Cannes precedent and give the award to a documentary that so happened to be the Weinsteins’ newest release. Tarantino’s politics are as vague as his moral beliefs, so the decision to lend hype — and credence — to a film that blamed the calamity of 9/11 on George W. Bush might be explained as nothing more sinister than a concession to his bosses’ well-known leftist acrimony. Yet Tarantino’s toadying, if such it was, had disastrous, far-reaching consequences.
Although Fahrenheit 9/11 doesn’t have the probity or imagination of such classic documentaries as Nanook of the North, Let There Be Light, or Fires Were Started, that Palme d’Or conferred prestige on Moore’s agitprop and bolstered the Left’s claim to righteousness. TV host Roger Ebert further sanctioned Moore’s folly, saying, “This film has a point of view, and that’s okay.” Ebert’s praise gave naïve viewers a distorted notion of what counts as truth in a documentary. In Fahrenheit, indifference to journalistic objectivity paved the way for such unacceptable tactics as Moore’s tendentious framing of the moment when aides first informed the president of the 9/11 attacks. Bush is in the middle of reading The Pet Goat to a group of schoolchildren in Florida. Hearing the news whispered in his ear, he looks stunned but remains calmly seated with the children for about seven minutes. Moore derides this behavior as an instance of befuddlement rather than of human shock.
Fahrenheit 9/11’s stupid title confuses a thermological measurement with the remembrance of a fateful day in U.S. history, then sarcastically adds the suggestion of an unanswered emergency call. Moore attempted to take a moment of sorrow, the moment when Bush learned the news, and “make it sexy” — to use the leftist media’s term for inveigling easy response. Moore refused to acknowledge the possibility of a president’s spontaneous personal amazement at unimaginable tragedy. Nor did he consider the possibility that Bush was horrified but, like an adult, remained calm in front of the children. The pseudo-journalistic invasion of Bush’s privacy — Moore purports to show us Bush’s soul in a moment of crisis, and it is a blank — lacked compassion. But Moore and his media cheerleaders cater to leftist consensus, journalistic and artistic standards be damned. Leftists were eager to exact revenge for the Florida recount in 2000, and they ingested Moore’s defamation as if it were inarguable. The public went along out of hype-driven curiosity more than agreement.
Here is where the culture broke — by breaking tenets of decency. After the media’s misrepresentation of Gibson’s faith and after Moore’s propaganda, all rationality and taste were rendered irrelevant. New low standards were set in place and have held sway over the past pitiful ten years. Hollywood’s one-sided approach to art, religion, and politics initiated superficial and thoughtless responses to Americans’ multifaceted personal and political views. From 2004 on, even “entertainment” movies were made and received with deleterious political and moral bias.
This break in public civility — unbridled hostility for Bush, disrespect for the office of the presidency, ruthless personal attacks on ideological opponents — resulted from pent-up political differences and partisan complaint going back to Robert Bork’s dismissal, Clarence Thomas’s Supreme Court nomination hearings, Bill Clinton’s impeachment, and Al Gore’s concession in the 2000 presidential race. Heaping 9/11 bitterness on the pile gave Moore’s pseudo-documentary additional vengeful imperative; the film’s supporters no longer cared whether the work was balanced or sensible. This ruthlessness would warp the way later documentaries were made, perverting the concept of cinematic reporting. Narrow-minded advocacy became the new non-fiction standard — propaganda chic. Great documentaries of the past offered news and eye-opening insights. Moore, in his working-class onscreen costume, offered far less.
By the spring of 2004, we saw an undeniable imbalance in cultural discourse. Pop culture is largely produced and promoted by people in fields that liberals dominate, and conservatives rarely grasp the significance of popular art not made by them. The empowered media classes of New York and L.A. hold sway, and less empowered or less popular attitudes are underrepresented. Conservatives desperately need a critical journalism that grasps this. Some still don’t realize that the split in 2004 was new.
Suddenly, the 20th century’s great unifying art form — the movies — got reduced to a medium for generating polarized reactions, its artists and audiences divided by media agitation. With no place for evenly waged exchanges of ideas and aesthetics, national sensibilities could only fracture. No-longer-impartial media used their prominence to drive those who disagreed into quiet but resentful enclaves. This rupture was not along lines of taste but was instead derived from religious and political differences. It divided the moviegoing public along lines of alleged bigotry and professed grievance. In this light, charges that Gibson was anti-Jewish were impossible to challenge, but those aggrieved accusations destroyed any chance of achieving common ground. Trust was obliterated. No film has split the country so decisively since The Birth of a Nation in 1915.
The Passion and Fahrenheit, as movies and as cultural events, are showcases of media corruption and dereliction of duty. Such obstruction of justice and abuse of power created a psychic stress that the culture couldn’t overcome. Culture went on, certainly, but the movies made in the backwash of 2004 — from Good Night and Good Luck, Syriana, Michael Clayton, and There Will Be Blood to Knocked Up, Frost/Nixon, Precious, The American, The Social Network, Black Swan, Bridesmaids, and 12 Years a Slave — all demonstrate a sour, contentious, pessimistic worldview. Even Steven Spielberg, the era’s great populist, succumbed in his depressingly partisan Lincoln. We may never have seen a period of American movie history so full of pointless bitterness, sarcasm, and lack of fellow feeling.
We have achieved dumb-down. Passive receipt of placebos and the robotic reflexes of immediate gratification have replaced the search for moral comprehension. The effect of the 2004 dumbing-down is that a mania for consumption will distract the next generation from thinking and reduce its capacity for compassion.
National division fomented the destructive fallacy that when we are opposed to one another, we all can be celebrities or elites, united only by palliatives (comic books, rom-coms, mockumentaries, blockbusters, TV). We become distinguishable from one another — and feel we are “independent” — only because we are divided against one another. Flowing through the political bloodstream, divisiveness pumps the heart of popular entertainment, in which our very diversity is alienating or antagonistic. Since 2004, this dumbed-down enjoyment of American adversity is proof that our once-unifying culture has broken.
– Mr. White, a film critic, writes about movies for National Review Online. He is the author of The Resistance: Ten Years of Pop Culture That Shook the World and the forthcoming What We Don’t Talk about When We Talk about the Movies.