Those who observed, even from a distance, the spate of political films during the election year of 2004 may have thought that they had been concocted as part of some left wing conspiracy to topple President Bush. If so, the idea owed a lot to the fact that the most prominent and successful of these films, Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11, really was created with the intention of compassing the President’s defeat in November. But the leftist tendency of politics in the movie culture of America — and, indeed, that of most of the rest of the world — goes much deeper than that. Though these politics are often militantly left-wing, they are also rooted in a conservative sense of nostalgia for a lost heroic age, an age of highly photogenic revolutionary heroes and martyrs, that is to them what the Age of Gold was to the ancients.
From The American Spectator.
May 31, 2005.
F.A. Hayek long ago pointed out that socialism was founded on just such a nostalgia for an imagined time when primitive humanity was supposed to have lived according to principles of cooperation rather than competition. Roger Sandall hypothesizes that "this persistent attraction to the tribal" may go back as far as 8500 years. It certainly goes back as far as the myth of the Golden Age promulgated by the ancient Greek poet Hesiod (fl. 700 B.C.). The Marxists managed the remarkable feat of co-opting the Romantic idea of progress and evolution on behalf of a return to the primitive state. For a hundred years or so, it was possible to believe — and in some places necessary to believe — that the unstoppable freight train of human history was bound for a neo-primitive tribal utopia. But since that illusion was exploded and it became clear that the future would only bring more development, more private property, greater competition and a more highly corporatized economic environment, the heroes of the left have become those who have, in the words of that great conservative, William F. Buckley Jr., stood athwart history yelling "Stop!"
In Rebecca Miller’s Ballad of Jack and Rose, for instance, Daniel Day-Lewis’s Jack is a die-hard hippie who has hung on as the sole remaining inhabitant, with his teenage daughter Rose (Camilla Belle), of a now-defunct commune on "An Island off the East coast of the United States." From this ruined paradise, he makes occasional revolutionary gestures such as shooting up houses under construction on the island and spray-painting "Wetland" on them, but it is clear that he is dying and that when he goes little will remain of those noble hippie principles on which his life has been founded — unless his daughter can induce him to demonstrate the courage of his revolutionary convictions by sleeping with her. The idea, I guess, is to show that, though Jack and all that he stands for have been defeated by history ("You can’t stop progress," says Beau Bridges in the role of the developer who is building the new houses on the island), it is a noble defeat, like that of Roland or the Spartans at Thermopylae. The revolutionary principle will never, in spite of it, be utterly extinguished.
Campbell Scott’s Off the Map is also nostalgic for the 1960s and a hippie-inspired pastoral vision, though it tries unsuccessfully to disguise the fact by removing not only politics but also sex from its story of a family living in the New Mexican desert in 1974 and trying to cope with the crippling depresssion of Charley (Sam Elliott), the paterfamilias. Into the lives of Charley and Arlene (Joan Allen) and their precocious daughter, Bo (Valentina de Angelis), comes an auditor for the IRS (Jim True-Frost) who falls in love with Arlene and so admires Charley’s small-is-beautiful lifestyle that he stays with the family permanently and becomes a celebrated artist. As we see things through the eyes of young Bo, their idyllic existence is untroubled by sexual jealousy — or even sex, unless you count mama’s Eve-like nude gardening. Papa’s depression gradually lifts, and years later, having been long in city pent, Bo can look back on those days of her youth as a veritable Eden. As in The Ballad of Jack and Rose, the revolutionary battle may be lost — may in this case even have taken place without the knowledge of the participants — but the heaven-on-earth for which it was fought remains a shining ideal to be treasured up for some scarcely imaginable future.
In documentary terms, the lions of the left tend to be modern day Quixotes, forlornly fighting for their doomed but noble cause, even when they are as personally unpleasant as the cinematographer Haskell Wexler, even when they are treated as critically as Wexler is in his son Mark’s new and not-quite hagiographical biography, Tell Them Who You Are. But there is also still room for old-fashioned polemics against the corporate future, especially if they can be suitably disguised as something else. Morgan Spurlock’s Super Size Me of last year which purported to be about the dangers of fast food but managed to insinuate very cleverly that the corporate bosses of the McDonald’s hamburgers empire were conspiring to poison the world was an outstanding example. Another is the new film Mondovino by Jonathan Nossiter which mines the unlikely territory of the international wine market for evidence to make the somewhat more difficult case that corporate wine producers are conspiring to destroy the world’s taste for decent wine.
The title is a play on words, "Mondovino" meaning something like "world of wine" but also suggesting the name of the film’s villains, the Mondavi family of California, whose world-encompassing grasp is — with the help of the genial French consultant, Michel Rolland, and the influential critic of The Wine Spectator, Robert Parker — gradually strangling the life out of the world of wine. The film is thus another attack on "globalization" like last year’s The Corporation but with respect to viticulture and based not on the pretense of concern for sweat-shop workers in the third world but for the gradually disappearing small winemakers of France, Italy and elsewhere in the world where they fear, so we are told, the encroachment of what some of them call the "Napa-ization" of wine production. But of course the real villains are as always corporations, and especially American corporations, and their victims are charming old world types who can be represented as being both the little guys being crushed under the corporate heel and a sub-variety of the noble Quixotes fighting their forlorn battles against the nightmare future to come.
That the Mondavis’ conspiracy against the world’s wines is linked to the grand unified conspiracy theories of the left is sufficiently attested to by the fact that both Parker and the representative of the Rothchild winery of Bordeaux which is collaborating with the Mondavis on the their up-market, Opus One, brand have the same photo of Ronald Reagan holding up a glass of wine prominently displayed in the room where they are interviewed. One of the film’s spokesmen, a New York wine importer named Neal Rosenthal, speaks of the globalizers as being "evil" and compares the Faustian bargain he sees them as offering to independent producers to the Patriot Act: "Let’s be patriotic, so let’s give up our freedom." To him, the spread of the Mondavis’ money and methods in France has led to "a battle between the Resistance and collaborators," as under the Nazis, and another of their opponents is not shy of using the word "fascism" — but then who is shy of using that word anymore?
Even if we grant, however, that the Mondavi wine tastes like soda pop compared with that of the traditional wine-makers who are interviewed for the camera, it does not follow that the drama of villainy and heroic resistance that the film tries to make of the fact is one that makes any sense except in cinematic terms. Like so many others in Movieland, Nossiter has the Marxist habit of thinking that all the regrettable things in the world are politically caused and politically cured. But if the art of wine-making is to be lost and in its place we are to have only the bland, globalized, oak-aged product of the wicked Mondavis it is because the bland, globalized, oak-aged product of the wicked Mondavis is what the world’s ever-growing number of wine-drinkers wants.
Like the inhabitants of the new ticky-tacky boxes in The Ballad of Jack and Rose, these arrivistes hailing from the socially down-market worlds of beer and sweet, sticky soft-drinks are doubtless all as vulgar and uncouth as the film insists they are, and they have no business demonstrating their tastelessness with respect to what their betters have identified as the finer things of life. But as Beau Bridges says to Daniel Day-Lewis’s Jack, "You can’t stop the future from happening." Even this dying hippie, before his daughter gives him a Viking-style funeral, is forced to recognize that he’d have done better to have regarded the futile passions on which he has wasted his life as matters of taste rather than politics. But then the left has to politicize taste for the same reason that it has to politicize human relationships: because there is so little left from the realms of the politically legitimate — economics, welfare, matters of war and peace — that it has not already failed at.