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The City and the ’70s

The headline at the Drudge Report shouted “Tensions in NYC like ’70s,” and we shuddered at the thought. We well remember what New York City was like during that dismal decade, and had hoped it would never again get so bad.
Those too young to recall the urban nightmare need only watch the movies of the era, now running on late night television as cautionary tales. In “The Out of Towners” Jack Lemmon is mugged, kidnapped, beset by mass transit and sanitation strikes, nearly killed by a manhole explosion, and attacked by protestors outside a United Nations embassy, and that’s a light Neil Simon comedy to start off the decade. “Panic in Needle Park,” Fort Apache: The Bronx,” “Death Wish,” “The French Connection,” the gunning gag about Central Park muggings in “Where’s Poppa,” and of course “Taxi Driver,” with its memorable lines about a hard rain washing all the scum off the streets and its blood-splattered climax, are all more realistic accounts. “The Warriors” and “Escape From New York” belong to the decade’s vast genre of dystopian futurist movies, by they’re not far off the mark. The era is still fondly recalled by the coke-addled denizens of Studio 54 and the artsier sorts who thought all the graffiti-covered and trash-strewn mayhem was somehow invigorating, but those who had to make their way to work and back home to an exorbitantly-priced have no such nostalgia.
We still recall a telephone conversation during the late ’70s with a college chum who had moved to the big city. Expecting to be regaled Runyon-esque tales of Gotham, we were surprised to hear him describe an urban nightmare more redolent Heironymous Bosch. Our friend was a small town Kansas boy, but he was also a pony-tailed hippie and a liberal, and he frankly confessed that he had no idea how the time might go about saving itself. Taxes were already so sky-high that any further increases would only drive more taxpayers away thus result in even less revenue, he conceded, and social services were generous enough to lure all sorts of troublesome characters to the streets, and the criminals were being treated with as much sensitivity as even America’s most progressive city could muster, so our friend was stumped. The best advice he could offer was to not let our own hometown get in such bad shape.
Not long after that the city was so short on ideas that it elected Rudy Giuliani as Mayor, and he famously cut taxes, but new restrictions on social services, and started enforcing order on the streets. Although counter-intuitive to New Yorkers, the program put the city’s finances in good enough order to fund basic services, the economy improved enough to provide jobs for former welfare cases, and the crime rate fell so dramatically that tourists were tempted to take walk through Times Square or Central Park. It worked so well, in fact, that New Yorkers took the good times for granted and assumed it was safe to return to the city’s old ways of doing things.
Higher taxes on the richest workers who have largely supported the city, more free stuff for the ones who aren’t working at all, and more sensitivity toward the criminal class were the platform that got Mayor Bill de Blasio elected. When several of his officers were involved in a fatal encounter with an unarmed man who was illegally selling cigarettes and was unwilling to be arrested for it, he didn’t call for an investigation of the questionable methods that caused the death, or ask for the city’s respect for a grand jury that declined to press charges, or question the city’s tobacco policies that created the black market the man was dealing in, but rather spoke of how his biracial son was endangered by the city’s police and egged on the protests that chanted for the murder of police. The chanters got their wish on Saturday, when two New York City police officers were gunned down by a man who had proclaimed his motive of revenge on the internet, and already the headlines liken the tension to the ’70s.
The cops in New York have no desire to return to that violent decade, and we hope that the rest of the city is similarly disinclined. People seem to have to relearn the lessons of the past from time to time, however, even when those lessons are playing on the late night movies.

— Bud Norman

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Even “Team America” Can’t Rescue Free Speech

Although we are not fond of the comedy of Seth Rogen, we were nonetheless dismayed to hear that his latest motion picture is being pulled from theatrical release because of terroristic threats by the North Korean government. When the tinpot dictator of a third world basket case can determine the choices of the American movie-going public it is a blow to free speech, and we are fond free speech. When the likes of Kim Jong Un can even halt a screening of “Team America: World Police,” the kind of movie that free speech was invented for, we are doubly outraged.
“Team America: World Police” isn’t a movie we recommend to everyone, as it is only suited to certain unrefined tastes. The polite word for its style of humor is Rabelaisian, but such a highfalutin term isn’t quite appropriate to such a deliberately foul-mouthed and dirty-minded puppet show. Those whose minds are already in the gutter and whose stomachs are strong enough for such fare will find it hilarious, though, and notice it has more shrewd points to make than the next ten indie flicks that will play your local art house put together. First released in 2004, the movie spoofs the Bushian patriotic fervor of America in the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, but that’s mostly rendered with the sort affectionate understanding that the great Preston Sturges brought to his classic satires “Hail the Conquering the Hero” and “Miracle of Morgan’s” during the similarly proud days of World War II. By far the harshest barbs are aimed at Islamist terrorists, the late North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Il, and their equally anti-American sympathizers in Hollywood. “Team America: World Police” is such a convincingly scathing indictment of Hollywood’s limousine liberalism that it’s a wonder Hollywood ever released it, but at the time Hollywood didn’t have the ready excuse of not wanting to offend any of the various Kim Jongs of North Korea.
Since the original release of “Team America: World Police” the North Koreans have been cast as the villains in several movies, including that awful remake of “Red Dawn” which somehow retained all the stupid improbabilities and bad acting of the original but somehow omitted all the popcorn-chomping patriotic fun, probably for lack of politically correct and liability-proof options. Hollywood stopped doing commie villains as soon as the Cold War ended, and even wound up re-making “The Manchurian Candidate” with some vaguely Koch Brothers-ish corporation as the bad guys plotting world domination, and was more likely to release an adoring bio-pic of Che Guevara. Neo-Nazis still make an occasional appearance in the movies, but that beloved cliche has mostly played out from overuse. Christians and Republicans and especially Christian Republicans can always been employed to stop a high school dance or say unpleasant things about a cross-dresser or complicate someone’s abortion or provide some other villainous plot twist, but that’s only good for the women’s market, and is insufficiently violent for the action-adventure fare that brings in the really big box office, and it probably doesn’t translate well to the foreign market.
Islamist terrorists are widely unpopular domestically, a sentiment that probably prevails in a profitable segment of those foreign markets as well, but of course they’re terrorists and might prove more expensively dangerous to offend than whatever’s left of the Neo-Nazis or the Koch Brothers-ish corporations or Christians or Republicans or even Christian Republicans. From the still-in-hiding Salman Rushdie to that besieged Danish magazine that published the Mohammad cartoons to the murdered Theo Van Gogh, criticizing the Islamists has never proved a profitable enterprise. The same ribald fellows who did “Team America: World Police” also do the foul-mouthed and dirty-minded and frequently brilliant “South Park” cartoon, but when they dared to depict Mohammad in solidarity the Comedy Central network did not air the offend segment. The same network’s Stephen Colbert recently received the effusive thanks of the Democratic party for his long service to its cause, which they will cite as proof of how very daring they are, but they are by no means alone in Hollywood in their preference for a safer sort of daring.
Kim Jong Un has apparently noticed this tendency, if that reports that it’s actually a big publicity push for some otherwise unsaleable Seth Rogen flick can be discounted, and now he can enjoy the same immunity from Hollywood villainy as his friends in Iran and Cuba. The studio has already suffered from a cyber-attack that has revealed e-mails and other internal documents confirming that everyone in Hollywood is as self-absorbed and shallow as you’d always thought, and apparently believes that the North Koreans can make good on its more deadly threats. A few theaters decided to show “Team America: World Police” as a protest against the Sony Corporation’s capitulation to the terrorist threat, but the studio decided to pull even that worthier production from the theaters as well. Any other tinpot dictators of third world basket-cases seeking some say in which pictures get green-lighted can expect the same response, and it will likely have an inhibiting effect on the American cinema. At this rate, the next James Bond will have the intrepid secret agent saving the high school dance that one of those creepy Christian Republicans was trying to shut down.

— Bud Norman

Hard Times in Hollywood

The President of the United States was hobnobbing with a roomful of super-rich show biz folks the other day, and he sounded rather glum. He spoke of a “disquiet around the country,” “an anxiety, and a sense of frustration,” a widely held belief that “the challenges out there remain daunting and we have a Washington that’s not working,” and his fear it will cause Americans to become disengaged from the political process to an extent that “we got this downward spiral of even more cynicism and more dysfunction.” All in all, it seemed an incongruously downbeat message for such an upscale occasion.
We did not attend the fundraiser at Walt Disney Studios chairman Alan Horn’s palatial Bel-Air home, but we read all about in Variety, which is a usually reliable source for all matters entertainment. The event was a bit pricey for our budget, with a donation of $10,000 buying only dinner and a photo-op, and $34,000 needed to get into the VIP reception and $68,000 the cost of something called a “VIP clutch,” so we stayed home and watched Netflix instead, but it sounds like we missed a swank affair. Pop diva Barbra Streisand and big-time movie mogul Jeffrey Katzenberg were reportedly in attendance, and presumably involved in the “VIP clutch,” which for that kind of money should have involved a happy ending, and we can only guess that everyone was good-looking and well-dressed and wealthy enough to pony up serious cash for the president’s ongoing crusade against income inequality. We like to imagine there’s a certain amount of gaiety at these glamorous Hollywood shindigs, with comely young starlets swinging from the chandeliers and handsome young gigolos snorting copious amounts of cocaine off the ample breasts of some sultry sex symbol or another, so it strikes us as slightly rude that the president would bring everyone down with a rambling rehash of Jimmy Carter’s infamous “Malaise Speech.”
Show people are funny, though, so perhaps they got their money’s worth from the frisson of pseudo-seriousness they felt listening to the President of the United States spout such self-pitying drivel. The president was quite correct about the disquiet and the anxiety and the frustration and the sense that Washington isn’t working, and right to worry about the cynicism and dysfunction it causes, but the rest of it was as far removed from reality as Hollywood’s latest comic book epic. The nation’s unhappy mood derives from the record number of working-age Americans who have given up look for work in a perpetually sluggish economy, the record number of Americans living in poverty and on government assistance, the rising costs and diminished benefits of our health care system, the emboldened belligerence of America’s enemies across the globe, the increasing coarseness and meanness of our popular culture and political discourse, and a growing realization that after more than five years in office the President of the United States has something to do with it.
According to the President of the United States, however, it’s all those other guys’ fault. If not for their unaccountable obstruction he could spent enough money to solve all the economic problems, people would be happily giving up the health care plans they liked and paying more for the plans they are forced to accept, America’s enemies would be soothed into submission, Hollywood would be rewarded for its brave transgressive art with a continuation of its myriad tax breaks, and no one would be the least bit cynical about any of these claims. That the opposition has at least been successful enough in thwarting the president’s ambitions to put in such a dour mood actually bolsters our faith in the constitutional system, but the president seems intent on sowing cynicism about that. It’s cynicism about him that he finds alarming, and no matter what lies he tells about Benghazi or Obamacare or any of the “phony scandals” that have highly-placed allies pleading the Fifth Amendment it is those other guys’ fault if anyone doubts him.
Those Hollywood swells ate it up like a catered $10,000-a-plate meal, so far as we can tell, and probably offered some well-rehearsed sympathy. The president assured his star-struck audience that he and his party had the vast majority of Americans on their side on every issue that would matter in the upcoming mid-term elections, and Variety does not mention any guffaws. At least they know that their donations are unlikely to arouse the attention of the Internal Revenue Service, which has been auditing donors to conservative causes at a rate ten times greater than the national average, and they can assure themselves that they’re not cynics.
The same speech would get a markedly different reaction here in our proudly unglamorous home of Wichita, even at the Machinists’ Hall, where the guys make those corporate jets that the president likes to rail against when he flies off to a golf course on Air Force One, and we suspect the coal miners in West Virginia and the oil boomers in North Dakota and the unemployed almost everywhere would be just as cynical. The president’s problem is that such cynicism won’t cause them to be disengaged, but rather to show up at the polls in a surly mood come November.

— Bud Norman

Harold Ramis, RIP

The recent death of Harold Ramis set us to thinking about comedy. Not because there’s anything funny about the death of Ramis, who by all accounts was a decent sort of fellow who deserved better, but because he was the most influential comedic filmmaker of recent years.
As a screenwriter, director, or actor, and oftentimes taking on all three jobs, Ramis had a hand in such hugely popular and widely imitated movies as “Animal House,” “Ghostbusters,” “Caddyshack,” “Stripes,” and “Groundhog Day,” as well as the “SCTV” television series and the “National Lampoon Radio Hour.” This is an uneven oeuvre, to our old-fashioned tastes, but there’s no use denying its lingering effect. Get almost any white male of our age group drunk and he’ll sooner or later start quoting cherished lines from Ramis’ movies, perhaps even reciting the entire script of “Caddyshack” verbatim, complete with a mush-mouthed imitation of Bill Murray’s Carl the Groundskeeper character, and the smart-alecky anti-authoritarianism that defined a Ramis movie is still the default style of almost every aspiring comic. Commentators on both the left and the right have also acknowledged the inevitable political influence of Ramis’ movies, although they predictably disagree on whether it was for good or bad, and we suspect that Ramis would have found it all quite amusing.
So far as we can tell from his rare public political pronouncements Ramis was a conventionally liberal Hollywood baby-boomer, but his movies were inadvertently conservative enough to have thoroughly annoyed much of the left. Over at Salon.com the noted writer Thomas “What’s the Matter With Kansas?” Franks did his best to live up to every detail of the humorless liberal stereotype with a scathing obituary, claiming that Ramis’ sense of humor “liberated Reagan and Wall Street” to unleash all the supposed catastrophe that humorless liberals have always associated with those stock movie villains. We once thought Franks was the funniest writer of his generation, until we realized that everything he wrote was intended in earnest, but we suspect his characteristically high dudgeon is at being the butt of a far better joke than he’ll ever write. The joke wasn’t written by Ramis, though, but by the strange cosmic shift over the past 40 years that has transformed Ramis’ movies into a conservative cause celebre.
Ramis came of age in the 1970s and the “National Lampoon,” and you really had to be there to understand what that meant. It was a post-Vietnam and in-the-middle of Watergate era when being young meant snidely questioning authority or being hopelessly square, and nobody questioned authority with the slide-splitting cynicism of the “National Lampoon.” The magazine was raunchy and irreligious and disrespectful of every convention of polite society, but just as irreverent toward the constraining pieties of the emerging counter-culture. Chafing at even the earliest restrictions of feminism and the civil rights movements the magazine was brazenly and hilariously sexist and racist, and it had a deliriously liberating effect even on readers who had to keep the latest copy out of sight of their disapproving parents. We recall issues devoted to mocking The Beatles and the Kennedy clan with a particular nostalgia, and proudly retain the courage it gave us to laugh at anything. Ramis was similarly affected, apparently, and had the good fortune to begin his career with the magazine’s radio show that somehow got past the Federal Communications Commission’s censors and onto the national airwaves.
Ramis’ first big movie hit was “National Lampoon’s Animal House,” which he co-wrote with the magazine’s Douglas Kenney and Chris Miller, and at the time no one would have considered it a conservative movie. In the unlikely event you haven’t seen it, “Animal House” is an admiring account of a fraternity of drunken, horny, aggressively rude students at a typically staid early-‘60s college campus. A pretentious pot-smoking professor and a guitar-strumming folk musician are among the satiric targets, and some believably menacing black males figure in one of the gags, but the leading bad guys are from the Reserve Officer Training Corps and the blue-blood houses and the oh-so-establishment administration. This is hardly the stuff of right-wing propaganda, and doesn’t sound like an appealing premise for a comedy, but the passing of time can change a movie. “Animal House” has been so frequently re-made in one form or another that it would be hard for anyone encountering it on Netflix or the late show to appreciate how shockingly fresh and laugh-out=loud funny it was in 1978, and only in retrospect can Franks can accurately complain that it made fraternities cool again and that the Dartmouth fraternity “Animal House” was based on was a pipeline to Wall Street sinecures.
Franks and his fellow liberals have more plausible gripes with “Ghostbusters,” a silly little special-effects comedy that libertarians have embraced as a classic. The heroes in the movie are entrepreneurs who have bravely left the cozy but constrained confines of academia, despite one’s worry that “I’ve been in the private sector, and they expect results,” and the villain is a self-righteous and utterly incompetent Environmental Protection Agency bureaucrat. This does sound like the stuff of right-wing propaganda, and the premise for a first-rate comedy, but for some reason we never liked the movie any more than Franks did. The public loved it, and we defer to its judgment on the matter, but Franks’ opprobrium makes it all the more appealing.
“Caddyshack” is a class-conscious comedy about a proletarian lad who clashes with the bourgeoisie at an obscure country club, but even that seemingly Marxist pitch contained enough subversive comedy to offend the refined sensibilities of the left. Franks shrewdly notes that “country club Republican” is now a pejorative more often used by the Tea Party right than the respectable left, and that Rodney Dangerfield’s heroically slobbish character is a self-made businessman striving to crash an enclave of the crony-capitalism that conservatives now rail against, but we can’t share his view that is a fateful fault in the movie. “Stripes” was a frequently amusing tale of two fiercely individualistic losers who wind up in the strictly-regimented army, which spared it Franks’ scorn, but if he’d wanted to Franks could have griped about the grudging respect that the protagonists eventually gave to their old-school drill sergeant.
Any movie is best judged on its aesthetic rather than political merits, and on these grounds we found most of Ramis’ movies flawed. At the risk of sounding like the sort of cinephile snobs that Ramis could have cannily ridiculed, our notions of comedy were influenced by an earlier and more serious school of comedians. The Ramis movies gave us a lot of laughs, but rarely provided a fully satisfying movie-watching experience. They lacked the cinematic inventiveness of Chaplin and Keaton and Lloyd in the silent era, the elegant sophistication of Ernst Lubitsch in the ‘30s or the carefully considered satire of Preston Surges in the ‘40s, or any of the great comedies made in the ‘50s and ‘60s before the heavy hand of the political correctness that the “National Lampoon” had to resist starting in the ‘70s. As much as we admire the slapdash anarchism of the Marx Brothers’ tweaking of Margaret Dumont’s propriety or W.C. Field’s drunken surrealism in “Never Give a Sucker an Even Break,” most of Ramis’ films seem merely sloppy with chaotic endings and a good-enough-for-Hollywood feel.
There were a lot of laughs in those movies, though, and we appreciate that so many of them annoyed the liberals. If there really is any political lesson to be learned from Ramis’ work, however, it is that the liberals are now in authority and that a properly anti-authoritarian impulse should be directed toward those bastards. The great “National Lampoon” writer an editor P.J. O’Rourke has unabashedly embraced conservatism, and we see no reason why Harold Ramis shouldn’t be posthumously inducted into the ranks of right-wing bastards even if it would have annoyed him. President Barack Obama gave a respectful eulogy, saying that because of Ramis he and his wife “Questioned authority,” so one can only hope that Ramis will also inspire late-show viewers to question this president’s authority.
Ramis’ only true masterpiece, however, invited viewers to consider more important matters than the passing the political controversies. “Groundhog Day” is a deeply philosophical and fully-realized film about a man who finds himself trapped in the same day and only manages to escape the monotony of his selfish existence by rejecting the smart-alecky rebelliousness of Ramis’ other films and seeking a more spiritual existence. It’s funny, too, and will long survive the squabbles that Ramis would have laughed at.

— Bud Norman

The Hillary Treatment

The big trend in movies these days is Hillary Clinton, of all things. Pre-production work is already underway on a much-ballyhooed big-budget feature titled “Rodham,” about our heroine’s historic yet previously unknown role in the Watergate scandal as a 26-year-old congressional staffer. CNN is currently at work on a documentary slated for theatrical release, with an Academy Award-winning lefty as director. Meanwhile, NBC is preparing a four-part biographical mini-series, which the network is hoping to air before the expected announcement of Clinton’s presidential candidacy so as to avoid messy equal-time rules and the necessity of producing a mini-series about Chris Christie or Rand Paul or some other icky Republican. Hollywood is hot for Hillary, as the alliteration-loving Variety headline writers might put it.
Ever eager to cash in on any Hollywood trend, and having had no luck pitching our Transformers-meet-zombie-Abe-Lincoln-meets-the-Hunger-Games concept, we’ve hastily penned a treatment for our own Clinton bio-pic. Our proposed movie is tentatively titled “Hillary!” — if the focus groups don’t like that we are willing to add another exclamation mark or two — and we think we can bring it in at well under a mere $250 million or so. An earlier movie about Clinton, boringly titled “Hillary: The Movie,” was critical of her career, but that wound up in litigation all the way to the Supreme Court as the Citizens United case, which annoyed the liberals to such an extent that ads are still popping up all over the internet with Sen. Al Franken’s smiling face demanding that the ruling somehow be overturned, and we don’t need that kind of trouble, so our effort will focus only on her accomplishments. Filling out a feature-length movie under these constraints will require some poetic license, of course, but ours is fully up to date and will surely be renewed by the feds when they see how sympathetically we have portrayed Clinton.
We’ve written the following treatment on “spec,” as they say around the Polo Lounge of the Beverly Hills Hotel, so if you know any agents looking for a hot property feel free to pass it along. Agents with colorful nicknames such as “Swifty” are preferred, but at this point we are not picky.

“HILLARY!”

The movie opens in suburban Chicago with HILLARY as a first-grader, resembling a young Shirley Temple in her girlish sailor outfit, leading a general strike of her classmates to protest segregation at the school. When she defiantly presents her demands to the principal he patiently explains there are no black children within her suburban community to be segregated, but she snarls her insistence that some be provided at taxpayer expense. Cowed by her obvious moral authority, as well as the dog-eared copy of Saul Alinsky’s “Rules For Radicals” she is wielding as a cudgel, the principal relents. As Hllary triumphantly marches off to the cheers of an adoring throng of first-graders, the principal watches wistfully and mutters to himself “By gum, that girl is going places.”
After the credits roll over a slow-motion montage of academic award ceremonies, sporting triumphs, live-saving heroics, and other highlights of Hillary’s girlhood, accompanied by a swelling symphonic soundtrack from John Williams, if we can get him, we move ahead to the green lawns of Yale Law School in 1972. Hillary, now dressed in the fashion of Xena Warrior Princess, is seen leaving a building with a group of awestruck professors following behind to pepper her with arcane questions about the law. Looking across the lawn she sees BILL, a handsome young fellow in a patched hat, overalls, and bare feet, with a piece of straw dangling from his sultry lips and a stack of law books tucked under his muscular arm, watching her with a smitten look. As their eyes meet and the music swells, a group of young men dressed in prep school fashions, one of them resembling a young Mitt Romney, come along and begin to push and poke at Bill, telling him that they are Republicans and don’t like having his kind around. Hillary drops her books and rushes to intervene, felling each of the bullies with a series of highly stylized kicks and karate chops. Bill, still trembling with fear, professes his undying love for Hillary and swears that he will never, ever cheat on her.
Cut to a year later, with Hillary and Bill sitting forlornly in the McGovern campaign headquarters as they watch the electoral map light up for Richard Nixon on a fuzzy black-and-white television. Rising slowly from her chair, her face contorted with rage but still somehow alluringly feminine, Hillary raises a defiant fist and vows that she will avenge this injustice. Moving ahead two years to the Watergate hearings we see Hillary whispering folksy witticisms into SEN. SAM ERVIN’s ear, which he repeats verbatim in his endearingly cornball southern accent, then slipping away to a dark parking garage somewhere in Washington. Under atmospheric dark lighting she confronts G. GORDON LIDDY, E. HOWARD HUNT, BOB HALDEMAN, and JOHN ERLICHMAN, each slapping baseball bats against their palms as they chuckle deviously, then fells the bullies with a series of highly stylized kicks and karate chops. After some Tarantino-esque slapping around of the suspects by Hillary, each of the men offers a whimpering confession that leads to the resignation of President Nixon, thus ushering in the golden age of Jimmy Carter. A slow-motion montage of gas lines, unemployment lines, price increases, hostage-takings, killer rabbits, and leisure suits illustrates the era.
After a slow dissolve we find Hillary in Arkansas, where she is living with Bill in the gubernatorial trailer. While Bill busies himself with such mundane state business as caving into the teachers’ union and hiring interns, Hillary dabbles in the cattle futures market and establishes herself as the greatest lawyer in the history of jurisprudence. She takes the case of a young black man who has been falsely accused of raping a white woman, defying the condemnation of the racist townsfolk and the effect it has on her daughter, SCOUT, who has a subplot of her own involving the creepy and reclusive neighbor BOO RADLEY, who bears a slight resemblance to Dick Cheney. Despite her moving closing argument, delivered in a faux-black accent reminiscent of Butterfly McQueen in “Gone With the Wind,” the man is unjustly convicted, but unlike the wimp in “To Kill a Mockingbird” Hillary responds by felling the jury with a series of highly stylized kicks and karate chops.
Although the entire country is clamoring for Hillary to become president, as demonstrated by a slow-motion montage of “Draft Hillary” headlines, she decides to let Bill take the office in hopes that it will bolster his perpetually low self-esteem, which she suspects is the reason for his recently flagging libido. Moving ahead to the White House, we find Hillary bravely riffling through Federal Bureau of Investigation files and uncovering a criminal organization operating out of the White House travel office. She hires Bill’s cousin to set things righ at the office, then infiltrates and sabotages a plot to reform the health care system and thus makes possible the miracles of Obamacare.
All is then well in the land, but shortly after Bill wins re-election by a landslide plurality a vast right-wing conspiracy is launched to frame him for adultery. When the conspirators produce a stained dress as proof of Bill’s misdeeds, Hillary stands over it shouting “Out, damned spot” — a Shakespearean reference that will wow the high-brow critics — but the conspiracy proves so successful Bill is forced to confess. Afterwards Hillary devotes herself to world peace, and during a trip to Bosnia she finds herself under sniper fire and zigzags through an open field to fell the would-be assassin with a series of highly stylized kicks and karate chops.
Hillary then wins election to the Senate on a campaign promise to continue Bill’s highly successful policy of forcing banks to make subprime loans, and quickly earns a reputation as the greatest Senator in the history of representative democracy. She bravely wages a marathon filibuster against a bill that would build a dam where she had hoped to create a national boy’s camp, and the public is so moved by her conviction that evil Republican SEN. CLAUDE RAINS is forced to withdraw the bill. Unlike that wimp in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” however, Hillary then fells the corrupt politician with a series of highly stylized kicks and karate chops. The incident leads to another slow-motion montage of “Draft Hillary” headlines, but she selflessly contrives to hand the presidency to young BARACK OBAMA in hopes that it will bolster the lad’s perpetually low self-esteem.
Eager to keep an eye on her young protégé, Hillary becomes Secretary of State and quickly earns a reputation as the greatest diplomat in the history of international relations. She is joined by constant companion HUMA ABEDIN, who dresses in the fashion of Xena Warrior Princess’ sidekick, Gabrielle, and provides the same subtle lesbian undertone. The two quickly act to prevent the villainous Czechs and Poles from obtaining missile-defense technology that they are plotting to use to deviously defend themselves from Russian missiles, intervene on behalf of a Marxist coup in Honduras, and prevent the construction of an apartment building in Jerusalem that might have been used to house Jews. In a musical number, done in the flamboyant style of Busby Berkeley, Hillary sings a rousing rendition of Brenda Lee’s “I’m Sorry” to VLADIMIR PUTIN, who then takes her in his muscular arms and says “You have reset my heart, you hot, tempestuous American girl.” Hillary pushes him away and says that her heart will always belong to Bill, prompting Huma to stifle an annoyed laugh, and Putin promises his full cooperation with America despite his heartbreak.
Another series of highly stylized kicks and karate chops to dictator HOSNI MUBARAK brings lasting peace and prosperity to Egypt, and with all well in the world Hillary begins to plan a return to a quiet private life of baking cookies and standing by her man. A group of crazed Tea Party members launch a deadly assault on an American consulate in Libya, however, and another vast right-wing conspiracy attempts to hold her responsible for failing to provide adequate security. Hillary boldly responds by finding the obscure filmmaker whose YouTube video hailing Obama as the messiah had so enraged the Tea Party members, then felling him with a series of highly stylized kicks and karate chops. In the climactic scene she confronts a congressional investigative committee that hopes to question her about the matter, and with the same hazy cinematography that accompanied Scarlett O’Hara swearing that with God as her witness she would never go hungry again we reach Hillary’s memorable closing line: “What difference, at this point, does it make?”

—-

That’s all we’ve got, so far, but by the time “Hillary!” ends its run on the premium cable networks there should be plenty of material for a sequel. Hillary will at last become president, quickly earn a reputation as the greatest president in the history of presidents, lead the country to new heights of greatness, and administer many series of highly stylized kicks and karate chops. Bill’s hijinks will provide plenty of comic relief as well as some much-needed nudity, and we can envision a sort of “A Star is Born” story arc for their relationship. The one with Kris Kristofferson and Barbra Streisand, we mean, and not those boring old Judy Garland or Janet Gaynor vehicles. Also, the Huma character has spin-off potential, and a pre-quel about Hillary’s high school days might do well with the pre-teen market.
Bidding for the screen rights will begin soon, so all you Hollywood big-shots out there should be ready with seven-figure checks. If your own Clinton bio-pic projects somehow prove less worshipful, there could be trouble.

— Bud Norman

Hero or Anti-Hero

The man who exposed the National Security Agency’s top-secret surveillance programs has mysteriously disappeared from the Hong Kong hotel room where he had recently taken refuge, and a massive world-wide manhunt is now underway. We’re not talking about the American law enforcement officials who hope to arrest him on various espionage charges, although they’re probably on the job as well, but rather about the army of Hollywood agents eager to secure the rights to his story.
The saga of Edward Snowden would make for an interesting movie, and we’d happily pay the price of admission if only for the suspense of finding out if he is portrayed as a hero or a villain.
A 29-year-old former technical assistant for the Central Intelligence Agency, Snowden was working as a private contractor for the NSA when he reportedly concluded that its extensive snooping into public phone and internet records represented a threat to the basic liberties and privacy rights of the American people, leading him to leak the most salacious details of the program to Great Britain’s Guardian newspaper. Youthful, with a CIA background, high-minded ideals, and a connection to one of the world’s most impeccably leftist rags, Snowden has all the makings of a Hollywood hero. Pictures indicate that he has a rather nerdish appearance, but if the luscious Scarlett Johansson can be cast as Hillary Clinton in a hagiographic bio-pic there’s no reason that Snowden can’t be portrayed by some suitably handsome matinee idol. In most circumstances, Snowden would be the biggest action adventure hero since Daniel Ellsberg leaked the Pentagon Papers back in the bad old days of Nixon.
Snowden leaked his top secrets during the golden age of Obama, however, which introduces a moral ambiguity that the modern cinema is not comfortable with. As much as Hollywood loves the ol’ speaking-truth-to-power shtick, it always has another sort of power in mind. It took the election of Obama for Hollywood to eagerly embrace the war on terror, and the newfound hawkishness has provided better much better box office action than the string of self-righteously dour anti-war movies that kept showing up at the theaters during the Bush years, so a return to the old-fashioned anti-government themes might prove a tough pitch. We also suspect that any Hollywood types hoping to snag an invitation to the next White House Correspondents’ Association dinner will likely be hesitant to lionize any whistle-blowers who blew their whistles at the movie industry’s favorite president.
The press, which is eagerly spreading all of the secrets Snowden exposed even as they tsk-tsk about the security breach, seems just as uncertain about the main character in the latest big story. How he is treated by the media as his story plays out will be worth watching, especially if you’ve invested in the movie.

— Bud Norman

Keeping Abreast of the Cinema

Politics and economics and the rest of our usual fare seem far too dreary for such a mild spring day as today, so we might as well take time out to note an interesting development in the field of motion pictures. According to a report in London’s Telegraph, the steamy sex scene has all but disappeared from Hollywood fare.
The Fleet Street dispatch confirmed our own observation of the contemporary cinema. Although our theater-going virtually ceased way back in the four-dollar-ticket days, when we noticed that all the good movies had already been made, the advent of Netflix and other stay-at-home media have allowed us to indulge a purely sociological interest in the latest offerings to an extent that we have lately noticed a distinct lack of gratuitous sex and nudity. Having been regular movie-goers back in the ‘70s, when movie-makers felt obligated to insert a few bare breasts into even the most asexual plot lines, the frequent absence of such scenes is strikingly conspicuous.
More avid movie buffs will no doubt be able to cite numerous exceptions to this trend, and might even know the exact moment on the well-worn video disc to find them, but it’s certainly not like the old days when even such respectable actresses as Julie Andrews were routinely exposing themselves. In today’s cinema the actresses are more likely to be wielding actual bazookas rather than the slang variety, and shoot-outs seem far more common than sex scenes. This strikes the Telegraph’s correspondent as an odd development, given the continued popularity of sex, and it strikes us as doubly odd at a time when Hollywood is self-righteously embracing both the current gun control mania and an anything-goes sexual philosophy.
The Telegraph offers the expected economic explanation, citing the importance of an under-age audience that is theoretically excluded from any motion picture that receives an “R” rating. Although the theory is quite plausible, and backed up by quotes from suddenly censorious movie directors and producers, it overlooks a longer trend in the development of movies.
Since the advent of television, the movie industry has mostly devoted itself to offering something that can’t be found at home. In the ‘50s this meant the kinds of big-budget, wide-screen, Technicolor epics that wouldn’t fit on the tiny black-and-white screens that were then the state of the television art. The moral standards of the time meant the epics were usually of the Biblical or historical variety, and while such directors as Cecil B. DeMille could always find some fairly salacious passages of scripture or risqué episodes of antiquity the actresses always kept their robes on. Color television and mini-series eventually allowed television to compete on these epic terms, but by then the “sexual revolution” had come along to allow movies a degree of explicitness that still wasn’t allowable on the federally-regulated public airwaves. A natural public interest in what a famous movie star looked like naked could only be sated at the theaters, and Hollywood took full advantage. Cable television then negated this advantage, however, and much of its premium-channel fare was devoted to nothing but nudity and simulated sex scenes with all of that extraneous plot and dialogue and character development stuff dispensed with altogether.
Now that the internet provides easy access to an astounding abundance of outright pornography, with something for even the most arcane tastes, Hollywood has retreated back to the big spectacle gimmick. This time around the technology is even more extravagant, with Imax theaters that dwarf the old curtained Cinemascope screens and computer-generated special effects and seat-shaking sound systems that make Moses’ parting of the Red Sea seem a cheap parlor trick, with all of that extraneous plot and dialogue and character development stuff dispensed with altogether. It doesn’t make for very compelling viewing to anyone but that coveted under-age audience, but it doesn’t require a lot of complicated translating for the foreign markets and thus far it can’t be found at home.
Demur as we are about matters of sexuality, being of a conservative temperament both politically and culturally, we regard this latest development with some regret. “The Last Detail,” “Midnight Cowboy,” “A Clockwork Orange,” and numerous other films of the ‘60s and ‘70s took full advantage of the era’s license to make meaningful statements that were made worthy by their frank depictions of a licentious time. On the other hand, the Hays Code era of strict restrains produced an even more impressive body of work, and such ingenious filmmakers as Ernst Lubitsch and Billy Wilder and Preston Sturges and numerous others took full advantage of the hated studio system to create meaningful statements that were made worthy by their sly innuendo and elegant subtlety.
That Golden Age of Hollywood isn’t coming back, though, and the current circumspection of the cinema doesn’t signal a return to traditional sexual standards but rather an admission that they are gone with internet wind, so it’s sad to see that the movie-going public apparently prefers special effects to good old-fashioned sex. We never really minded all those breasts, to be quite honest in a ‘70s sort of way, and we always found them preferable to seeing some guy’s brain get blown all over the extra-wide screen Better to have a well-told story of interesting and believable people, maybe even a profound shoot-‘em-up such as “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” or “The Professionals,” but apparently the kids aren’t interested.

— Bud Norman

A Second Front in the Culture War

There has been much discussion lately in conservative circles about the American culture and what should be done about it. The consensus of opinion seems to be that the American culture is a complete mess, and the country urgently requires a conservative counter-culture.
Academy Award-nominated screenwriter, author, and liberal apostate Roger L. Simon, in a column titled “Reclaiming the Culture,” urges conservatives to “quit bitching and start doing” by making movies, novels, music, and other cultural products of their own. Law professor Glenn Reynolds, the almighty “Instapundit” of the right side of internet, takes to the pages of the New York Post to call for conservative alternatives to women’s magazines such as Redbook, Cosmopolitan, and the Ladies Home Journal. The smart fellows at the influential Powerline web site second the notion, and pine for some sympathetic billionaire to buy The New York Times. Numerous other conservatives have expressed similar longings, mostly in conservative publications with exclusively conservative readerships that are cumulatively dwarfed by a typical audience for television’s lowest-rated offerings.
We wish them well, of course. Even the most obviously ruinous assumptions of liberalism permeate the popular culture, while even the most commonsensical concepts of conservatism are routinely ridiculed, and so long as this situation prevails political victories will hard to achieve. All that mindless conformity makes for monotonous and dissatisfying cultural fare, too, and we have no doubt that artists with a conservative sensibility could provide far better work if they were only given the opportunity.
Still, remaking a culture seems a daunting task. The liberals’ nearly total control of America’s cultural institutions, from the tawdriest cable channel to the toniest museum, was gained over several decades of steady encroachment and will take as long to be undone. Having so laboriously attained power the left will be reluctant to yield it, and the leftists well remember from their insurgent days what happens when the establishment allows dissent. Infiltrating the existing institutions is therefore almost impossible, and new organizations that arise to challenge them will be subjected to the most vituperative attacks.
Some especially thick-skinned artists will withstand the attacks, battered and bruised though they may be, but it’s difficult to see how they will compete with sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll in the current cultural marketplace. Contemporary liberal culture promises liberation from the sexual and social mores of the vanquished past in exchange for submission to governmental control of every other sphere of life in a utopian future, so any appeal to traditions rooted in personal responsibility and the harsh realism of the Judeo-Christian worldview will likely prove a tough sell. Sex, violence, and other titillating topics are all valid subjects for artists, and should be dealt with frankly, but the conservatives’ habitual concern with consequences will wind up taking the all the fun out of it for today’s audiences.
Conservatism requires complex explanations, too, and that seems to have no box office appeal at all these days. Much of the blame for this sorry situation lies with the educational establishment, dominated from the kindergarten classes to the doctoral programs by liberals, which seems to have lowered the country’s standards by literal and figurative degrees. Anyone familiar with the hit movies and best-selling books of the ‘30s has likely noticed that the movie-goers and book-buyers of that era had far more sophisticated tastes than today’s vastly more schooled audiences, and even the most credentialed critics currently holding forth so often seem to completely misunderstand what they’re talking about.
Perhaps that’s why the few conservative popular culture offerings that have gained any popularity in recent years seem to have done so with only a few sharp observers even noticing their conservatism. Mike Judge’s “Beavis and Butthead” was a withering satire of rock ‘n’ roll culture and his “King of the Hill” a sly celebration of rural working class traditions, but both were so cutting-edge hip they were taken for standard liberal television. The hit movie “300” extolled the virtues of western civilization’s martial spirit, explicitly enough to annoy all the critics, but its popularity had far more to do with its sleek look, copious violence, and homo-erotic costuming. At the other end of the cultural spectrum, writers such as Robertson Davies, Muriel Spark, Tom Wolfe, Martin Amis, and Evelyn Waugh have written devastating critiques of modern liberalism with such elegance and flair that they, too, are widely assumed to be liberal. We even have a friend who insists that George Orwell’s “1984” is a dark warning about what would happen if those Tea Party types were to gain power, what with their crazy notions about limited government and individual liberty and such.
Reclaiming the culture is going to be a hard chore, but the conservatives might succeed in slipping a few more works past the unnoticing censors.

— Bud Norman

Hooey for Hollywood

Thanks to the tireless efforts of the Netflix company we’ve been lately been catching up with the modern cinema. Not so much that we’ve seen any of the pictures nominated for prizes at Sunday’s big award show, but enough to remind us why we had lost interest in the movies.

We’ll not mention the name of Sunday’s big award show because its legal staff is notorious for sending out threatening letters to anyone who does so without affixing the little registered trademark sign, they’re equally touchy about the familiar nickname for the gold statuettes they hand out, and there is no sense in provoking the wrath of a Hollywood lawyer. If they want to claim a proprietary right to the word “award” we will resist, regardless of how many letters they write, but otherwise it just doesn’t seem worth the bother.

The last time we took an avid rooting interest in these awards was all the way back in 1969, when the betting favorites in the best actor category were John Wayne for his performance as the heroic rugged individualist Rooster Cogburn in “True Grit” and Dustin Hoffman for his performance as pitiable would-be pimp Ratso Rizzo in “Midnight Cowboy.” Wayne was by then a legendary figure of the golden years of American moviemaking, Hoffman was at the time a counter-cultural icon, and their competition rather neatly symbolized not just the vast generation gap between Old Hollywood and New Hollywood, but also the battles being waged on the streets at the time between the old America and the new America. Even then, we knew which side we were on.

The Duke won the statuette, a victory that still elicits a smile, but Ratso Rizzo easily won the future of movies. Since that time Hollywood’s output has, on the whole, championed the ‘60s counter-culture’s view of capitalism, religion, sexual propriety, America’s role in the world, and just about everything else, even cowboys. The old values of the black-and-white era still sneak into release from time to time, and always seem to turn a tidy profit, but the vast majority, and ones that always seem to win the most awards, but the vast majority of movies make it clear that Hollywood is still on the anti-establishment side.

They are the establishment now, and they have the lawyers to prove it, but despite their famously ironic sensibility they don’t seem to grasp the irony. Come Sunday night they’ll strut majestically down a red carpet, resplendent in rare jewels and haute couture, cameras from around the world capturing their gorgeous faces and elegant gestures, all hoping that they’ll win a golden statuette and a chance to declare their solidarity with the “99 percent” in an acceptance speech, blissfully confident they’ll be spared when the guillotines are rolled out for the hated 1 percent.

Not that we want to see anyone beheaded, of course, but it would be a rip-roarin’ twist ending to a movie.

— Bud Norman