Last column (and, uh, yeah -- it's been a while), I teased you with the promise of a column about V for Vendetta, the opening weekend sucess of which seemed unlikely for a host of reasons. The film, after all, has faced a host of obstacles on its 20 year journey from B & W British comic strip to Warner Brothers' most prominent Spring widget: the Wachowski-brother-speared adaptation was abandoned by comic co-creator Alan Moore (who, to be fair, has a general policy of distancing himself from filmatizations of his work); after the London bombings last summer, WB was forced to abandon both its original release date (November 5, the 400th anniversary of Guy Fawlkes' aborted bombing of the British Houses of Parliament) and its original marketing campaign ("Remember, remember, the 5th of November..."). But most interesting of all was the outsized fervor the film instigated, months and months before its release, amongst conservative film critics.
Add it all up, and and Vendetta's $26 million opening seemed sufficient for study. But two things happened the following week: 1) I finally got around to seeing the film, and 2) Vendetta's numbers dropped a precipitous 52% in its second weekend, with the holdover title easily falling victim to Inside Man's $30 million opening onslaught despite an advantage of 500 screens. The weekend-to-weekend drop isn't exactly a mark of failure -- at virtually exactly this time last year, another comic adaptation, Sin City, opened just under $30 million, dropped 50% a week for about six weeks, and was eventualy considered one of the year's biggest hits -- unless we're playing this as a zero-sum game, On those terms, V for Vendetta could safely be considered a massive failure: the most pretensiously political film to come from a studio in some time, it's managed to fail to either rally the Left or vidicate the Right. On the ideological spectrum, there's no winner here -- which means everybody loses. But just the very fact of Vendetta's failure to inspire much more than a shrug from most parties points to the possibility that the culture wars might be far less potent than certain pundits – not to mention publicists – would have you believe.
I would have never argued, before my stint as a professional film blogger, that writing about film requires any kind of inherent politicality -- I came into this racket from academia, where passion of any sort, political or otherwise, is generally discouraged. But, as we're all sick of hearing, new media is changing the old ways of playing the game. Just take a look at our coverage of Brokeback Mountain, and you'll see that in the odd corners where our bias is missing, our users impose their own. When the audience is not only empowered, but encouraged to fight back, journalistic impartiality feels like a suckers game. At the very least, blogging breeds and feeds off a hunger for articulated conflict like no other medium, and the best conflicts going on in film blogging are happening on the conservative film blogs.
I'm endlessly surprised with the kind of incredulity that I'm faced with every time I drop the very issue of conservative film criticism into conversation. It's perhaps one thing to raise an eyebrow to hear the news coming from me -- a Valley girl with an art degree-- but the very fact that people like Michael "it's cool to be conservative" Medved are gaining more currency than ever should surprise no one. After all, if Hollywood is going to actively design new products for the so-called Passion audience in search of previously untapped bucks, why shouldn't that audience be allowed a proportionate number of sympathetic mouthpieces? But Medved, though no doubt influential, is too old guard to be very incendiary at this point. The really good fires are, of course, burning on the blogs.
Libertas (part of the generally right-swaying Pajamas Media network) is the brainchild of a couple of Yale grads, Jason Apuzzo and Govindini Murty, who are also the twin founders of the Liberty Film Festival, "Hollywood’s first conservative film festival." Most of the daily posts are written by Apuzzo, and the rhetoric put forth is strangely hybrid: all the nastiness of the post-Choire Sicha Gawker married to a decidedly anarchic attitude towards the studio system, and all of it spun through the ideological prism of Sean Hannity. Hollywood's unfriendliness to right-leaning filmmakers is a running theme -- one which I jabbed at Murty for harping on in a Los Angeles Times editorial last summer, and one which the success of Phillip Anschutz essentially renders impotent (more on him later) -- but so, perhaps strangely, is a general intolerance for the very idea of open partisanship in filmmaking, or even in the practice of celebrity. As such, George Clooney is lambasted, on average, once a week; it should shock no one, then, that the Libertas doomcasting machine has been firing at V for Vendetta for almost a full year. And, all the way through, it's been about positioning the Wachowskis as Nazis. Here are just two examples:
November 2005: "The storyline of the film beautifully captures what is already the trendy left-wing notion that Western governments ... are drifting rightward toward fascism ... I honestly think the Wachowskis would probably have sympathized with the wrong people had they been hanging around Berlin circa 1933."
March 2006: "V For Vendetta is essentially the Jud Süß of our time ... I can say with complete assurance that there’s going to come a day in the future -- and it’s a pity we’ll need to wait for that day -- when the people associated with the production of V For Vendetta will be as reviled and despised as the people associated with that most notorious [Nazi propaganda] film."
Of course, you have to step out of bounds to get a good fight going, and a cursory glance at the Libertas comments section shows that these kinds of quotes have started some of the best brawls in recent memory. But when it comes to Vendetta, the outrage of Apuzzo and friends is notable for the fact that it's so very unnecessary – whether your concerns are ideological or practical, you'd have to be hopped up on more than anger to take such a silly, cartoon softball such as this to be a serious threat. As Manohla Dargis put it in the New York Times, it's hard to imagine "how anyone who isn't 14 or under could possibly mistake a corporate bread-and-circus entertainment like this for something subversive." One would think that the film's relative financial disappointments would make for a soundly boastable victory for its detractors. But beyond a few small, snide snips at Vendetta's box office, the Libertasians have had little to say since the film's release. It's the classic dilemma of the polemicist: one must concentrate their ire towards fatal ends, because when things go your way, you're left with nothing to preach about.
What would a Hollywood mutated to satisfy conservative critics even look like? I was only one of many to spill pixel blood last fall, as The Chronicles of Narnia repeatedly trounced King Kong at the box office. Regardless of what it meant for Kong studio Universal (and the fact that they couldn't turn that big fake gorilla into the biggest blockbuster of the year is an absolute travesty, but anyway), a lot of people spent those weeks patting Disney on the back for reinvigorating what we can call The Passion Clause – that is, they used faith-based efforts to build a gross off of an audience that doesn't usually see movies in the theaters. But as the (relative) success of somebody like Tyler Perry proves, it doesn't matter how committed that Passion Clause audience is-- no film can break the global blockbuster ceiling without crossover appeal. This is where someone like Phillip Anschutz comes in.
If you've been following Nerve's latest Film Issue at all, you've no doubt already read Justin Clark's piece on our boy Phil, from which I'll be quoting liberally below. Anschutz is the best example I can name of the tendency amongst contemporary conservatives to allow unscrupulous business behavior to sit on the back of absolute moral sanctimony. He's probably best known for his shady dealings with Qwest Communications, a telecom company that he at one point co-owned and directed. He, as Clark puts it, "was accused of helping falsely inflate Qwest profit reports, then making millions by selling his own shares in the company — a claim he ultimately settled by paying millions to charity." A year after earning the honor of "greediest executive" in America from Fortune magazine, Anschutz started buying bankrupt movie theaters. With the Edwards, United Artists and Regal chains under his belt, Anschutz now owns one out of five American movie screens, with the latter chain serving as the only option in many non-urban markets. With the nationwide theatrical real estate covered, Anschutz moved on to the opposite end of the vertical: he started two studios, with the aim of creating Christian-friendly content to plaster on his screens. After a couple of false starts, Anshutz cashed in last fall on Chronicles.
I ate dinner with a few Cinematicalers last week, and as I was taking my seat, Martha made a comment expressing some frustration over the fact that she devoured the Narnia books as a child without ever being made aware of their evangelical aims. Clark's article contends that Anscutz and friends are playing up the subliminality of their productions in order to prey on the ignorance of a non-faith-based audience. According to Clark, Anschutz' detractors "fear [his enterprise] is all about bringing God and conservatism to Hollywood under a more secular and apolitical guise." Or, in other words, the success of Narnia proves that it's possible to play both ends against the middle: to rely on the passion of the Passion crowd to boost grosses to a certain point, and trust that, if you produce the thing right, the combination of ignorance and indifferent on the part of non-believers will take you the rest of the way. But is this really a victory for the conservative movement? Or, is Anschutz just enjoying the benefits of vertical integration, behind the thin veneer of idealogical supremacy? If, as Clark puts it, Anschutz' end game is to use "his wealth to buy a place for evangelicals in Hollywood", where's the proof that there's an audience to keep them there?
Proving, perhaps, that the only real ideology that informs Hollywood is Capitalism, there are signs that industryites, interested in riding the growing wave of political discontent, are abandoning the conservative reformation before it's really even begun. It all goes back, however predictably, to the Passion – or, at the very least, its mastermind, Mel Gibson. Many were stunned to read the following quote, regarding the demise of Mayan civilization in his new epic, Apocalypto, in a recent issue of TIME magazine: "The parallels between the environmental imbalance and corruption of values that doomed the Maya and what's happening to our own civilization are eerie," says [Apocalypto's co-writer]. Gibson, who insists ideology matters less to him than stories of "penitential hardship" like his Oscar-winning Braveheart, puts it more bluntly: "The fearmongering we depict in this film reminds me a little of President Bush and his guys." When even Mel Gibson can't be relied on to spout the party line, we have to start wondering what kind of a culture war we're really fighting.