Stop blaming ‘liberal Hollywood’

Christian Hartsock Filmmaker, Journalist
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The conservative narrative about the “Hollywood left” has gotten old. Many on the right have a time-honored tradition of blaming it for America’s downfall without doing anything to change it — or when they do and find little success, whip out the victim card and blame the ruling elite.

But what many “pro-free market” conservative filmmakers or aspirants don’t get is that their enemy is not the ruling elite, their enemy is often that which they purport to champion — the free market.

The conservative voice in Tinseltown is minimal for a few reasons — none of which fit the popular meme. It is not always because conservatives are outnumbered. An outsider would be surprised to learn how many of them there are. But some of the unsuccessful ones are either too preoccupied with self-pity, or more eager to educate than to entertain.

The successful ones are often either in the closet to avoid persecution (again, there are enough in town for this not to be necessary, in my opinion, and talent and confidence speaks louder than party allegiance in my experience), or they are investing their resources into conservative documentaries that only conservatives end up seeing.

Now I am certainly no detractor of conservative documentary-making, having starred in Steve Bannon’s “Occupy Unmasked” and produced footage appearing in “Hating Breitbart.” I have nothing but respect for the success of “2016,” “I Want Your Money,” and “Expelled.” But despite playing at political evangelism — the occasional exception of the open-minded liberal or the friend/relative/significant other of a fan — ultimately, these films’ success is almost solely based on its appeal to the target market — conservatives. The liberal monopoly on narrative content holds.

So what? Are conservatives, disillusioned with the statist and secular values propagated by Hollywood films, left to make films on their own terms, encompassing politically right-of-center and religiously Judeo-Christian messages? Possibly, but at their own potential peril. And legitimate ammunition with which to decry the “secularist” values of Hollywood grows increasingly scarce as major studios are opening their own faith-based film divisions — doubly scarce given the poor quality of projects being greenlit by these divisions.

Christian filmmakers have unprecedented latitude now — and burgeoning success, albeit only among Christian moviegoers — yet perennial complaints ensue about the supposed second-class status of the faith-based movie marketplace. Are they really somehow bullied by the power-wielding “secular progressives” of the industry? No. Quite the opposite. The answer — and this will hurt — is often simple: Their films suck. The “secular progressive” films are better.

I won’t name names, but some of these conservative filmmakers think a “good message” is a sufficient excuse to put the most patronizingly expository, on-the-nose detritus on paper and call it “screenwriting.” Swooping into filmmaking while apparently never having lost sleep studying the great directors and writers of cinema history to serve a “higher purpose,” yet being surprised when nobody wants to watch the thing, is hardly a testament to concerted subjugation.

Some complain they are “blacklisted” by the left. No. They are blacklisted by the free market. There is unfortunately no demand for crap at the moment; perhaps that is why Hollywood is miles away yet from its come-to-Jesus moment.

Are there war stories about industry conservatives getting the “you’ll never work in this town again” treatment from supposed gatekeepers or enduring abuse at the hands of doctrinaire Hollywood hegemons? Of course. But anyone who has seen the comic masterpiece “Swimming With Sharks,” Altman’s sunlessly cynical “The Player,” or for that matter been a personal assistant to any clinical narcissist of prestige has known uninhibited human nature rears its Hobbesian head in a manner that transcends politics. This is also true of the culinary industry, the fashion industry, and others.

And how does one explain the success of conservatives like Adam Sandler, Vince Vaughn, Jerry Bruckheimer, Michael De Luca, David Mamet, Bruce Willis, Nick Searcy, David Zucker and others? The answer is simple: Because instead of stomping through Hollywood with a chip on their shoulders, they are busy working, and delivering legitimately marketable content. Quality first, politics second (if ever). They are not “successful conservative artists.” They are successful artists who happen to be conservative.

And it is not necessarily “keeping your politics to yourself” that is key. Incorporating politics into your work is not in itself a recipe of self-sabotage, but it certainly can be. It depends upon how it is done.

There is a difference between an agenda and a worldview. Are you telling a story to deliver a message? Or are you telling a story that happens to take place in the world as you see it? Liberal artists are effective because, by and large, they employ the latter — and most importantly, do so inadvertently. They don’t make films that tell us Republicans are evil, they make films that tell stories about characters we can all relate to, facing situations that intrigue us — in a world where it’s just a given that Republicans are evil.

Such a worldview predominates in Hollywood because there are more liberals in Hollywood. Nevertheless, they are not the sole testaments to the superiority of worldview over agenda.

Trey Parker and Matt Stone, unapologetic libertarians with a combined net worth of $600 million, make an estimated $1.4 million per episode of South Park — the most conservative show on television with more or less universal appeal. But their stories don’t exist to tell us that Rob Reiner is a pompous control freak, that Jesse Jackson is a self-serving race war profiteer or that George Clooney is a sanctimonious emitter of “smug” pollution — they weave hilarious absurdist yarns in which all these facts are a given, and by the way, let’s have fun making light of them along the way. And you don’t have to be a conservative or libertarian to find yourself struggling to suppress your laughter.

A couple of the greatest conservative films of all time are effective because they are great films first and conservative films second. “Dirty Harry”(1971) — a cinematic indictment of both political correctness and the law enforcement bureaucracy of San Francisco, and a paean to individualist vigilantism — is a universally appealing, everlastingly quoted classic that went ahead and made everyone’s day, not just conservatives’. This is because the emphasis was on its enormously entertaining story and execution.

John Milius’ “Big Wednesday” (1978), a charming and fun-loving picture juxtaposing the nostalgic early 60s and the cynical dystopia of the late 60s, is remembered more memorably as a “Deer Hunter” for the surfer subculture than a sociopolitical treatise. But its conservative undercurrent is beautifully and ever-so-casually intimated late in the film when a protagonist reminisces at his and his old buddies’ favorite 50s-era diner. He finds it preposterously pimped out in overabundant hippie decor with a waiter who won’t serve him a burger because, “We’re off that trip, brother. We don’t support animal cruelty here.”

In the context of the story’s prior adventures alongside the protagonist and his friends, such an inconspicuously simple yet poignant scene speaks louder on an emotional level, and to a broader human audience, than a conservative-aimed documentary about baby boomer decadence ever could. And that is movie magic.

Aspiring conservative filmmakers can get more out of familiarizing themselves with the mastery of John Milius, Clint Eastwood, Parker, Stone and even (if not especially) their liberal counterparts than embittered anti-Hollywood ventings from armchair social critics. John Lennon was among most indisputably influential voices of the New Left. But did he wake up each day devilishly brainstorming for the next song that will best advance his agenda? No. He happened to be an incredibly talented artist, and he happened to be a leftist. And then he went to work.