Left, Right and Center
Sifting through the LA Weekly mailbag over the weekend, I couldn't help but take perverse amusement at a number of virulent missives written in response to my review of An American Carol, the independently produced and distributed right-wing propaganda movie that opened on Friday and ended the weekend with a respectable if unspectacular $3.8 million gross. The amusing part is how closely the tone of these reader comments echoes that of the equally hostile, poison-pen letters that rolled in earlier this year following my review of The Visitor, a noxious left-wing propaganda movie that effectively suggests the world would be a better place if the Patriot Act was repealed and all the terror suspects detained post-9/11 were turned out on the streets. In both cases, these readers are sure that they can divine the political inclinations of the reviewer on the basis of the review.
John Doman, a reader from Philadelphia clearly peeved by my American Carol review, writes, “God, you leftists are so predictable. Your self-important and utterly un-self-aware review is the best advertisement that this film could get.” He is joined in this chorus of disapproval by Michael (no last name given) of Denver, who says “I'm sure L.A. Weekly is supremely satisfied with your anti-Christian, anti-conservative rants” and Alicia of Pasadena, who chimes in, “The best part is that you aren't even trying to hide your far-left insanity. I'm sure you will find Bill Maher's documentary to be the greatest piece of 'art' since Fahrenheit 9/11. You are so predictable it's pathetic.”
Well, Michael of Denver, while I can't speak for my editors here at the Weekly, I would point out that this allegedly anti-Christian, anti-conservative critic wrote quite favorable reviews (printed right here in these very pages) of The Passion of the Christ and The Gospel of John — two movies arguably more Christian than An American Carol — and, more recently, described the aforementioned The Visitor as “a liberal guilt-trip movie about first-world ignorance of Third World culture”? (Which is exactly what it is.) That review, together with my mixed assessment of the Iraq War drama Stop-Loss, caused the blogger Ryan Adams to peg me as a mouthpiece for the Right who believed that “American movies dare not tread the hallowed ground of politic discourse.” Whatever would Alicia of Pasadena, who seems so sure of the Weekly's “far-left insanity,” make of that?
And Alicia, since you mention Bill Maher's new documentary, Religulous (which arrived in theaters this weekend as an act of counter-programming against An American Carol, or vice-versa, depending on your p.o.v.), I feel compelled to point out that the Weekly's review, written by J. Hoberman, far from lauding the film as “the greatest piece of 'art' since Fahrenheit 9/11,” finds Maher's one-sided attacks against various representatives of the world's leading religions to be “more depressing than fun.” In fact, the “liberal” media that takes such a drubbing in An American Carol — and from many conservative pundits throughout the calendar year — has been generally cool on Maher's film, with reviews of the mixed to entirely negative variety appearing in such supposed lefty rags as the Los Angeles Times and Salon.com. In a further muddying of the waters, one of the more positive reviews for Maher's film comes from the allegedly conservative New York Post, a newspaper owned by the same Rupert Murdoch who also owns Fox News, and which also published one of the most negative reviews of An American Carol — a movie that features Fox News superstar Bill O'Reilly in a cameo appearance as himself. Alicia of Pasadena: is your head spinning yet?
Echoing a common reader sentiment, Michael of Denver begins his letter by asking, “Is it possible for you to fairly review a movie rather than injecting your own personal political bent into your writing?” But it seems obvious to me that any overtly political film, whether the director is Michael Moore or David Zucker, begs to be engaged with on political terms, just as it's reasonable to expect a review of a comedy to assess whether the movie is funny or not, and for a review of an action movie to tell you if the action scenes are exciting. Where Michael has a point (however unintentional it may be) is that no critic should praise or condemn a political — or religious — film based on how much its point of view does or doesn't gel with the critic's own. And I would argue that few if any reviews of either An American Carol or Religulous published in legitimate, mainstream publications are guilty of such bias. Over and over, reviews of both movies come back to the same basic, nonpartisan points: that Zucker and Maher take cheap shots at fish in a barrel rather than smartly satirizing their chosen subjects; that the films are poorly made and generally unfunny; that they preach to the converted rather than trying to spark any kind of intelligent dialogue. Indeed, it's not the critics but rather the indoctrinated audiences for both films who seem unable (or simply unwilling) to judge a movie fairly instead of using it to validate their own belief systems and/or destroy those of others.
“Great satire never fits neatly within an ideological box,” the critic Sam Adams notes in his American Carol review appearing at The Onion A.V. Club, before invoking the names of H.L. Mencken, Stanley Kubrick, and Jonathan Swift — a roll call neither Maher nor Zucker need worry about having his name added to anytime soon. Indeed, to these eyes, An American Carol and Religulous are effectively two sides of the same reductive, crypto-fascist coin, and alarming evidence (as if any more was needed) of the increasingly polarized, my-way-or-the-highway bullying that has set the standard for domestic political discourse since the 2000 election. Just as Maher refuses to acknowledge any of the charitable good that has been done in the name of religion or allow any of his interview subjects to get a word in edgewise, Zucker conflates opposition to the war in Iraq with opposition of all wars throughout history and, in one his movie's more risible moments, lampoons the idea of “radical Christians” as if the very thought of Christians slaughtering infidels was entirely preposterous. That might actually have been a funny sketch, if it weren't for a little thing called The Crusades.
These movies — and the people who are supporting them — deserve each other. Now, when in the name of God is somebody going to make a movie for the rest of us?