June 27, 2018
What proportion of the top creative artists in Hollywood, the heavyweight auteurs, are men of the right?
This old question has come up again with the box office triumph of the anti-egalitarian Brad Bird’s The Incredibles 2 and the comments about Donald Trump by David Lynch, director of Twin Peaks and Eraserhead.
Lynch’s work isn’t to everyone’s taste, but obviously he’s an American original who makes movies and television shows that nobody else could (or perhaps would). If you are as admired as David Lynch (his Mulholland Drive came in No. 1 in a recent poll of critics as the best film of the 21st century, although that could be an artifact of the survey methodology), you can, hopefully, continue to have a career after saying to The Guardian:
“[Trump] could go down as one of the greatest presidents in history because he has disrupted the thing so much. No one is able to counter this guy in an intelligent way.” While Trump may not be doing a good job himself, Lynch thinks, he is opening up a space where other outsiders might. “Our so-called leaders can’t take the country forward, can’t get anything done. Like children, they are. Trump has shown all this.”
“There’s David Lynch. Enjoy it because his career in Hollywood is officially over.”
The square-jawed Lynch, who identifies himself on Twitter as “Filmmaker. Born Missoula, MT. Eagle Scout,” has many obsessions, but few that overlap with those of the social justice jihadis. Fortunately for Lynch, much of the press can’t imagine that his assessment of Trump could be anything other than some complex aesthetic put-on. They assume: By definition, unique artists such as Lynch must agree with everybody you know.
Clearly, even the most valuable film directors are forced to tread carefully in today’s entertainment-industry political monoculture.
Yet, a suspiciously large fraction of this century’s most influential movies, such as Gladiator, Lord of the Rings, and Iron Man, have been devoted to conservative themes such as honor and courage.
Granted, a few major directors, most notably Mel Gibson and Clint Eastwood, dare to be outspoken in their conservatism. Several more, such as Christopher Nolan (Dunkirk), would appear to lean right.
The vastly successful Marvel film universe has its corporate roots in the Israeli Zionist right. Marvel’s first black director, Ryan Coogler of Black Panther, revived conservative he-man Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky franchise with Creed; his portrayal of the xenophobic African utopia of Wakanda seemed slightly to the right of Shaka Zulu.
The rightward tilt of auteurs is not confined to blockbusters. In a 2016 BBC poll of critics, the top ten movies of the 21st century wound up rather reactionary, including Japanese nationalist Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away and Iranian patriot Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation. The four American directors on the list are Lynch for Mulholland Drive, Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood, Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, and the Coen brothers’ adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men.
Strong directors tend to be strong men who believe in responsibility and hierarchy (as long as they are on top).
No Weinstein brothers’ Oscar-bait social-message movies made the top ten. My hunch is that producers tend to be more liberal than directors (with actresses the most softheaded leftists, of course). So the kind of films more assembled by producers than envisioned by directors perform better at the Oscars than with auteur-worshipping cinephiles.
The auteur theory that Hollywood once scoffed at but now mostly subscribes to was dreamt up by young anti-communist Parisian critics; the most famous, François Truffaut, was a working-class social conservative. But what they really wanted to do was direct.
Auteurism is a concept based on hero worship of the artistic superman, who is presumed to be master strategist and battlefield tactician. Not surprisingly, their auteur ideology proved congenial to France’s new president Charles de Gaulle, who subsidized the ex-critics’ New Wave movies to revive France’s international glory.
My guess is that due to the hostile environment of the Hollywood workplace, conservative filmmakers have to work harder and more artfully to disguise their political leanings in metaphor. They can’t risk being on the nose the way a liberal hack can.
This could help explain why so many top filmmakers’ politics are opaque. For example, what is the political orientation of the Coen brothers? I’ve seen all seventeen of their movies, but I still couldn’t tell you. Perhaps it’s worth noting that their two Hollywood movies, Barton Fink and Hail, Caesar!, make fun of old-time Malibu Marxist screenwriters who are more typically portrayed as tragic martyrs of the McCarthy era.
Pixar, the distinguished computer animation studio, has been relatively skeptical about auteurs, preferring to employ co-directors and teams of screenwriters. But their one filmmaker who’s so talented and assertive that he gets to play auteur on Pixar’s dime is Brad Bird, who won the Best Animated Feature Oscars for 2004’s The Incredibles and 2007’s Ratatouille.
Like Lynch from Missoula, Bird was born in Kalispell, Montana. And rather like Malick, the son of an energy-industry engineer in Texas and Oklahoma, Bird is the son of a man in the propane business. (Perhaps coincidentally, among the many animated TV shows Bird has consulted upon is Mike Judge’s King of the Hill, on which Hank Hill sells “propane and propane accessories.”)
The Incredibles is about a nuclear family of superheroes, led by the large blond Mr. Incredible, who looks much like the large blond Mr. Bird. They are sidelined into normal life due to lawyers, insurance companies, and politicians whining about the heroic amount of pulverized infrastructure their crime-fighting exploits leave behind.
The Incredibles is, by general acclamation, one of the great movies of the previous decade. It is also one of the most clearly Republican movies as well. Bird metaphorically asks: Why must the John Galts of the oil and gas business be so pestered by EPA quibbling about externalities like a little environmental damage? (Indeed, the energy industry’s recent unexpected leaps forward in energy extraction technology, such as fracking, have largely bailed out the American economy.)
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