Several years ago, in a column for the Los Angeles Times, I weighed in on the subject of "liberal bias" in film and almost instantly became a figurative piñata in print, on blogs, and by email. From a polite, if somewhat off-base spanking via letter-to-the-editor by director Joe Dante, to numerous -- and some very creative -- F-Bomb emails, I heard from those either rightfully defending the independence of film, to those inquiring as to how my knuckle-dragging conservative paws managed to bang out a column in the first place.
As my wounds have mostly healed, and as there is nothing like receiving a good ass-kicking to refocus the mind during a presidential election, I decided that, for the obvious reasons, the Huffington Post is the perfect forum to revisit the subject. Thank you, Arianna.
Before getting to what I think is a very reasonable question and objection, I'd like to stress that I'm a Republican who not only wants to hear from Hollywood, but believes that "celebrity" voices such as George Clooney, Jamie Lee Curtis, John Cusack, Rob Reiner and Bill Maher, not only add to the national debate, but are very much needed.
Education or lack thereof, does not an intellect make. Titles can produce stereotyping. Stereotyping can produce prejudice. Prejudice feeds ignorance and intolerance. For a number of ignorant conservatives or Republicans, a "celebrity" is incapable of having a rational thought, advancing an original idea, and has no business addressing the pressing problems of a country they, their children, spouses, or partners, happen to inhabit and love. I for one, want no part of that "conservative" America.
So, for some on my side of the fence, "celebrity" elicits the expected, ill-informed, and counterproductive knee-jerk reaction. For some in Hollywood, "Republican" elicits the equal, if opposite, reaction. As a somewhat successful novelist and struggling screenwriter, I once had an agent on the left coast purporting to represent me, say, "Why do you have to be a Republican? I hate Republicans."
My reply to that was, "aside from the fact that you don't know jack-shit about me or my background, who cares what political party I'm from? Isn't your job to decide if I've written something worthwhile and if said script can make a studio some money?" My response was not well received.
The headline of my past column in the Los Angeles Times was "Insert bias in films -- deduct from the bottom line." The gist of that headline and my point being, if you (certain filmmakers) gratuitously and continuously bash contemporary Republican politicians or policy in your movies, don't you run the risk of alienating a large segment of the movie-going audience? If that's the ultimate goal, then great. However, if you, your studio, and your investors, want the film to be a financial success, then, aside from the spite factor, why run the risk? What does cinematically neutering George W. Bush and Dick Cheney add to the end product or the art?
"Because I can," does not quite seem like a good enough answer. While that defense works for a dog, it might cause a producer or two to seek shelter with that dog when their movie tanks.
What got me thinking about all of this again, was the recent New York Times review of the movie, Get Smart. In the body of the review the reporter said, "The filmmakers take tiny, tinny digs at the vice president and cook up a subplot about yellowcake uranium." So, with one sentence, we are enticed -- or pissed-off -- by the specter of a Darth-Vader-like vice president, an illegitimate war in Iraq, and a spy for the CIA being exposed by a brutish White House. Again, if the filmmakers think all of that is a selling point and will add to the bottom-line, more power to them. That said, I know a number of people -- Democrats included -- who take offense at this tactic and therefore decide to skip the film.
When I wrote my first column on this subject, Joe Dante proceeded to take me to the literary woodshed. In the column, I mentioned that if I were making a film, I would do everything in my power to ensure that it "contains no political viewpoint." Meaning that no petty political bashing would take place. Just because I'm the screenwriter or producer, what gives me the right to denigrate Barack Obama, his wife, or his beliefs, in my film. In the end, isn't that unilateral power selfish, childish, and disrespectful of a least some of the audience?
For whatever reason, Mr. Dante misunderstood my point. In his letter to the Times, he said, "...Under this rubric, MacKinnon would have been unable or unwilling to contribute to the scripts of films as diverse as Dr. Strangelove, Network, ... The Green Berets, ... Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, ... Seven Days In May, etc., not including decades of classic European films which have always embraced agitprop."
The fact is, I'm a fan of each and every film he mentioned and would have done anything possible to protect and preserve their point of view. As it turns out, I tried several times to contact Mr. Dante. I admire his work and wanted to explain my position. I spoke directly with the agency that represented him at the time, and, no surprise to me, never heard back from Mr. Dante. It is my hope that my message was trashed by the agent rather than ignored by Mr. Dante.
The examples of this type of "Let's pound the Republicans, Bush, or Cheney because we can," abound in film. From the immoral and bigoted "Duke" brothers of Trading Places (a great flick) being surrounded by pictures of Reagan and Nixon, to Lauren Bacall in My Fellow Americans insulting the first President Bush by name, to the remake of The Manchurian Candidate, a film Scott Rudin, one of the producers and a proud Democrat was quoted as saying, "...is a very, very angry movie. It's a movie that is honestly distressed about a lot of things going on in the country right now."
Some of the filmmakers acknowledged that the fictional company in the movie which is disgustingly profiteering from America's wars and war dead, was modeled explicitly after Dick Cheney's former company, Halliburton. John Cusack tills this same ground and theme in his new movie, War, Inc. Albeit, going for laughs.
At least financially, The Manchurian Candidate did not fare well. After the poor box-office results rolled in, one of the Paramount executives said, "It's very frustrating. You think you've done everything right, and the audience doesn't show up in the volumes that we'd anticipated."
Objectively speaking, could at least one reason be that because of its anti-Republican/Bush/Cheney subplot, the film was heavily criticized by conservative talk radio, some of the Fox News Channel hosts, and in various blogs and columns? How much of that criticism contributed to the poor box-office?
My final example is the 2007 film, Shooter, that starred Mark Wahlberg. In this film, the ultimate bad guy is a conservative senator trying to exploit the oil market. As the movie progresses, we learn that he and his mercenaries were behind a genocidal act in Ethiopia. Again, when we see the malevolent senator or his killers, in the background, are pictures of various Republican politicians past and present. Not my movie, but it honestly seems heavy-handed and unnecessary.
With regard to titles and stereotyping, one last point that involves me and Mark Wahlberg. I actually had the chance to meet Mark when he was in DC filming Shooter. As it turns out, we both come from the same Dorchester section of Boston and from a very similar "street kid" background.
When I spoke with Mark, he asked me what I was up to? I told him "now, mostly writing political thrillers." He then mentioned that the film he was shooting was based on a novel and that he would like to read mine when finished. When I told him the main character in my next novel comes from our neighborhood, he insisted that I send it to him.
During that conversation, everything about Wahlberg suggested that he was a very honorable, genuine and down-to-earth person. We both agreed that no matter the success, we'd never forget where we came from. To demonstrate that he meant what he said, when I was a full block away and walking back to my office, he screamed, "Doug. I mean it. Send me the book."
Obviously, you can see this coming down 5th Avenue. I tried. Oh, how I tried. Some of the background of the novel unavoidably identified me as a "Republican." Did that do me in with his "people?"
Over a year later, I have not heard back from Mark. Like Joe Dante, unless proven otherwise, I'll continue to believe that he is a class-act who never got word that I reached out and sent the material as instructed.
Good intentions notwithstanding, it does get old being smeared and ignored because of that evil Republican brand.
Douglas MacKinnon is a former White House and Pentagon official and author of the forthcoming novel, "The Apocalypse Directive."
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