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The Warren Report

J. Bottum has fun with Spencer Warren and our friends at the Claremont Institute.

11:00 PM, Jan 20, 2003 • By J. BOTTUM
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Okay, okay, I know that last paragraph sounds unfair. It has the shape of an unjust summary. But, it isn't, really, for--trying to grasp both ends of the rope at the same time--Warren has tangled himself up in a double bind. You see, he opens with a swipe at young Chris Weinkopf, who questioned the value of movies as art in a piece in the American Enterprise magazine. That all the great movies ever made "should be dismissed down the memory hole by even one writer in a distinguished conservative journal is," Warren writes, "extremely unfortunate."

It looks to me as though Weinkopf, whether right or wrong, was nonetheless attempting to promote "age-old standards of beauty, excellence, and good taste" by his mild dismissal of movies as at best "good pyrotechnics." But Warren commits himself to defending the artistry of movies in general--and then to denying that artistry in movies like "8 Mile" (nodded at by Eli Lehrer and Eric Cox), the "Die Hard" films (declared enjoyable by Weinkopf), and "Terminator 2" (lauded by Matus). "If the ratings system had any meaning," Warren writes, "'8 Mile' would have been rated NC-17 for the filthy language alone--for which reason it deserves condemnation by every conservative who understands the paramount importance of protecting our children's innocence and upholding traditional standards of decency."

One's first impulse is to tell him to lighten up. Didn't he ever read the American Spectator back in those long-ago days when everyone at it was 20 years old and had a sense of humor five or six years younger? One wants to ask if this is the same Spencer Warren, "professional movie buff," who praises "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" and insists Richard Franklin's "Psycho II" is better than Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho"? Is this the same Spencer Warren who names "High Plains Drifter" among the greatest conservative movies ever made? That's the film, you remember, that has Clint Eastwood shoot three men, one between the eyes, and rape a woman on the street, all within the first five minutes.

Regardless, he's planted himself a tough row to hoe by arguing this double whammy, and his solution is to claim that the high point of western civilization came in the 1950s--and then to note that The Weekly Standard has "twice in the past year criticized 1950s movies basically as hidebound and barren. This (left-wing) cliché is totally inaccurate."

I don't know. Over the past few years, the Standard's back-of-the-book has published essays that mentioned 1950s movies by such critics as Terry Teachout, John Podhoretz, Jonathan Foreman, Donald Lyons, S.T. Karnick, and--yes--even Spencer Warren. Some of those 1950s movies were praised, and some dismissed. Here at The Weekly Standard we may have strong editorial policies about war with Iraq, the vileness of cloning, and the need to reroute the Arlington connector on I-66. (Don't ask me about that last one; it's a Fred Barnes thing.) But we don't have much of a policy about Vincente Minnelli's "The Band Wagon" or Andre De Toth's "Day of the Outlaw."

But that isn't the same as saying we're relativistic about them. It's rather the opposite: an insistence that critics make the case for their likes and dislikes. Many films these days are crude and vulgar. So were many films made in the 1950s. The "younger conservatives" published back here in the East are able to see past the crudities and vulgarities of the movies of their time to see a few of the eternal verities of art (just as Spencer Warren claims to be able to see past the crudities and vulgarities of the movies of his time), and those young writers are willing to try to make their case.