Surprising lessons to be learned in popular culture. Dec 31, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 16 • By BRUCE EDWARD WALKER
Instead of disparaging all popular culture as a “vast wasteland” of cultural and moral decay, conservative critics should tease out those elements that reinforce conservative values in the arts. Russell Kirk used to lament the falling-off in depictions of normative behavior; but whereas Kirk focused his derision on literary and other public figures (the Beatles, Ayn Rand, etc.), he avoided most popular culture by refusing to watch television altogether. Kirk was not entirely wrong in his conclusions, but he died before he could catch a glimpse of light at the end of the tube.
Television, radio, and film, however, continue their encroachment into the public consciousness. The firebrand Ben Shapiro recently published a book entitled Primetime Propaganda, with the ominous subtitle, “The True Hollywood Story of How the Left Took Over Your TV.” Shapiro cites programs such as All in the Family as evidence of liberal indoctrination—and indeed, Norman Lear is an unabashed Hollywood liberal. But Shapiro also ignores the fact that Archie Bunker might have done more to promote civil rights by his personification of the absurdities of bigotry than any amount of public service announcements, or legislation. What could be more conservative, after all, than the concept that all men are created equal, regardless of race, creed, or color?
Cultural scolds increasingly run the risk of audiences tuning them out, with their mantra that the culture has plummeted to hell in a handcart. Not long ago, this writer had the opportunity to explain the uplifting elements of such Judd Apatow comedies as The 40-Year-Old Virgin andKnocked Up to another conservative writer: Whereas, on their surfaces, these films run rampant with promiscuous hookups, drug consumption, and potty talk, they also display the advantages of normative behavior—such as chastity before marriage (The 40-Year-Old Virgin) and the importance of two committed, mature adults for the parenting of children (Knocked Up).
Yes, it sometimes requires a bit of digging through the detritus to find the redeeming qualities in popular culture, but it is works such as Paul Cantor’s The Invisible Hand in Popular Culture that offer ready, rewarding, and invaluable assistance. This is an exceptional romp through television and film from the past several decades, and serves to entertain as much as to instruct us that the world of entertainment contains many valuable lessons in economics, liberty, and morality.
As coeditor (with Stephen Cox) of and contributor to Literature and the Economics of Liberty: Spontaneous Order in Culture (2010), Paul Cantor revealed his predilection for Austrian economics. But whereas that work delved into high art by way of essays on Cervantes, Willa Cather, H. G. Wells, and others, The Invisible Hand is solely Cantor’s work, following along the path he began carving in Gilligan Unbound(2001) in its celebration of the free market. He is able to find small-government victories in even the most seemingly shallow entertainments, including the HBO series Deadwood, Comedy Central’s South Park, the Martin Scorsese film The Aviator, and Tim Burton’s Mars Attacks!
Cantor establishes his aims in the preface by dispelling the myth that the commercial intentions of movies and television programs require artists to cater to capitalist ideology. He notes that the Frankfurt School of cultural criticism inaugurated the misperception that Hollywood reflects only mass culture, which perpetuates “debased entertainment” for the purposes of the almighty dollar. Cantor acknowledges that Hollywood’s committee-based decisions often result in mediocre art, but he argues that artistic freedom shines through in the finished product more often than the Frankfurt Marxists would concede: “Hollywood’s track record demonstrates that there is nothing inherent in pop culture that precludes creative freedom in film and television.”
While it may be difficult for creative people in Hollywood to express radical conservative themes, it’s not impossible. This, writes Cantor, is what separates the critics from artists. “Where the critic sees only imprisonment,” he writes, “the artist struggles creatively to find a path to freedom.” In many instances, this creativity finds an outlet in appealing to both studios and financiers, to whom the artist is beholden, and to the artist’s personal integrity.
Cantor identifies Friedrich Hayek’s concept of spontaneous order as a unifying theme. Spontaneous order in popular culture, he writes, “often celebrates its power in American society and is itself an example of that power.”
Philip Terzian, the non-moviegoerOct 15, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 05 • By PHILIP TERZIAN
I recall an interview with William Faulkner in which he said that he didn’t read books but read in books, the distinction being that he seldom consumed a volume from start to finish but preferred to stick his toes in here and there, read favorite chapters over and over, proceeding from finish to start if necessary.
Owen Wilson and Ben Stiller go old school; the Oscars give it up for the ugly and the unhappy; and "The Passion" might be bigger than you think.11:00 PM, Mar 4, 2004 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
AS THE BRIGHT LIGHTS in Hollywood have run out of ideas for movies, they've made a habit of turning to other artistic mediums for source material. One time-honored tradition--pinching the theater--has come back in vogue ("Chicago"), but the multiplex is a monster which needs constant feeding. So America's highest-paid artists have been forced to look elsewhere.
What Nicole Richie and "The Simple Life" teach us about America and celebrity.11:00 PM, Jan 15, 2004 • By MATT LABASH
WHENEVER I EXPRESS my penchant for reality television in the circle of snide, knowing, not-as-smart-as-they-think-they-are crosspatches that I'm cursed to call friends, I often do so defensively, as if I am advocating Satan-worshipping or kid-touching. No more.
"The Return of the King" is a flawed, disappointing end to Peter Jackson's exceptional Lord of the Rings trilogy.11:00 PM, Dec 16, 2003 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
BACK IN 2001, in the golden age of cinema, when studios routinely put out classics like "A Beautiful Mind," "Moulin Rouge," and "I Am Sam," Hollywood observers dismissed the Academy of Motion Pictures' snub of "The Fellowship of the Ring" with a wave of the hand. "Oh don't worry," the sophisticates sighed, "Peter Jackson will win for 'Return of the King' so that the trilogy can be recognized all in one shot."
It was a fine sentiment, except for one small detail: Suppose the Academy had taken the same approach towards "The Godfather"?
"Cold Mountain," the season's biggest slab of Oscar bait, comes to theaters. Audiences will be deeply moved. Or else.11:00 PM, Dec 11, 2003 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
THE REASON I checked out of "24," the intriguing Fox network series, was that the show suffered from Sudden Supporting Character Death Syndrome. Every interesting supporting character--the policewoman with the Macy Gray hair, the girl from "Roseanne"--was dispatched, often in a grisly manner, and normally right after the audience developed a strand of attachment to them. At first, this penchant for killing peripheral characters seemed laudable--the writers at "24" saying, "Hey, we're not messing around here! The stakes are high and people die!"
"The Last Samurai" puts a Yankee in the Emperor's court and lets Tom Cruise show off his swordsmanship.11:00 PM, Dec 4, 2003 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
THE ADAGE that every generation gets the president it deserves applies equally well to popular culture. We get the TV shows, pop songs, and cinema we deserve. Movie stars, too. The greatest generation got Humphrey Bogart, Spencer Tracy, and Cary Grant. (Bogart and Tracy served stints in the Navy.) For their sins, the Boomers were given Warren Beatty, Robert Redford, and Jack Nicholson.
Dr. Seuss's classic comes to the big screen with style, barf jokes, and a newly-minted porn star.11:00 PM, Nov 20, 2003 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
MY BIG IDEA, the one that's going to let me to quit my day job, join the Metropolitan Club, and buy Kay Graham's old place in Georgetown, is this: A pay cable channel for kids. Think of it like HBO, but airing only kid shows, 24 hours a day. You could charge $15, $20, maybe $25 a month and parents would buy it because here's the hook: No commercials.
The anti-TV movement is only nominally about the content of shows. It's really about the advertisements.
"Elf" comes in time to give you holiday cheer while you're still savoring your leftover Halloween candy.11:00 PM, Nov 6, 2003 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
YES, IT'S CHRISTMAS TIME ALREADY. Today "Elf" lands in theaters.
"Revolutions" reveals that underneath the philosophy, allegory, and intellectual pretension of "The Matrix" is a great big wad of nothing.11:00 PM, Nov 4, 2003 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
THE INITIAL IMPULSE is to declare that "The Matrix: Revolutions" does for "The Matrix" what "Return of the Jedi" did for "Star Wars." That isn't, however, entirely fair. It would be more accurate to compare "Revolutions" with "Attack of the Clones." After all, while "Jedi" might have cast aspersions on the worth of the original "Star Wars," it was "Attack of the Clones" which finally bulldozed the original trilogy's legacy.
"Revolutions" eats all of the goodwill built up by "The Matrix," and then some.
The new movie "Shattered Glass" believes that Stephen Glass's mad genius made it impossible to stop him before he was caught. There is evidence to suggest otherwise.11:00 PM, Oct 30, 2003 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
"SHATTERED GLASS" is a slim, reedy film. It presents the now-familiar story of Stephen Glass as a cautionary tale and then offers up a hero in the person of Chuck Lane, the New Republic editor who fired Glass.
What the Scary Movie franchise means for the future of the film spoof. Plus, why won't Nicole Kidman get fat?12:00 AM, Oct 24, 2003 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
WHEN YOU REVIEW MOVIES you occasionally have to go to more than one screening a day. This isn't any sort of hardship, but it can result in bizarre pairings. The weirdest movie day I've had was in the summer of '98 when I saw "Saving Private Ryan" at 10:00 a.m., followed, a few short hours later, by "There's Something About Mary."
A few days ago I caught a screening of the earnestly pretentious adaptation of Philip Roth's "The Human Stain." Lots of Anthony Hopkins's winter passion and Nicole Kidman's flat little stomach.
Don't call him an "activist," he's been here for years. The artist formerly known as Spicoli speaks out about sensing the war.12:00 AM, Oct 15, 2003 • By DAVID SKINNER
AMONG THE MOST fatuous devices of political debate, the tactic of disowning "labels" stands proudly: like the Washington hack who catches his breath by saying he does not want to talk about "left" or "right," and then immediately exhales a billowy cumulus cloud of unmistakable partisanship. Next to, say, the nondenial denial, the beyond-labels parry holds its head high.
The annoying thing about labels, however, isn't that they're restricting (the ol' pigeonhole problem), but that they are accurate. Which can be very inconvenient. You may, at some point, want a different label.
Quentin Tarantino and "Kill Bill" pay homage to the samurai epic, shower the audience with blood, and dilute pop culture.8:15 AM, Oct 10, 2003 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
IT'S NOT NEWS to report that trailers are often better than the movies they advertise. Some of the best trailers in recent years--"The Phantom Menace," "Mission: Impossible 2," "Pearl Harbor," "Eyes Wide Shut"--have been for movies which can only be charitably considered middling.
Are movies getting worse, or are trailers getting better? Probably a little of both. No need to repeat the state-of-the-industry lament here, but it is worth considering whether the art of trailer-making is now entering its golden age.
How to save the HBO series "K Street."12:00 AM, Oct 10, 2003 • By MATTHEW CONTINETTI
I HAVE A SOFT SPOT for "K Street," the new HBO series that follows the lives of a group of Washington lobbyists. It's not necessarily because the show goes to great lengths to incorporate real-life Washingtonians into each week's episode. And it's not necessarily because the show focuses on the capitol's lobbyist culture, which is deserving of more attention than it has received in general.