Leave Politics Out of It

By Michael Totten | Related entries in The Politics Of Film

Some people are so obsessed with politics they see it everywhere and don’t understand that there are some places where it just doesn’t belong. The results often aren’t pretty. Consider what David Koepp, screenwriter for Steven Spielberg’s remake of War of the Worlds, said about his own script.

“And now, as we see American adventure abroad,� he [David Koepp] continues “in my mind it’s certainly back to it’s original meaning, which is that the Martians in our movie represent American military forces invading the Iraqis, and the futility of the occupation of a faraway land is again the subtext.�

There is no shortage of evidence in Koepp’s own script that shows this comparison is preposterous. For starters, the conflict is said to be not a war but an “extermination.� The description is precise. The Martian invasion was, indeed, genocidal. But that’s only the beginning. It was also an ecocide. Not only did the wicked machines massacre human beings everywhere, they also began “terraforming� the Earth with their own psychedelic red vegetation, apparently so their newly conquered planet would more closely resemble their home world.

Iraq ain’t Texas on the Tigris. And we certainly aren’t “exterminating” Iraqis. We demolished Saddam Hussein’s unelected fascist regime and are helping Iraqis build democratic institutions in its place. Saddam, not US soldiers, is guilty of both genocide and ecocide. He destroyed the marsh ecosystem in the south of the country – along with the people who lived there – and turned it into a desert. US soldiers (exterminator monsters in Koepp’s mental universe) helped the Iraqis restore this region.

Meanwhile, director Steven Spielberg says War of the Worlds is about “Americans fleeing for their lives in a 9/11-like situation.”

I appreciate that as a counterpoint to Koepp’s libelous nonsense. But it’s hardly any more accurate. There may be something genocidal in Al Qaeda’s declaration that all Americans are targets. And if Al Qaeda were miraculously able to get their hands on one of the dreaded Martian machines in the movie, well, I doubt they would hesitate to obliterate Washington and plenty of other cities around the world.

But that’s not what’s happening in the Terror War. Not at all. Al Qaeda isn’t an omnipotent and technologically superior invasion force. They’re a bunch of losers who can’t even manufacture a hubcap, let alone a nuclear weapon-proof death ray machine.

If I think about politics at all while watching a movie like War of the Worlds (which pretty much never happens) I’m inclined to think such a real-world disaster would instantly end politics everywhere. How could humans even think about fighting with each other (let alone bickering about minor details such as a government budget) when faced with imminent extinction at the hands of creatures from the stars that aren’t human at all? Intentions aside, War of the Worlds is as political as a giant asteroid smashing into Nebraska.

This kind of escapist entertainment is – or at least should be – the ne plus ultra of anti-politics. It’s the sort of thing everyone, regardless of their political views, ought to be able to see the same way. “Genocidal aliens are badâ€Â? isn’t liberal. “We must blow up the giant killer asteroidâ€Â? isn’t conservative.

Millions of Americans, perhaps the majority, think of Hollywood political culture as an elitist unreality bubble. It shouldn’t matter, though, not really. The overwhelming majority of Hollywood movies aren’t about politics. Politics rarely affects the end product.

Apparently, War of the Worlds was written for the screen by a leftist. Oh well. It could just as easily have been written by a conservative. The only reason we know it was written by a leftist is because he gave himself away in an interview. He may have tried to inject his hysterical politics into the story, but it didn’t take. It just couldn’t be done. His own script provides all the rebuttal material anyone needs.

Artists in general – whether they belong to the Hollywood film scene, the New York literary establishment, or a Peoria dance company – tend to be liberal or leftist. It’s just one of those things.

What artists should try to remember is that their peer group isn’t representative of Americans as a whole. Their audience often is, though. And it’s best not to gratuitously alienate and offend the audience. (I don’t think it’s a stretch to suggest that only conservatives are offended by saying Americans resemble exterminator monsters from outer space.) That doesn’t mean artists should stop being liberal or leftist. It means that unless they’re making a movie like The Assasination of Richard Nixon (which is terrific, by the way), it’s in their own self-interest to leave politics out of it.


This entry was posted on Wednesday, August 3rd, 2005 and is filed under The Politics Of Film. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

27 Responses to “Leave Politics Out of It”

  1. Jim Says:

    Hollywood is torn. People think it is out of touch with the public. On the contrary, it was built on an unerring intuition of what kind of low brow crap the public has wanted for almost a century now. That is the essence of mas entertainment. And then because it was built on pandering to common tastes, it is desperate to establish some artistic cred. That may explain why movie people tend so heavily to say (what they fancy to be) the iconclastic thing when they speak out. They are trying to sound avant garde or something. They want to epater la bourgeosie, ESPECIALLY because that is who they feed off of and they resent it. Otherwise there is no reason they don’t reflect the whole spectrum of opinion as a random sample.

  2. spaniard Says:

    True artists, they believe, don’t merely entertain– they “provoke” and “push the envelope”. But Hollywood is really just about entertainment. So these movie guys (who fancy themselves true artists, or want to be seen as true artists) figure they can turn their popcorn fun into “art” by being all political and stupid. It’s pretty juvenile if you think about it.

  3. Callimachus Says:

    I haven’t seen the movie. But I’m interested in how the three versions — the novel, the radio broadcast and the film — all echoed contemporary fears.

    The novel was one of many written in Britain after 1870 reflecting fears of the rise of a unified Germany. In fact, it was written at the tail end of a whole generation of “invasion literature.” The narrative style, and the attention to local details, are that of the hypothetical future-history writing in the cataclysm of novels that poured from British publishing houses in the wake of George Chesney’s “The Battle of Dorking” (1871).

    The French were even more obsessed with Germany, of course, but Germany also had its own version of invasion literature. And everyone, including the Americans, was reading novels about the “yellow peril.”

    I was going to go dig through my library for examples, but I found this neat little essay online, Future-War Fiction, by “I.F. Clarke.”

    Among the examples I learned about in this essay is Capitaine Danrit’s “three-volume tale of L’Invasion noire (The Black Invasion, 1895-6).”

    He wrote that his account of a future invasion of Europe — by hordes of fanatic African Muslims led by a sultan of genius — “depended on a very questionable proposition, since the reverse is happening in our age. The European powers are carving up the Dark Continent as they like, and they are distributing the primitive populations amongst themselves as if they were cheap livestock.”

    Impossibly far-fetched at the time, and yet …

  4. Nortius Maximus Says:

    Callimachus: Thanks for summing up of the context of Wells’ work. Even given what you’ve said, I’m taking the liberty of posting something I wrote in the comments to the top-crosspost of MT’s essay on Winds of Change:

    ==

    “[I]n my mind it’s certainly back to it’s original meaning…”

    Hully freaking Jehosaphat. What hubris. Its original meaning, had he actually been willing to treat the text of Wells’ work fairly, includes none of what he makes it out to be.

    What I get out of WotW includes things such as,
    * “don’t be too complacent or parochial” and
    * “get to know your neighbors better” and
    * “be better prepared to do your best for your friends and neighbors” and
    * “take the opportunities the world provides to do something positive even in adversity over which you have little influence”.

    Wells is widely reputed to have “not thought much of” Orson Welles’s radio adaptation. I can only think that this propaganda putsch has his corpse rotating fast enough to catch fire by friction.

  5. triticale Says:

    Some of the people who sought to impart Leftist messages into the art of film actually contributed to the development of the medium. Had there been a more intellectual and philosophical bent to conservatism across this era you would have a chance to compare the converse. Unquestionably, Eisenstein’s “Armored Battle Cruiser Potemkin” is one of the key works in the development of film-making, and at the same time pure political diatribe.

  6. triticale Says:

    By the way, I want a tee-shirt with a WotW image like the one at the top, and a caption “We need to ask ourselves why they hate us.”

  7. Callimachus Says:

    mmmm, Eisenstein. Even a genius works in a political milieu. In some cases, obedience to the political power is the price of getting the movie made. Shakespeare injecting Tudor-approved contemporary issues into Holinshed’s stories. In the contemporary case, however, the writer can thumb his nose at the power structure and make a mint at the box office (his initials are M.M.).

    I’ll defend conservatives from the “stupid party” sneer. T.S. Eliot, for starters? But they didn’t make many movies, and even fewer good ones.

  8. spaniard Says:

    >>>Some of the people who sought to impart Leftist messages into the art of film actually contributed to the development of the medium.

    I wouldn’t equate being a Leftist with “intellectual”. Certainly not today, where being a Leftist means you get to call people “nazis” and “bushitler” and make martian invader movies and say it’s about America. How embarrassing.

  9. Nortius Maximus Says:

    Triticale: Heh. Me too.

  10. Tom Grey - Liberty Dad Says:

    “(I don’t think it’s a stretch to suggest that only conservatives are offended by saying Americans resemble exterminator monsters from outer space.)”
    You claim you are not conservative.
    So you are NOT offended to be called an exterminator monster from outer space? (or perhaps your “don’t” is one too many negatives?)

    I’m offended — but it’s so common I almost laugh.

  11. american in europe Says:

    Mark Steyn’s recent review of War of the World has a somewhat different take on Hollywood’s politicization of its movies. Michael seems to be saying that, no matter what some scriptwriter thinks, Hollywood movies are apolitical and should be so. Steyn agrees that most movies today are not explicitly political, but this is only because of deliberate omission by liberal film industry types. We live in interesting times but Hollywood refuses to make any films about the great issues of the day, replacing Arab terrorists with Neo-Nazis or Africans, or whatever. Anyway, it’s worth a read. Here’s the link: http://www.steynonline.com/index2.cfm?edit_id=26
    (Note: Steyn’s review of the new Tim Burton film is at the top of the page, but scroll down. Don’t wait because his next film review will probably displace War of the Worlds.)

  12. american in europe Says:

    Sorry, I clicked send too soon. Anyway, here the best line in Steyn’s review:

    “For much of the film, it seems the obliteration of mankind is just a swell excuse for parental bonding. As Cruise traipses up the Hudson River and swings east to Boston, bickering with his alienated son and whiney daughter, Spielberg seems to be reversing the priorities of Casablanca: this crazy world doesn’t amount to a hill of beans next to the problems of three little people. “

  13. dcb Says:

    >>>Eisenstein’s “Armored Battle Cruiser Potemkin� is one of the key works in the development of film-making, and at the same time pure political diatribe.

    LMAO! from Battleship Potemkin to America=martian invaders! how far these “intellectuals” have sunk.

  14. Sunguh5307 Says:

    Oh, I had a different view of that movie. I could see the political aspect of it, it was under there, but not over the top.

    Actually, what I found fascinating was the unwritten aspect of it- how the horror of the tragedy was evoked. And I gotta pull on the psychoanlytic aspect of this, the shocking imagery of the aliens genocide.

    Throughout the films it was constantly repeated ‘They came from below’ or ‘They could have been waiting for millions of years’, and the sheer impressiveness when they came up and started slaughtering. Or how it was worked out that the aliens had to be inserted into the inert genocide machines by lightning. This is kind of like a modern ideology or charismatic leader leading the masses to some kind of horrible tragedy.

    I wrote a review on my own blog, but it’s not too much longer than this. Basically, I thought you could make the case that part of the horror of the aliens could be a reflection of ourselves, how we had these primal urges to wipe everyone out in genocidal fashion but had managed to suppress them under the veneer of civilization. How in the modern era we are really scared that this ‘civilization’ is not so solid, that a lightning storm could come and awake these monsters.

    But that’s just me. I could be wrong.

  15. Nate Says:

    Jim, I heard a great line once – ‘Hollywood is socially liberal but aesthetically conservative.’ They’ll push the audience a bit on politics but keep them safe and comfortable with the construction of the movies themselves.

    Of course there are many more examples of David Koepp-style self-importance. A great example is a recent interview in the NYT with actress Tilda Swinton about the supernatural-fantasy movie Constantine, where she unrolls some rhetoric about the current administration as religious absolutists, and says that Constantine has the potential to be ‘revolutionary filmmaking’ because somehow there’s supposed to be subtext about Bush in there. It’s hilarious. Also check out Romero’s Land of the Dead for an unwitting object lesson in appalling leftist moral equivocation.

  16. Nate Says:

    Sunguh- I was wondering about why the aliens come from underground in this movie as well, instead of falling from the sky as in the original (I know they come down the lightning but the visceral impression is their rise from below). I thought maybe Tom Cruise insisted on the change because in Scientology the aliens that plague our lives are constantly coming up from underground. It’s auteur theory vs. the Hollywood system!

  17. Joshua Says:

    First of all, it should be noted that H.G. Wells himself was a political radical and an apologist for the totalitarian threats of his own day (fascism and communism). So, it seems strangely fitting that political statements in the like vein would be ascribed to a film adaptation of Wells’s signature work.

    Then again, as has already been noted elsewhere in this blog, similar leftist statements have also been attributed to Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith and the new Harry Potter book. In all three cases, though, even if there is an underlying message intended it’s veiled well enough to be hard for the casual viewer to recognize (and in the case of Star Wars, it’s also undercut by mixed messages and the clumsily-written dialogue that’s been a hallmark of the prequel trilogy). In other words, much ado about very little.

  18. Dan No Says:

    One of HG Wells’ main metaphors in the book is the use of the Martian invasion to comment on British and European colonialism. This well-documented fact makes Koepp’s comments completely reasonable and far from the “libelous nonesense” you claim. Koepp (like many Americans, perhaps now even a majority of Americans) see the American adventure in Iraq as a similar form of colonialism.

  19. dcb Says:

    Wells and Koepp are both nutjobs.

    “Wells flirted with the worst ideas of his time. After interviewing Lenin, Wells called him “creative” and described communism as the best hope for reforming Russia. The man simply never met a collectivist movement that didn’t intrigue him. “There is good in these Fascists,” he said of Italians in 1927. “There is something brave and well-meaning about them.” He despised Catholicism and mocked Jewish traditions as “nonsense.” It was for views such as these that George Orwell delivered a blunt verdict in 1941: “Much of what Wells has imagined and worked for is physically there in Nazi Germany.”

    http://www.opinionjournal.com/la/?id=110006849

    Koepp– and modern Liberalism in general– are worthy inheritors of the pro-communist, anti-religious, anti-West tradition that people like Wells represented.

  20. Callimachus Says:

    dcb, if you banish everyone who was initially drawn to Italian fascism in the 1920s as a “nutjob,” you throw out an awful lot of decent thinking people all through the West, “conservatives” as well as “liberals.” That in itself is not enough to convict him, in my book.

    Wells was that oddest of birds, a pessimistic utopian. Maybe that’s the recipe for a Stalinist, who knows.

  21. dcb Says:

    Callimachus,

    Orwell, his contemporary, seemed to agree with me.

  22. Gregg Says:

    Orwell, his contemporary, seemed to agree with me.

    Orwell’s 1941 article was a response to one in which Wells claimed that the Nazis would be defeated within a short space of time and that it would be impossible for Hitler, a “screaming little defective” in Wells’ words, to challenge the supremacy of Western values. Orwell was incensed that one of his biggest childhood heroes had failed to see how much of a threat Nazi Germany presented, and dispensed much vitriol showing it. Characterising himself and his entire generation as Wells’ children, Orwell says Wells changed the world (or, at least, a generation of Englishmen) and gave rise to the scientific rationality of the twentieth century. But according to Orwell, Wells’ world-view, that of a “nineteenth-century liberal”, was woefully inadequate for the world of 1941 because the world had changed yet again.

    Orwell accused Wells of under-estimating the atavistic appeal of fascism, and the necessity of an atavistic response. He said Wells, and the rest of the Victorian and Edwardian left, were wrong in their belief in the profound and enduring appeal of rationality and Enlightenment values and in the inexorable flow of history towards utopia. That wasn’t actually the totality of Wells’ view, and Orwell believed in the same values and, to a lesser extent, that there was a historical flow towards a better world. But Orwell’s claim was that Wells had a misplaced belief in the inevitable victory of science over superstition in every conflict rather than merely in the long term – and, indeed, that Wells was incapable of seeing that Nazism had blurred the lines between science and superstition. According to Orwell, Wells was incapable of grasping the “tremendous strength of the old world”, of “nationalism, religious bigotry and feudal loyalty”, nor that the “Creatures out of the Dark Ages [that] have come marching into the present” cannot be defeated by science, by humanism or any rational response, but instead “need a strong magic to lay them”.

    Orwell suggested Jack London, a man of the generation between Wells’ and Orwell’s, as a more useful “prophet” for the second World War; and that, of Wells’ contemporaries, only “Kipling, who was not deaf to the evil voices of power and military glory [...] would have understood the appeal of Hitler, or for that matter of Stalin.” Orwell concludes that “Wells is too sane to understand the modern world. The succession of lower-middle-class novels which are his greatest achievement stopped short at the other war and never really began again, and since 1920 he has squandered his talents in slaying paper dragons. But how much it is, after all, to have any talents to squander.”

  23. spaniard Says:

    Wells’ love of fascism meant he was “too sane”, according to Orwell and his apologists, and simply misunderstood the insanity of the modern world. So too the Catholic church, until they changed their mind in 1937. I wonder how long it took Wells to change his mind, if ever.

  24. Gregg Says:

    Wells’ love of fascism meant he was “too sane�, according to Orwell and his apologists

    What love of fascism? Wells’ writings on fascism led the Nazis to brand him a “degenerate”, give his books pride of place on their literary pyres, and name this septagenarian as one of the key public figures who should be captured immediately upon the German conquest of Britain. You shouldn’t believe everything you read in hysterical, dissembling op-eds in the Wall Street Journal.

    And if it’s his anti-Catholicism that narks you, you should be aware this was shared by just about every Anglican in England, and plenty of non-conformists besides, before the 1950s – memories of Bloody Mary died hard. The Catholic Church’s support for fascism, for all that it may have become tepid in 1937, did much to re-ignite that disdain.

  25. Donklephant » Blog Archive » Stars Won’t be Censored on Katrina Telethon Says:

    [...] I even feel for the celebrities somewhat. They have to be more careful than the rest of us because of the audience they command, and they way they (or their cause) can be affected by public opinion; as suggested by Michael Totten’s ages old post, and illustrated by Curt Schilling’s eventual “apology” for the setting in which he made his remarks. [...]

  26. NeoCenturions Says:

    Clooney: Moderates are Evil

    Via Libertas and IMDB, we learn today that activist and sometimes-actor George Clooney has recommended that his fellow celebrities refrain from political commentary. Our jubilation was short-lived, however, as Clooney quickly followed his admonition …

  27. » -- Stump Lane -- Clever, Hilarious, Informative Says:

    [...] [...]

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