Celluloid heroes

Do we really need Washington propaganda in Hollywood films? How about something that makes us think, instead?

Red Dawn

Red Dawn

Karl Rove showed up in Beverly Hills a few weekends back. The Bush administration’s “top political advisor,” as the Los Angeles Times described him, came to town to meet with various corporate executives high up in the Hollywood film hierarchy—ostensibly to pitch them on the idea of producing the kind of inspirational fare that might help to promote the administration’s war effort in Central Asia.

Naturally, a few alarm bells went off. Such Internet bulletin boards as Democratic Underground and Salon’s Table Talk, populated by the kind of folks who still fume over last year’s flawed presidential election and the subsequent Supreme Court intervention that settled it, were peppered with snarky comments about Rove and his possibly sinister intentions. Sony’s TriStar Pictures is trying to figure out how to digitally draw turbans on the giant bugs in Starship Troopers, one wag theorized. Others rambled about the grim prospect of watching aging tough-guy actors from Hollywood’s conservative vanguard—Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis—muster the stamina to lead one more blitz up whatever the Afghani equivalent of Porkchop Hill might be.

Motion Picture Association of America chairman Jack Valenti put the kibosh to such tinfoil-hatted notions, however. “Content was off the table,” he told the press, thus pouring cold water on the overheated idea that Rove—a political operative whose hardball style has been compared to that of Josef Goebbels, Germany’s WWII minister of propaganda—might be trying to strongarm those notorious Hollywood liberals into becoming ardent Leni Riefenstahl clones.

Rove did have the right idea, though. If you want to reach the American people and fire them up for a cause, you don’t enlist an army of teachers, because that’ll just put a bunch of kids to sleep. Enlist an army of preachers, and you’ll most likely achieve the same result with adults. No, if you really want to get inside the collective mind of America, you need to hijack the dream factory. You need to go to Hollywood.

Of course, a dumb propaganda movie is usually a dumb movie with propaganda added. One laughable example of this was the 1984 release Red Dawn, in which communist paratroopers happen to drop in, literally, on a hapless Colorado high school. Its doctrinaire Reagan-era commie bashing was the product of the same kind of “us verses the evil evildoers of evil” mindset that plagues the current regime in Washington—which reduces any conflict to stock, cardboard characters in white hats fighting a demonized enemy, something any reader of superhero comic books can understand. Small wonder that it was written and directed by John Milius, a man who’s probably not on any A-list to call when Bill Clinton’s coming to town to shake down Tinseltown liberals for the DNC.


Long before that came a number of films produced when World War II was in full swing, with John Wayne swaggering through the boilerplate scripts of Flying Tigers, The Fighting Seabees, Back to Bataan, They Were Expendable and others. Although some of these were better than you might expect, with character development that exceeded the typically wooden standard, many never rose above the level of propaganda. You can’t blame 1940s Hollywood, however; faced with the challenge presented by a bona-fide war, the movie industry responded with the best propaganda it could deliver.

But given the level of talent working in Hollywood today, the idea that our not-quite-elected government may be thinking about tampering with the creative process that filled multiplexes with such timeless works of art as Half-Baked and Battlefield Earth is a frightening prospect. No, not because the dark alchemy of combining clunky government heavy-handedness with entertainment-business hackwork might unleash some hideous meme-beast of simple-minded “patriotism” on an unsuspecting public, but because most sentient beings won’t bother to respond. Yes, a high-concept flick based on the dim premise of “WWF superstars kick some towelhead ass” might fire up a certain audience, but those people most likely are flying little flags on their truck antennas already.

To reach a more intellectually demanding audience with an action picture, you would need to include some kung fu sequences and a dash of irony. Unfortunately, the current administration seems capable of neither.

But why should Hollywood expect someone to pay for a product that reinforces the same kind of black-and-white lack of thinking that they can get outside of a movie theater for free? Modern life is slightly more complex than a cowboys-and-natives tale. Shouldn’t the films we go to see reflect this?

That’s the downside of propaganda—it doesn’t work well when mated to the kind of material inspired by something more befitting a Jim Thompson novel than a John Wayne movie.

Like Memento. The film from last year, written and directed by Christopher Nolan, doesn’t present the kind of tidy scenario wherein a good person confronts evil and wins. Instead, it begins when the protagonist, an insurance adjuster named Lenny (Guy Pearce), kills a man named Teddy (Joe Pantoliano). Lenny has no short-term memory, but he does remember that his wife was murdered. He carries around a Polaroid camera to take pictures of people, places and things; he scribbles notes on them to help him reconstruct the past. His body is covered with tattoos—phone numbers, messages, anything that will help him track down the nebulous man who killed his wife.

Mulholland Drive

Nolan begins telling the story by showing Lenny shooting Teddy. Then he jumps backward in time to what would be the preceding scene, if the story were being told in linear fashion. Its effect would be similar to watching a movie on video by fast-forwarding to five minutes before the end, viewing until the credits roll, rewinding the tape up a bit, watching to the five-minutes-before-the-end point, rewinding again, watching until you reach the scene where you began, rewinding again—until you reach the beginning. It’s an unsettling film, because characters that start out as sympathetic don’t remain that way, and the more information that’s revealed, the more complicated the situation gets. Just like real life.

Imagine this formula applied to current events? You begin with two passenger jets hitting the World Trade Center, continually backtrack through the Middle East and Texas and end up, where—with the Bush and bin Laden families doing business together?

Uh-uh. Mr. Rove won’t approve of that.

Perhaps he might enjoy Mulholland Drive, this year’s David Lynch brain teaser. Lynch, one of those love him or hate him directors, spins a yarn in this can’t-miss epic meditation on Hollywood that’s perhaps a shade too complicated to function as any kind of propaganda vehicle.

The dreamy narrative begins when a beautiful Latina actress (Laura Elena Harring) stumbles out of an attempted hit in the Hollywood hills that’s foiled when a car slams into her limo, killing her would-be murderer. She makes her way downhill, sneaks into an apartment soon occupied by Betty (Naomi Watts), a perky ingénue from Canada who’s come to housesit at her aunt’s place and perhaps get cast in a movie. Meanwhile, Adam (Justin Theroux), a hot young director, is being forced to cast a blonde named “Camilla Rhodes” in his next film—against his will. Betty and the amnesiac actress, who appropriates the name “Rita” from a movie poster in the apartment, try to piece together Rita’s past; after a coffee-shop encounter with a waitress named Diane, Rita recalls that her name is Diane Selwyn. In a Nancy Drew-like scene, they track down Selwyn’s apartment, Betty breaks in and they find a rotting corpse.

It’s Diane Selwyn’s place, all right, but Betty is Diane Selwyn, and Rita is Camilla Rhodes, and Diane and Camilla are lovers—until Adam moves in on Camilla, thus spiraling Diane into a murderous rage that results in a hired hit man killing Camilla. Got that?

So Mulholland Drive is—on one level—about the dreamy delusions of a murderer, which fall apart two-thirds of the way through the movie. It’s the kind of tale that leaves audiences scratching their heads, perhaps sorting out the details afterward over dessert. Like Memento, it’s loaded with gray areas, and even what seems to be black and white turns out to be gray.

Films like these may not whip people into wartime frenzy, but they may make them think. And you do want Americans to think—don’t you, Mr. Rove?