[Editor's note: In the current issue of the Scene, Jonathan Meador looks at the trend of conservative-themed movies performing well above the national average at the box office in Middle Tennessee, which is becoming a place where even nationwide duds on the level of Won't Back Down and Atlas Shrugged Part II can eke out a few thousand more dollars per screen than elsewhere.
For his story, Meador spoke to Victor J. Morton, the Washington, D.C.-based critic whose thoughts on film can be found most often at his blog Rightwing Film Geek. A self-described "American conservative whose favorite Austrian film artist is Michael Haneke rather than Arnold Schwarzenegger," the scrupulously tough-minded, wickedly funny Morton counts more than a few hardcore lefty cinephiles among his readers. Though he's quoted at length in Meador's article, we posted the rest of the interview below.]
Do you think there has been a rise in mainstream (in terms of budget and distribution) conservative films over the past few years? Why/why not? If so, do you think that it is an artistic/commercial response to the Obama Administration? Is this trend comparable to or different than other presidencies?
There clearly has, and while, like with the Tea Party, President Obama may provide the specific occasion for (most obviously) 2016, I think there are broader factors at play.
One such reason is the backlash against, and the mimicking of, the “liberal issue doc” genre ([Michael] Moore, [Alex] Gibney, [Charles] Ferguson, etc.) which just exploded during President Bush's term of office. Simultaneous with that was the slew of fiction films about the Iraq/Afghanistan wars, which were, almost without exception, openly or covertly critical of the war and of Bush. The few conservatives that exist, or want to exist, in the filmmaking world clearly think, “Now it's our turn.” Not that liberal filmmakers have stopped making liberal films … issues are eternal and there's always more history to mine. And if Mitt Romney wins in a couple of weeks, I fully expect documentaries critical of him in theaters by next summer and some sort of fictional work by 2014.
I would add that part of the reason we're seeing more anti-Obama films is technological — (1) the basic costs of bare-bones filmmaking have declined significantly and have been largely demystified to amateurs (everyone knows what a iPhone camera and a digital-editing program are, in other words); (2) in a similar fashion, social media has democratized and demystified the marketing and distribution side of filmmaking. I'm not suggesting professionals and long-established craftsmen don't do these things far better (as the films themselves generally make obvious); merely that it's easier now for an amateur to think, “I can do it too.”
Have you reviewed either of the recent Atlas Shrugged films? If so, could you provide me with links? If not, what was your impression of the most recent film? Why have they not been as successful as they might be, given the popularity of Rand's work in American political culture?
I've not seen either film. I am personally very much not a fan of Rand — I'm a Roman Catholic, and most people would call me the devout sort. I would have gone had the buzz been good — I ignore the general run of liberal critics on a film like this, of course — but the word of mouth from other conservatives and libertarians with sensible taste for Atlas Shrugged 1 was so weak that I didn't see the point. Because it's explicitly intended as a (very lengthy) tract, and the tract of a philosophy not noted for its nuance, the novel itself is an awkward one to adapt. How on earth do you film John Galt's gazillion-word climax, for example?
The one thing you can't buy is word-of-mouth, particularly in the era of social networking, and this film didn't have it. Compare Atlas Shrugged's legs to The Passion of the Christ — the audiences who saw it loved it because it was an A-list film from an Oscar-winning director who also happened to be one of the world's biggest stars. It became more than a first-weekend statement; I went four times during its Lent-season release, and all but the first time were with other folks from work or church who especially wanted to go with “the movie guy.” After the first weekend, when the “making a statement” folk will turn out, you need more than that, and that's when the cream tends to rise. Though I don't care for their films, the Kendricks, whose films [Fireproof and Courageous] also have legs, at least can successfully deliver what their audience wants — a politely reassuring and romanticized image of themselves on the screen.
Also I don't know that I would call Rand widely popular in American political culture. She has her cultists and many conservatives (Paul Ryan is an example) cut their teeth on her in college (and then grow up). But her irreligion — hatred for it is not too strong a word — severely limits her appeal, especially in the Bible Belt.
Lastly, what's your favorite "conservative"/right-wing film of the year so far?
None of the usual suspects are great, frankly — I don't like affirmative action in any of its forms, and I won't pretend that these films are better than they are. (Feel free to cite from my past writings linked to below.) For Greater Glory was a resolutely old-fashioned historical kinda-Western drama about the Cristero War in Mexico that could imagine Henry Hathaway or John Sturges making it in the 1950s; I graded it 6/10. The documentaries U.N. Me was watchable and sometimes funny but too sloppily edited and constructed (5/10).
There are great movies out there for conservatives and religious folks to love (all these films I'll name are among my annual Top 10), but they're not the kinds of films like this that yourself and others ask me about. If you want a film portraying a loving Christian marriage, the best film of the year is The Planet of Snail, a South Korean documentary about a blind artist and his handicapped wife that never played outside a couple of festivals and NY/LA. The best film about fatherlessness and gratuitous grace is not Courageous but the year's best film overall — The Kid with a Bike by Belgium's Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne. I said on a Christian board that I wanted to drag the Kendricks to that film and slap them upside the head with it.
For anti-liberal, anti-PC satire, Sasha Baron Cohen's The Dictator is unbeatable in the rude-and-crude school, while Whit Stillman's Damsels in Distress has a more high-toned take on the subject of virtue in a post-PC college world. Great dramas about the damage of adultery and heedless Romanticism include Terence Davies' The Deep Blue Sea and Romanian film Tuesday, After Christmas, but there's no point in recommending either of these films to someone who's gonna be offended by a boob shot or a genital glimpse.