The Rumors of its Death are Greatly Exaggerated

A. O. Scott, the chief New York Times film critic and one of my favorite reviewers, writes that “the myth of a monolithically liberal Hollywood is dead.” His evidence? He believes recent films demonstrate an effort to appeal to conservative and/or religious viewers. But his descriptions of “conservative” film elements prove that a shop-worn journalists’ narrative–the one about what it means to be a religious conservative–lingers on.

Last fall, “The Incredibles” celebrated Ayn Randian libertarian individualism and the suburban nuclear family, while the naughty puppets of “Team America” satirized left-wing celebrity activism and defended American global power even as they mocked its excesses. More recently we have learned that flightless Antarctic birds, according to some fans of “March of the Penguins,” can be seen as big-screen embodiments of the kind of traditional domestic values that back-sliding humans have all but abandoned, as well as proof that divine intention, rather than blind chance, is the engine of creation. I may be the only person who thought “The Island,” this summer’s Michael Bay flop about human clones bred for commercial use, indirectly argues the Bush administration’s position on stem cell research, but I have not been alone in discerning lessons on intelligent design and other faith-based matters amid the spooky effects of “The Exorcism of Emily Rose.”

Okay, about half of those aren’t so bad, as long as we can drop any references to Ayn Rand. But his evidence for subtle conservative elements in Just Like Heaven is galling:

And who would bother to notice that the villainous, materialistic doctor, despite having the religiously neutral last name Rushton, is played by Ben Shenkman, a bit of casting that suggests a faint, deniable whiff of anti-Semitism?

Excuse me? What conservative religious group does Scott have in mind? Surely not American Evangelicals, who as a group seem almost Zionist in their support for Israel. If there’s one thing Evangelicals are not, it’s anti-Semitic.

And there’s his notion of what composes a conservative and/or religious philosophy of science (emphasis added):

While “Just Like Heaven” is content with a vague, ecumenical supernaturalism, “Emily Rose” wants to tell you, like the old Louvin Brothers song, that Satan is real. Or, at the very least, that we should be open to the possibility that demonic possession might offer a better explanation for the title character’s torments than the diagnoses listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual.

Now, of course, this in itself hardly distinguishes the movie from others of its kind. As Ross Douthat, an astute blogger and journalist, has pointed out online, “the horror movie is the most conservative and religion-friendly genre in Hollywood, and the message of devil-related movies, in particular, is almost always that science is wrong.” But the means by which this message is delivered is a bit unusual, not only for its didacticism, but also because the movie’s climactic arguments are as much a plea for open-mindedness and pluralism as a fire-and-brimstone sermon on the nature of evil. Rather like the promoters of intelligent design, the filmmakers present a mild, almost relativistic argument, according to which the reluctance of scientific experts to rule anything out makes anything possible, and therefore likely to be true.

We hear this line so often–how science/reason and religion/faith oppose each other–that some of us religious types actually start believing it. But Christianity does not oppose science, and its history, with a few notable exceptions, generally shows support for science.

Hollywood and journalists like Mr. Scott cling to a stereotype of conservative Christians as knuckle-dragging bigots. I’ll wait until that stereotype bites the dust before I celebrate the fall of the liberal monolith.

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