Right and Wrong
Since becoming The New York Times' youngest regular op-ed columnist in 2009, Ross Douthat has made his ambition clear: to form an intellectual base for the Republican party of the 21st century, the way William F. Buckley formed one for the Republican party of the last half of the 20th. It's something of a thankless task, because his party has lately set itself up as hostile to intellectuals, more frequently referred to as liberal elites. The Times' very hiring of Douthat when he was only 29 may be a testament to his status as representative of an endangered species.
Douthat's usual tactic in his Times editorials is to start off by redescribing liberal arguments, often in language cleverer and more convincing than that of most liberal commentators, before doing an about-face and trying to demonstrate the wrong-headedness of everything he's just said. (Caveat emptor: the essay you're right now reading employs a very similar strategy.) On the one hand, this can seem like a cynical rhetorical ploy to capture the Times' centrist readership; on the other, the lucidity of Douthat's redescriptions often shows him to be interested in understanding, in a more than superficial way, his opposition. Douthat can seem unique among conservative contemporaries in his awareness that there exist counterarguments, and that engaging with them usually makes one look more intelligent: stronger, not weaker. He does not appear to be a demagogue; he makes appeals to reasoned argument, and it's this aspect of his writing that I think his career as a film critic can shed some light on.
Douthat moonlights as a movie reviewer for The National Review, a position he's held since 2006. He's got a passion for the pictures. On multiple occasions, he's written about film for Slate, and he's frequently used his blog, first at The Atlantic and then at the Times, to offer his opinions on contemporary cinema.
When he wants to, Douthat can turn a phrase as well as any contemporary film critic. He has a knack for slightly off-kilter deployments of words, like when he says the young child in Little Miss Sunshine is "radiantly buck-toothed" or the violence in Mel Gibson's Apocalypto is "certainly real, and comprehensive" or that Will Ferrell is the "archetypal American innocent" who goes around "spreading well-meaning chaos" or that Matthew Lillard is "a faintly demonic Gumby." As these examples suggest, he can also be quite funny, as when he notes that Babel is "roughly as entertaining as Leviticus" or that David Fincher's The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is "Dirty Harry for nerdy Marxists."
Douthat's most significant talent, though, isn't verbal dexterity but his ability to draw out a movie's underlying ideology. This is a rare gambit among journalist film critics. With the exception of Armond White and J. Hoberman, most film critics consider it oddly infra dig to mention politics too directly, as if doing so might sully their prose with the grime of cultural studies departments. The single most interesting thing about Douthat is how often he can sound, when laying bare a film's ideological content, almost like a leftist academic. Take this passage from a review of Hostel: Part II:
The audience isn't paying to watch a movie that contains a torture scene, any more than a guy renting an "adult" movie at the local video store is renting a film that happens to contain a sex scene; it's paying to watch torture, with the movie—including all those Important Themes—as window dressing to the money shots.
Hostel: Part II
Now the similarities between "torture porn" and real porn are well established. But Douthat follows this line of thought into more interesting territory:
Whereas "normal" pornography is a debasement of the sexual act, a degradation of an essentially positive human experience, torture-porn of this sort is something else entirely. It's a radical experiment in evil-as-entertainment, one that places an artist's gifts in the service of the impulses that animated Torquemada, or Saddam's inquisitors. No, it's worse than that, because the tortures Roth has invented for Hostel II don't pretend to be designed to extract information, or even to terrorize a population and preserve a regime. They exist only to exist, in the same way that what began as coercive interrogations at Abu Ghraib ended as self-conscious spectacle: Torture as a way to while away the boredom of guard duty, torture for the sake of torture.
There's a lively intelligence in this passage; its language—"exists only to exist," "self-conscious spectacle"—echoes Jean Baudrillard and Guy Debord and ferociously captures what's so frightening about violence in contemporary media.
There is, at times, a poet in Douthat. Take this blunt rejection of early cinema's utopian dreams, condensed into an epigrammatic provocation worthy of early Susan Sontag:
The camera is an anti-democratic instrument, in a sense, built for rhetoric and propaganda, restless once the cheering stops.
Then there's the nakedness of this take on American comedies, which differs from what a leftist might offer only if you know it's praise, not critique:
There has always been a strain of social conservatism running through the Great American Sex Comedy, which for all its aspirations to shock the bourgeoisie and titillate their teenage kids tends to find its way back to safer ground, with true love triumphing over caddishness and casual sex almost every time.
One of Douthat's most brilliant pieces of writing concerns the respective genres of horror and action:
Two of Hollywood's most profitable genres are right-wing to the core.
Horror flicks undercut the arrogance of scientism, punish promiscuity, and vindicate the truth claims of religion. (If you're looking for silver-screen condemnations of Seventies permissiveness, you could do worse than to start with The Exorcist and finish up with Halloween.) Action movies, meanwhile, are islands of patriotism, moral clarity, and—I kid you not—geopolitical realism in a sea of Left Coast anti-Americanism.
Of course, the essential accuracy of Douthat's observations rubs up against a wild impulse toward propagandizing. Horror films don't make claims for religion; they "vindicate" its "truth claims" (the generality "religion" is also interesting; of course he means Christianity). Action movies don't offer a Manichean world-view; they have "moral clarity" and engage in "geo-political realism." The use of that latter term is alarming, and what's more alarming is Douthat's willingness to follow through on it:
Didn't Red Dawn offer a more accurate depiction of Soviet Communism than Reds? Wasn't True Lies ultimately a more realistic portrait of the threat posed by radical Islam than Syriana? Didn't the James Bond movies come closer to the truth about the Cold War than a thousand disillusioned productions like last year's The Good Shepherd? Wasn't Predator a more serious take on the dangers posed by interstellar visitors than the egregiously pacifistic E.T.?
Patrick Swayze, Charlie Sheen, Jennifer Grey, Lea Thompson and Brad Savage in Red Dawn
The list becomes increasingly unhinged, as Douthat struggles to come up with more examples that prove his point. It's not completely outrageous to say that blunt anti-communism offers a "more accurate depiction of Soviet Communism" than more sympathetic takes (the year after Reds was released, Susan Sontag suggested something similar, saying that people who read only Reader's Digest between 1950 and 1970 would have had a more accurate idea of the Soviet Union than those who read only The Nation). It's stranger to say that a gonzo action flick like True Lies gives "a more realistic portrait of the threat posed by radical Islam" than Syriana, but you realize that he means "instills fear with a greater sense of urgency." Regardless, the equivalence, as Douthat sets it up, is bogus, because Syriana isn't a film about the threat posed by radical Islam; it's a film about Big Oil. The latter cannot be boiled down to former, though obviously Douthat would like it to be so. It's inching much farther off the edge of sanity to say that James Bond has anything to do with "the truth about the Cold War"; we never once see 007 assassinate a foreign leader and put a brutal dictator in his place, nor, for that matter, do we see the horrors of the Soviet experiment, but we do see the secret agent hopscotch across a river on the backs of alligators, use a cello as a sled, and turn a gondola into a high-speed all-terrain vehicle. But it's Douthat's last claim that wins the prize: How does he know just what kind of danger would be posed by interstellar visitors?
All of which brings me to some things about Douthat that I've been neglecting to mention: namely, that he's perpetually mistaken, and that there are aspects of his writing that can only be explained by assuming he's being intellectually dishonest.
Given his obvious talents as a scribe, it's shocking how often Douthat writes doggerel. Spider-Man 3 is "stuffed like a Thanksgiving turkey," Matt Damon's Bourne is "deadly as a bullet," and Blue Valentine is "like nothing else you'll see on screen this year." Douthat seems frequently to become entirely frustrated with describing things in detail and so strings together a bunch of words, either in quotes or with dashes, and figures that'll do. He describes a "blundering, foot-in-mouth boss"; a "ripped-from-the-headlines thriller"; a "based-on-real-life hero"; a "too-decent-for-his-own-good tough guy."
Douthat has an impressive knowledge of American cinema that stretches all the way back to the 1970s. He's well versed in the Bible and attendant religious history. Other than that, his frames of reference are Shakespeare, Dickens, J.R.R. Tolkien, and The Great Gatsby. Shakespeare is invoked when a theme is being developed; Dickens when Douthat senses some sort of moral; Tolkien a discernable view of good and evil along with fantasy elements. But eventually the three are basically interchangeable in Douthat's mind. After arguing that the Harry Potter series cannot withstand the praise of its most ardent admirers, Douthat writes, "The Potter saga is best appreciated without the Tolkien-Shakespeare-Dickens baggage."
The Great Gatsby looms large in Douthat's mind. So large that he usually brings it up in less than apposite situations. Sure, Nicole Kidman's character in The Golden Compass may dress "as though one of Jay Gatsby's parties might break out at any moment," but Douthat also wants us to know that Matt Damon's character in The Informant! starts to seem "less like an overfed, hyper-talkative Jay Gatsby and more like, well, the victim of a mental illness." Stranger still is Douthat's remark that in Casino Royale, James Bond reaches for the Bond Girl "the way Gatsby (a role that Craig was born for) reached for Daisy Fay, and with the same disastrous consequences." But, of course, he doesn't reach for her that way and the consequences aren't the same.
The ground gets even shakier when Douthat leaves behind his four poles of literature. When he decides that The Departed is not like Shakespeare, he commences writing nonsense:
The Departed is less modern-day Shakespeare, in this sense, than updated Christopher Marlowe, or maybe John Webster: It's a ripe and bloody melodrama, not a tragedy, and it has all the strengths and weaknesses of the Jacobean stage.
Alec Baldwin and Mark Wahlberg in The Departed
But Christopher Marlowe was an Elizabethan dramatist; all three playwrights wrote tragedies; and while John Webster's plays are indeed "ripe and bloody," melodramas didn't exist until the 18th century, and melodrama in the sense Douthat seems to mean was an invention of the 19th. By the time he refers to "the strengths and weaknesses of the Jacobean stage," there's no way of knowing what Douthat thinks he's referring to. "The Departed is less modern-day Pindar, in this sense, than updated Thackeray, or maybe Alfred Jarry: It's a red and Jewish giraffe, not an entablature, and it has all the strengths and weaknesses of a couch from Ikea."
Perhaps it's Douthat's shaky sense of literary history that informs his obsession with "brows." Black Swan is "a highbrow exploitation picture"; Liam Neeson's role in Unknown causes Douthat to observe that "the only problem with highbrow turns in lowbrow entertainments is that their box-office success can make them an addiction, and a trap"; we live in an age starved for movies that "straddle the line between middlebrow and highbrow, pop art and the real thing"; The Departed creates a tone in which "the occasional highbrow shout-out—to James Joyce, for instance, or to Freud's crack about the Irish being immune to psychoanalysis—feels organic rather than jarring, as it would in a weaker script\"; Quentin Tarantino has "encyclopedic knowledge of lower-middlebrow Americana." These are obsessive sub-categorizations, and might lead one to believe that Douthat suffers from brow-anxiety; perhaps he even has a little brow-envy.
Douthat's laziness inevitably shades into contempt for his readers. He writes well enough to know when he's writing poorly. He references four authors often enough to know he should probably familiarize himself with some others. And no one would blame a political commentator, or even a film critic for that matter, for being unclear about the progression of stage drama, but why he does he assume his readers will be none the wiser? Why, especially, when he's writing for The National Review, home to his ideological allies?
Generally, Douthat can seem more concerned with how he sounds than what he's actually talking about. This is clear not only in minor details but in larger arguments, as in his rant about the virtues of horror and action movies.
Simplification is a topos of Douthat's criticism. The simplifications of Red Dawn or True Lies are commendable. But in other contexts Douthat is the enemy of simplification. He frequently criticizes a "black-and-white" view of things: a tendency toward chronic oversimplification in Hollywood dramas. Of Robert Redford's "based-on-real-life" film The Conspirator, Douthat argues, "The real story, not surprisingly, seems to have been a bit less black-and-white," complaining that "here there are only white hats and black hats." In a Times column on Paul Greengrass's Green Zone, Douthat declared that "we're swift to impute the worst of motives to anyone slightly to our left or right. It's apparent in our popular culture, thick with white hats and black hats, superheroes and supervillains." He argues that Green Zone "refuses to stare real tragedy in the face, preferring the comforts of a ‘Bush lied, people died' reductionism." (If the awkward phrasal adjective strikes out at you, note Douthat's very next statement: "The narrative of the Iraq invasion, properly told, resembles a story out of Shakespeare.") "Throw politics into the mix," Douthat observes, "and there seems to be no escaping the clichés and simplifications that mar Greengrass's movie."
Arnold Schwarzenegger in True Lies
It's not entirely surprising that the conservative Douthat prefers right-wing simplifications to left-wing ones, or that he praises the clichés of James Bond movies but can't stand those of Green Zone. What is surprising is the way Douthat positions himself; when arguing against The Conspirator or Green Zone, he makes an appeal to reason that stands above partisan divides. He portrays himself as the enemy of simplification as such, of cliché as such. We know he's not. If he believes such narrative strategies to be dishonest, and there are certainly critics and theorists who agree, then his criticism as a whole comes very close to saying that conservatives have a right to be dishonest and liberals don't. "Real art," he remarks in relation to Green Zone, "is supposed to be interested in the humanity of all its subjects, not just the ones who didn't work for Rumsfeld's Department of Defense." As for Red Dawn? Obviously, consistency is not Douthat's strong suit.
Matt Damon in Green Zone
Douthat's not always a complete ideologue in his film writing. He admits of the right-leaning Rambo reboot, "Whatever you think of Stallone's politics, this is an essentially repellent film." And he can't stand the anti-union charter school manifesto Waiting for Superman because he thinks it's too pious and preachy, even though he essentially agrees with its arguments. He praises The Kids Are Alright, a movie many saw as a triumph for the homosexual agenda, because he finds it "the rare film about a hot-button cultural issue that shows rather than tells, complicates instead of oversimplifies, and plays as a Rorschach test rather than a sermon."
One thing that bothers Douthat is when films deal directly with history. "History does not yield so easily to moralism," he notes in his review of The Conspirator. But again, one is reminded of the "moral clarity" and "geopolitical realism" of action movies. Where does Douthat draw his lines? Is there some instructive tipping point that can tell us something interesting about Douthat's most deeply held beliefs?
Douthat's review of Pan's Labyrinth is, when taken with his other writing, a masterpiece of unintended confession. Pan's Labyrinth is not, according to Douthat, "a fairy tale for adults," as many have claimed, but "a children's story through and through." It's "designed to skirt adulthood's complexities and shades of gray." The problem, as Douthat sees it, is that "the film's politics are about as deep as a puddle of blood":
The fascists are beasts who torture, maim, and kill without compunction, before sitting down to fine dinners with local grandees and corrupt clerics; the Communists in the woods, on the other hand, are a heroic lot, sturdy and kindhearted and ethically pure.
Sergi López in Pan's Labyrinth
If the caricatures of Soviet Communists in Red Dawn and James Bond are to be praised, while the versions of Franco's cronies in Pan's Labyrinth are to be condemned, we've stumbled onto a very interesting perspective indeed.
Perhaps Douthat's deeper problem with Pan's Labryinth is, as he says at the end of his review, that it "associates religion with Vidal and tyranny, and seeks an escape from Franco's Spain in the landscape of the great god Pan."
Religion plays a very strange role in Douthat's film criticism. Most often, he uses religious faith as a cudgel to beat up the frighteningly modern, which often appears in the guise of bogus religiosity, i.e. non-Christian spirituality.
Reviewing Eat Pray Love, Douthat observes of the main characters spiritual awakening:
If everything "God" wants sounds suspiciously like what a willful, capricious, self-indulgent Western woman with too much time and money on her hands might want . . . well, then you've unlocked the theological message of this movie.
While Douthat could conceivably refer to a Western man as "self-indulgent," and just might say he's "capricious," it seems highly unlikely he'd insult that man as "willful." Certainly he'd never hurl the insult at, say, his beloved James Bond, whose appetites skew more to Drink Kill Screw.
The angled use of religion—in this case to cast aspersion on the newly achieved status of women in the West—is typical of Douthat. He has an abiding interest in pantheism, which he doesn't like, but his critique of pantheism is, inevitably, a scheme to get at something only tangentially unrelated.
Douthat's most sustained treatment of pantheism comes in a much discussed Times op-ed about James Cameron's Avatar. After declaring that "pantheism has been Hollywood's religion of choice for a generation now," he observes:
Alexis de Tocqueville saw it coming. The American belief in the essential unity of all mankind, Tocqueville wrote in the 1830s, leads us to collapse distinctions at every level of creation. "Not content with the discovery that there is nothing in the world but a creation and a Creator," he suggested, democratic man "seeks to expand and simplify his conception by including God and the universe in one great whole."
He goes on to launch the critique:
The question is whether Nature actually deserves a religious response. Traditional theism has to wrestle with the problem of evil: if God is good, why does he allow suffering and death? But Nature is suffering and death. Its harmonies require violence. Its "circle of life" is really a cycle of mortality. And the human societies that hew closest to the natural order aren't the shining Edens of James Cameron's fond imaginings. They're places where existence tends to be nasty, brutish and short.
The references to de Tocqueville and Hobbes aren't accidental; the subject here is not really theology but political philosophy. Even the more anthropocentric of Christian theologians might find it odd to say, "The question is whether Nature actually deserves a religious response." And the implication that because "Nature is suffering and death" pantheism doesn't have to "wrestle with the problem of evil," while theism does, is bizarre. Both try to resolve the problem in different ways, and most people understand some wrestling is involved in accepting either resolution.
Douthat's target isn't pantheism, per se, but utopian feeling. The sacrifices required by the sort of ancien regimes to which Douthat is partial are only justifiable if all other options provide a life nasty, brutish, and short. Douthat's not just opposed to the idea that hewing close to the natural order produces "shining Edens"; he rejects "shining Edens" as such. He's worried that such an idea might lead us "to collapse distinctions"—which could involve, for example, making allowances for willful women. Remember, the very root of the problem, Douthat argues in his piece on Avatar, is "the American belief in the essential unity of all mankind."
This is actually a quite typical conservatism, but it's argued in a sidelong fashion; Douthat's goal is to gesture in one direction while really stirring up emotions and mobilizing vague Christian sentiment against progressivism. He is not, finally, so unlike his conservative contemporaries.
Douthat's appeals to reasoned argument are, usually, just sleights of hand. Then again, maybe his "blundering, foot-in-mouth" writing is best appreciated "without the Tolkien-Shakespeare-Dickens baggage."
Tom McCormack is a critic living in Brooklyn. His writing has appeared in Cinema Scope, Film Comment, Rhizome, The L Magazine, and other publications. He is a regular contributor to Moving Image Source, an editor at Alt Screen, and the film and electronic art editor of Idiom.More articles by Tom McCormack