Description: Richard Grenier’s book Capturing the Culture skewers the anti-Enlightenment ideas embodied in many popular films.
Capturing the Culture: Film, Art, and Politics by Richard Grenier, Ethics and Public Policy Center 392 pp. $24.95. 1991.
Did you know that:
• Charlie Chaplin described himself as "pro-Communist" during Stalin's day, and
later made what may be the most spitefully anti-American film ever (A King in
New York, 1957).
• Woody Allen's idol, Swedish film-maker Ingmar Bergman, was long an ardent
Nazi sympathizer who (even after World War II) dismissed evidence of Hitler's death camps as Allied propaganda.
• George Lucas, of Star Wars fame, believes quite literally in his films' mysticForce, and has said: "If you use [The Force] well, you can see the future and the past. You can sort of read minds and levitate and use that whole netherworld of psychic energy."
Such are the minds behind our cinematic media, according to Washington Timescolumnist Richard Grenier, and in Capturing the Culture, Grenier presents his evidence. This collection of his essays debunks the notion that popular culture is created as pure entertainment—like a Ferris-wheel ride—and shows instead how consistently films are imbued with anti-Enlightenment, anti-Western ideals.
Now, admittedly, the fifth-rate ideas one finds in much of cinema are found everywhere today, and one would not bother to fulminate against an occultist poet of George Lucas's intellectual stature. The difference is one of audience. Working in the powerful medium of film, Lucas can package his mysticism in the form of an adorable Muppet named Yoda, place Yoda in a universe where mysticism actually works, and thereby render the occult attractive to tens of millions of impressionable young minds. This is what makes Lucas's art worrisome, in a way that contemporary poetry is not.
Other ideals Grenier finds on the screen include: anti- Americanism, pacifism, radical feminism, emotionalism, anti-industrialism, tribalism, communism, even treason—in short, the whole anti-Enlightenment brew that is now seeping through the universities. In twelve lengthy analyses and thirty-four short columns, Grenier shows how these principles are propounded by numerous films and film-makers.
The Hypocrisy of Gandhi
One outstanding analysis is Grenier's critique of the film Gandhi. In it, Grenier employs an encyclopedic knowledge and rapier wit to demonstrate the work's historical distortions. He does this, not to prove that the movie is inaccurate (Shakespeare's historical plays are inaccurate), but to point up what ideals the movie celebrates, what has been omitted to make such a celebration possible, and thus what witting or unwitting ignorance the film-makers are counting on.
In Gandhi, the celebration is clearly of a man who is militantly unworldly, anti-modern, and pacifist— in short, a man who appeals to the substantial anti-Enlightenment streak in Western audiences, and particularly in today's highbrow audiences.
Grenier sets out to break up the celebration.
Was Gandhi unworldly? Grenier remarks ironically: "I cannot honestly say I had any reasonable expectation that the film would show scenes of Gandhi's pretty teenage girl followers fighting 'hysterically' (the word was used) for the honor of sleeping naked with the Mahatma and cuddling the nude septuagenarian in their arms... Nor, frankly, did I expect to see Gandhi giving daily enemas to all the young girls in his ashrams (his daily greeting was, 'Have you had a good bowel movement this morning, sisters?’), nor see the girls giving him his daily enema."
Was Gandhi anti-modern? Well, perhaps it was anti-modern that he let his wife die rather than accept Western medicine in the form of penicillin, although that particular bit of anti-modernism was not used in the movie. (Gandhi at his spinning wheel plays better.) But, Grenier wonders, was it anti-modern of Gandhi that he found no objection to saving his own life with Western medicine in the form of quinine and an appendectomy? Finally, and most importantly (for this is the film's central message), was Gandhi nonviolent? Only tactically, says Grenier. Until the age of 50, Gandhi was "not ill-disposed to war at all." In fact, while in South Africa, he offered to organize an Indian brigade for the British government to help put down a black uprising. It was only later, when he grasped how Britain could be manipulated through its civilized ideals, that Gandhi realized that "nonviolent civil disobedience was plainly the best and most effective way of achieving Indian independence. Skeptics might not be surprised to learn that as independence approached, Gandhi’s inner voice began to change its tune. It has been reported that Gandhi “half-welcomed’ the civil war that broke out in his last days. Even a fratricidal ’bloodbath’ (Gandhi’s word) would be preferable to the British.”
Gandhi got his wish. It was not on the order of the Amritsar massacre (highlighted in the movie), where British soldiers killed 400 Indians. Rather, after Gandhi’s movement had
driven the British out, four million Indians killed each other (off-screen, in the movie). Such was the profound dishonesty of the movie that swept the 1983 Academy Awards, winning eight Oscars in all, including Best Picture, Best Screenplay, Best Director, and Best Actor. And such, in barest example, is Richard Grenier's method of exposing that dishonesty. Among the many other films that Grenier skewers are: Reds, E.T., The Bostonians, Out of Africa, Cry Freedom, Tequila Sunrise, The Last Emperor, and Henry V.
Does he like anything? Absolutely. As a matter of fact, Grenier shares the popular enjoyment of Clint Eastwood. "The theme that hangs over all the Dirty Harry movies," he writes, "...is vigilante justice. It is a theme deep in American culture, literature, films, and popular fiction: a man alone in a corrupt world, the lawless West, or the jungle of the cities. The sinister twist in the Dirty Harry series is that what has corrupted justice in our time, and made it so hard to obtain, is a kind of liberalism gone mad."
Message and Medium
In addition to Eastwood's films, Grenier praises Breaker Morant, Blade Runner, Eddie Murphy, and much, much more besides. Indeed, one of the characteristics that makes Grenier so convincing is his habit of praising the people he criticizes. His is a discriminating praise: "Redgrave's performance [in The Bostonians] is quite remarkable," he says, "filled with sudden surges of emotion and moments of sublime awkwardness." "George Lucas has real gifts. He is a superb film craftsman." "The Big Chill has entertaining dialogue, charm, mood, atmosphere. It is a first-rate film of its kind." Such praise does not come grudgingly from Grenier— but neither does it prevent him from seeing the ugly message of a film, and tearing into that message scathingly.
This is a point that must be remembered when reading Grenier's analysis of a film one enjoys. As a filmgoer, one can focus on many things other than message, such as acting, cinematography, and plot. To criticize a film's message is not to damn the film in all its aspects. Grenier discusses message because that is what interests him, as his lengthy introduction makes clear. He is interested in film-makers as second lieutenants in the ideological army that is "capturing the culture."
A second point to remember is Grenier's own philosophy. It appears to be some sort of neo-conservatism; certainly it has a religious base. Moreover, Grenier has developed a theory, based on the sociology of Max Weber, to explain why the intelligentsia act as they do. Readers who disagree with Grenier on these matters will have to abstract away their influence.
No matter. What remains is still a joy. Reviewing a production of Bertolt Brecht's celebrated Threepenny Opera (attended by President George H. Bush, no less), Grenier comments: 'The music of Kurt Weill — entirely responsible for [the play's] success, I'm convinced—is marvelous. But Bracht’s plays are wooden, stilted, browbeating, tediously devoted to his kindergarten Marxism. Brecht was a contemptible, fawning toady to the greatest tyranny in history, that murdered, not millions, but tens of millions…. Not far from East Berlin's glorious Stalinallee, Brecht told me that he wanted to be remembered... for his politics. And that's just how I remember him."
And that is how one remembers Richard Grenier: as a voice mercilessly pronouncing judgment on the enemies of the West.
Originally Published in IOS Journal Volume 1 Number 1 • Summer 1991