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Thursday, February 12, 2009

A Little Trouble in Big Hollywood

I'm saying this as a friend. I'm sympathetic to Big Hollywood's mission and I especially admire editor-in-chief John Nolte, whom I've been following for years both on Libertas and his own website Dirty Harry's Place. I'm a cinephile and I'm a conservative.

But something just ain't right at Big H'wood. It's not that the website is terrible or unreadable or anything like that. I usually find something of interest there everyday. But it's not living up to its potential, and in fact, I think it might be hurting the conservative movement more than helping it.

For instance, a lot of the posts at Big Hollywood come off as whiny and negative. Many of the site's contributors spend all their Big H bandwidth pissing and moaning about all the stoopid liberal actors and liberal films that come out of Hollywood and it's not really all that fun to read, even when I happen to agree with what they're pissing and moaning about. It's like being in high school again and Big Hollywood is the band room where all the band geeks spend their lunch hour bitching and talking shit about how mean and evil the popular kids are. It may be kinda true, but it's a drag to listen to day after day. I love the TCM Pick O' the Day from John Nolte, and I think a lot of that has to do with the positive tone that comes with these posts. It's a celebration of film and there's a real love of cinema evident in Nolte's writing. Plus, he's trying to educate the masses about The Greats.

(Note: I think the model for Big Hollywood in this respect should be the conservative pop culture blog Yeah Right. This is a website that is upbeat, fun, pop culture-driven and not politics-driven, while still maintaining a conservative approach to pop culture and the arts.)

The other problem I've noticed is this: there doesn't seem to be much LOVE for cinema at Big Hollywood (other than the notable exception of Nolte's stuff and the posts from Robert Avrech). As the Self-Styled Siren has pointed out: "[Big Hollywood] is tilting toward being just a conservative site with the occasional movie review." I completely agree. Frankly, one Hot Air is enough, but it seems like Big H'wood is striving to be Hot Air West. It's mostly the same old political commentary that could be found at any number of big right wing websites and what's the use of that? It's just more white noise in the increasingly echo-chamber-like political blogosphere.

Many of the posts at BH are only tangentially related to movies, TV, or theater. Often, it's just a Hollywood conservative writing about what's cheesing him off that week -- no different that the site's liberal counterpart, the Huffington Post, and just as uninteresting.

My (probably unrealistic) ideal for Big Hollywood is of a place where conservatives can write about film and television from a place of love and passion -- as film lovers who happen to be conservative, not conservatives who happen to watch films.

This is most evident in the comments sections. A little story to illustrate my point:

I happened to be reading a fun article from Nolte about the top 5 films you know you're supposed to think are great but just can't dig, and I thought Nolte's choices were thought-provoking and a little surprising. It was a good article. Then I started to make my way through the comments and ever-so-slowly I began to feel a knot in my stomach. Were the people commenting here really my fellow conservative cinephiles? Were these philistines really representative of the conservative "movie lover"?! I was so shocked by the lack of taste and judgement of several of the people who commented -- people who share my political persuasion -- that I was ready to stamp an Obamessiah Hopeychangey bumper sticker on my car and just give up on the Reagan Revolution completely. It wasn't just that many of them missed the point of Nolte's article (Nolte's point, as I understand it, wasn't to say definitively that these five movies aren't great and popular opinion is wrong wrong wrong, but that he just doesn't "get" them for some reason and the fault is probably his own -- that's why he continues to watch them occasionally to see if he can change his mind).

What shocked me was the attitude so many of these people took towards these classic films. As if admitting you think The Maltese Falcon is garbage is some kind of great act of independent thinking and individualism. Like the people who wear it as a badge of honor that they think Shakespeare is boring. Guess what morons? Shakespeare is brilliant. The problem isn't that Shakespeare is boring but that you are dull and incurious.

Similarly, we can argue whether The Maltese Falcon is overrated or not -- and it certainly may not be everyone's favorite type of movie (if you have an aversion to a certain genre, it makes sense you won't like even the masterpieces of that genre). But the triumphant attitude, the smug superiority of the commentators who disparaged certain classics wasn't the same as the humility of Nolte, who recognized that his dislike of certain "classics" might be entirely his own problem and not a reflection on the objective goodness or badness of said films. People were confessing their cinematic "sins" with glee, as if disparaging these films was the same as sticking it to the stuffy liberal elitists in the political realm who said mean things about Sarah Palin. For instance, I don't "get" David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia, but I don't go shouting it in comments sections like it's some badge of honor. Instead, I recognize that my inability to appreciate that film is a deficiency on my part and that my life as a movie buff is probably poorer for it. And it certainly doesn't mean anybody who does like the flick is some Commie Pinko Ivy League Elitist Film Snob Liberal Dhimmicrat.

And it wasn't just that everyone was picking on poor Maltese Falcon in that thread. Casablanca, Citizen Kane, The Godfather (!), Gone with the Wind, and Bicycle Thieves were among the many films that got thrown under the bus. I remember reading through the thread and thinking: "These people want to be taken seriously in a conversation about cinema and art?!" I know I sound like a terrible elitist, but I couldn't help muttering under my breath: "Philistines."

I know the people who run Big Hollywood can't control what kind of people show up to comment on their threads, but if these are the conservative "film lovers" of America, and Big Hollywood is hoping to bring to life a conservative presence in the arts... with these blockheaded commentators as the disciples? Cancel my subscription to the resurrection.

Finally, I think the other problem facing Big Hollywood is the quality of its main articles. Are these the best writers conservative Hollywood has to offer? Some are excellent (the already mentioned Avrech and Nolte, as well as writers Burt Prelutsky and Andrew Klavan, though they post things far too infrequently); and others write interesting stuff on occasion (the anonymous theater guy, Stage Right, is a good example; and comics writer Bill Willingham has made some nice contributions in the past). But then there's everybody else, either writing generic conservative boilerplate stuff or flat-out bad and boring arts commentary and amateur movie reviews.

And this is where I think Big Hollywood gives conservatives a bad name. Stupid comments threads are the norm for big websites like this and they can't really be helped by the people who run the site, but the official contributors need to be held to a higher standard -- they're the public face of conservative entertainment commentary on the Internet, and they're not doing a good enough job of representing us to the wider world. Liberals involved with film and television will continue to dismiss conservatives as long as we settle for the kind of mundane drivel that often shows up on websites like Big Hollywood. Maybe the problem is that there are so few conservatives who can write convincingly and intelligently about the arts that we're forced to suffer through less-than-stellar work. But there are people out there who can help. I've seen Christian Toto show up on Big Hollywood a few times; why isn't he writing more for that site? Also, can anyone compel Terry Teachout or Victor Morton or Peter Suderman to join the show over at Big H?

Conservatives have to hold themselves to a higher standard because we're working against thirty-plus years of liberal domination in the arts and we can't just whine and cry about it, we have to be so thought-provoking and persuasive and witty and insightful that film lovers of whatever political stripe will be clamoring to read what we put out there -- because it's just that darn good. And we have to be writing about movies and TV and books and theater and whatever else as works of art, and not just as excuses to score flimsy -- and uninteresting -- political points. Conservatives should believe that there is more to life than just politics (it's one of the things that I think separates us from radical leftists). We should remember that truth and beauty are worth examining in and of themselves. If the writers at Big Hollywood can approach the arts from a place of love and fascination; if they can write as true film loving conservatives instead of "Conservative Commentators Who Watch Movies;" then maybe those on the left and the right can come together and realize that party affiliation doesn't have to separate us when it comes to engaging with the arts.

If we want to see Hollywood make things that appeal to conservative-minded people, we can't just say, "To Hell with 'em!" We have to show Hollywood that they have something to gain from engaging with conservative art lovers. That *together* we can make better art. Maybe that makes me a squish in some people's eyes, but I don't care. Politics isn't the be-all and end-all for me anyway. It's just something that keeps me distracted in between film screenings.

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