Monday, February 23, 2009

Good Communitarian Movies

So last week the National Review gang has come out with a list of "the best conservative movies", focusing just on the past 25 years. The list isn't nearly as risible as one might hope; it's mostly filled with middlebrow but adequate films, has a few pretty good ones, and with a couple of selections they managed not just to name a genuinely interesting movie but also make a decent case for seeing it as "conservative" in some substantial manner. (I would file "Metropolitan" and "Blast from the Past"--a terribly overlooked comic gem, in my opinion--in this category.) But then you have all the usual it-must-be-conservative-because-it-praises-the-little-guy-against-the-eggheads/fights-bloody-battles-against-foreign-enemies/glorifies-the-military-or-farmers-or-white-Southerners/etc. junk: "300," "Red Dawn" (which I dug as a kid too, but, I mean, come on), "Braveheart," "Forrest Gump," "Heartbreak Ridge," and so forth. And you also have a bunch of it-must-be-conservative-if-we-can-connect-it-with-religion-or-basic-virtue-or-human-nature-somehow: "A Simple Plan," "Groundhog Day," "Gattaca," "The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe." That last one was a shoo-in thanks to the source material by C.S. Lewis; the same way that The Lord of the Rings films all get labeled as conservative due to J.R.R. Tolkien. None of which is to say that Lewis and Tolkien and the works they produced weren't "conservative"--they were! But the lame justifications which the NRO crowd provides (Tolkien speaks to the War on Terror? Lewis was attacking those who dislike Christmas?) demonstrates no interest in engaging in what any of these "conservative" labels are substantively supposed to mean. And don't even get me started in wondering how "The Lives of Others" or "Brazil" ended up on that list.

Well, all this and more is said in the comments sections kindly provided by John Holbo and Daniel Larison. And I suppose I shouldn't snark too much; figuring out just what conservatism means today (much less which mainstream Hollywood movies communicate it, however partially) is a pretty difficult question. But still, I just have to wonder: do liberals have to struggle to figure out what counts as a "liberal" film? Does National Review accept that any movie in which the bad guy is rich a liberal movie? Does that mean that if the film features a rich good guy, it's automatically conservative? The whole question is really just a mess.

Still, it gives me an excuse to trot out something I've been sitting on for a while: communitarian movies. And not just any communitarian movies, but good ones. Are there any? Well, I would say at least a few. Here, I don't have to mess around with vague, inchoate, impressionistic takes on this or that conservative or liberal point; instead, I can take the overarching general principle of communitarianism--namely, that human beings do, and should, belong to (and thus are invariably somewhat defined and limited by) communities within which, and through which, traditions and associations and virtues are strengthened, examined, and made meaningful--and ask myself: which movies make that claim explicitly? I don't want to fall into NRO's mostly nonsensical quest to draw out some arguably "conservative" element from any particular movie one happens to like, but stick with obvious, major themes. Sometimes it seems as if every other film Hollywood releases is explicitly about some individual hero breaking the rules, going their own way, making their own decisions, finding their own truth, fighting against the system, etc., etc. It's our "romantic loner/rugged individual" trope, and we love it, and that's fine. But how about movies--truly good ones--that take the other route: that tell us about the importance of sticking with (and sticking up for) the group, of being part a larger unit, of finding yourself by going along with the whole? I can think of five good ones to start with:

1) Whale Rider

The best produced, most thoughtful engagement with tradition and belonging that I have ever seen. We have Pai, the young girl whose twin brother and mother died in childbirth, driving her father Porourangi--who was next in line to be chief of their Maori tribe--to despair and to abandon his tribal duties, his people, and to a degree even his daughter. Pai by contrast embraces the traditions of the tribe, and the sometimes censorious role of leader, despite the fact her grandfather Koro, while showing real kindness to her, dismisses her talents and beliefs, and condemns her aspirations, telling her that women cannot become chiefs and--after Porourangi briefly returns, rejects his father's overtures once again, and attempts to take Pai away with him, only to be rebuffed by her--seeking out other boys that might be able to step up into that position. These boys are alternately intimated by or jealous of Pai's skill, knowledge, and internal strength as she secretly trains with the taiaha (their ceremonial fighting stick) for the same thing they are, especially Hemi, whose father has drifted into gang life and crime. Her determination, her devotion to their way of life, and her embrace of their central myth--the legend of her namesake Paikea, the whale rider--brings responsibility and possibilities back into the life of her layabout uncle Rawiri, to Hemi's father, and ultimately to the whole tribe, as Koro repents of his intransigence, recognizes his granddaughter as one through whom their traditions have been revived, and leads her into her place as chief. It is an absolutely triumphant, beautiful film. It may sound like just another weepy tale of overcoming the odds, and it is partly that. But it also tells a story about the costs and pain of living with and within authoritatively prescribed roles, as well as acknowledging both that those prescriptions are, inevitably, always changing, and--more importantly--that they are sources of renewal and power and reconciliation which are unavailable to those who refuse to engage them, but simply reject them instead. The final panoramic scene, surveying the whole tribe in full regalia, chanting their haka, ceremoniously launching their long unfinished longboat into the sea with a joyful Pai leading the way, hammers that point home with an emotion that I at least think is honestly come by.

2) Cars

If anything, I would consider this film an even more pedantic and ideological Pixar movie than Wall-E; fortunately, it doesn't get in the way of the story one bit. Lightning McQueen is the hot-shot, self-centered hot-rod who needs a lesson in slowing down, making friends, putting down roots, and respecting tradition. He learns it in Radiator Springs, and as a result he's happier there than anywhere he'd ever been before; when he leaves town and heads to Los Angeles for the big race, his thoughts keep drifting back to his new home, and after the race, he returns to Radiator Springs to make it his new base of operations. This film shows us the value of hands-on, one-on-one instruction, of quality over quantity, of taking one's time. Plus, you've even got a Randy Newman/James Taylor song mourning the economic decline of small towns. You don't much more gemeinschaftlichkeit than that.

3) It's A Wonderful Life

Yes, it's a good movie; don't give any of that "too cool for sentimentality" crap. Everyone knows it's a great film. The question is, what kind of film is it? Liberal, what with George Bailey working to provide affordable homes to Bedford Falls's working poor, despite the machinations of the evil slumlord, Mr. Potter? Well, okay, but what about all that religion, with angels and all? So maybe it's a conservative film, what with its invocations of traditional family values, its thoroughly domesticated view of women, its negative take on dance clubs? But then, what about Patrick Deneen's point that George Bailey, with his ambition to build and "lift up" those around him, is actually contributing to the suburban destruction and transformation of the Bedford Falls which he belated realizes he loves? Patrick's point is, I think, far too tendentious to take entirely seriously, but he's right about one thing: however nostalgically viewers may relate to that film, its focal point is not a conservation of a specific way of life, any more than it is a condemnation of wealth and growth. What it is then? It's a communitarian movie, a film about authenticity and accepting one's place in an always changing--and yet always enduring--whole. That whole includes all the material particularities of Bedford Falls, of course, but what it fundamentally begins and ends with is the trust and fellowship and sacrifice that friends can and do make for one another. In the midst of all the tear-inducing commonweal of the final act, comes the film's true coda: George Baily, having made himself essential to the lives of his fellow citizens of the community, is pronounced "the richest man in town." And, of course, it's true.

4) Witness

This film is really more an oddly satisfying mix of good-cop-bad-cop and fish-out-of-water storylines than anything else. And it certainly isn't the way the film portrays the Amish which makes it a communitarian film; since most everything is presented to us from the perspective of Harrison Ford's character John Book, the Amish, rightly, seem mostly strange and alternately creepy or quaint (this ignoring the oddity of Kelly McGillis's sexy and smart-alecky Amish widow). No, it is a few, mostly visual notes and plotting choices, rather than anything about the story overall, which serve to emphasize the power of the group. When the evil police chief and his henchmen arrive in the early morning hours where Book has been hiding out, they descend into a misted landscape, which sets the community apart like it was a kind of Brigadoon. And then, in the climactic confrontation, Lukas Hass's little boy Samuel rejects the temptation presented by Book's approach to responding to violence, turns aside from the gun hidden in the cabinet, and instead does as his grandfather told him to do: ring the bell, calling the neighbors from across the fields to come running to help. The imagine of the desperate, murderous corrupt chief, looking into the eyes of all these ordinary farmers (with more emerging from the fields every moment), is better filmmaking than most of the many screen shoot-outs I've ever seen.

5) Shane

Most of the best Westerns, the ones that take seriously the conventions of the genre, acknowledge on some level or another the fundamental tension between the individual and the group, recognizing that history and human nature is on the side of the latter. Cowboy movies are, of course, filled with lone gunmen, but they operate best, I think, when placed in a context that shows the transience, the limits, of the individual explorer or fighter, and how the settlers and farmers and town builders who come afterwards bring with them the level of civilization which makes life possible for more than just the lucky, talented, or foolhardy few. Westerns that subvert this trope are either being wilfully perverse (not to mention historically inaccurate), or else, if their truly well-made, are telling an entirely different sort of story. (It's not for nothing that Clint Eastwood's "man with no name" films, with their isolated, nameless, friendless drifter heroes, were sometimes called "anti-Westerns.") There are a lot of examples of well-made Westerns which deal with this basic communitarian truism, but few do it as forthrightly as Shane. Alan Ladd's gunfighter is given no backstory, no history, yet his discomfort--and longing--as he deals with the subdued affection of Marian Starrett and the open admiration of her son Joey, speaks volumes. The conflict is one of a cattle barons versus homesteaders, but the particulars almost don't matter: what matters is that Shane knows that (and shows in his actions that he knows that) he's missing something. In missing that something, he is capable of doing what the homesteaders and family people can't easily afford to do, though they are willing to try--namely, risk their lives to put an end to the threat posed by Rufus Ryker and his hired assassin, Jack Wilson--but what he lacks as a person (a willingness to settle, perhaps), he also recognizes that he's a threat to the trust which the homesteaders need to thrive. Hence the end of the film, where Shane rides off, and Joey chases after him, uncomprehending why his new idol must leave. The point is a sobering one: community may not be for everyone. But the morale is also clear: the fact that community may not be for everyone is a sad reality, and something to mourn.


Bob said...

Hi Russell

After trying to tweak you on U2, I have to say that your choice of films hits the nail on the head. Have not seen Cars, but remainder are perfect examples.

I also agree with your comment about Kelly McGillis in Witness, the love or should that be lust scenes are well played but added nothing to the film. Forget Star Wars and Indiana this was one of Harrison Fords best.

Each of them clearly fit your criteria in that they define the fact that we are all shaped by the culture and values of our communities and emphasise that making sure those values are good ones is no bad thing. First class post.

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure if I'd seen _Wonderful Life_ all the way through or not before (if so it had been 20 years or more) but I saw it in a theater in NYC this last winter and really enjoyed it. (I like Donna Reed a lot.) Mostly, though, I thought it showed how being an adult is pretty crappy. If you can put up with fairly abstract movies with subtitles (but not too long of ones) you might like some of the movies by Sergei Parajanov- Color of Pomegranate is great, but abstract. The Legend of the Suram Fortress is also very good, a bit less abstract but still pretty abstract. Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors is also excellent and much more straight-forward than the others. It might be the place to start. All can plausibly be called "communitarian" in some important sense, I think. Parajanov was put in prison for many years in the Soviet Union on trumped of charges of homosexuality. An interesting and sad figure who was out of favor for making movies about nationalist stories from Ukraine, Georgia, and Azherbijan, in reverse order from how I've listed the movies. Another Russian movie that might plausibly be called communitarian, though in a different way, is _The Return_. An extremely interesting and haunting film from a few years back.

Russell Arben Fox said...

Bob, thanks for the kind words. I agree that Witness was about as good as Harrison Ford ever got as an actor; I consider it, and Mosquito Coast (another Peter Weir film), as his very best work.

Matt, I'm happy to hear you liked It's a Wonderful Life; I must confess to being one of those sappy dopes who watch it every single Christmas. Your observation about adult life rings true, of course; being an adult member of a community does mean, unless you are one of the very lucky few (like Sam Wainwright, perhaps?), being innundated with obligations that tend to crowd out much else. (Instead of traveling the world and building bridges over distant rivers, George builds models in his living room.) But the point of the film, I think at least, is that those obligations carry with them a power and a resource which is worth its weight in gold.

Thanks for the recommendations; I'll put them on my ever-growing list of movies to see someday. I very consciously excluded any non-English language films from this list (though Whale Rider certainly would count as "foreign"), just because I didn't have to make the post even longer by reflecting on historical or cultural differences and divides.

Camassia said...

This may not be quite what you mean, but your list makes me think of Jaws. I rewatched it a couple years ago and it struck me how much more conservative and middle-aged it is than most of the subsequent summer blockbusters than followed it (including a lot of Jaws rip-offs). We have a cop who flees the turmoil of a big city for a small town, which has the classic problems of tribalism, but no one really questions that it's still worth defending. In contrast to many other movies of this ilk, even the sleazy mayor turns out not to be such a bad guy. Our hero's only reward for slaying the monster is that things go back to the way they were, which is just what he wants. (Let's pretend the sequels don't exist, shall we?)

Anonymous said...

Where would you place the Village? That movie bugs me and I am not quite sure why.

Russell Arben Fox said...


Jaws, huh? That's an interesting reading of the film. I think your impressions are correct, though. It really is a much humbler, much more domesticated kind of thriller-blockbuster than what we've become accustomed to. The shark is threatening the community: how do people respond? Some with bravery, some with desperation, some with foolishness...just like in real towns.


I thought about The Village, but I've never seen it, so I don't know how much of its "message" (assuming it has one which survives Shyamalan's own subverting of it--or does he subvert it?--with the "trick ending") really fits in with my criteria. Obviously its an obstensibly communitarian movie, but what is it really? I guess I need to see it something to find out for myself.

Anonymous said...

A friendly disagreement… I think Eastwood’s Pale Rider the better movie. P. R. explains the questions folks have after seeing Shane, which was gummed up by triteness. If Eastwood’s drifter hero is inaccurate, then I believe so is Shane the frontiersman dressed passive-aggressive doting stranger ride off into the sunset hero. Both films do seem to be a critique on community and interestingly both films juxtapose two communities without law enforcement. Justice being upheld is the problem. As usual in communities, most don’t “participate” or half are quick to leave when to going gets tough. It is the community that failed to do justice, both in dealing it out and living it out. The movie makes clear that the community, and thereby justice, will fail without Shane, they are dependent. Hollywood made Shane the idealist hero. From this perspective I believe we can arrive at your interpretations.
In P. R. the Preacher is more a catalyst for the community, a trickster, and like the latest Batman is what we need him to be, which I believe to be different then the idealist hero Shane. In Shane the characters don’t really develop. Joey is the same kid in the end unwilling to say goodbye, whereas Megan becomes a women and does say good bye. In both movies there is the relationship of the “hero” with the wife. In Shane the tension is always there and in the end we can only ideally hope the husband and wife relationship reconnects. P. R. makes this relationship clearer. In P.R. the villain recognizes the futility of going up against a community with spirit and in Shane the villain is cocksure till the end. It would have been trite if the whole camp in P.R. turned up to help the Preacher in the end; however, I think Hull making a show at the end represents that change in the community. In Shane and by Shane only, the community’s problem is solved and they can idyllically live on.

Anonymous said...

Now how about a list of good anti-communitarian movies?

Russell Arben Fox said...

Anonymous #1,

Pale Rider may actually be my favorite Eastwood western; I recognize that The Outlaw Josey Wales and his early spaghetti westerns are, in some ways, really superior films, but I've just always liked P.R. And your communitarian reading of it just makes me like it all the more. (Several critics have noted the paralles between P.R. and Shane before, but for myself, I've always seen the primary comparison between P.R. and one of Eastwood's earlier westerns, High Plains Drifter. Some people like Drifter, but I find it somewhat despicable; I consider P.R., in a sense, Eastwood's repentance for that film, taking the same basic idea of a stranger who may or may not be the reincarnation of a lost member of the community, returning from the dead to finish tasks that remained behind.)

Anonymous #2,

You actually need me to provide a list? I mean, man, pretty much any of the great paranoid thrillers of the 60s and 70s, or any action-adventure flick starring Sylvester Stallone.

Anonymous said...

Another western that "forthrightly" presents the intersection of community and individual has to be The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. I would have thought that it would rise to the top of your list, what with John Wayne deliberately denying himself credit for the triumph so that the community has a better myth with which to prosper in the future.

Steve Hayes said...

Surely the archetypal communitarian movie would be Entertaining angels on the life of Dorothy Day, one of the founders of communitarianism.

And a liberal movie would surely be one in which the bad guy is an oppressive dicator. One that springs to mind is Z.

Anonymous said...

What, no Waking Ned Devine? What could be more communitarian than that?