The next big thing to come back is something we’ve never seen before

This is old news by now, but I can finally put coherent thoughts together about the essay, so I want to offer what I hope is an intelligent, alternate interpretation of facts. Last week, Peggy Noonan had an editorial at Opinion Journal that accepted George Clooney’s Oscar acceptance speech as a barometer of what’s wrong with Hollywood. I’m tempted to mock, because her journey throughout the latter half of her argument indulges in the same flaws she places on Mr. Clooney’s intentions, without seeming to understand the similarities. However, she reaches a reasonable conclusion that doesn’t rest solely on “liberals are bad”, although her premise is that “Hollywood isn’t making the kind of movies that compel people to leave their homes and go to the multiplex”. Instead, she posits this:

I don’t think it is true that studio executives and producers hate America. They are too confused, ambivalent and personally anxious to sit around hating their audience. I think they wish they understood America. I think they feel nostalgic for what they remember of it. I think they find it hard to find America, in a way.

This sounds good, but I admit I’m not sure I understand her point about the America Hollywood remembers. That’s a sweeping generalization with no clarification. I take it to mean that they remember an America more liberal than it is now. If so, I disagree. I suspect our “liberal” proclivity, in the sense that liberty allows us to live our lives as individuals, hasn’t really reversed as much as its spread has slowed. There are those who wish to reverse the spread, as evidenced by the recent fervor over same-sex marriage, Janet Jackson’s breast, and the public display of the Ten Commandments. But electing Republicans doesn’t have the sweeping implication that most Americans would love to resort to Biblical law or that Hollywood is populated only by Bible-haters. Life is more complicated and nuanced than that. I suspect Ms. Noonan understands that, which is why she’s lecturing more than attacking Hollywood.

Instead, I think it’s reasonable to assume that members of Hollywood, like every other industry, are organized like a high school clique. You’re one of the cool kids, or you’re not. Ms. Noonan approaches that idea, but doesn’t quite arrive at that explanation.

I also think that it’s not true that they’re motivated only by money. Would that they were! They’d be more market-oriented if they cared only about money. What they care about a great deal is status, and in their community status is bestowed by the cultural left. This is an old story. But it seems only to get worse, not better.

Does an industry organized around status bestowed by the cultural left imply a liberal causation? Is it possible there’s a better link? Hollywood organizing itself around status is a reasonable assumption, but if that’s so, the standard is set by those on top, not those who are on the left. They may be the same, but those on the bottom are trying to attain status alone if the assumption is to hold. We can’t know from Ms. Noonan’s explanation that the status-seeker agrees with liberal politics as much as he or she wants to obtain status, and probably the money that comes with status. Play by the rules or someone else gets the gig rules in every industry. I don’t know how Hollywood becomes exempted from such a universal standard. Perhaps a liberal vs. conservative argument suffices, but I doubt it.

How well does Ms. Noonan’s analysis hold if the underlying context changes to view Hollywood’s politics (through Mr. Clooney’s Oscar speech) using my interpretation of status?

Was his speech wholly without merit? No. It was a response and not an attack, and it appears to have been impromptu. Mr. Clooney presumably didn’t know Jon Stewart would tease the audience for being out of touch, and he wanted to argue that out of touch isn’t all bad. Fair enough. It is hard to think on your feet in front of 38 million people, and most of his critics will never try it or have to. (This is a problem with modern media: Only the doer understands the degree of difficulty.)

But Mr. Clooney’s remarks were also part of the tinniness of the age, and of modern Hollywood. I don’t think he was being disingenuous in suggesting he was himself somewhat heroic. He doesn’t even know he’s not heroic. He thinks making a movie in 2005 that said McCarthyism was bad is heroic.

How could he think this? Maybe part of the answer is in this: The Clooney generation in Hollywood is not writing and directing movies about life as if they’ve experienced it, with all its mysteries and complexity and variety. In an odd way they haven’t experienced life; they’ve experienced media. Their films seem more an elaboration and meditation on media than an elaboration and meditation on life. This is how he could take such an unnuanced, unsophisticated, unknowing gloss on the 1950s and the McCarthy era. He just absorbed media about it. And that media itself came from certain assumptions and understandings, and myths.

I didn’t see Good Night and Good Luck, so I can’t agree or refute the specific theory on Mr. Clooney’s telling of McCarthyism. My initial hunch is to discount it because it places an unfair burden on media, and by extension historical analysis, I think, because the McCarthy hearings occurred more than fifty years ago. We can’t stop discussing them just because most of us aren’t old enough to remember them personally, or worse, weren’t directly involved to get a most accurate understanding. Some reliance on “media” is necessary, as it is for most events.

Of course, it’s also possible that Mr. Clooney’s just a bad storyteller, unable to equate McCarthyism with the un-American unpatriotic charges lobbed against anyone who dares question the current administration. I’ll watch the movie to decide for myself, though, which begs the question how I’m supposed to interpret McCarthyism. I think the problem Ms. Noonan applies to George Clooney is broader than she pretends. Although I like her final conclusion for its agreement with my fundamental belief on change, her final push to that conclusion is shaky. It requires Hollywood to be out of touch, when viewing the facts without predetermined conclusions may not support that, as I hope I’ve demonstrated. Consider:

Most Americans aren’t leading media, they’re leading lives. It would be nice to see a new respect in Hollywood for the lives they live. It would be nice to see them start to understand that rediscovering the work of, say, C.S. Lewis, and making a Narnia film, is not “giving in” to the audience but serving it. It isn’t bad to look for and present good material that is known to have a following. It’s a smart thing to do. It’s why David O. Selznick bought “Gone With the Wind”: People were reading it. It was his decision to make it into a movie from which he would profit that gave Hattie McDaniel her great role. Taboos are broken by markets, not poses.

I wish to note, then ignore, the obvious mistake in this “serving the audience” sentiment. Movies based on material that is “known to have a following” are exactly what Hollywood is producing now. How many more sequels, television show spin-offs, and literary dramatizations do we need to see before we accept that Hollywood is scared of originality, not uninterested in giving us what we want? It’s trying to do precisely that and failing miserably. Hence, movie attendance is down. Movie studios and actors can’t fix that by serving our existing interests. Filming the Bible instead of Bewitched doesn’t count as change.

A more useful understanding still remains within her conclusion. What does chatting about last night’s episode of American Idol in front of the water cooler imply? What does spilling a life story to the bartender at the corner pub imply? What does blogging about politics imply?
That people are somehow leading their lives, without concern for what’s going on and a strong desire to influence, or at least reveal how smart the individual is compared to the idiots in charge? Mr. Clooney’s speech is no different than what many Americans would love to do. He just had a bigger forum on Oscar night. Maybe his speech would’ve been as pompous flawed as Ms. Noonan suggests if it had been written instead of impromptu; we’ll never know. But to state that Hollywood is out of touch with real Americans when generic pressures are at work, pressures which can be found in any industry, is questionable.

One thought on “The next big thing to come back is something we’ve never seen before”

  1. “I wish to note, then ignore, the obvious mistake in this “serving the audience” sentiment. Movies based on material that is “known to have a following” is exactly what Hollywood is producing now. How many more sequels, television show spin-offs, and literary dramatizations do we need to see before we accept that Hollywood is scared of originality, not uninterested in giving us what we want.”
    I actually stood up, alone, in my home, at my desk and applauded. This was great writing. I also made you an Oscar from a used Slim-Fast can. I will mail it soon.
    Good points!!

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