Jonah Goldberg: Conservative values do well at the box office
07/12/2014 7:00 AM
07/11/2014 7:09 PM
In the film “Obvious Child,” Jenny Slate plays Donna Stern, a stand-up comedian who specializes in making jokes about her private parts. Her friend offers her some encouragement before a show: “You are going to kill it out there!”
Donna replies: “I actually have an appointment to do that tomorrow.” She’s talking about her abortion appointment.
Get it? It’s funny because it’s true. Or if you’re like me, you think it’s not funny because it’s true.
Many critics think it’s funny. One dubbed it “far and away the most winning abortion-themed comedy ever made.”
Since it opened last month, the film has grossed less than $2 million. Compare that to 2007’s “Juno,” a brilliant film widely seen as pro-life (at least among pro-lifers) or “Knocked Up,” a raunchier romantic comedy also hailed by abortion foes, both of which grossed more than $140 million domestically. “Obvious Child,” then, seems less like the cultural watershed and more like a barely successful art house flick.
That’s worth noting given that the film’s writer and director, Gillian Robespierre, was motivated in part because films such as “Juno” and “Knocked Up” “rubbed her the wrong way.”
Dinesh D'Souza had a similar motivation in making “America: Imagine the World Without Her,” a new documentary love letter to his adopted country. He’s often described as the right’s Michael Moore, but he’s aiming higher, hoping to contend one day with Steven Spielberg and Oliver Stone in the feature film business. He tells National Review that “the left knows the power of telling a story.” Stone and Spielberg are “much bigger than Michael Moore. They don’t make liberal films — they just make films, and they have a point of view. I want to make films with a different point of view.”
D'Souza’s absolutely right about Spielberg (though too kind to Stone). One of my biggest complaints about contemporary conservatism is that it has lost sight of the importance of storytelling.
My late friend Andrew Breitbart liked to say that politics is downstream of culture, meaning that any truly successful political turnaround needs to start by changing popular attitudes. Adam Bellow, a storied editor of conservative books, has a similar conviction and is trying to launch a conservative revolt in the world of fiction.
Still, I think there’s something missing in this ancient conversation on the right (conservatives have been making such arguments since the 1950s — if not the 1450s, with the publication of the Gutenberg Bible). Conservatives refuse to celebrate, or even notice, how much of the popular culture is on their side.
Sure, Hollywood is generally very liberal, but America isn’t. Judging by their campaign donations, Hollywood liberals are very supportive of abortion rights. But there’s a reason sitcoms since “Maude” haven’t had a lot of storylines about abortion. Indeed, nearly every pregnant TV character treats her unborn child as if it’s already a human being.
The left may be anti-military, but such movies tend to do poorly, which is why we see more pro-military films. Similarly, it’s a safe bet that Hollywood liberals loathe guns. But not many action stars save the day by quoting a poem. Most Hollywood liberals probably oppose the death penalty, yet they make lots of movies where the bad guy meets a grisly death. The left rolls its eyes at “family values,” but family values are at the heart of most successful sitcoms and dramas.
One explanation is that while it is true that culture is upstream from politics, reality and, I would argue, morality are upstream from culture. Good stories must align with reality and a sense of justice. As Margaret Thatcher used to say, “The facts of life are conservative.”
Confirmation of that, I think, can be found in liberal Hollywood’s failure to be as liberal as it wants to be. And that’s definitely funny because it’s true.
To reach Jonah Goldberg, editor at large of National Review Online, send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at JonahNRO.
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