God, one swears one won’t train the telescope on Planet Janet Albrechtsen, much less record each elliptical wobble, but this week’s effort is too good.
There are times when your average op-ed columnist has no story, but writes one anyway — and runs a propaganda line to boot. Planet has a good record in that, usually building up a story about “the elitez” from a couple of bits and bobs. The most recent example starts promisingly. “Here’s a story about the cultural divide …” Settle in.
It turns out to be about the movies. The Wolf of Wall Street by Martin Scorsese has been doing brisk business on the “east and west coasts”. Meanwhile, in the “flyover states” — i.e. the interior — they’re all going to see Lone Survivor, the story of a SEAL mission gone wrong in Afghanistan. In San Francisco, trills Janet of Wolf, “I just managed to find an empty seat one night in early January”, whereas when she saw Lone Survivor “in New York there were many empty seats”.
Why would that be? Well, “the elites”, for all their moral condemnation of capitalism, loved the Wolf of Wall Street — “a great — no, a fucking great — movie movie,” said gushed Christopher Orr in The Atlantic — while they were sniffy about Lone Survivor. A “jingoistic snuff film” that preaches “brown people bad, American people good,” said LA Weekly, apparently.
Planet’s basic thesis was that “so-called progressive people” should hate Wolf for the depraved behaviour it displays, yet they love it, while hating the decent martial values on display in Lone Survivor. Borne out by the scathing, lefty reviews, correct?
Yeah, uh, no.
Lone Survivor did get a few negative reviews, but the most prominent was in Murdoch’s right-wing tabloid The New York Post, which gave it the thumbs down, deciding “Lone Survivor Misses The Target”. Meanwhile, that bastion of Left thinking, Forbes magazine, said that it was “a relatively compelling and technically efficient film with a viewpoint that I find morally repellent”.
Wolf of Wall Street, meanwhile, got a somewhat negative review from liberal hang Slate. And the shouty voice of the outraged shires, the UK Daily Mail, gave it a thumbs up: “While there’s little to admire about most of the characters, the same cannot be said of Scorsese’s film … Scorsese is a master of his craft, and can captivate you for three hours.”
OK, so the reviews don’t bear out Planet’s assertions at all, but what about the punters? Lone Survivor dying on the elite, brie-sipping coasts, while it’s going off down home? And vice-versa for Wolf?
Well, if Planet has stats to back up her assertion — none are quoted — I’d be very surprised. But we can get an idea of how the two films are doing overall by a glance at box office site The Numbers. There we find that both films are doing more or less the same — on 50 days release each. Lone Survivor has taken $113 million; WoWS $108 million.
Regionally, MovieClock tells us tells us how they’re rated. Lone Survivor has the No. 1 rating in red-state heartland towns Birmingham Alabama and Bismark North Dakota, while Wolf languishes outside the top 10. Can Planet be right? Well, no. The same rating holds in New York City. Indeed, it even holds the No. 2 slot in Berkeley California — in Berkeley, the single-most left-wing place in the United States, Lone Survivor is the No. 1 rated movie.
Still, what about bums on seats? The most accessible way to tell that is by session listings. When we do that we see that in Kansas City, the very centre of flyover country, both Survivor and Wolf have the same number of sessions. There’s near parity in deep-red Boise, too, 5:4. But those coastal sophisticates won’t be going for it, will they? Well, in hipster Seattle, both films are playing for 12 sessions each, and the same goes for San Francisco. Only in New York is there an imbalance — and who knows why a movie called The Wolf of Wall Street would be doing unusually well there?
So the upshot is, the whole article is bullshit. The whole thing. Everything it asserts as some sort of quantitative social behaviour is the opposite of what is occurring. What the stats show is that there is no split between audiences from different social groups as far as big movies are concerned. It’s another piece of flimflam, cut from whole cloth, so that a lawyer/columnist can present herself as the voice of the people.
The example in question is not without significance. Since Tony Abbott announced that “loyalty” — i.e. not questioning the government — was the new standard, the Right is rushing to get into military formation. But how to show your military commitment when you were too busy being a deracinated lawyer to sign up? Easy, see a movie. There’s nothing that says duty like watching Mark Wahlberg pretend to be a soldier for two hours. Set up an entirely invented scenario in which the war movie has salt-of-the-earth types trooping to it out of patriotic duty, while urban sophisticates something something.
Bizarrely, of the two films, Lone Survivor is the artier flick, with its slow-burn first hour, while Wolf is something of a cartoon. Both are aimed at a niche audience of similar composition: people like Planet who write about seeing a movie in New York, and a movie in San Francisco, and then unironically remark on how urban sophisticates don’t understand “flyover country”. Were Lone Survivor going for a mega-mass audience, it would look like a video game.Both are dwarfed at the box office by Hunger Games II, the next instalment in the fantasy series that gets much of its popularity from being a dystopian take on American inequality. Author Suzanne Collins has said she got the idea for the series when she was channel flipping between a reality TV show and footage of the Iraq War. That view of the US has clearly struck a chord — the movie has taken in half-a-billion dollars after 90 days in cinemas.
Planet’s entire research for this piece on the state of American society? She went to two movies, read LA Weekly, and quoted two articles from The Atlantic. You can’t tell from the website, but they might well have been in the same issue. She read a magazine!
Why fillet this pointless, bogus article at such length? Partly because I suspect it is the ur-Planet article, the distilled essence of right-wing “elites” bullshit. When every piece of evidence — that could be easily gained in 90 minutes — points away from your central argument, then the piece becomes something of a gold anti-standard. But it’s also worth noting what a dim and illiberal idea of art it is — that everything you watch or read has to have some other purpose, be an expression of an attitude, a loyalty, a politics. The essence of the totalitarian mindset as regards culture is that it denies the autonomy of the single artwork, and can see it as nothing other than exemplar, or error. Writes Planet:
“You’d think that arty, so-called progressives would hate The Wolf of Wall Street as a gross glorification of testosterone-fuelled greed and stock market scams … You’d think they might regard as repugnant the film’s failure to address the shocking personal and financial costs paid by the victims swindled by Belfort. Wrong.”
Why? Why would you want a movie depicting excess to contain its own moralising, unless you had no interest in it as art at all? It gets better/worse:
“Luttrell [the film’s real-life central character] now runs the non-profit Lone Survivor Foundation to help combat veterans dealing with post-traumatic stress … This counts for naught in the glittering, artificial world of Academy Awards that invariably lauds yet another Woody Allen film about a middle-aged neurotic woman and Scorsese’s depiction of a young narcissistic New York stockbroker.”
This is fantastic, because not only has Planet crossed all the way over into a sort of right-wing socialist realism, judging worth by content and finding little in tales of “middle-aged neurotic women” — hmmmm — she would also like artistic merit to be judged on what you do with the money, which has a Maoist touch. If the bloke who made Kenny built an orphanage, he may be in for a Nobel Prize.
This is culture for people who don’t like anything, and go to it to have their prejudices reflected, and agendas confirmed. It will be the mood of the era, a sort of cultural conscription, which is what makes it so dismal and dispiriting. Propaganda, fabrication the collective will — it champions all it purports to oppose, an illiberalism for our times.
Guy Rundle is Crikey's correspondent-at-large. He was co-editor of Arena Magazine for 15 years, and has written four hit stage shows for Max Gillies, two musicals, numerous books and produced TV shows including Comedy Inc and Backberner.