January 24, 2012 should have been a great day for the Obama re-election campaign. The President delivered a shameless but effective State of the Union address that started with the killing of Osama bin Laden and ended with a paean to the troops. Obama, whom Republicans have accused of going around the world “apologizing for America,” stood foursquare for American exceptionalism: “America remains the one indispensable nation in world affairs” and so forth. By contrast, Mitch Daniels’s official reply on behalf of the Republican “loyal opposition” was downbeat, full of doom and gloom. Daniels described a U.S. adrift, “quarreling and paralyzed, over a Niagara of debt.” The news media were filled with reports about Mitt Romney’s high income and low rate tax rate and about Newt Gingrich’s time as a $25,000 per month “historian” for Freddie Mac. For one day, at least, all the political omens for Obama were good. The Davids (Plouffe and Axelrod) must have been doing their happy dance.
But, oddly, another event that occurred on January 24, one that has seemingly nothing to do with politics—the Academy Award nominations—may not augur quite so well for the President. The Motion Picture Academy, surely part of the “elite media” Republicans love to excoriate, was in a decidedly conservative mood. Collectively, the films that caught the Academy’s attention demonstrated a palpable nostalgia for the America of a different era.
“The Tree of Life” takes place in Texas in the fifties and tells the story (such as it is) of a nuclear family and, I guess, of God’s creation of the earth. Roger Ebert, who was clearly moved by it, wrote: “I don’t know when a film has connected more immediately with my own personal experience…. There is a father who maintains discipline and a mother who exudes forgiveness, and long summer days of play and idleness and urgent unsaid questions about the meaning of things.” It’s all a little vague (Ebert describes it as “attempting no less than to encompass all of existence and view it through the prism of a few infinitesimal lives”), but beautifully filmed, and, for those who are moved (rather than bored) by it, it paints a portrait of an earlier time that was simultaneously difficult and idyllic.
“The Help,” takes place in Jackson, Mississippi in the sixties, and it tells the story of a young white woman who writes a book exposing the many cruelties her society friends inflict on their black maids. “The Help” is wonderfully, if slightly over-, played by a large cast, but, ultimately, as Joe Morgenstern wrote in The Wall Street Journal, it “takes us on a pop-cultural tour that savors the picturesque, and strengthens stereotypes it purports to shatter.” It is all, as Richard Schickel described it, very “genteel,” “aimed at a feel good ending” that “falsifies” history, leaving “audiences applauding smugly, as they did at the showing of ‘The Help’ I [Schickel] attended: ‘Oh, good—that worked out nicely, didn’t it?’” Although it was probably not the intention of the filmmakers, “The Help,” in the end, comes close to expressing a yearning for simpler times, when whites were struggling to figure out how to relate to their black maids, not their black president.
“Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” takes place only about a decade ago, but, in its own way, it is drenched in nostalgia. “Extremely Loud” tells the story of Oscar, a boy who perhaps suffers from Asperger’s Syndrome and whose father died in the World Trade Center attacks on 9/11. The film is explicitly about Oscar’s desire to remain connected to his dead father and yearning to go back to a time before what Oscar calls “the worst day.”
“Moneyball” takes place at about the same time as “Extremely Loud”—it opens with a baseball game that takes place in October of 2001. Ultimately, it turns out, our heroes, the underfunded Oakland A’s (team payroll: $39,722,689), lose the game (and the division championship) to the fabulously wealthy New York Yankees (team payroll: $114,457,768), but the loss isn’t the point. The fact that the A’s made it to the championship round on one-third the Yankees’ budget is the point. How they manage this—through a then-novel reliance by the A’s manager, Billy Beane, on pure statistical analysis, rather than old-fashioned methods relying on scouting and gut-instinct—is the point. “Moneyball” is about acceptance of the new; it’s about how institutions change, and, in that sense, it’s the very opposite of the nostalgic conservatism so evident in the other nominees. But “Moneyball” has its own conservative message. Brad Pitt as Beane is practically the poster-child for the live-within-our-means, make-do-with-less economic philosophy espoused by the American Tea Party and conservatives in Europe, like Angela Merkel. “Moneyball” is a parable for the age of austerity.
The only Best Picture nominee that takes place in contemporary America (assuming that Hawaii, the birthplace of our “foreign” president, still counts as America) is “The Descendants,” but, in its way, this film is more backward-looking than any of the others. As its name suggests, “The Descendants” is very much about our connection to the past. The film is structured around the decision that must be made by the main character (played by George Clooney) about what to do with his and his cousins’ inheritance—thousands of acres of pristine ocean-front land in Kauai. Should he allow it to be developed commercially or should it be preserved? There is much else going on in this rich, complex film, which is, arguably, why it is the best film of the year (even if it doesn’t attempt to encompass “all of existence”). Still there is no escaping the fact that, ultimately, the film is about honoring the dead and fulfilling our obligations to those who came before us, a fundamentally conservative notion.
Although it is, of course, set elsewhere, “Midnight in Paris” may tell us as much about our view of America as any of the other pictures. It is about Americans in Paris now and then (the twenties). The film purports to be anti-nostalgia. In the end, the hero, played by Owen Wilson, rejects the opportunity to (literally) live in the past, and Woody Allen even has one of his characters spell it out for us: “Nostalgia is denial—denial of the painful present… the name for this denial is golden age thinking—the erroneous notion that a different time period is better than the one one’s living in—it’s a flaw in the romantic imagination of those people who find it difficult to cope with the present.” Rather than giving this speech to his hero, however, Allen gives it to another character who is described in the film as “the pedantic gentleman,” and the contrast between the contemporary American characters (shallow, materialistic, and otherwise non-descript) with the legendary Americans of Paris past (Hemingway, Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein) is so stark that we can not help but come away from the film with the conviction that, while Allen may believe in his head that the past is no better than the present, he doesn’t believe it in his heart.
The other Best Picture nominees are equally awash in nostalgia. “Hugo” is a charming paean to the inventiveness of the silent films Georges Melies created before the turn of the twentieth century, and “The Artist” is, heaven help us, a silent picture. (It’s hard to fathom all the fuss over a picture that denies itself most of the tools developed by filmmakers over the last century. One can perhaps understand the enthusiasm for the film of the Producers Guild; this is, after all, a movie that dispenses with the need for a writer who can write dialogue, a cinematographer who can shoot in color, and actors who can speak. From a producer’s standpoint, “The Artist” hits the trifecta. Why others see this as more than an amusing stunt is something of a mystery.)
An then there’s “War Horse,” “sweeping in style and old-fashioned in its narrative structure” (USA Today), “shot the old-fashioned way, on actual film stock” (New York Times), “but (it) falls short of the sustained narrative involvement and emotional drive its resolutely old-fashioned story-telling demands” (Variety). Before advising that “Steven Spielberg’s War Horse harks back to an old-fashioned mode of filmmaking, too — the sweeping, romantic Hollywood epic,” Ian Showalter begins a review of the film for NPR.org by informing us: “This year, many filmmakers have looked fondly to the past for inspiration.”
And that is where the Motion Picture Academy may be telling us something about where our politics are heading. The question that President Obama’s advisers should be asking themselves is whether this looking to the past for inspiration has political, as well as cultural, implications. Will this longing for a simpler time—for the America of our childhoods, of our memories, of our imaginings, for Eisenhower’s America or Reagan’s America—lead us to another Republican sweep, like 2010? Will the change we can believe in actually take us back to the future? If what we (or, at least, an electoral majority of us) most want is to return the era of “Father Knows Best,” and “Donna Reed” (and Ronald Reagan on the GE Playhouse, we might add), then the Republicans have, in Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney, two alternatives who, each in his own way—Santorum in substance, Romney in style—perfectly fulfill our wishes.
Santorum has been taking a lot of heat recently for the suggestion in his 2005 book “It Takes a Family: Conservatism and the Common Good,” that “radical feminists” are undermining our social structure by belittling women who do not work outside the home and for seeming to question the ability of women to serve in combat. Santorum has tried to walk back both statements, but the impression they made is likely to stick because they are so consistent with the policy positions from which he never wavers. We know where Santorum stands: against abortion, gay marriage, birth control and deficit spending and for lower taxes, the “traditional” family, and the Constitution. If you wanted to invent the perfect candidate to take us back to a time when a woman’s place was in the kitchen, when women’s highest goals were getting married and having children (definitely in that order), when abortions were performed in back alleys and gays stayed in the closet, he’d probably come out looking and sounding a lot like Rick Santorum. Fortunately, for the Democrats, Santorum’s social views are so anachronistic that, if he does become the Republican nominee, Obama might realistically start fantasizing about a Johnson-versus-Goldwater or Nixon-versus-McGovern style blowout.
Which leaves Romney (as the Romney campaign knows). On looks alone, Romney, with his perfect good looks and near perfect family, personifies the Father who knows best. He is practically typecast for the part of president in an idealized Ozzie-and-Harriet America. Certainly, that part isn’t going to Barack Obama. Obama’s best hope, however, is that Romney, while he certainly looks the part, is, in many ways, a terrible “actor.” To use a fifties analogy, he’s like Rock Hudson or Tab Hunter—a handsome, stolid leading man whose line readings are always a little off, his jokes unfunny, his confessions insincere. “Corporations are people, my friend.” “I like to be able to fire people.” “How about it—$10,000 bet?” “I’m really not concerned about the very poor.” We know what he means, but somehow he never quite gets it right, like someone for whom English is a second language and who always has to translate his thoughts in his head from one language to another before he speaks.
If Romney were a better actor, like Reagan (never a great actor, perhaps, but certainly a competent one), Obama might have no chance against him. But he’s not; he’s like one of those pretty boys who seemed to overrun Hollywood in the fifties and early sixties. Still, even a pretty boy, given the right setting, can be very effective. Obama has to hope that Romney turns out to be, say, Tony Curtis in “Spartacus” (“The children of my master to whom I taught the classics” or, rather “de classics,” proclaimed in a perfect Bronx accent), and not Tony Curtis in, well, “Sweet Smell of Success.”