Salvation by transgression

Culture | Oscar post-mortem shows the cultural left is getting more aggressive

Issue: "Money to burn," April 15, 2000

With the Academy Awards show now receding in memory, it's time to discuss what its highlights mean. Last year's Oscars featured contests between the patriotic Saving Private Ryan and Shakespeare in Love, which, for all of its liberties with the Bard, was at least pro-Western civilization. This year's Oscars featured contests between American Beauty--a stylish semicomic drama about pedophilia, homosexuality, and the emptiness of the life most Americans consider to be normal--and The Cider House Rules, a bit of pro-abortion agit-prop. The Academy Awards are revealing because they are chosen by the members of the motion picture industry themselves, and as such provide a good index to the values, standards, and ideologies of America's entertainment industry. (This is also why WORLD reports on movies--not to advertise them, as some of our subscription-canceling readers assume, but to inform our readers about what is going on in American culture.) This year's Oscars suggest that Hollywood is getting more aggressive and militant in its willingness to push the liberal agenda in the culture wars. At a time when cultural conservatives seem demoralized, self-questioning, and thinking about giving up, the cultural liberals are newly confident and in-your-face, circling their weakened enemy and poised for the kill. The Cider House Rules was billed as a tender coming-of-age saga about a young man who grew up in an orphanage. This institution was run by a kindly abortionist-back before abortion was even legal-a doctor who helped others by either caring for unwanted children in his orphanage or aborting them. "This man was to me the most compassionate creature I've ever played," said Michael Caine, who won best supporting actor for his role. When novelist John Irving, who wrote the script based on his book, won the Oscar for best adapted screenplay, his acceptance speech included a grandiose thank you to Planned Parenthood and the National Abortion Rights Action League-names that inspired roaring applause from the crowd. The marketing for the movie concentrated on its being the tender coming-of-age saga, saying little or nothing about the pro-abortion theme. Even Mr. Irving's original novel did not center so much as the movie did on the goodness of abortion. But the Oscars showed the movie's true agenda: Take abortion and wrap it in a "tender" and "compassionate" package, thereby making it seem like something that is morally good. This is a classic technique of propaganda: Take away the negative connotations of your message by attaching positive images that, however extraneous to the real issue, can become associated in the audience's mind with that message. American Beauty was far more ambitious-and far more successful, winning five Oscars, including the top prizes of Best Picture, Best Actor (for Kevin Spacey), and Best Director (for Sam Mendes). It was also one of the few Oscar winners that was a box-office hit (unlike, for example, the gender-bender Boys Don't Cry, the true story about a Nebraska teenage girl who lived her life as a boy, which scored Best Actress for Hilary Swank). American Beauty, named after the breed of roses that accompany the main character's sexual fantasies, is about a man who wakes up to the emptiness of his middle-class life in American suburbia with his too-perfect wife and his too-alienated teenage daughter. He quits his good-paying but unsatisfying corporate job to flip burgers at a fast-food joint, the care-free vocation of his teenage years. He rediscovers the joys of marijuana. And he falls in lust with his daughter's 16-year-old best friend. In the course of the plot, his antic-perfectionist wife (played by Annette Bening, in a show-stealing performance that itself deserved an Oscar) commits adultery with a rival real estate agent. Also, a stereotyped conservative ex-Marine who hates homosexuals moves in next door, his daughter finds true love with a sensitive drug dealer, and he gets murdered. (He narrates the whole movie after he has been killed.) Actually, Christians should generally applaud works of art that face up to the emptiness of life without God. Indeed, American Beauty has some good lines and some good moments. But its response to the emptiness is one that has become common among the cultural avant garde. According to this view, salvation comes through transgression. This message-become real by violating "society's rules"-is the subtext of countless novels, works of art, academic treatises, and rock 'n' roll songs, a view that has engrained itself into the assumptions of thousands of young people. In the fake, controlled world posited by postmodernism, the only way to break out is to express yourself by acts of pure freedom, in defiance of all norms. This means rebelling against all authority, breaking the law, and violating sexual taboos. The hero of American Beauty gives significance to his life by quitting his job, defying the expectations of his wife, refusing to govern his actions or words, and indulging his pedophilic fantasies. The movie is filled with liberal bromides-such as the view that people who do not approve of homosexuality are homosexual themselves. Their "homophobic" mental illness is caused by their denial about their own suppressed sexual orientation. Then there are the moral inversions: Work is bad, the drug dealer is good. True, when the hero finally gets the chance, he refuses to have sex with the child, whose own gross sex-talk turns out to have been a put-on. But in having the young actresses (who must be over 18, though they play 16-year-olds) do nude scenes, the movie still manages to violate them. The most positive character, in the movie's terms, is the son of the conservative homophobe; he's a drug dealer who photographs everything with a video camera. He brings love and sex to the angst-ridden daughter, and does have some good things to say about the beauty of the ordinary things he captures on camera. (How when you see something beautiful, it is like catching a glimpse of God, and having God look back at you.) But this sensitive but rebellious soul with his camera clearly reflects the self-image of the moviemakers, recording all of this beauty and sordidness on their own cameras. Ultimately, it is the self-righteous pose of the moviemakers-which naturally struck such a positive chord with the Academy of Motion Picture Artists-that is the most annoying feature of American Beauty. A far better film on the similar subject of the emptiness of contemporary life was Magnolia, which was shut out of the Oscar awards. (Though it rated nominations for Tom Cruise as best supporting actor and for best song, with Aimee Mann's significantly titled "Save Me." It had enough great performances in its large cast to arguably deserve all of the supporting actor nominations.) Magnolia, though equally dark and off-beat, presented Christianity as a valid way out, and highlighted the importance of actually helping people in a selfless way, as opposed to the self-absorption of everyone in American Beauty. And while American Beauty targets the pathetic lives of other people-the Middle America that Hollywood depends on yet condescends to-Magnolia targets pleasure-obsessed wealthy denizens of the entertainment industry, which must have struck Academy voters uncomfortably close to home. Does any of this matter outside the self-contained world of Hollywood insiders? Certainly, because the attitudes embodied in and communicated by film define for many the culturally approved ways to think and act. But here's an interesting twist on American Beauty, at a time when those sensitive to issues of campaign-finance reform ask what big political contributors expect to get for their money from the politicians they fund so generously. What does it mean that Best Actor winner Kevin Spacey is a big financial supporter of the Democratic party, to the point of giving the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee 100 tickets (to use for fundraising) for the celebrity-packed Washington premiere of American Beauty? "Men like [House Minority Leader] Dick Gephardt are the vaccines we receive to fight the virus being spread by politicians who use their power and influence to try to define what art is," Mr. Spacey told The Washington Post. He also got Mr. Gephardt in temporary trouble with his constituents by joking that the pot scene in American Beauty was modeled after an experience with Mr. Gephardt (which, by all accounts, was not true). When President Clinton was asked by a reporter if Hollywood was not rejecting his call for restraint in depictions of violence, as evidenced by American Beauty with its bloody murder scene, the president defended the film. "I thought it was an astonishing movie, actually," he said, showing the evils of the misuse of guns. Though he is right about the guns-the movie portrays gun ownership as a conservative vice-it is curious that the president is such a big fan. Why the mutual admiration society between Democratic politicians and Hollywood? Clearly the movie industry wants not just to entertain the masses but to influence society. Moviemakers use not only their artistic medium but political means to do so. Americans need to realize that the political war is really one battle in the larger cultural war.

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Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith


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