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Why Conservatives Constantly Get Movies Wrong

How is ‘Mrs. Doubtfire’ about ‘gentrification’?

If nothing else, the chaos of the Trump administration has created a taste for voyeuristic, gossipy reports on machinations inside the White House. But what we hear is only as intelligent as the people working there, which explains the strangest quote of the past week:

Now, there’s a fascinating conversation to be had about how one “gentrifies” an executive branch that coddles white supremacists. It’s difficult, though, to approach that subject when your anonymous source is citing a 1993 cross-dressing family comedy starring Robin Williams to describe the management style of a retired general and doesn’t seem to remember what happens in said film. Granted, Mrs. Doubtfire takes place in San Francisco — where gentrification is a problem — but, uh, like, what?

Mustering all I have, I guess that our inside man or woman thinks “gentrification” has something to do with “gender,” though that probably gives them too much credit. Is Kelly making all the cabinet members wear makeup and pantyhose? I’m not getting my hopes up.

And far from being an isolated incident, I think the Mrs. Doubtfire flub speaks to a spot of key damage in the conservative psyche: They can’t even figure out what movies mean.

I swear, once you notice this, you start seeing it everywhere. Remember when Trump supporters thought Hulu’s dystopian series The Handmaid’s Tale, which portrays women enslaved under a theocratic American regime, was a swipe at their president? For a moment, leave aside the context — that it’s an adaptation of a novel published by Canadian author Margaret Atwood in the 1980s — and reflect on this: Trump’s base believes that you can green-light, script, cast, shoot, score, edit and package a prestige TV show in a couple of months, all with the aim of subtweeting the head of state. Even more astonishing, they don’t realize that condemning a show about the evils of patriarchy as an attack on Trump affirms the latent misogyny that floated him to office.

Part of what they get hung up on, I’m sure, is their “white genocide” persecution complex, the same tribalist brain slippage that makes them equate the phrase “Happy Holidays” with a “War on Christmas.” Paired with their suspicion that most art is polemic propaganda — can’t trust those Hollywood elites — this ensures that each film falls into one of three categories: 1) attempted indoctrination, either for progressive ideals or against conservative traditions; 2) good ol’ apolitical popcorn fare like Transformers or whatever the fuck; and 3) patriotic movies that “trigger the libs.”

Trouble is, they can’t get their own categories straight. Last Memorial Day, the conservative National Review rolled out a list of “politically incorrect” war films that supposedly cut against the grain of “today’s ‘anti-war’ duds.” But as IndieWire pointed out, far from driving liberals crazy, most of the picks are revered across the political spectrum, several are explicitly anti-war and one was directed by a communist.

They’re so determined to derive a message from film — whether to applaud or bash it — that they usually end up worlds away from any sane interpretation. Mike Pence, in his days as a talk-radio host, notoriously panned the 1999 Disney musical Mulan, which is based on a 6th-century Chinese poem, as a subliminal argument for allowing women to serve in the U.S. military. That would be idiotic enough as a review of a children’s cartoon, but Pence had to wade into deeper muck and reveal more of the pathology that drove him to this take: “From the original ‘Tailhook’ scandal involving scores of high-ranking navy fighter pilots who molested subordinate women to the latest travesty at Aberdeen Proving Grounds,” he wrote, “the hard truth of our experiment with gender integration is that is has been an almost complete disaster for the military and for many of the individual women involved.”

Yes, our current vice president saw Mulan as a stark reminder that when women are sexually harassed or assaulted while serving this country, we really ought to blame their vaginas.

What’s more, President Trump says that Django Unchained, the Tarantino flick in which a renegade slave murders monstrous slaveholders, is the most racist movie he’s ever seen. (Guess he never got around to Birth of a Nation.) Similarly, he liked Unbroken but complained that the protagonist, real-life Olympian and World War II hero Louis Zamperini, didn’t get revenge on his Japanese tormentors once liberated from a POW camp and hinted that the torture depicted justifies the American use of waterboarding.

Somehow more galling than the claim that one of his favorite books is All Quiet on the Western Front is Trump’s nod to Citizen Kane when asked for a favorite film: If he understood but a single theme of Orson Welles’ masterpiece, he wouldn’t be the Trump we know today. His takeaway that “wealth isn’t everything” is about as trite a read as you could ask for, and it conveniently ignores Charles Foster Kane’s true destructive obsessions: power and influence.

Trump’s real number-1 movie, if you’re curious, is the 1988 Jean-Claude Van Damme vehicle Bloodsport, which combines a few of his favorite things — namely, the abdication of military duty and watching other people get hurt. This tale of an underground martial-arts competition, which he’s called “incredible, fantastic,” has seemed to utterly warp his sensibilities in the way that Gladiator became a second language for the psychotic Ralphie Cifaretto on The Sopranos. His “fire and fury” bullshit is ripped from the fifth-rate action screenplays that actually stuck with him, and the tone has trickled into bombastic comments from underlings and operatives.

Given that Trump, theoretically a smart person, can neither glean nuance from narrative nor recognize the artifice of a summer blockbuster, what hope is there for a basically coherent conservative film critic? The right can’t understand satire and thinks the Bechdel Test is some hot new standard for angry feminists, so we’ll have to lower the bar somewhat. Let’s just say that we’ll settle for a Republican making an allusion to one of the most popular movies of all time without revealing their complete ignorance of the plot. We’ll let former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee give it a shot. He’s a regular guy, right? Barbecue and bad dad jokes? Surely he, of all people, wouldn’t go on Fox News to trot out a strained Jaws analogy that bears no relationship to the actual events of the film, let alone the news cycle?

For fuck’s sake.