a little more on party and perspective

To extend the question of partisan positioning leading to inconsistencies just a bit further (and I promise that I’m done after that), consider James Poulos, echoing Peter Suderman, “If movies aren’t always, or even just aren’t, for moralizing, they’re certainly not for anti-moralizing. Neither are directors.”

What’s interesting about this is that one thing many commentators and bloggers share, across ideologies,  is disdain for liberal “political correctness” in both movies and movie criticism. Suderman, I know, for sure has criticized movies for sandwiching waves towards PC readings of history, and critics for attacking filmmakers for not doing so. Ross Douthat, another reformist conservative and movie critic, has done the same. But consider this in light of the criticism of Steven Soderbergh and Che. Che Guavara, indeed, is a deeply troubling figure who did a lot of bad things. The question is whether any director or screenwriter is required, by virtue of making a movie about him, to indict him within the movie for his crimes.

I think it’s an open question. But I also think such a thing needs to be evenly applied. So, for example, if a director made a movie about Samuel Adams, American patriot and leader of the terrorist organization the Sons of Liberty, is it incumbent on him to indict Adams in the way Suderman and Poulos suggest Che deserves indictment? I’m not saying that their various failings are equal, only wondering aloud about the principle of a required amount of criticism. If  such a movie was made, and didn’t include any criticism of Sam Adams–for leading an organization that terrorized British loyalists and their children, burned their homes and businesses, tortured and murdered Tories– if that happened, and Dana Stevens of Slate criticized the filmmaker for not including that stuff, would Peter and James criticize her? I don’t want to put words into their mouths; it’s certainly possible they wouldn’t. I imagine they would be tempted to. That kind of enforcement of PC history is a major source of criticism from conservatives and liberals alike.

What a filmmaker might say, and we might be inclined to agree, is that saying “Sam Adams was a murderer”– or, if you prefer, an orderer of murders– may be true, but also may not be the whole story, or the only story. The director or screenwriter might say that he or she is merely telling a different part of the Sam Adams story. The question is, would that director or screenwriter be fairly called an anti-moralist? Or is it simply a matter of the fact that we broadly agree with the story of American revolution, and not the story of socialist revolution, so we judge each differently? I don’t really know the answers to these questions; I’m afraid I’m going to have to again annoy my critics by qualifying my opinions with “I thinks” and “I don’t knows”. Sorry. (Still better than “I knows” and “I’m sures”, if you ask me.

Entirely separate from what Peter and James have said, I have to say that I for one am deeply bored by various “takedowns” of El Che that have arisen in popular media in response to the movie. Not because I don’t agree; I do, actually, think that Che Guavara is a terribly bad choice for someone to be held up as a revolutionary ideal, although I don’t follow some and put him on a moral plain with Stalin or Pol Pot. I just am bored by the whole “Che was a murderer” thing because I’ve heard it so many times before, and few things are more annoying than when someone places a critique or idea under the banner of the new when it’s really just tired. Sure, Che t-shirts are a cliche. So are anti-Che t-shirt screeds. Just an aesthetic thing.

Personally, my revolutionary t-shirt has Eugene Debbs on it.

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10 thoughts on “a little more on party and perspective

  1. E.D. – I didn’t watch nearly enough of that mini-series, but I saw the scenes to which you refer. And you’re right – Sam Adams was definitely portrayed in a pretty negative light in those scenes. By contrast, in the episodes I saw, John Adams was portrayed most positively in the scenes where he chose his principles over his (for lack of a better word) “party,” particularly in his defense of the British soldiers after the Boston Massacre.

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  2. I haven’t seen the sprawling flick — that’s PS’s department — so I was angling mostly to cast an “OK, fine” attitude toward Che’s dirty deeds (and the cinematic content that results) as an affirmative, not a passive act. Sort of like how Charles Taylor says secularization isn’t adequately explained by telling “subtraction stories.” It’s one thing to insist, as I have not done, for some quantum of moral content in films. It’s another to suggest that what might look like the absence of moral content from one angle appears more firmly as the presence of anti-moral content from the other. Which is which when? I would be cautious, here, but still brave enough to venture to start arguments that might yield some at least operational answers.

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  3. Larison has some thoughts on the issue (and provides one of the first links to this site…).

    Lincoln, Wilson and FDR–each of them was responsible for far more deaths and far more destruction than Che Guevara or any of a number of Arab nationalist figures ever was, but two important things separate them in the eyes of the general public: they did not personally kill anyone, and the causes for which their armies killed and destroyed are widely considered to be the just and right ones. That is to say, the exact same moralizing, or rather anti-moralizing, that the ends justify the means that Che used…

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  4. t’s another to suggest that what might look like the absence of moral content from one angle appears more firmly as the presence of anti-moral content from the other.

    Very interesting, and well taken.

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  5. interesting counter-factual. I haven’t seen Che either, and as I tend to target my movie-going based more on entertainment value than political statement, its tepid reviews mean I’ll probably never catch it.

    But in the hypothetical, I’d say that Che owes an accounting, however brief, of its protagonist’s darker side simply because it’s a long and comprehensive biopic. I’d criticize the omission less from a political perspective (I have no feelings on Guevara politically) than an artistic one — a character study of that length and scope ought to have something to say about Guevara’s violence. The same would apply to a movie of similar length and detail about Sam Adams.

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  6. That, to me, is the most damning critique– sure, you can make apolitical movies, but making apolitical movies about enormously controversial political figures is pretty weird. It’s made much weirder when you’ve got four hours to play with.

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