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Politics and Movies

I find it mighty . . . convenient that Leon Wieseltier thinks Munich has objectionable views on Israel and also happens to be a poorly-made film. Obviously, some movies are both aesthetically and politically objectionable, but while Steven Spielberg is far from my favorite director, I find it pretty implausible that he would direct a straight-up bad movie. His track record is remarkably consistent so I think the ex ante probability that the movie is at least okay is enormously high. One suspects that Wieseltier just really objects to the movie's politics -- one knows he has very strong feelings about Israel -- and that's all that's going on here. I suppose I'm also bitter about last year's thousand-man TNR pile-on against The Passion which I thought was both somewhat anti-semitic and very clearly an innovative, well-executed film.

At any rate, I genuinely know almost nothing about the terrorist attacks and Israel's countermeasures, but one has to imagine that a cinematic depiction of those events that took a "moral clarity"-laden pro-Israel line would, in fact, be phenomenally boring. Such a story would, if fictional, just be regarded as pretty silly action movie fodder where the white hats hunt down a bunch of black hats. The only reason you might think the historical events were an appealing subject for a film would have to be that you thought there was something morally complicated about them.

December 10, 2005 | Permalink

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"while Steven Spielberg is far from my favorite director, I find it pretty implausible that he would direct a straight-up bad movie."

Good lord. The bulk of the movies the guy has made are straight-up bad. Have you tried sitting through The Terminal or Hook?

It's true that Wieseltier's opinion should not be taken seriously since he seems to be reviewing the movie solely on the criteria of whether or not it's good for the Jews, (not to mention the fact that the guy consistently has horrible taste in movies), but I expect Wieseltier to have randomly lucked into a correct view of the film's entertainment merits.

"I suppose I'm also bitter about last year's thousand-man TNR pile-on against The Passion which I thought was both somewhat anti-semitic and very clearly an innovative, well-executed film."

Don't look to Variety for well thought out political opinion, and don't look to TNR for movie reviews.

Posted by: Petey | Dec 10, 2005 2:20:36 PM

Especially don't look to TNR political writers for movie reviews if they're being written by Michael Oren. He did truly wretched hack jobs on The Pianist and Downfall from absurdly tendentious political viewpoints. He even started his Downfall review by lamenting the fact that it was very popular in Israel, which of course was evidence that he was the only one who truly understood the secret apologia for Germany in WWII that it was apparently all about. Six Days of War is an outstanding book, but he really shouldn't quit his day job.

For actual movie reviews at TNR, the venerable Stanley Kaufmann (I think he's 90 years old now) is usually still worth reading.

Posted by: Haggai | Dec 10, 2005 2:31:13 PM

Your cute "mighty ... inconvenient" opening is flat accusation of bad faith and corruption on the part of Wieseltier as a critic. You haven't seen the film, you are clearly unfamiliar with Wieseltier's extensive writings on Spielberg, but you're perfectly happy to call him a liar in print.

This post just reeks of the arrogant igorance of the over-educated 20-something. You come late to the table and you don't bother to familiarize youself with the conversation that has been going on before you got here.

Wieseltier has been expressing his aesthetic distate for Spielberg for years. Here he is on Schindler's List: "'Schindler's List' proves again that, for Spielberg, there is a power in the world that is greater than good and greater than evil, and that power is the movies."

His objection to Munich is no different. He says it's well-crafted, moving, and profoundly stupid: "The film is powerful, in the hollow way that many of Spielberg's films are powerful. He is a master of vacant intensities, of slick searings. Whatever the theme, he must ravish the viewer."

How can you say that Wieseltier calls the movie "poorly-made"? Here is what he says: "Spielberg knows how to overwhelm. But I am tired of being overwhelmed. Why should I admire somebody for his ability to manipulate me?" Are you too dense to understand his criticism of the manipulative technique that is the hallmark of the "well-made" Hollywood movie? Or are you lying about what he says in order to smear his character?

The loser in this battle is you, Matt. You are a loudmouthed little twerp, and never so clearly as today. Show some humility in the presence of your betters.

Posted by: JR | Dec 10, 2005 2:49:29 PM

On Spielberg's Past Two Decades

The fascinating thing is that almost all of his movies during that time are either bad or bad with some saving graces.

His only successful movies in that time are the two Jurassic Park movies, which are very competent popcorn movies, (far better than what Michael Bay would churn out), and Catch Me If You Can.

Shindler's List and Saving Private Ryan are mostly tedious messes that are made semi-interesting by some extraordinary sequences driven by Janusz Kaminski's cinematography. (Spielberg, to his defense, does deserve credit for hiring Kaminski are giving him the freedom to do good things.)

Likewise, Minority Report and Artificial Intelligence have some terrific futuristic sequences, but long stretches of both movies are simply boring.

And that's really the problem with most Spielberg, the boredom. The only real task of the director is to avoid boredom, and Spielberg fails that task frequently. And most damningly, he is perhaps the only director on the planet who could make watching Samantha Morton boring.

Posted by: Petey | Dec 10, 2005 2:55:50 PM

"Are you too dense to understand his criticism of the manipulative technique that is the hallmark of the "well-made" Hollywood movie? Or are you lying about what he says in order to smear his character?"

It's utterly impossible to read the Wieseltier review and not some to the conclusion that he is fitting his aesthetic criticisms to serve his political purposes. If Wieseltier had been reviewing beards, he would've claimed that Arafat's beard was too scruffy and did not work well with the shape of his face.

"This post just reeks of the arrogant igorance of the over-educated 20-something. You come late to the table and you don't bother to familiarize youself with the conversation that has been going on before you got here."

Have they been cutting back on the meds over at your old folks' home?

Posted by: Petey | Dec 10, 2005 3:05:49 PM

Wieseltier's politics-first approach to Munich is apparent, to name just one place, in his quotes of several anti-Zionist remarks made by Tony Kushner in the last few years. LW is free to approach writing about the movie in that way, of course, but it shouldn't be surprising that such an article will not be taken seriously as a movie review per se.

Don't agree at all about Schindler's List, Petey, or most of Private Ryan either (the bad bookend scenes were what I didn't like about SPR). But The Terminal is pretty bad, and after a very effective first half, I thought War of the Worlds suddenly got really bad in the second half. Still looking forward to Munich, though.

Posted by: Haggai | Dec 10, 2005 3:10:59 PM

Also, complaining about a movie being "manipulative" is not something that I think makes any sense on any level. To call Hitchcock's best movies "manipulative" would be putting it mildly. The real complaint should be properly voiced as something like "this movie failed to manipulate me successfully."

Posted by: Haggai | Dec 10, 2005 3:13:45 PM

Petey, you think Spielberg is boring. Tedious, you said.

Whaddayah know, Wieseltier agrees with you: "The real surprise of Munich is how tedious it is."

Weiseltier is doing two things at once: critiquing the movie as a movie and critiquing its politics. He doesn't like either. He doesn't like Spielberg's movie-making and he doesn't like Kushner's politics. He doesn't believe that Spielberg HAS politics - Spielberg believes only in Hollywood. "For the only side that Steven Spielberg ever takes is the side of the movies." (Here he is being consistent to the point of repeating himself about Spielberg.) And he thinks Kushner is shallow, and that the movies' moral equality message is tendentious. Maybe he's right. Maybe you disagree with him. But where is the basis for a charge of bad faith?

Yglesias (1) hasn't seen the movie and (2)displays ignorance of Wieseltier's past writing on Spielberg. And he admits that (3) he doesn't know anything about the Munich massacre. A trifecta!! Smug, self-satisfied ignorance about everything!! Yet he's happy to call Wieseltier a liar. That's worse than a cheap shot. It sucks, and he deserves to be called out on it.

Posted by: JR | Dec 10, 2005 4:04:20 PM

"Petey, you think Spielberg is boring. Tedious, you said. Whaddayah know, Wieseltier agrees with you"

As I said upthread:

I expect Wieseltier to have randomly lucked into a correct view of the film's entertainment merits.

"Yet he's happy to call Wieseltier a liar. That's worse than a cheap shot. It sucks, and he deserves to be called out on it."

What Matthew actually said was:

One suspects that Wieseltier just really objects to the movie's politics

That's not exactly the same brew as calling Wieseltier a liar.

And Matthew's charge is exactly on the money. How could anyone read that review and not suspect Wieseltier politics were driving his aesthetic criticisms?

Posted by: Petey | Dec 10, 2005 4:35:23 PM

Check out "one day in september," fantastic documentary about the Munich attacks and their immediate aftermath by Brit filmmaker Kevin MacDonald. Whether Spielberg's film winds up being good or not, I bet MacDonald's has the superior reputation over time.

Posted by: rd | Dec 10, 2005 4:43:06 PM

From the perspective of whether LW's article should be taken as an attempt at film criticism--which is pretty much the point of MY's post--who cares about his previous writings on Spielberg? I've seen most of his movies as well, but that doesn't mean I deserve the right to be taken seriously as a film critic whenever I share my opinion on them. LW is well within his rights to object to Munich on political grounds, which he did. MY is also within his rights to dismiss the potential value of that argument as real film criticism.

Posted by: Haggai | Dec 10, 2005 4:44:22 PM

"How could anyone read that review and not suspect Wieseltier politics were driving his aesthetic criticisms?"

"Anyone" could become familiar with Wieseltier's aesthetic criticisms of Spielberg over many years and understand that he has been consistently critical of Spielberg's phony sentimentality, lack of intellectual rigor and absence of political commitment. "Anyone" would then understand that Wieseltier's dislike of Spielberg's style is independent of his views on political question of Israel.

But if "anyone" is a lazy ignoramus, "anyone" can read one article and decide that Wieseltier is lying about his aesthetic and ethical objections in order to advance a political agenda. This will make "anyone" feel morally superior while freely confessing that he hasn't made even the slightest effort to understand what he is talking about.

Posted by: JR | Dec 10, 2005 8:18:28 PM

This is a silly debate.

Matt, I think you're misinterpreting the article. He doesn't claim that Spielberg's film is poorly made; he claims that it's overwhelming, manipulative, that viewers will likely be blown away.

All of these are the sorts of criticisms that have been leveled at Spielberg for years by curmudgeons who dislike Spielberg's trademark blend of thrilling action scenes and childlike, unashamed sentinmentality. War of the Worlds, which the article says is aesthetically no different from Munich, was pretty much a perfect example: Spielberg delivered one hell of a dose of mechanized, big-movie-spectacle terror, and then wound up with 10 minutes of the worst sentimental gush in the last few years of Hollywood.

In other words, he's not calling the film poorly made, he's saying that what Spielberg supporters often praise about Spielberg films isn't praiseworthy. Not exactly the same thing.

As for arguing about film based on politics, that's a rather complicated issue. On one hand, there's got to be some seperation. Speaking as a conservative/libtertarian type (I know, I know), I thought The Constant Gardener was marked by just ludicrous politics. It was a cause movie in every sense of the word. But it was also a damn fine geopolitical thriller, and as someone who went to school for Lit, Drama and Film, I loved it, and would reccomend it to anyone who wants to see an intelligently scripted, twistily plotted thriller. It wasn't perfect, but it was damn fine.

On the other hand, you can also look at TCG and, as Ross Douhat did, understand that it's a very good movie, but it could have been even better without such single-minded devotion to its lefty politicking. Good drama, I think, isn't afraid to take sides (which, according to the TNR piece in question, Munich refuses), but it's also not afraid to let the opposition score strong blows either.

Brecht, who really pushed the idea of socially-motivating drama, was a master at this, and that's what makes some of his plays so endearing (others less so). He wanted plays to be "like lawyers arguing in a courtroom," and not a great lawyer for the right side vs. a terrible lawyer for the wrong side either. So in Galileo for instance, there's a scene in which one (good) character opines upon the tragedy, the total loss of meaning that will occur when his parents discover that the Earth is not at the center of the universe. The play is very clearly critical of the Catholic church and its suppression of Galileo's ideas, but Brecht was entirely willing to recognize that, for many, there would be a price to pay.

All this is to say that, while one ought to be willing to recognize that numbskulled politics and great filmmaking can co-exist (and, from a conservative viewpoint, often do), bad political views can affect the artistic value of a film as well, and those of us with some interest in both politics and movies ought to be willing to sort through these things with more than a passing, "Oh this reviewer just doesn't like the politics."

Posted by: Peter | Dec 10, 2005 10:40:10 PM

"bad political views can affect the artistic value of a film as well"

Meh. Triumph of the Will kicks ass.

Posted by: Petey | Dec 11, 2005 1:21:03 AM

Ditto on One day in September...

Posted by: swissmiss | Dec 11, 2005 5:07:55 AM

"I find it mighty . . . convenient that Leon Wieseltier thinks Munich has objectionable views on Israel and also happens to be a poorly-made film."

The tragedy of the TNR is a political and culture magazine with an over-educated liberal-ish flavour, but open to different points of view and controversy, has somehow ended up contained in the same covers as persistent, predictable and intemperate propagandist support for Israel's far-from-liberal behaviour. Anything which even remotely touches on Middle East politics - including novels and films - in TNR is not worth reading. The rest is often good.

"This post just reeks of the arrogant igorance of the over-educated 20-something."

This is the only reason we read you MY. Keep it up.

Posted by: otto | Dec 11, 2005 10:11:34 AM

TNR generally blows these days. Why not get The Weekly Standard instead? It has roughly the same political bent, but it can be less willfully obscure because it doesn't need to make any pretense about being a liberal or Democratic magazine.

Wieseltier, even back when TNR was good, seemed more compelling about high culture than popular culture. (This may well be because neither I nor anyone else has any real familiarity with high culture, so we lack the background to critique his critiques.) He is, on the other hand, often wrong-footed about pop culture. If more than 10 people have seen something, Wieseltier probably shouldn't review it.

Posted by: SomeCallMeTim | Dec 11, 2005 10:40:29 AM

"TNR generally blows these days. Why not get The Weekly Standard instead? It has roughly the same political bent"

Ugh. You seem to have a similar level of familiarity with American politics that you do with high culture.

Posted by: Petey | Dec 11, 2005 4:31:33 PM

Petey:

I realize that you've been jocking Beinart's tip for a while, and I think it's cute that you're coming obliquely to his defense. But unless you can remember the magazine prior to the Sullivan years, your ability to measure the magazine's quality and tone is 3" shorter than you're reporting.

Posted by: SomeCallMeTim | Dec 11, 2005 6:52:09 PM

You seem to have a similar level of familiarity with American politics that you do with high culture.

Do you actually work at TNR, Petey? Is that what the deal is?

ash
['I'm close.']

Posted by: ash | Dec 11, 2005 6:59:00 PM

"I realize that you've been jocking Beinart's tip for a while, and I think it's cute that you're coming obliquely to his defense."

Beinart? I do agree with much of what Beinart writes, but how did a guy who writes 2% of the rag become a synecdoche for the entirety of TNR?

"But unless you can remember the magazine prior to the Sullivan years"

Since I'm a liberal Democrat, I'm obviously not much of a fan of Sully. But the rag's historical desire to be a constructive critic of Democratic orthodoxy has always been what has made it interesting and valuable. I'm a fan of Marshall Wittman for similar reasons, even if he has similar flaws to TNR - specifically the agent of AIPAC aspect.

"Do you actually work at TNR, Petey? Is that what the deal is?"

My only personal encounter with TNR was when Marty Peretz personally threw me out of a party. But that's a semi-amusing story for another time and place.

"I'm close."

Not even vaguely warm.

Posted by: Petey | Dec 11, 2005 7:23:40 PM

TNR generally blows these days. Why not get The Weekly Standard instead?

I agree with this completely. 'Course I might be coming at the point from a different perspective.

(I admit, though, that I can only read the free stuff... but even so, I generally don't get it. Take this article on Malaya that Matthew just praised on TAPPED. Gee, war was more brutal in the '40s? I'm shocked. The fact that war against an insurgency used brutal tactic in the '40s says nothing about the tactics to be used in a war against an insurgency today. We look to Malaya for the strategy, not the tactics.)

Posted by: Al | Dec 11, 2005 8:01:55 PM

There we go. Al criticizes TNR from the right. All is at peace in the world.

(And didja catch the Iverson show at the Medowlands, Al? I don't care if he and Vaughn tangled feet or not. It was still a crazy move and a masterful performance.)

Posted by: Petey | Dec 11, 2005 8:21:02 PM

I don't particularly care about any of the elements in this "debate" (TNR/Spielburg/Munich-political-film) but this rather annoys me:

"Anyone" could become familiar with Wieseltier's aesthetic criticisms of Spielberg over many years and understand that he has been consistently critical of Spielberg's phony sentimentality, lack of intellectual rigor and absence of political commitment.

Look, JR, a piece should stand on its own. When I subscribe to TNR I don't sign a contract to read everything the author has previously written. It's a freakin' magazine, not a Ph.D. thesis. Old people who expect young people to absorb everything and anything that came before them before the young people are even allowed to speak on the matter are usually looking for an excuse to keep hogging the mic.

Matt read the review. The review, apparently, did not present enough evidence for the bad qualities of the film (either just, bad, Matt's shorthand for the qualities of overwhelmingness and manipulation actually used in the review) to satisfy Matt. Given that the review built a poor-for-Matt case for the badness of the film--a case that Matt felt had to be built since he agrees with some segement of conventional wisdom that Spielburg generally makes not-bad movies--and given that the review also spent quite a bit of time on the politics of the film, Matt finds it awfully convenient that the author could say, "it's a bad film," along with saying, "it's a wrong film." Saying it's convenient does not mean Wieseltier is a liar. We're talking about a freakin movie review. If Wieseltier didn't like it, he didn't like it. Is he being lazy about building the case that the movie is bad b/c he wants to spend more time building the case that the movie is wrong? Is he making easy assumptions about the extent to which his readers' tastes and prejudices match his own? Either of these would be matters of convienience without beign matters of lying. Matt's "I suspect that's all that's going on here" means he thinks that Wieseltier took a dislike to the movie, and that colored his perception. There's no shame in that. It's not a matter of "lying." It's a matter of having a pained palate at the time of viewing. Since all assessments of goodness or badness are really subjective, Matt's basically saying, "eh, I don't trust his palate." If you don't build credibility with your reader in the piece that you're writing that your palate is aligned with theirs, they're just not going to trust your palate. It's really that simple. The best way to avoid that is to break down your tastes and dislikes and build a very thorough case without relying on your previous reputation or vague statements about overwhelmingness and tedium. The closest he comes to a specific, concrete critique of the movie that isn't explicitly a political disagreement is this mocking summary:

Palestinians murder, Israelis murder. Palestinians show evidence of a conscience, Israelis show evidence of a conscience. Palestinians suppress their scruples, Israelis suppress their scruples. Palestinians make little speeches about home and blood and soil, Israelis make little speeches about home and blood and soil. Palestinians kill innocents, Israelis kill innocents.

Well, that's not helpful at all, b/c anyone knows that any film can be rednered ridiculous if reduced to enough of a bad summary. All the specific mentions of dialog or cinematography are to build the case that Tony Kushner has no love for Israel. At no point does the review attempt to use specific observations about the film to back up the contention that it is overwhelming, tedius, too slick, overly symmetric, etc. etc. Somebody, like me, who doesn't really care to read anything about the political analysis of the film until after they've seen it, has no idea why they should believe Wieseltier about his aesthetics issues with the film. He never describes a specific moment or turn of phrase or motion or shot that seems bad or tedious or overlymanipulative.

There is nothing in the review that is a specific and concrete to the film

You for one are making the utterly ridiculous assumption that someone who picks TNR off the newsstand should have read every single thing Wieseltier ever wrote about Spielburg before, and if they haven't done that, they have no right to gribe about the structure of the small argument available to them. You know, there's a section on the GRE now where you get presented with an essay and then you have to write a critique of the arguments in that essay. Since you know nothing about the author's previous work, you have to just stick to the essay at hand. It's a not unuseful skill, and gasp! It's often what blogging is all about.

Posted by: Saheli | Dec 11, 2005 9:07:41 PM

"You for one are making the utterly ridiculous assumption that someone who picks TNR off the newsstand should have read every single thing Wieseltier ever wrote about Spielburg before, and if they haven't done that, they have no right to gribe about the structure of the small argument available to them."

Hear, hear!

Posted by: Petey | Dec 12, 2005 12:29:17 AM

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