Friday, August 28, 2009

Film Friday: Ghostbusters (1984)

Everyone likes Ghostbusters. It’s one of those rare comedies that has held up through the years and never gets old no matter how many times you see it. There is a reason for that. Just as interesting, much of what makes this movie so enduring almost didn’t happen. Ghostbusters should be dubbed the “Accidental Movie.”

** spoiler alert **
The Critics Blow Another One
Ghostbusters was generally well received by the critics, though they considered it light fare. Said the New York Times, “Its jokes, characters and story line are as wispy as the ghosts themselves, and a good deal less substantial.” Newsweek called it “summer nonsense.” And The New Yorker said that besides Murray, “nobody else has much in the way of material, and since there’s almost no give-and-take among the three men, Murray’s lines fall on dead air.” Yet, despite these assertions of vapidity, Ghostbusters struck a chord with the public. It spent seven weeks at number one and eventually became the highest grossing comedy of the 1980s. Even today, it is often ranked on “best of” lists. AFI ranks it as the 28th best comedy of all time. IGN named it the greatest comedy ever. Entertainment Weekly voted it the funniest movie of the past 25 years.
The Secret To Comedic Endurance
So what gives Ghostbusters its staying power? The answer is simple, though not intuitively obvious. What makes a comedy successful over the passage of time and repeated viewings is not the jokes, but the strength of the story and the relationship of the characters. Indeed, many of the best comedies could have been written as dramas, with the humor edited in later.

The Ancient Greeks, who invented comedy as a written form, did not think of comedies as particularly funny. To them, a comedy was simply a story with a happy ending. Today, a comedy must provoke laughter. But there are many ways to get laughter and modern comedies come in many forms. Some are stand up routines, some are slap stick. Some are parodies or satire and some can best be described as simply not-dramas. Most of the comedies with staying power fall into the last category for the following reasons:

Humor is fleeting and difficult to achieve, because humor is based on emotion. To get another person laughing, you need to find a way to activate the correct emotional state. Sometimes that can be done by telling jokes. Sometimes it requires the surprise of slapstick. Some prefer intellectual humor, while others enjoy seeing discomfort. What one person finds funny, another may find insulting or boring. Thus, finding the right trigger to bring on the emotional state of humor is very difficult. Moreover, what we find funny changes as we age. Further, because humor is often based on shock or surprise, e.g. revealing the unexpected, it loses its impact the more it is seen. Thus, not only is it difficult to accurately target the funny bone, but it gets harder and harder with each passing viewing to keep hitting that funny bone.

Consequently, the more a comedy relies on pure humor, e.g. jokes, to attract an audience, the more difficult it will be for the film to gain any longevity because the jokes will get stale, leaving nothing else worth watching. This is particularly true where the humor is referential to current events or then-existing social norms. Cartoons, stand-up routines, and parodies typically fall victim to this, as do gross-out films and films that are little more than disguised sketch comedy.

But the "not-drama" comedy can avoid this fate becaue that form of comedy treats the story and the characters as paramount, and only interjects humor carefully where appropriate to serve the story. Because this type of comedy relies on the story and the relationships of the characters to attract the audience, rather than the jokes, the audience can still enjoy the movie just as much as they did initially, even long after they have stopped laughing at the jokes.
Ghostbusters Is A Story/Character Based “Comedy”
Ghostbusters is such a comedy: It is driven by the plot and the characters, not the humor. In fact, if you remove one or two lines from a handful of scenes, cut out a few seconds of recognizable comedic acting (like the slapstick manner in which they flee the ghost librarian), and change the Stay Puft Marshmallow man and the green slimer into something more menacing, Ghostbusters becomes a drama or even a horror movie.

Indeed, all the elements are there for Ghostbusters to be an effective dramatic movie about four men who hunt ghosts for a living. It is only through the addition of a handful of humorous lines, the inclusion of brief moments of easily recognizable comedic acting, and the choice to add a level of ridiculousness to the final confrontation that the drama disappears seamlessly into a comedy. And since we enjoy the movie because we like the story, because we like the relationships built by the characters, and because we enjoy the world they have created for us, rather than because we are waiting to see a series of jokes executed by the actors, we can re-watch this movie over and over.

And if you think this isn’t a dramatic movie first and foremost, consider the scene where the Ghostbusters are called to the Mayor’s office, where they confront Peck. With the exception of Bill Murray, nothing in that scene tells you this movie is a comedy. The scene is heavy and dark, and the characters act just as they would if they were in a drama. Even when Murray smarts off, the other characters don’t react in any of the traditional comedic styles, they react in a realistic manner, just as one would react to someone who has told the truth, but in an insulting way. Thus, the humor is delivered, but the dramatic tension of the scene is maintained. In other words, you get to laugh, but you never lose your place in the story.

Ghostbusters also deals with some very heavy, i.e. “dramatic”, themes, the types of themes that can’t be handled in a pure comedy. Specifically, consider the discussion between Ernie Hudson and Dan Aykroyd regarding God, Jesus and Revelations. No jokes are made during that discussion and the issues aren’t raised as set ups for future jokes. This is a true dramatic moment, which gives the viewer context for the multitude of ghosts suddenly appearing. If this scene was transferred directly, without change, into a John Carpenter movie, this would be considered the payoff scene that sets up the terror about to be unleashed, no one would recognize it as coming from a comedy.

Even the effects are often much scarier than one would expect for a comedy, and the soundtrack is scored as a drama, a concept that gained notoriety after John Landis asked Elmer Bernstein to score Animal House as if it were a drama. Bernstein scored Ghostbusters as well.
The Character Relationships Are More Dramatic Than Comedic
The character relationships also are more like a drama than a comedy. In a more joke driven comedy, like Beer Fest, the characters must all have unusual traits that come into play to make various scenes work throughout the movie. Their reactions are exactly what is needed to make each joke work.

In Ghostbusters, by comparison, the characters act realistically, i.e. as they should when confronted with events around them. The humor is then woven into the dialog, as appropriate, rather than having the scene built for the humor. And what this does, is it allows us to respond to the characters on an emotional level, something you cannot normally do in a humor-driven movie.

For example, we feel comfortable and welcomed by the ease of the relationship between Ramis and Aykroyd, and by Aykroyd’s childish innocence. We feel inspired by Ernie Hudson’s discussion of faith. We long for the slowly developing romance between Murray and Weaver to pay off. And we pull for the oblivious, but good-natured Rick Moranis. These are the types of responses you don’t get in a more joke-based movie. Ask yourself, which character in Airplane makes you feel welcomed or inspired? Do you really care about the romance between Striker and Elaine?
The Accidental Movie
This is why Ghostbusters has been so successful, because it is first and foremost the story of five or six characters, who happen to be involved in the business of hunting ghosts. It is that story and the relationship of the characters that keep viewers coming back, the jokes are secondary.

Thus, it is interesting to learn that the things that make Ghostbusters tick almost weren’t part of the movie. For example, as just noted, the realism of the story is what connects us to the movie. But the original concept for the movie was not very realistic. Aykroyd’s original concept called for the Ghostbusters to act as a sort of SWAT team, traveling through time in a flying car to fight ghosts. But because this would have been too expensive to shoot, Reitman brought in Harold Ramis to re-write the script and bring it into modern times. If CGI had existed at that point, Ghostbusters would have been a very different movie.

Further, when the movie was originally written, Aykroyd wanted John Belushi instead of Bill Murray, Eddie Murphy instead of Ernie Hudson, and John Candy in place of Rick Moranis. Belushi died, opening the door for Murray, and, frankly, probably saving the film. Murray and Belushi are hardly interchangeable, and I have never seen evidence that Belushi could carry off the leading man role that Murray delivered so perfectly in Ghostbusters. Indeed, compare the “romance” between Belushi and Carrie Fisher in The Blues Brothers against Murray’s romance of Weaver, and you can see how a key element of the film would have changed.

Similarly, replacing the understated and dignified Hudson with the scene stealing Murphy (who rejected this project to shoot Beverly Hills Cop) would have killed the triangular dynamics established by the writers between the three original Ghostbusters. Likewise, John Candy, who was to play a straight-laced conservative neighbor of Weavers', cannot deliver the “little guy” character that Moranis so brilliantly gave the audience. Moranis' character was vital because he put a heart into the possession scenes, and he humanized what was happening. Candy's more outlandish style would have yielded very different results. Fortunately for us, Candy refused to commit, and in stepped Moranis.

Ramis also did not originally intend to play Dr. Spengler, until they could not find anyone better. And many of the names considered, like Christopher Walken or John Lithgow, again would have seriously changed the chemistry that became so important to the film. Have you ever seen a movie in which you felt Walken was someone you wanted to befriend?

Any of these changes could have dramatically changed the tenor and feel of this film. Thus, ironically, much of what has given Ghostbusters its longevity could well be considered an accident. Fascinating.

[+]

Friday, August 21, 2009

Film Friday: Flash Gordon (1980)

Flash Gordon should stink. But I love this film and I’m not alone. Although it had limited success when it was released, Flash Gordon has since become a cult classic. The question is why? To solve that riddle, let’s look at what’s wrong with the film.
The Production Stinks, Right?
Right off the bat, we notice that the effects in Flash Gordon are quite poor. The ships aren’t sleek or believable, the planets aren’t planets and half the sets are only half sets. This is not Star Wars. Clearly, this counts against the film. . . or does it?

Actually, let me backup a step. The sets and effects seem bad at first, until you realize what is going on. They aren’t realistic because they aren’t intended to be. These effects and sets were consciously chosen by producer Dino De Laurentiis (Conan, Dune, Army of Darkness) to be stylized and minimal. At the same time, the costumes are remarkably ornate and colorful. And all of this combines to gives a retro feel to the movie, reminiscent of the 1930s comic strip.

Moreover, minimal sets can be quite a good idea. Minimal sets work because the human mind is remarkably good at interpretation. That’s why we can see stick figures as people even though they are just a collection of lines. That’s also why theater works, why cartoons can be largely symbolic, and why movies like Dogville work, even though the sets are imaginary. The sets and effects in Flash Gordon fall into this category. Indeed, in many ways, these sets are rather ingenious because they let the imagination of the viewer fill them in. It’s hard to go wrong when you let a viewer customize a movie in their own minds.
The Plots Is Surprisingly Solid
So we can’t really criticize the sets or the costumes. And we certainly can’t criticize the soundtrack, scored by Queen. So what about the plot? The plot of Flash Gordon is nothing special, right? New York Jets quarterback Flash and Dale Arden are kidnapped by Dr. Hans Zarkov (Topol), and flown into a great void from which the earth is being attacked, though the attacks appear as natural disasters. On the other side of the void, they find Ming the Merciless (Max von Sydow), who rules over a series of princedoms through fear of his military and his secret police, and by keeping the princes fighting with each other.

Ming decides that he’s going to execute Flash, brainwash Zarkov, marry Arden, and then destroy the Earth. Flash escapes execution with the aid of Ming’s daughter Princess Aura, who takes him to the princedom of her lover -- Prince Barin (Timothy Dalton). Barin tries to kill Flash but ends up being captured by his rival, the winged Prince Vultan (Brian Blessed). In the processes of sorting out their differences through trial by combat, Flash kills Klytus, the head of Ming’s secret police. Ming responds by destroying Vultan’s city and taking Dale back to his castle to be married. Flash must convince Barin and Vultan to team up to defeat Ming. He does, they do, the end.

Actually, that’s a rather complex plot for as simple as the movie feels. And that’s the result of surprisingly good writing. The plot moves quickly, at a strong pace, and without hiccup. Nothing in this story feels like it was added to make the movie longer or because the director wedged in some idea that never really fit the story. Moreover, even though the lack of sets meant that every action or plot element had to be communicated to the viewer through dialog, the dialog never feels heavy or labored or weighed down. To the contrary, the dialog is witty and simple, and eminently quotable.

Also, these writers have learned the art of manipulating their audience on an emotional level. For example, we know that Flash will not die. Thus, when he is executed, we know this must be a ruse, though we don’t know how. Whereas lesser writers might have immediately revealed Flash’s escape, these writers take their time and continue the rest of the story as we wait. This heightens our tension and keeps our eyes glued to the screen in anticipation. . . we want to know the answer to the riddle that has been asked. In the same way, we are often told of schemes, which we then get to watch unfold on our unsuspecting heroes. This pulls us into the movie as we know something the hero does not and we feel compelled to warn him.

The strong writing is perhaps explained by the pedigree of the writers: Flash Gordon was co-written by Michael Allin, who wrote Enter the Dragon (1973), and Lorenso Semple who wrote the screenplays for such classics as The Parallax View (1974), Three Days of the Condor (1975),Papillion (1973), and Never Say Never Again (1983). Good writing comes through in any genre.
The Acting Is Surprisingly Good As Well
Even though the writing is good, the acting is horrible right? Nope. Flash Gordon contains some amazingly talented actors. Max von Sydow plays Ming, Topol plays Hans Zarkov, Timothy Dalton plays Prince Barin, and Brian Blessed plays Vultan. And while they all definitely play "over the top," it really fits with the story. What's more, the script is eminently quotable and it is the actors' delivery that often makes the quotes memorable. Blessed, for example, has mentioned that his “Gordon’s alive” quote is the one he hears the most from fans of his work.

Moreover, these actors act quite earnestly and they remain true to the emotions and natures of their characters. In every moment, they act consistently with their characters’ natures and respond naturally to events. They don’t “act down” to the subject matter and there is never a moment where they do something strange or unnatural that pulls you out of the movie or reminds you that they are acting.

If there is camp, it comes from Gordon (former Playgirl centerfold Sam Jones) and Dale (Melody Anderson). But I’ll tell you why it works. Their camp brings a level of innocence to the roles and their chemistry is real enough. Indeed, they are quite believable as two people who barely know each other, but find themselves in unusual surroundings and are starting to fall for each other. Thus, while sometimes their acting seems more melodramatic than dramatic, it serves the story well. In fact, it gives the movie a heart, in that you easily like these people and you want to see everything work out for them. It also sets them off from the other characters, who are native to Ming's universe, and who act much more aggressively.
But In The End, The Films Is Just Plain Fun
So the sets and effects, and soundtrack are actually quite good -- particularly for science fiction fans who tend to accept greater creativity. The script is surprisingly strong, despite the surface childishness of the concept. The acting is quite solid too. But that alone doesn’t mean the film is going to work. Yet, this film does. So what makes it cross that line?

This movie aims straight for your inner child. It is a modern fairytale. It is uncomplicated and clear. The good guys are not only good, they are innocent -- no anti-heroes here. The bad guys are evil villains. They too are uncomplicated. And that means you can sit back and root for the good guys without worrying about the rightness or morality of their actions. Thus, while this film is not deep or meaningful, it is very easy to enjoy. That is perhaps why this movie continues to find viewers in each passing generation, because this movie appeals to our simpler, less cynical selves.

[+]

Friday, August 14, 2009

Film Friday: I Am Legend (2007)

I Am Legend is anything but legendary. Yes, it made a lot of money, Will Smith always does. And yes, it is an enjoyable, if forgettable, way to waste an afternoon. But it should have been so much more. The sad truth about I Am Legend is the filmmakers missed no opportunity to miss an opportunity. They stripped every interesting element from the film, until all that was left was a bland zombie movie. The always-likable Will Smith, who does an excellent job, deserved more from the script than the filmmakers gave him.

** spoiler alert **
The Premise
I Am Legend is the story of Robert Neville (Will Smith), the last man alive. It is based on the 1954 novel of the same name by Richard Matheson. This novel has twice before been brought to the screen, first by Vincent Price in The Last Man On Earth (1964) and then by Charlton Heston in The Omega Man (1971). The premise is straight forward. A man-made virus, intended to cure cancer, quickly spreads around the world. The virus kills 90% of the population, leaving around 600 million survivors. But the virus warps all but 12 million of the survivors into mindless, murderous creatures called “dark seekers,” which look a bit like the CGI Gollum from Lord of the Rings. These creatures have the mental capacity and desires of the infected humans (zombies) from 28 Days Later, but cannot stand exposure to direct sunlight. They kill off the remaining humans in short order, apart from Will Smith.

Smith happens to be a virologist who is trying to determine why he was naturally immune to the virus, and to convert that immunity into an antidote, which he hopes will return the dark seekers back to their prior human state. During the days he and his German shepherd Sam hunt for food in a New York City that has become overgrown with nature. At night he works in his lab, which is constructed inside his house. The premise is all well and good, but it offers nothing more than your average zombie movie. And sadly, neither does the rest of the film.
What Makes Us Human? Who Cares?
The primary issue one would expect to be addressed by a film like I Am Legend is the question of what makes us human. Indeed, consider for a moment what made the book so interesting that it’s been brought to the screen three times. In the book, Neville spends his days killing the creatures and his nights locked in his home. One day, he stumbles upon a young woman who appears to be a survivor. He soon learns, however, that she is part of a group that is infected, but have begun to overcome their disease. They are slowly rebuilding society. But, from their perspective, every day, Neville comes along and kills their friends while they sleep. When Neville learns this, he finally understands the reversal that has taken place. Whereas vampires had been the legend that terrified humanity, he is now the creature that terrorizes this new race. He has become their bogeyman, their legend. Indeed, they eventually catch him, and before they execute him, Neville states that he has become “a new superstition entering the unassailable fortress of forever. I am legend.” In this manner, the book deals with questions like what makes us human and at what point does another creature become so close to being human that we should treat it as such.

Will Smith’s movie repeats these elements individually, but without connecting the dots and without the intellectual curiosity. Smith tells us the dark seekers are purely evil, animalistic creatures. But we soon see they have moved beyond instinct and are showing human-level intelligence. For example, they have become protective of their fellows. They also show intelligence by using a dummy to trap Smith in an identical manner in which he trapped one of them. This shows not only a level of sophistication that denotes significant intelligence, but also that they have been observing him and planning how to handle him.

Moreover, Smith meets a young woman with a child, and we are instantly suspicious of her. Indeed, we first meet her after she saves Smith from a situation where it doesn't appear a person could have saved him, unless the creatures let her save him. She also seems too calm for someone who has survived the brutal murder of 12 million people by “fast-twitch” zombies of the type found in 28 Days Later, and has supposedly been on the run across the country. She also demonstrates a lack of cultural awareness that is highly suspicious, in that she’s never even heard of Bob Marley, nor does she recognize his music. Not to mention that her story of survival seems false.

So are you putting together the clues? Well, don’t bother. They don’t mean anything. The woman is human, and the creatures aren’t getting smarter -- or at least the filmmakers don’t care that they are. Indeed, the creatures aren’t building a new society, it’s not wrong to kill them, and Smith is nobody’s bogeyman. In fact, the only way the title makes sense is if you assume that he becomes a “legend” for saving humanity. . . oh, did I forget to mention there is a nonsensical happy ending tacked onto the movie with the woman making it to a safe city in Vermont, which sits behind a huge metal wall that puts the great wall of China to shame. How they avoided the disease is never explained, but then who cares. . . the filmmakers certainly didn’t.

By ignoring the obvious question of whether or not the creatures have become sentient to the point that it is wrong for Smith to treat them as lab subjects, the filmmakers short change the film considerably. But that’s not all that they ignore.

** The DVD has an alternate ending in the extras, in which Smith and the alpha creature reach a peace agreement, when Smith turns over the female creature he’s been experimenting on. But this ending is not integrated into the film and comes across like a sudden add-on, as if the filmmakers said, “oh yeah, we forgot to mention this, here. . . roll credits.”
Is There A God? No, um yes.
A film like I Am Legend, with its apocalyptic themes, obviously raises religious questions. Is man truly alone? Do we make our own destiny? Can we count on God to watch over us, even in such a dark hour? Or is it possible this virus represents divine judgment? This is fertile ground for filmmakers to speculate about God -- either pro or con. Yet, I Am Legend essentially tosses these issues aside, only bringing them back out of the blue for a surprise ending. It is like they banned these issues, only to reach for them when they needed an ending.

The film first mentions religion when Smith queries the woman about how she survived and how she knows about the safe city in Vermont. She explains that God protected her and advised her. Smith ridicules this idea in the type of shallow speech one would expect from a Hollywood movie with little interest in addressing questions of religion (he gives the standard “your God did this, so don’t talk to me about God” speech). The issue is then dropped entirely. . . until the very end of the film, when Smith suddenly decides to sacrifice himself to save the woman because he has an epiphany. With no prior hint to the audience, Smith connects a series of butterfly images from his daughter, from the creature he’s been testing, and from the young woman, just as the creatures break into his lab. He then hands the cure to the woman, telling her that he will die to give her a chance to escape because “I think this is why you are here” -- with the implication being that she was sent as part of a divine plan.

But this ending comes from out of the blue. The only hint the viewer has prior to Smith's epiphany that religion is an issue is Smith’s 20 second anti-religion rant half an hour before. So even though the issue of faith is technically addressed, it adds no depth to the film because it is never integrated into the story in such a way to let the audience consider its implications.
Why Would An Audience Want An Emotional Attachment?
But even leaving aside the intellectual questions, this film repeatedly misses opportunities to connect the audience to the film on an emotional level. For example, the filmmakers choose to kill Smith’s family. But they don’t make Smith face the difficult question of either watching them turn into the creatures or of killing them to save them. Instead, Smith is given the easy way out, they are killed instantly in a helicopter accident. Thus, we never connect with his personal suffering. In fact, the closest we come is when he must kill his dog Sam, which is one of the only emotional moments of the film.

Nor are we allowed to connect with the lives that were lost. The creatures retain no traces of who they were, so we cannot see ourselves in them. There are no bodies. Smith even scavenges through apartments, looking for food and medicine, but finds no real traces of people's personal lives. How can we mourn people we do not know?

The film even passes up fantastic opportunities to frighten us. For example, Smith walks with impunity through the abandoned apartments. But even worse, the filmmakers set up a fantastic pay off in a DVD store that Smith visits every day, but never make it pay off: to give his world some semblance of humanity, Smith has populated this DVD store with mannequins as if they were other shoppers. He even pretends to hit on one of the mannequins and he regularly speaks to the clerk (Fred). The sense of terror that could be generated in such an environment, if mannequins were moved or replaced by creatures, could be phenomenally powerful in pulling people into this world. You could scare people with the prospect that Smith was being stalked or even show that Smith had gone slightly insane. But nothing happens in the store. Even after the creatures use the store clerk to bait their trap, by moving it to another street -- which means they must have been watching Smith in the store -- there are no flashbacks to show us that we simply failed to observe the danger. And thus, the opportunity to get us invested in the story by giving us a sense of fear for Smith's surroundings is squandered.
Thus, we do not see Smith’s humanity or the humanity of the creatures, nor do we feel the need to mourn the dead, nor do we feel the need to fear the creatures unless Smith seeks them out. In effect, we are left with nothing to connect us to Smith’s world. Add to this the utter lack of intellectual curiosity of this film and we are left with a bland blockbuster that does nothing more than give us just another meaningless zombie movie. And that is a shame because this film could have been so much more.

[+]

Thursday, August 13, 2009

TV Review: Top Gear (2002-___)

I am not a gear head. I have no love for engine specifications, I can’t tell you every model Ford ever made, and I would rather shoot myself than watch Motor Week. But I love Top Gear. Contradiction? No, not really, because Top Gear isn’t a car show. Top Gear is an extremely clever comedy farcically disguised as a car show.

What Is Top Gear?

Top Gear, ostensibly, is a British car show. But as the show’s own website explains, “you’ll find no boring stats or impenetrable conversations about camshafts.” And that is because the show is not about cars. The show is about three sarcastic and very witty hosts, Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May (aka Captain Slow), who engage in a series of challenges, review the occasional car (often tongue in cheek), and interview a weekly celebrity. It is the dry wit version of Monty Python.

The Challenges

The main highlight of each show is the challenge. These involve the producers sending the three hosts to some far away location, often another country, and giving them some crazy assignment. Some of the more recent challenges, for example, have involved turning cars into boats and trying to cross the English Channel, driving the length of Vietnam (about 1000 miles) in eight days on ancient motorcycles, trying to cross impassible parts of Africa in cars costing less than a few thousand dollars, and "economy racing" from Basel to Liverpool (750 miles) on one tank of gas.

These challenges are extremely well shot and edited, and compare favorably to Michael Palin’s Around The World series. Indeed, these challenges are so well done that they would be fun to watch even if the hosts simply did them earnestly. But they don’t. Instead, they abuse each other the entire time, from saying rude things to pulling pranks. They criticize the cars, the roads, and the countries. And things go very, very wrong.

Best of all, everything about the show is clever, insightful, and really funny -- though like much “typical British humor,” the show is very subtle and you must pay careful attention. For example, in the Vietnam episode, if you listen closely, you will realize that the soundtrack they use comes from Apocalypse Now and many of the references are to war films or are cracks about communism. They won’t tell you this, and they never explain the humor, but it is there if you pay attention.

Great examples of the show's dry wit can be seen in a recent episode in which two of the hosts try to determine if communism ever made a good car. After showing a variety of horrifically poorly built cars (sadly, not available online right now), they race a car made by British union workers, aka "British communism", against a car made by the Russians to determine who would have won the cold war. The British car is the Morris Marina, which Clarkson derisively calls the "Morris Marxist" (he also notes that the "TC" version of the car stood for "Trotskyite Crap"). Finally, they examine some of the luxury cars made by the Soviets, which results in classic quotes like “there is so much space [in the backseat] that you could chop up thirty dissidents“ and Clarkson saying that he would like to demonstrate the cigarette lighter “but unfortunately, we don’t live in a free country."

Or consider this challenge, which really sums up the essence of the show, in which they have been instructed to buy used mid-engine Italian super cars (costing less than £10,000 each), and race them from Bristol to a strip club in Slough. As the race continues, they engage in a series of challenges, through which they discover how poorly these cars have held up over the years. Finally, one by one, these cars break down spectacularly. (See the video here: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4).

The Reviews

The hosts also will review a car at some point during the show. You’ve never heard of most of these cars. But that’s ok. To review the cars, the hosts typically take them for a drive as they discuss the look and feel of the car and make snarky comments about the manufacturer. See for example the following review of the Nissan Micra for a typical example of how these reviews are done:

When they have had their fun, they turn the car over to their “tame racing driver,” known only as The Stig. The Stig will race the car around their track, after which the car's time is placed on their leader board to determine which car is the fastest. The identity of the Stig has become one of those mysteries that people try to solve -- like Charlie’s identity on Charlie’s Angels. At one point, the show was forced to reveal that the Stig was in fact formula one racer Michael Schumacher, though there is reason to think this was not true. During some of the challenges, they have also introduced substitute Stigs, whenever the Stig is unavailable. These have included the ultra fat “Stig’s American cousin,” or the toga-draped “Stig’s African cousin” or the truck driving, one-arm-tanned “Rig Stig.” In any event, these reviews are always done in a tongue in cheek fashion that keeps them from being boring, even to non-car people. For example, in this episode, after being criticized by a viewer for failing to provide thorough reviews, Clarkson tests/reviews a Ford Fiesta by racing it through a mall as he is chased by a Corvette. Afterwards, the Fiesta incredibly takes part in an amphibious landing on a beach with the British Royal Marines (also not currently available online). By the way, if you want to see the ultimate in luxury cars, check out this Maybach. And if you want to see the future of cars, check out this Honda Clarity. The Celebrity In The Reasonably Priced Car Top Gear also usually includes a celebrity interview. Here’s why. Years ago, a group of politically correct Brits complained that the show focused too much on expensive cars and not enough on reasonably priced cars. The always PC BBC demanded that Top Gear spend more time examining reasonably priced vehicles. The very un-PC Top Gear responded by obtaining a reasonably priced car, and asking celebrity guests to take it for timed laps around their track. The selection of celebrities is really quite impressive, and includes several Americans, e.g. Christian Slater and Mark Wahlberg. Moreover, Clarkson often manages to ask better questions of these guests than most professional interviewers, like when he trips up the Mayor of London on the (lack of) environmental benefits of electric cars. Criticisms And Allegations Of Not Being Politically Correct Finally, it is worth pointing out that Top Gear has been criticized for making some very not-politically correct statements. Gay groups, environmental groups, class warfare types, and other liberal hysterical types have complained bitterly about the show and comments made by the hosts. Others have been upset about statements made about foreign countries. Indeed, the Germans were upset when Clarkson described a car as being “typically German” because “it has a GPS that only points toward Poland and a fan belt that will last 1000 years.” Others were upset about the claim that “the communists were to making cars, what the Germans are to making love.” They do make the occasional anti-American statement, so be aware of that. But these comments are usually limited to complaints about Americans being fat or the inability of American car companies to make good cars. The Vietnam episode had a couple of comments that were slightly uncomfortable, but were nothing compared to what has come out of the mouth of our own President. And I have yet to hear a political criticism of the USA, except when Clarkson told a visiting American, "welcome to the free world, I think you'll like it here" (though they do hilariously mock the State Department over a visa issue). In any event, what people seem to miss in making these criticisms, is that everyone gets insulted: the French, the Italians, the Russians, the Americans. . . everyone, and especially their fellow British. None of it is done with animosity. Conclusion Top Gear is not what you think it would be from the title or the description of the show found in your tv guide. Give it a chance, you’ll like it. It can currently be seen on BBC America on Monday nights and Saturday afternoons. A new season begins on August 17th (8:00 pm EST).
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Monday, August 10, 2009

TV Review: Star Trek (1966-1969)

Today we do our first television review. And while we will focus largely on current shows, we couldn’t pass up the chance to start with the greatest science fiction show of all time: Star Trek.

Star Trek is the fulfillment of science fiction’s potential. No show before or after, with the exception of The Twilight Zone, has come anywhere near repeating its achievement. It is a cultural icon that you all should know.

What Is Star Trek?

Set in the 23rd century, Star Trek follows the adventures of the Starship Enterprise and her crew, in a series of unconnected episodes, as they battle aliens, rescue colonists, and boldly go where no man has gone before. But that’s only on the surface. In reality, Star Trek is a highly nuanced character study that plays out week after week in the midst of a series of morality tales.

Indeed, while Star Trek was originally pitched to the networks as “Wagon Train to the Stars,” a description that detractors repeat to tar the series as “just a western set in space” (as if that were a bad thing **cough cough**. . . Firefly), creator Gene Roddenberry privately told the Star Trek team that the show would be modeled on Gulliver’s Travels, with each episode working on two levels: as a suspenseful adventure story and as a morality tale. And that is exactly what Star Trek became, a morality tale disguised as science fiction.

The character that we study is Captain James T. Kirk (William Shatner). Each week, Kirk is faced with a series of moral dilemmas, and the show centers around his handling and resolution of those dilemmas. I say handling, because the show is as much about how Kirk makes his decisions as it is the decisions he makes.

To aid the viewer in seeing Kirk’s decision-making process, the audience is given two other characters, First Officer Spock (Leonard Nimoy) and Chief Medical Officer Leonard “Bones” McCoy (DeForest Kelley), who act as the dual aspects of Kirk’s mind. Spock represents the part of Kirk’s (and our) mind that is logical and ordered. His advice to Kirk always follows the strictest guidelines of cold, hard logic (real logic, not faulty modern Hollywood logic). McCoy, on the other hand, represents the portion of Kirk’s mind that is beset by emotions. His advice to Kirk is often rash or irrational, but it always accurately represents the types of conflicted feelings that pull us away from logic.

Together, Spock and McCoy act out and speak out the thought process that is going on in Kirk’s mind, and thereby illustrate our own thinking. It is illogical to risk the ship to save the life of one man, Spock will tell us. But dammit Jim, he’s been your friend since you were young. . . you can’t just abandon him, McCoy counters. And so on. And thus, we are taught the moral implications of each of the actions Kirk may or may not take.

What Kinds Of Moral Issues Should Viewers Expect?

So what types of moral dilemmas does Kirk face? All kinds. He must decide issues of life and death, issues of friendship versus duty, justice versus vengeance. He must deal with obsession, regret and hate. He must face the unwinnable scenario, the loss of friends, the death of heroes. He is framed for a crime by a former friend. He must discover whether a man can survive as two halves, one half entirely good and the other half entirely evil. Can he strand a man for all eternity in a timeless gateway with a murderous enemy. These are the sorts of issues Kirk faces each week.

Consider for example, the fan favorite City on the Edge of Forever, in which Kirk and Spock must go back in time to repair the past, which has been changed by Dr. McCoy, who accidentally traveled back in time himself. Upon returning to the past, Kirk learns that McCoy will save the life of a woman that Kirk has fallen in love with, and that by saving her life, history will be changed. So Kirk must decide, can he sacrifice the woman he loves to set the timeline right.

Interestingly, by hiding the morality tale inside a science fiction format, Roddenberry was able to present controversial and complex philosophical, ethical and political issues in ways that people could easily understand without feeling like they were sitting through a class on ethics. Indeed, that is the promise of science fiction, that the story teller can use the fantastic setting of a world, in which the viewer doesn’t have a stake, to play out issues without running afoul of the preconceived expectations and prejudices of the viewer. In other words, because the viewer does not initially see this as a discussion of current issues, the viewer does not immediately fall back upon well-established thought patterns and defensive mechanisms which keep the viewer from reconsidering such issues with an open mind.

For example, it is clear that all humans have preconceived notions about race. When a viewer sees a story about a black person and a white person, those preconceived notions will prejudice the viewer to see the story from a particular standpoint. Thus, it will be difficult to get the viewer to consider the issues presented with an open mind. But if you change the characters to a man who is white on the left side and black on the right, and make his opponent black on the left side and white on the right, the writer can address the issue of race without the viewer picking a side based on prejudices. This, in turn, allows the viewer to consider issues of race more honestly, which consideration can later be applied to re-evaluate their one beliefs on the subject.

Few science fiction shows manage to achieve this. Star Trek did it weekly. Indeed, Star Trek addressed issues of racism and civil rights, eugenics and selective breeding, nuclear war, the turning over of weapons to machines, the de-humanization inherent in mechanizing our culture, the Vietnam War, slavery, hippie culture and cultists, and whether fascism could be used as a force for good by a benign dictator, among others.

In Conscience of the King, for example, Kirk must deal with the struggle between his own desire for vengeance and justice in deciding how to handle a man that he suspects of being a dictator who killed half his population to save the other half from starvation. In Balance of Terror, he must make decisions that could lead to war, while dealing with questions of whether persons of different species (i.e. races) should be viewed as potentially disloyal because of their lineage.

None of these issues could have been presented on television at that time in any other format. But by hiding them within science fiction stories, Star Trek did them all.

But Isn’t The Acting Bad?

Contrary to the detractors, Shatner’s acting as Kirk is neither as over-the-top as people like to claim, nor is it inappropriate. These tales are meant as dramatic vignettes of an almost Shakespearian nature. They are stylized, and Kirk is called upon to emote heavily to allow the audience to witness his thought processes. As such, Shatner does an excellent job.

Similarly, Nimoy and Kelly do wonderful jobs of acting out their roles as well. Nimoy in particular does an excellent job of playing the logical Vulcan, with occasional emotional outbursts from his half-human lineage -- he is especially convincing compared to later actors in the spin-offs who tended to play Vulcans as annoyed. Spock also gives us an interesting insight into the human condition, which he alone can observe being an outsider and yet also part human. This would become a common element in science fiction, though it has rarely been done as well.

Most importantly, the characters are so believable that you come to know the actors by the character names, not the other way around.

Star Trek’s Politics Are Key

Finally, one cannot review Star Trek without mentioning the importance of its politics. Star Trek is based entirely on classical liberal philosophy, and this was critical to its success and its uniqueness. Why? Because it gave Star Trek a set of values that made it possible to carry out the morality tales.

Classical liberalism believes that individual rights are natural, inherent and inalienable, and exist independent of government. And it is within this set of principles that Kirk must act. Classical liberalism believes in protection of civil liberties, freedom from restraint, non-intrusive government, and equality under the law. It subscribes to a strong moral code, and it values intellectual and spiritual freedom. It also sees humans as flawed, but striving to attain perfection.

Thus, in one of my favorite episodes, A Taste of Armageddon, Kirk tells a planetary leader who despairs that “we’re a killer species”:
“All right. It’s instinctive. But the instinct can be fought. We’re human beings with the blood of a million savage years on our hands, but we can stop it. We can admit that we’re killers, but we’re not going to kill today. That’s all it takes. Knowing that we won’t kill today.”
By comparison, Captain Picard of the new series, who lives in a universe constructed around modern liberal thinking, can only babble on how humans are no longer violent.

Indeed, one of the problems with the later series was their attempt to maintain a modern liberal (i.e. unrealistic) world view. This prevented the show from dealing realistically with the types of issues that Star Trek addressed regularly, because the solutions needed to solve such crises would have been inconsistent with the range of solutions available to the liberal-world-view bound characters. Thus, deus ex machina was often called upon to solve such crises, and many endings only worked if the conflict was not real in the first place.

Kirk, on the other hand, was called upon regularly to make the difficult decisions and to bear the consequences of his actions. And this often led to hard places. For example, in City on the Edge of Forever, mentioned above, we are fascinated to discover that the woman who must die is a pacifist. And the reason she must die is that she will convince Roosevelt to stay out of World War II, thereby allowing the Nazis to win. Thus, Kirk must realize that sometimes war is a good thing and sometimes people must die for the greater good.

In A Taste of Armageddon, Kirk must bring two planets to the brink of real war, and thereby risk the destruction of both planets, to stop a sanitized computerized war that was killing millions of people each year. He must realize that when war becomes clean and sanitary, it becomes too easy. And in A Private Little War, Kirk must supply weapons to a peaceful people, knowing that many will die, because the Klingons have begun arming an opposing village. (This is a direct analogy to Vietnam, something verboten on television at the time.)

But this is what made the show great. Unlike much of science fiction, this show had depth and wisdom. It was more than just phasers, monsters and uniforms. It had characters you came to know deeply, because you’d seen them go through some of the hardest moments of their lives. And unlike the more recent series, which relied heavily on deus ex machina to make sure that virtually every episode ended happily, Star Trek ended honestly. Sometimes it worked out well for Kirk, sometimes it didn’t. But you never felt cheated.

And that is what has given Star Trek its appeal and its longevity. So the next time you watch an episode, don’t just ask yourself what Kirk must decide, but watch how he makes that decision and then ask yourself how you would have made the decision yourself.

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Friday, August 7, 2009

Film Friday: Smokey And The Bandit (1977)

Smokey and the Bandit is an historical marker. It marks the birth of the New South and its reintroduction back into the United States. Indeed, this film introduced America to the new South. That may sound like a lot for a seemingly simple comedy, but it’s true.

** spoiler alert **
You all know the plot. Big Enos Burdett bets Bo “Bandit” Darville (Burt Reynolds) that he and his friend Cletus “Snowman” Snow (Jerry Reed) can’t drive from Atlanta to Texarkana, Texas and back in 28 hours. The catch: they need to bring back a truckload of Coors beer, which could not legally be brought east of the Mississippi at that time -- this was bootlegging. As they undertake this journey, with Reynolds driving the now famous 1977 black Pontiac Trans Am, Reynolds picks up hitchhiker Sally Field, who has run away from her own wedding, causing the father of the groom, Sheriff Buford T. Justice (Jackie Gleason), to chase them across state lines.
Southern History
Before we discuss the movie, let’s do a quick history lesson. Following the civil war and reconstruction the South remained an economic and social backwater for more than a hundred years. In the 1930s, the federal government created the Tennessee Valley Authority to kickstart the region, but little else made an impact. Indeed, until the 1980s, the South remained largely rural and agricultural.

In the 1950s/1960s, racial issues boiled over, leading to a series of famous legal disputes, protest marches, and massive federal intervention. Hollywood used these events in films to tar the South. From Sidney Poitier facing down racist cops In The Heat Of The Night (1967), to Paul Newman’s Cool Hand Luke (1967) exposing the plantation-like prison system of Louisiana, to Gregory Peck’s To Kill A Mockingbird (1962) highlighting racism in the southern legal system, Hollywood repeatedly painted the South as backwards, racist, and reactionary, and southerners as racist hillbillies. Even Burt Reynolds' prior movies painted unflattering pictures of the South, with The Longest Yard (1974) showing a corrupt and violent Florida prison and Deliverance (1972) giving us the immortal line with which many northerners continue to brand southerners: “squeal like a pig boy.”
Introducing The New South
Smokey and the Bandit changed all of that. Indeed, Bandit was the first major film to come out of Hollywood that showed modern southerners in a positive light. Southerners are shown to be friendly and multiracial. They have black sheriffs, truckers and store owners, and the good guys interact with them in a friendly and polite manner. There is no hint of the prior racial problems, except through Buford T. Justice, who is meant to lampoon the old image of the South, and who in fact, wonders aloud what happened to the South he knew. Women too are shown in the workforce, not sitting at home with servants. There is even an Asian trucker. You see southerners engaged in everyday life, doing the same things as everyone else in the country, e.g. attending youth football games. Not once do you see a toothless, hillbilly rapist.

One moment perfectly sums up the message of the film. As they stop for a rest, Sally Field, who plays a pleasant but condescending northerner, quizzes Reynolds about his knowledge of theater culture. He knows none of the names she mentions, which disappoints her -- her point: the South is not as sophisticated as the North. But Reynolds responds by asking Field if she knows various famous country music singers. She does not. He then states:
“When you tell somebody something, it depends on what part of the country you're standing in as to just how dumb you are.”
The message: the South doesn’t have to be the North to be just as good, and the North should stop looking down on the South.

Yet, if history hadn’t been changing to back up the film’s portrayal of the South, the film would have been forgotten as nonsense. And history was changing. Consider that less than a year before its release, the nation elected the first President from the deep South since Andrew Johnson assumed the Presidency with Lincoln’s assassination 112 years prior. And while Jimmy Carter ultimately would prove to be a disaster, the image of the new South was born. Gone was the rural land dotted with sharecroppers. In its place, southern states deregulated and courted foreign manufacturers and their economies were booming. FedEx opened in Memphis. Trucking companies sprang up across the region. Car makers followed. Atlanta became a megalopolis. The economic backwater of United States became an economic dynamo, and people flocked south.

In fact, only a few years later, Bob McDill would write “Song of the South”, later re-recorded by Alabama, with the lyrics: “gone, gone with the wind, ain’t nobody lookin’ back again” -- a reference to the South moving beyond the civil war culture that dominated the region for more than 100 years. Bandit marked and announced this change in perception and attitude. It is no coincidence that it took two southerners to make this film -- Reynolds was from Georgia/Florida and director Hal Needham from Tennessee.
The End of Rural America
Another interesting aspect of this film, is the divergence between the rural roads and the interstate shown in Bandit. Why is that? Because part of what gave regions like the South such mystery to outsiders was that they were generally impenetrable, except by rural routes that no sane outsider would traverse. But by the 1970s, the country was completing the National Interstate System, which opened up these regions to the rest of the country.

In many ways, Bandit was a swan song to the era when the country was divided into tiny fiefs, each acting as its own country, with its own set of rules and its own law enforcement/border control. This era ended with the interstate system. And places like the centers of small towns and hidden country roads and single car bridges, where the chase ended up whenever the Bandit ran out of interstate, would become things unknown to modern cross-country travelers, who rarely leave the interstate. Even the very idea that it would take 28 hours to get from Atlanta to Texarkana and back is laughable to modern audiences, as they can now make the trip on I-20 in record time. Moreover, Bandit gives us the last gasp for the days you when could outrun the cops. There were no spike strips, there were no helicopters, and few police had CBs. It was mano e mano on the roads. All that changed dramatically in the coming years, as communications gear made it possible for police departments to coordinate.
The Struggle Against The Glitterati
Bandit was originally released in New York City, the heart of the anti-South, by the same studio that opposed the use of a country music soundtrack. It flopped. The New York Times dismissed the film as "a movie for audiences capable of slavering all over a Pontiac Trans Am, 18-wheel tractor-trailer rigs, dismembered police cruisers and motorcycles.” You can almost hear the words “dirty hillbillies.” The LA Times was both dismissive and alarmist: “A few years from now, when the freeways are silent except for the gasping of the bicyclers, we will all gaze in misty-eyed nostalgia at an antique and improbable 1977 item called Smokey and the Bandit.”

But Needham fought back against the studio and demanded that it be released in the rest of the country. “I made this movie for the South, Midwest and Northwest. . . so why don’t we take the damn thing somewhere where it was made for.” He won his argument and the film was rolled out in those regions. By the end of the year, it was the second highest grossing film of the year, behind only Star Wars. To date, the film has grossed more than $126 million. After his success, Needham took out an ad in the trade papers quoting his negative reviews and showing a wheel barrel filled with money. Southern boy makes good.

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Monday, August 3, 2009

Harry Potter: Conservative Hero

Whenever a new Harry Potter movie rolls into theaters, conservative political pundits whip out the long knives and go after the books. Strawman after strawman is torn asunder in a veritable strawbath of ill-informed and poorly-reasoned diatribes of the type that can only come from the poisoned pens of people who have never read the books. So let’s cut through some of the garbage, and reintroduce you to this unfairly maligned series.

At its core, the Harry Potter series is a truly conservative, i.e. classical liberal, work. Seriously. It imparts excellent values, values that should make conservatives giddy. But before we detail those values, let us dispatch the complaints of the unread punditocracy.

And Although I Know It’s Strictly Taboo. . .

The complaints of these “conservative” pundits generally come in three flavors of stupid: gays, witchcraft and rewarding misbehavior.

The gay complaint holds that Harry Potter promotes homosexuality because Dumbledore is gay. Oh my! But when did being gay become inconsistent with being conservative? It’s not. And if the complaint is that no book that includes a gay character can be conservative, then one wonders what is left for these pundits to read. . . assuming they can read. Hence, a few of the more clever pundits, will assure you that they aren’t opposed to gays, it’s just that Dumbledore promotes the gay lifestyle. Really? Does he take a lover? Does he attend a parade? Hand out pamphlets? Shower the crowd in condoms? Take Harry to a Turkish bathhouse? No, this issue is never mentioned in the books. In fact, Dumbledore’s sexuality was never brought up until after the books were all published.

The complaint that Harry Potter promotes witchcraft is almost too stupid to mention, except we saw this once before. . . during the the great Dungeons & Dragons crisis of 1983, when millions of young children sold their souls to the devil and disappeared in a fiery poof. Tragic. In any event, it is worth pointing out that (1) this silly complaint would apply equally to the entire fantasy genre, so put down that copy of The Lord of the Rings you Satanist, and (2) unlike The Golden Compass, which truly is anti-Christian, Harry Potter makes no attacks on any religious figures, principles, or beliefs.

The third complaint usually involves some moment where Harry “does not pay” for his “bad behavior.” But these complaints are typically made by people who have not read the books. For example, in a silly recent diatribe, one shrill conservative pundit proclaimed that Rowling “ignores ethics and encourages dishonorable behavior” when Harry “cheats” by using “a textbook that has all the answers in the margins,” and he’s not even punished for it! For shame! Thus whines said critic: “Rowling’s readers will conclude it’s OK to go on eBay and buy a teacher’s edition of a textbook.” Or critique a book they haven’t read! The horror, the horror. What this whiner misses is that the “answers” written in the text book are not “answers” to test questions, they are the work of a rather genius young wizard who invented dozens of new spells, most of which have nothing to do with the class itself. A more accurate conclusion would be “Rowling’s readers will conclude it’s OK to go on eBay and buy an independent study guide!” But that doesn’t have the same ring to it.

Moreover, in terms of not getting busted, some of these spells prove to be quite dangerous, and when Harry injures a fellow student using one of these spells, he gets showered with disdain and ostracized by his fellow students. Indeed, most of the series is about Harry making mistakes, for which he pays and from which he learns.

But enough of sweeping away straw. Let’s talk about what makes the Harry Potter books conservative books.

What Makes Harry Potter Conservative

I will save for another day what it takes to consider a particular film or book to be a conservative work. Suffice it for now to say, that we should not consider a work conservative unless it promotes themes that are philosophically conservative, and it does so consistently. In that regard, the Harry Potter series delivers time and time again.

Consider, for example, that the bad guys throughout the series read like a who’s who of things conservatives despise:
• Government. A common theme throughout the books is that the government not only cannot help you, but will actually abuse its power to harm you. The Ministry of Magic is hopelessly bureaucratic, and ultra-intrusive. It regulates every aspect of Wizards’ lives, right down to how caldrons are measured -- regulations which are usually mentioned derisively. And when Dumbledore begins to warn the world that Voldemort has returned, the MOM demonstrates the evil to which it can sink. It tries to discredit Dumbledore, just as it tries to discredit Harry. When this proves ineffective, it tries to drive Harry from the magic world through a Soviet-style show trial. It then drums up fake charges against Dumbledore (something about a Turkish bathhouse), and chases him from Hogwarts, where he is replaced with a woman who sets about imposing an educational agenda that seeks to lower all children to the lowest common denominator. The government seizes key industries, denies the truth, and locks up its opponents. Sounds like somebody read Ayn Rand.

• Elitists. The Malfoy family and their allies are the epitome of hereditary peers, if you’re English, or establishment elitists, if you’re American. They are out of touch, they despise ordinary people, and they are corrupt, inbred and non-productive -- think John Kerry.

• The Cult of Personality. The Death Eaters, Voldemort’s followers, worship him and fear him in a strange cult of personality. They do as they are told without question. “Yes we can, my master.” Nothing is more classically liberal than thinking for yourself. Nothing is more modern liberal than believing what you are told by your betters.

• Evil. Voldemort represents something rarely seen in liberal thinking, an evil man. He is evil to the core. He is not misunderstood, nor was he driven to evil. And while he claims various motivations, the series never once hints that we should sympathize with him or that his past excuses his present. If you put the second book to your ear, you can actually hear an ACLU lawyer weeping.
Consider also the multiple conservative themes that run throughout the series. For example:
• Rejection of Moral Relativism. Unlike much of modern liberal thinking, Rowling does not accept the shades of gray theory. The good guys are good and the bad guys are bad. It’s black and white. Readers are told repeatedly that you cannot do evil and remain good, even where evil seems to offer an easy solution. We are also never asked to consider root causes. And whenever good characters suggest that an evil character might only be evil because they feel pressured (like Dumbledore suggests about Malfoy or Tom Riddle), those characters always prove that people who do rotten things tend to be rotten people.

• The Value of Hard Work/Self-Reliance. Unlike heroes in most modern stories, Harry is actually nothing special. He doesn’t have super powers. He’s not smarter or wiser or stronger or faster than the other kids. What Harry does have going for him, is a group of people who care about him and who drive him to work harder. When he does, he succeeds. When he doesn’t, he fails. It’s that simple. In the Harry Potter world anyone can succeed if they work hard; hard work gets rewarded. Education gets rewarded. Having something handed to you, or waiting for someone to hand it to you, gets punished. What could be more conservative than that?

• Belief in Traditional Families. The series repeatedly stresses the importance of the traditional family. Harry’s mother and father died to protect him, and in so doing, put a charm on him, that protects him so long as he has family, even when that family is nasty to him, i.e. the family bond survives good times and bad. The happiest people in the series are the Weasley family, who impart invaluable lessons about love, responsibility and all the other things your parents taught you, even though the Weasleys are poor. By comparison, the messed up kids, from Neville Longbottom to Luna Lovegood, come from single parent homes. Even Malfoy, who does have both parents, is raised in an unbalanced family where the father dominates the mother. The implication is clear throughout the book: a strong family is the best foundation. Love your parents, love your kids, and think more about them than yourself. Indeed, the greatest moments in the book involve self-sacrifice to save family members.

• Pro Capitalism. Harry Potter is also unabashedly pro-capitalism. Time and time again, it is the private sector, not the government, that is shown to be superior. This is true from the pro-commerce Diagon Alley, to the way The Quibbler (a tabloid) rises to meet consumer demand for the truth when the main paper falls under the influence of the government, to the Weasley brothers being a walking advertisement for the joys of starting your own business. Whereas the government world is seen ad drab and oppressive, the private sector world is always vibrant and active.

I don’t know about you, but those seem like pretty conservative values to me.

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