Wednesday, January 23, 2008


Speaking of Noah -

Just like I'm trying to call attention to the problems with critics using the phrase "transcend the genre" (or its variations), I'd like to suggest a moratorium on using the word "fascist" to describe some aspect of a work of art/pop culture/etc. unless, you know, it actually is fascist. That is, a lot of critics and culture vultures seem to use the word "fascism" as a catch-all term for almost any kind of political/moral ickiness and/or a synonym of "anti-liberal". (Pauline Kael was a big offender here and maybe we can blame her pervasive influence. But, as the song goes, those were different times.)

For instance, over here, Noah writes that old-timey super-hero comic book artist Fletcher Hanks "is a law-and-order fascist."

So, what makes Fletcher Hanks a law and order fascist as opposed to an adherent of some kind of home brew Nietzscheanism? Maybe there is something there: I haven't read all of the comics, so maybe Hanks does make an appeal to nationalism to argue for centralized, authoritarian state control of the justice system. Barring that, though, the word "fascist" just muddies the waters.

I had the same reaction to Matt Zoller Seitz's recent comment on this piece:

[That] piece goes on my list of "Pieces I Wish I'd Written," for how deftly it summarizes a persistent and supremely annoying tendency in movies of all types. I hate, hate, hate it when the movie itself validates a character's behavior or viewpoint, whether through approving music cues, reductive characterization of the hero's adversary in a scene, or cutaways to some third banana observing the hero's bad-assness and exclaiming, "He's goooood!" It all falls under the heading of kissing the audience's ass -- providing objective confirmation of their fantasy of being smarter, handsomer, braver and tougher than they actually are, and Telling Off the Dummies...

I enjoy "Terms of Endearment" and other Brooks films for their likable performances and clever repartee, but cannot defend them as art because of their penchant for pulling crap like that. Aurora is an out-of-control bitch in the hospital scene of "Terms of Endearment," but the movie endorses her showboating fury simply because she's the heroine and our audience surrogate and maternal Life Force fantasy; it doesn't just ask us to understand and empathize, it all but commands us to cheer, with the same corrupted brand of populism displayed in the "You're not from New York" scene cited [in the piece]. It's this kind of mentality that makes virtually all of John McClane's government/law enforcement counterparts in the first couple of "Die Hard" movies out to be pompous dolts, and that encourages us to cheer Erin Brokovich as she smugly dresses down her boss and coworkers in the manner of a diva movie star chewing out an assistant who failed to purchase her preferred flavor of Starbucks frappucino. It's this type of mentality that is primarily responsible for four out of five Robin Williams comedies about the wacky iconoclast sticking it to The Man.

Touches like these confirm Norman Mailer's belief in America's latent potential for fascism.

Although I'm with him most of the way, I think it is a pretty big leap from Terms of Endearment and crappy Robin Williams movies to fascism, latent or otherwise. And while I agree with Mailer, my agreement is kind of trivial: why shouldn't Americans have the latent potential for fascism? Are we so different from the Italians, Germans, French, Hungarians, Romanians, etc.? The idea that we are exceptionally prone to fascism strikes me as naive as the idea that we are somehow exceptionally immune to it*.

*This is a variation on a point that Sean Collins often makes.


nostack said...

Would "authoritarian" work any better in those reviews?

I think calling something "fascist" is usually pure laziness. It doesn't help that it's a word with enormous emotional punch, so it ends up being both misapplied and manipulative at the same time.

Doesn't change the fact that every once in a while there really is something that looks like fascism. But I have a hard time making the case for a film.

Would "24" qualify as a fascist work of art? I've never seen it.

Jon Hastings said...

I'd be more likely to go for "authoritarian", just because it doesn't have all the same baggage, but I still think (in this case at least) it's a little tricky. My concern is that authoritarianism (like fascism) implies an entire political system, whereas most vigilante/revenge narratives are (if they have any political drive at all) usually just critiques of the existing political system. That is, there's a difference between a work of art that is (explicitly or otherwise) making an argument for authoritarianism and/or fascism and a work of art that is making an argument against, say, liberalism (or certain aspects of liberalism). That's why I think Pauline Kael is wrong when she talks about Dirty Harry and Straw Dogs as "fascist" works: Dirty Harry is certainly anti-liberal, but there's not really enough there (IMO) to build a case for a fascist society. (In fact, Harry Callahan would likely be against anyone who tried to tell him what to do). And Straw Dogs is also anti-liberal, but the philosophy it seems to argue for is more along the lines of a macho, existential Darwinism.

I think 24 is complicated because "it contains multitudes", or, rather, it doesn't have a coherent message (especially across multiple seasons). I think it's definitely nationalistic, though, and, generally, pretty authoritarian.

Jon Hastings said...

Austin Bramwell's take-down of Jonah Goldberg's book "Liberal Fascism" gets at some of the things I've been gesturing towards here:

Here's the link.