The underlying question is why movies made by many filmmakers whose point of view is, by and large, so sympathetic, tolerant, and liberal (and whose point of view I tend to share, by the way) are built on such a painful narrowing of experience and a surreptitious attitudinizing—why they’re films of personal commitment that remain, nonetheless, impersonal. It’s as if filmmakers (and, for that matter, critics, playing a surreptitious role as op-ed columnists) were protecting viewers from the potential effect of nasty or regressive or hateful thoughts; their own cultivated selves are are immune from them even if angered by them, but the poor bewildered viewer needs some protection from loose ends of imagination that could potentially lead in the wrong direction.
The Stakhanovite values of socialist realism have given way to the mild and sentimental ones of liberal realism; but the brazen hysteria of overt propaganda is a truer framework for political art—for the representation of will, faith, and power that political action depends on—than the tacitly closed circle of self-approving sympathies. The problem is not with liberalism in cinema as such (Wes Anderson’s post-scriptural “Moonrise Kingdom” is, after all, a masterwork, and Nanni Moretti’s ferociously anticlerical “We Have a Pope” borrows its furious ending from “The Great Dictator”) but with the liberal cinema as a genre. The arena of practical politics is the place for constructive and responsible approaches to identified problems; the realm of art is the place of dangerous imagination and the vision of terrifying, or even merely uncomfortable, possibilities. And nothing undermines the actual quest for political progress like the sense that it would imply the denial or the repudiation of primal, atavistic, or impulsively unwelcome feelings.
Like many other Democrats and many liberals, I revelled in Bill Clinton’s speech the other night, and endorse my colleague Ben Greenman’s tweeted proposal to name him the Secretary of Explaining Things. But I haven’t forgotten the Bill Clinton of lust and shame; they’re the same great man, and putting them into the same movie together, as one, unstintingly, is the first liberal paradox—and the essential liberal principle. The rest is campaign rhetoric.
This is true for “conservative” art, if we had such a thing. Perhaps the kind of art created by Evangelicals is the conservative version of what Brody’s talking about here. As has been widely observed, both within and outside of the Evangelical community, the problem with so much art produced by those Christians is that it can’t deal with paradox and complexity. Everything has to be subject to the Message. But truth, like life, is paradoxical.