Flicks for the far right

At the inaugural American Film Renaissance festival, conservative moviemakers take feeble aim at Hollyweird -- and arch-nemesis Michael Moore.

Published September 15, 2004 9:46PM (EDT)

Speaking at the American Film Renaissance's small opening-night reception at the Dallas Intercontinental last Friday, the right-wing film critic Michael Medved claimed that "the huge success of 'The Passion of the Christ' has changed Western culture permanently and forever." He's simply stunned, he said, that Hollywood wasn't trying to cash in on the shift.

"What is it about one of the most profitable movies in history that they don't understand?" he asked, as a crowd of about 50 festival-goers nibbled miniature roast beef sandwiches, spring rolls and empanadas. "There is something wrong here! There is a very real problem! The problem is not that people objected to the movie because it was anti-Jewish" -- indeed, he said, the charges of anti-Semitism were "sick, twisted and demagogic."

"They opposed it not because it was anti-Jewish," he said, "but because it was pro-Christian."

Like so many of the people at the inaugural American Film Renaissance festival, Medved spoke with an easygoing Rotary Club ordinariness that belied the seething anger underneath. There was none of Zell Miller's fire and brimstone in his voice as he blandly called for more demeaning portrayals of gay people in the mass media, saying, "Every single image of homosexuality you see on TV is positive. It's not only positive, it's glowing. It's saintly. When was the last time you saw a nasty gay character? A degraded gay character?"

Medved is a bigot, but he's also on to something. Many people on the coasts haven't reckoned with the true cultural complexion of vast swaths of this country. They tend to make movies and write articles and produce albums as if their fellow citizens inhabited the same reality that they do. But there is another world in America, a through-the-looking-glass universe in which conservative Christians, despite dominating all the branches of government, feel persecuted by the state, in which gun control is seen as the natural precursor to genocide and Bill Clinton is suspected of covering up Iraqi responsibility for the Oklahoma City bombings. Residents of this febrile realm believe they're the majority and that sinister, cringing liberals are denying them their cultural due. Convinced that the film industry is conspiring against them, they want to create a cornfed Hollywood of their very own, from the grassroots up.

According to the story that festival founder Jim Hubbard, 35, told repeatedly to journalists and attendees, he was inspired to create the American Film Renaissance after he and his wife, a pretty, bouffant blonde named Ellen, went to an art house theater one night and were distressed to find that their only choices were Michael Moore's "Bowling for Columbine" and the Frida Kahlo biopic "Frida," about "a communist artist."

"Where are the films for normal people?" he asked.

The American Film Renaissance was created to give films for "normal people" -- in this iteration, the far right -- an outlet. It was held at Dallas' Studio Movie Grill, a theater with waiter service where audiences can order burgers, pizza, nachos and other greasy snacks while they watch movies. According to Hubbard, the timing wasn't intentional, but Sept. 11 was invoked over and over again in the festival's selections, the burning towers shown to punctuate all sorts of arguments about liberal treachery.

Hundreds of people turned up -- some traveling cross-country for the experience. David Goodman, owner of a New Jersey DVD distribution company, bought several titles, and says he'll soon have them in megastores like Wal-Mart. "This is the counterbalance to 'Outfoxed,'" he says, speaking of Robert Greenwald's recent documentary about Fox News. "This is the counterbalance to 'Bush's Brain' and 'Fahrenheit 9/11.'"

One of the films Goodman picked up was "The Siege of Western Civilization," the 45-minute fledgling effort by Herb Meyer, a 58-year-old who once served as vice chairman of the CIA's National Intelligence Council under President Reagan. An avuncular, moon-faced man with bright, engaged eyes, Meyer speaks with disarming calm about the second civil war he believes the United States is currently fighting, a war his film seeks to explain as it bounces from the dangers posed by al-Qaida to those posed by liberalism and low birth rates.

"There are those who wish to turn us from a Judeo-Christian into a secular culture," he explains, sitting in the Intercontinental lounge. "This really is a kind of civil war. This is not normal politics. We are two cultures in one country. That's never happened before. I'm not sure we can survive where half of us think marriage is between a man and a woman and half think a man can marry his goldfish."

For all the risk that liberalism poses to the nation, Meyer is sanguine about his side's imminent victory. "It's panic time for the liberals," he says. Medved echoed him, saying, "Secular people in America know very well they're outnumbered. They know very well they're outclassed, and they are in fear."

Judging by the American Film Renaissance, though, the right has quite a ways to go before it can take on Hollywood.

Most of the entries were far more crudely made than the documentaries they aim to challenge. Several entries, including Meyer's apocalyptic home video, amounted to little more than a single guy spinning theories before the camera. It was a festival about reaction, not creation, devoted largely to conspiracy theories and attacks on liberal culture. Of the two narrative features shown, one of them, "DC 9/11: Time of Crisis," a hagiographic (and roundly criticized) account of George Bush's response to the World Trade Center attacks, aired more than a year ago on Showtime and has just been released on DVD.

One of the more amusingly bad selections was Jack Cashill's "Mega Fix," in which Cashill, a thin, craggy man with a reassuringly amiable voice, delivers a lunatic monologue about Bill Clinton and terrorism. According to Cashill, a columnist for WorldNet Daily, Islamic terrorists, some with ties to Iraq, were behind the Oklahoma City bombing, the downing of Flight 800 and the bombing at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. Clinton, corrupt and pusillanimous, covered all this up because he didn't want to go to war. His Justice Department preferred to pin the blame for Oklahoma City on "these two perfect specimens of right-wing American manhood" because it would help them discredit Newt Gingrich and the Republican revolutionists of 1994.

Amazingly, Cashill's film wasn't the most outlandish documentary on offer. It was trumped by "Innocents Betrayed," which attributes most of the 20th century's genocides, as well as lynching, the Japanese-American internment and the rape of Nanking, to gun control. Jumping from country to country, it first explains how a particular government passed laws limiting the ownership of weapons, and then cuts to pornographic montages of mutilated corpses. Walking out, a conservative journalist from Washington looked at me and said, "OK, that was offensive."

Weak as the festivals' films were, the event represented a new front in the right's ongoing project of creating a parallel popular culture for denizens of the red states, a project that's been notably successful in other areas. There's Fox News. There is the "Left Behind" series, the bestselling books of fiction in America. As Adam Green reported in the New Yorker, the "frantic, aggressive, and caustic" right-wing comic Brad Stine is playing to packed houses and developing a sitcom. There are Christian rock acts who in many cases look indistinguishable from their MTV counterparts and who draw crowds as large as many bands whom we think of as "mainstream." Even as this year's Lollapalooza was canceled due to poor ticket sales, and the press was full of stories about a summer concert slump, the Christian rock Creation Festival in Pennsylvania drew 50,000, more than Lollapalooza garnered in the same state at its height in the mid-1990s.

The success of Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11" was clearly the animating force for the festival. But the would-be auteurs seemed unable to grasp the inclusive, populist approach of Moore's filmmaking. Sure, progressives hate Bush, but most don't want to crush his followers. The filmmakers at the American Renaissance, though, direct their fury at anonymous, everyday lefties at least as much as at Democratic politicians. Liberal-baiting was the weekend's preferred sport. Some of the loudest cheers came after a short film from the Protest Warriors, a group that specializes in barreling into antiwar protests with right-wing signs, waiting for the inevitable obnoxious punks to start screaming and pushing them, and then capturing it all on video as proof of the fascism lurking beneath liberal bromides.

"Operation Eagle Strike," made by Protest Warriors Kfir Alfia and Alan Davidson, was part of a program of shorts. The bill included a sympathetic look at the exploits of Ann Coulter and a 45-minute documentary about double standards and p.c. excesses on college campuses, called "Brainwashing 101." The latter was one of the better things in the festival, capturing very real abuses of conservative students' First Amendment rights by doctrinaire administrators and hysterical speech codes. It included an account of a college Republican dragged through a grueling disciplinary process after hanging a flier for a conservative event at his campus's multicultural center, an incident that should rile civil libertarians of all persuasions.

The Protest Warriors told a far less convincing tale of conservative struggle. A story about a confrontation between two sets of braying ideologues, it was filmed at an October antiwar demonstration in Washington that was sponsored by the loathsome Stalinist sect ANSWER. ANSWER, which is actually pro-Saddam Hussein and pro-Kim Jong Il, is the fulfillment of every right-wing fantasy about the left, and it made a succulent target for the young Protest Warriors. They, in turn, labor mightily to match their enemies in mulish righteousness.

While introducing Alfia and Davidson at the festival, Hubbard called them "the bravest people I've ever met." Their work, such as it is, seems designed to bolster that image -- without requiring any actual risk. "Operation Eagle Strike" begins with Alfia and Davidson standing, arms crossed, before the Capitol building. "The left is about to find out while they can protest America, we can protest them," Davidson says. "One of our central tenets about the left is that all their issues are just vessels that just carry water for their true sinister agenda: the destruction of freedom, the destruction of morality, the destruction of America."

Then Alfia intones, "Protest Warriors, let's go to battle." This is followed by the sound of a siren and computer graphics suggestive of cheap spy movies, with a line tracing across a map to its target -- the assembled traitors at the Washington National Mall. Inspirational music swells as the Protest Warriors are shown meeting, gathering their signs, and saying the pledge of allegiance. The soundtrack becomes warlike as they start walking to confront their enemies.

At the mall, they have a standoff with some shrill ANSWERites, who chant, "No more violence/ No more hate." The Warriors boldly confront a leftist pamphlet seller, asking him, "All the Iraqi people who have since been released from torture chambers and dungeons, do you think they're glad you're not calling the shots?" This gets a hearty laugh from the packed theater.

For all their professions of patriotism, the Protest Warriors are weirdly disrespectful of real soldiers when they co-opt military motifs to give their face-offs with skinny anarchists and angry hippies the frisson of danger. In many ways, they're the distillate of the Bush-era right -- paragons of smugness who confuse martial iconography with physical courage. They're hot to do battle with America's foes -- not by actually fighting them abroad, but by patrolling the borders of acceptable rhetoric here at home.

Being around people who are so defensive about national greatness makes one wonder what private anxieties are driving them. True pride, after all, is rarely strident and bellicose. I suspect that, just as there's no one more homophobic than a closet case, so those most enraged by criticism of America harbor some secret suspicion that it's accurate. How else to explain a documentary like "Michael Moore Hates America"?

One of two anti-Michael Moore films to show at the festival, Michael Wilson's "Michael Moore Hates America" was easily the most interesting movie there and the only one likely to make it to real theaters. (Wilson says he is in talks with distributors and is expecting an October release.) While its competitor, "Michael and Me," an anti-gun-control jeremiad by the radio talk-show host Larry Elder, was tedious and predictable, Wilson's movie had surprising nuance and commendable sincerity -- though not enough to make up for the thuggish bathos at its core.

What's strange about "Michael Moore Hates America" is that Wilson, a beefy 28-year-old from Minnesota, seems motivated by a real sense of wounded shock that another portly Midwesterner could criticize his country the way Moore does.

"Michael Moore had pissed me off," says Wilson's voiceover at the beginning of the film. "This guy had painted a picture of my country where no one can succeed." Wilson is angry about Moore's distortions and ethical corner cutting, but more than that, he seems hurt by Moore's failure to embrace corporate capitalism.

Early on, he talks about how his father was laid off from his blue-collar job but didn't let economic hardship impinge on his patriotism. Wilson recalls his words: "'In America,' he said, 'if you work hard, you can make it.'" A little later, there's a shot of Wilson holding his newborn baby daughter. "Because my father had passed his faith on to me, I knew she could live any life she could dream. But Michael Moore had told her she couldn't!"

Wilson spends much of his movie dogging Moore just as Moore dogged General Motors CEO Roger Smith in his 1989 film "Roger & Me." He says he just wants 45 minutes to discuss how two guys from the Midwest could see the world so differently. Moore, understandably put off by the title of Wilson's project, refuses to talk to him.

Of course, Moore has done much to earn this irksome homunculus. His distortions don't begin to rival those of, say, Fox News or the Bush administration, but he does tend to bulldoze over inconvenient facts in the service of his arguments. In "Fahrenheit 9/11," for example, he strongly implies that the war in Afghanistan was motivated by Unocal's desire to build a natural gas pipeline, a theory that's been discredited by analysts across the political spectrum, and he paints prewar Iraq as an Edenic land of kite-flying children.

Wilson cleverly and persistently calls Moore on some of his misrepresentations. He visits the bank where Moore got a free gun in "Bowling for Columbine" and finds out that it doesn't ordinarily hand out weapons on-site. The guns were usually kept in a vault 300 miles away, but the bank's employees said Moore had pressured them to give him his gun in person and on camera. He told them he was working on a film about unusual businesses.

Wilson also tracks down a soldier who lost his arms in Iraq and who appears in "Fahrenheit 9/11" via footage taken by a news crew. An avid supporter of the war, the soldier is furious about being drafted into Moore's movie. "I don't want any part of your propaganda," he says. "No one sent me over there. I sent myself over there. We all knew there's a chance we could get killed. We're not idiots."

For all his outrage over Moore's tactics, though, Wilson is just as given to cheap shots and unearned conclusions. Accusing Moore of lionizing Canada, he goes there and finds two inarticulate street kids to represent it. There's a long, pointless segment in which he profiles two men who've started their own small businesses in Moore's hometown of Flint, Mich., which is apparently supposed to demonstrate that Moore exaggerated the area's economic hardship. Of course, a person could have also found a few thriving entrepreneurs during the Great Depression -- it proves exactly nothing about the larger economic reality.

Wilson seems to pride himself on his open mind, but he often seems either naive or willfully blind. That's true in person, as well. Over drinks at the Intercontinental on Saturday night, I suggest to Wilson that, although Moore might have erred in using an unsuspecting and unwilling amputee to illustrate his point, things in Iraq are indeed awful, and many soldiers feel marooned and furious. A voluble chain-smoker with platinum streaks in his hair, Wilson replies, "I've talked to tons of soldiers who say it's like a Fourth of July parade every time they roll into town." Perhaps because of all the explosions.

Most irritating of all is Wilson's titular accusation. Part of the political fallout from 9/11 has been the emergence of cultural vigilantes who've taken it upon themselves to defame the insufficiently jingoistic. In his Pulitzer Prize-winning 1962 book "Anti-Intellectualism in American Life," the historian Richard Hofstadter wrote of American intellectuals' historic ambivalence toward their country and of "the tension between protest and affirmation that had been most often associated with great achievement." In trying to root out the element of protest in national thought -- all while paying insincere lip service to their respect for dissent -- people like Wilson make themselves the enemies of intellect. They become the enforcers and purveyors of the most squalid philistinism.

In his movie, Wilson seems genuinely disturbed by the degree of polarization of America. He leaves an interview with right-wing Jacobin David Horowitz unnerved by Horowitz's shrillness. Part of him wants to broker a truce between the warring Americas that Herb Meyer speaks of. There seems to be a struggle in him between decency and demagogy.

Ultimately, though, demagogy wins.

By Michelle Goldberg

Michelle Goldberg is a frequent contributor to Salon and the author of "Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism" (WW Norton).

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