Interview with Mark Winchell (1948-2008)
author of God, Man, and Hollywood: Politically Incorrect Cinema from The Birth of a Nation to The Passion of the Christ
Over a third of your book deals with movies favorable to the Confederate South. Is there a particular reason why such films are “politically incorrect”? Do you see something positive in neo-Confederate values and attitudes?
The cultural left has always been anti-Confederate. Now the GOP, which became the majority party in this country for a generation largely on the basis of a “Southern Strategy,” is trashing us. Witness what Mitt (Pander Bear) Romney and Fred (“Aw Shucks”) Thompson said about the Confederate flag during one of the primary debates. And we all know what McCain thinks about the flag and what it represents. The only one on that stage who would have defended us was Ron Paul. So, with the entire left, the neocons, and the Republican establishment against us, we are a minority within a minority. That is why a film such as GODS AND GENERALS is trashed and why GONE WITH THE WIND is considered at best a quaint embarrassment. What is positive in “Confederate values and attitudes”? How about a belief in limited (not “heroic”) government and state sovereignty and a reverence for one’s regional culture? These used to be considered conservative values and attitudes.
In what ways are your views similar to and different from those of Neoconservative film critics such as Michael Medved and Ben Stein?
As to similarities, Medved, Stein, and I have what my favorite neocon Joe Epstein calls “shared antipathies.” We know what we don’t like. As I indicated in my book, Medved, Stein, and others have done such a thorough and commendable job of pointing out what is wrong with the entertainment industry that it would be redundant for me simply to echo their criticisms. I’m looking for the good stuff—present as well as past. Also, I doubt that Medved and Stein would share my copperhead bias.
How did you decide which films to discuss in the main body of your book and which to relegate to the appendix?
The appendix was added after the main body of the book was completed. Many films in that section are probably worth a full essay, but the book is nearly 500 pages as it is, and I saw no compelling reason for replacing any of the main chapters. I had already taught or written about several of the films in the main body of the book. Others were personal favorites that I wanted to discuss. Still others represented some theme central to my argument. The final section was important because I didn’t want people to think that the films treated in the main body of the book were the only ones I cared to recommend. Even the 100 in Section Four are more representative than comprehensive.
What makes a film “politically incorrect”: the intention of its author or popular and critical reaction?
The adverse reaction of elite critics from what Lionel Trilling called the “adversary culture”—especially when such reaction is rooted in ideology—makes a film “politically incorrect.” Often, but not always, the intention of the auteur and popular response will validate that definition. All three were certainly present in the controversy over THE PASS ION OF THE CHRIST.
Can a movie become “politically incorrect” over time? What are some examples of movies that are not usually thought of as politically incorrect?
Yes, as notions of political correctness themselves change. That has been the fate of GONE WITH THE WIND, which critic Melvin Tolson thinks is “more dangerous than THE BIRTH OF A NATION,” and SONG OF THE SOUTH. A recent DVD of old Loony Tunes had to carry a warning label because some people, including a guy who thinks that O. J. never killed anybody, find the racial stereotypes to be offensive.
I thought that the character played by Kathy Bates in ABOUT SCHMIDT was a dead-on parody of a middle-aged flower child thirty-some years after the sixties. In an otherwise tepid review of the film in CHRONICLES, George McCartney says of director Alexander Payne: “In other hands, Bates would have been instructed to play her character as a touchstone of honesty and healthy nonconformity. Instead, she comes across as a monster of self-congratulation.”
Some might consider ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT a left-wing movie because of its pacifism. But it was made at a time when conservatives were reluctant to rush to war. It also dares to present the perfidious Huns as human beings.
BORAT takes some potshots at the infantile Right, but it redeems itself with irreverence toward the Muslim world, in particular, and multiculturalism, in general.
At first glance, SEPARATE BUT EQUAL might seem like a pious celebration of the conventional wisdom, but it actually explores the historical and constitutional complexities of the Brown decision with considerable sophistication. Burt Lancaster turns in a remarkably sympathetic portrayal of John W. Davis, and the film leaves little doubt that the decision was more political and moral than constitutional in nature.
Have conservative critics forfeited their credibility by concentrating too much on the negative products of American popular culture?
Although that has not happened yet, there is always the danger that it might. I just finished reading a book that contains the greatest hits from 25 years of the NEW CRITERION. Most of the artists they praise are dead. The proverbial man from Mars, who had only this book to go by, would think that our culture is in worse shape than it actually is. Mel Bradford used to talk about the cultural myopia of people who know only what is going on in Manhattan. I would add Washington and L. A. to the list.
Does the success of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ represent a new (or recovered) market for religious films or has the controversy over that movie and Gibson’s own subsequent conduct proved too detrimental?
I hope that religious films make a comeback. THE NATIVITY STORY and AMAZING GRACE didn’t do that well at the box office, but it may be too soon to know. It’s good to have someone with Mel Gibson’s clout on our side, but his subsequent conduct has certainly proved detrimental to the cause.
What sorts of movies would you like to see Hollywood producing in the coming years?
Books on American history, particularly biographies, have proved popular with general readers. More movies of that kind would be welcome, especially if they challenge the conventional wisdom. Thomas Wood’s POLITICALLY INCORRECT GUIDE TO
AMERICAN HISTORY could provide subjects for any number of interesting films. Our young people are woefully ignorant of history, and much of the little they have been taught is suspect.