The Dark "Night"...of Hollywood Misinformation

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September 3, 2008

I'm a sucker for great acting. I've sat through films that are sub-par, and films that are greatly disturbing, to watch a great actor earn his paycheck. Therefore, I've been anticipating The Dark Knight, Heath Ledger's final complete performance (he will apparently still be featured in another movie), a performance for which he prepared by spending a month in near-isolation, and an act that apparently scared Michael Caine out of his socks on the first day of shooting. The media are buzzing with talk of a posthumous Oscar.

However, after reading the reviews, I'm not sure I'm going to bother, for several reasons. One of the main reasons is that these reviewers are saying the film should have gotten a more severe rating than PG-13, due to the level and intensity of the violence. I can sometimes allow quite a lot of that if I feel that the film has something to say. But a little of that goes a long way for me. Besides, the last ultra-violent film I saw, No Country for Old Men, has left me reeling, not only for the relentlessness of what is shown, but for Javier Bardem's exceptionally creepy performance as a remorseless killer, upping the ante from Anthony Hopkins's star-making role in The Silence of the Lambs. Being the overly-sensitive type that I am, that one will last me for a good long while. But there is a more important reason for skipping out on this latest foray into psychopathic, violent behavior, and the rewards that are undoubtedly to follow from the film industry. This movie is already being touted by more prominent critics as an example of the evils of anarchy.

Kudos to Hollywood for doing right by our benevolent government, and once again associating anarchy with violence and chaos. We've all had it drilled into us--and we'll have it drilled into us again, I'm sure--that without the FBI, the CIA, and our local police, we'd all be in that proverbial handbasket on its way to you-know-where. "If 'The Dark Knight' is about anything, it's about civic catastrophe and the fragility of our institutions in the face of blind, consuming evil," says Mick LaSalle of the San Francisco Chronicle. I suppose the only thing between us and this supposed catastrophe is that Thin Blue Line, then? I don't know if that sums up Mr. LaSalle's political beliefs or not, but it appears to be a running thread through many other reviews of The Dark Knight, including Peter Travers of Rolling Stone, Scott Foundas of Village Voice, and Nick Schager of Slant. The reviews appear to consistently associate anarchy with violence, terrorism, and chaos. Hollywood , a corporate entity that has more money than it knows what to do with, and has had it for a longer period of time than any other segment of the art and entertainment industry, is more than happy to continue the association of the moniker for peace-loving free marketeers with psychopaths.

What a disappointment. But I suppose it shouldn't be a surprise. After all, until just a short while ago, I may very well have joined in the chorus, not understanding what anarchy really means. Hollywood 's biggest films may give the wrong impression of a society with no government, but if you know where to look, you may be surprised to see that the entire film industry is not deceived. There are some artists out there who get it, even some of the bigger names in show business.

Take, for example, George Lucas. The original Star Wars trilogy, as corny and dated as it has become, has a lot to say about what it means to live in an empire. Lucas's best film on the subject of liberty, however, is probably THX 1138, a marvelously dystopian look into planned societies. If you can't understand what's menacing about faceless robots chasing after you while calmly explaining that they only want to help, then you don't understand what's evil about "compassionate conservatism" or "social democracy," two sides of the same coin, if you ask me.

An astounding German film from 2006, The Lives of Others, tells you everything you need to know about National Security Letters. This is a movie that I initially had a difficult time watching, as the unpleasant blandness of East Germany's socialist paradise unfolded. However, there are fewer more gripping and emotionally involved movies on the subject of liberty than this one. Perhaps most enjoyable is the denouement of the story, no less engaging than the climax. Watch it to find out, and prepare to be deeply touched.

Brazil, Terry Gilliam's masterpiece, also falls into the category of a bleak future provided by social engineering. I guess all his time in the relatively anarchist Monty Python troupe wasn't wasted. The point is eventually driven home (if it wasn't after the opening scene of an innocent man getting arrested and taken from his family at Christmas) when Tuttle, the elusive hero played by Robert De Niro, is foiled by an endless whirlwind of paper that ultimately causes his disintegration.

A less depressing and more subtly dysoptian film (ironically from a country that once promised utopia to all who embraced Mao) is The Story of Qiu Ju, a terrific low-budget film from the legendary director, Zhang Yimou. A woman whose husband is the victim of an assault travels (somewhat humorously) through the bureaucracy of Chinese justice, only to discover in the end that a true act of anarchist benevolence by the perpetrator of the assault goes unrewarded. If you want to know how to be in this world with your neighbors, this is one to see.

For a good laugh at the ridiculousness of "representative" government, or the even greater silliness of any human being claiming any kind of divine authority whatsoever, watch The Madness of King George, a movie that features a delightful performance by the late Nigel Hawthorne, and Rupert Everett doing what he does best, playing the rather foppish royal imbecile. Is it the king who's gone mad, or the gaggle of self-serving politicians shimmying up the greasy pole?

But what about films that show anarchy in action, a society of free-willed individuals who find some harmony with their neighbors, who show that the human soul yearns not only for freedom, but for the opportunity to voluntarily, peacefully coexist? Look no further than Harold and Maude, an off-beat comedy starring a boyishly goofy Bud Cort and aging Oscar-winner Ruth Gordon. The money quote is delivered by Maude when she's pulled over by a clueless cop: "Don't get officious. You're not yourself when you're officious. That is the curse of a government job."

Although politics is not a subject that is touched upon, Enchanted April has a lot to say about leaving people alone to work out their own difficulties, while still providing a loving and supportive environment; something that the busybodies of this world never seem to comprehend, no matter how well-intentioned they are. Speaking as a former busybody, I know what I'm talking about.

In the same vein, a great movie about child-rearing, and what children really need from parental figures--a movie so perfectly grounded in what is right and best for children that I can't think of one greater--is a lesser-known Korean movie, The Way Home. An aging grandmother, who can't even stand up straight, is charged with taking care of a spoiled seven-year-old for a brief period. Unable to offer him anything he wants, she gives him time, patience, and unconditional love. How many American parents can truly claim this is their gift to their public-school-educated, fattened, TV-glued, obeisance-to-authority-laden kids?

Ferris Bueller didn't need the system. Neither did the two old coots in Secondhand Lions. Malcolm X, though misguided into a fanatical religion that held to the idea that all white men are devils, hit the nail on the head as far as what the government meant--and still means--to black Americans. (Us whities are just waking up to it!) Although not entirely accurate, the semi-historical Howard Hughes of The Aviator suffered under--then rose above--the federal government and its corporate lobbyists to make aviation history time and again.

Inman of Cold Mountain walked away from a government war. Celie in The Color Purple finally learned to stand up for herself in spite of the odds, and to live on her own. Jim from Empire of the Sun, Spielberg's greatest movie in my opinion, had no use for racial divides, cultural differences, war, or the governments that require them. While directly violating the orders given to him by a government agent, Roger O. Thornhill saved Eve Kendall from a terrifying fate in North by Northwest. Against social pressure, personal humiliation, and threat of legal action, Miss Quested told the truth under oath in A Passage to India. Oscar Schindler voluntarily gave of his wealth to save people considered worthless in Schindler's List, making sure that the bombs he manufactured were worthless instead. Although just a dog, Toto had wisdom enough to reveal that the "man behind the curtain" was a ruse, meant to frighten and control the populace with false authority and near-deification. (Sorry, but the name of the movie escapes me.)

You have probably noticed that a lot of these movies are lesser known, chick-flick, artsy-fartsy, indie-type movies. How will the memory of these films stand up against the financially successful but violent, chaos-making Joker come Oscar season? Perhaps they won't, but then there's the not-too-distant legacy of the blockbuster, big budget, Hollywood-friendly, record-holding, Oscar-winning, highly profitable, and anarchist The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Maybe that will have to suffice until Hollywood finally gets it.

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B.R. Merrick writes for "Strike The Root" and "A Voice for Men," is  proud to be a classical music reviewer at and iTunes, and in spite of the poisonous nature of television, God Himself will have to pry his DVDs of “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” out of his cold, dead hands, under threat of eternal damnation.