Eight people, three dogs, multiple cats and reptiles, in a tiny house with one bathroom. The TV was black-and-white, with a screen not much bigger than many laptops. The image often began to slide upward – “Adjust the vertical hold!” degenerated into static, or blinked off into a test pattern. The voice of God would announce, “We are experiencing technical difficulties. Please stand by.” Someone was always walking between you and the screen, on their way to the bathroom or the kitchen or the front door. “Turn it up!” “Turn it down!” “Turn it off!” “Everyone wants to watch football!”
Somehow that tiny portal salved pain, erased loneliness, inoculated me with the gumption to surmount future challenges, and, like the church, made me realize that what I could see of reality was limited; it splayed out before me a menu of infinite possibilities. I traveled on the magic carpet of Golden Age Hollywood movies seen on a small, black-and-white TV.
2021 America is in the midst of a cultural revolution, and our Woke overlords insist that America before this very moment in time has always been a structurally racist, sexist, homophobic, Islamophobic, transphobic, etc-phobic wasteland. We must trash the past and embrace the brave, new world our Woke overlords have prepared for us. Thomas Jefferson’s statue must be removed; allegedly “racist” illustrations on butter, rice, syrup, and pancakes must be scrubbed; the Constitution must be rewritten. This cultural cleansing includes Hollywood, which has always been racist and a tool of the evil oppressor. We need new movies, movies informed by Woke.
When I now watch those classic films without which my life would be incomplete, powerhouses like “Gone with the Wind,” “Psycho,” and “Lawrence of Arabia,” or even merely twenty-year-old episodes of “The Sopranos,” I mourn. “You couldn’t shoot that scene today … you couldn’t hire that actor today … you couldn’t speak that line of dialogue today.” That art is now castrated is not a minor hiccup. It is a cultural catastrophe, every bit as menacing as Woke’s incursion into math, science, and engineering.
The Woke indictment of Golden Age Hollywood as a bastion of intransigent racists is not accurate.-No, Golden Age Hollywood was not perfect. I’m a Baby Boomer, and Hollywood’s Golden Age ended around the time I was born, but my parents grew up watching classic films, and they educated me. My mother would stand behind me, ironing, on her day off from cleaning other women’s homes, working in factories, or both. As we watched a film together, my mother would pass on the lore she’d gleaned from her era’s gossip magazines.
Judy Garland, innocent and dewy, was in fact addicted to drugs, drugs fed to her by powerful producer Louis B. Mayer. Judy’s husband, Vincent Minelli, “liked boys.” The daughter of glamorous sex symbol Lana Turner stabbed to death Lana’s Mafia lover, Johnny Stompanato. Gary Cooper, the strong and silent, virginal hero, my mother remarked, had an affair with Patricia Neal while he was married to Rocky Cooper. Before that, All-American Coop was with Mexican Spitfire Lupe Velez. And you know Pearl Bailey married a white man, back in 1952. Oh, and Danny Kaye? Real name Kaminsky. Of course they made him change it, and dye his hair blonde. To hide his Jewishness. John Garfield died from stress during the Red Scare. Laurence Olivier as Heathcliff spit his lines and Merle Oberon as Kathy had bad breath in “Wuthering Heights.” Charming, fatherly Bing Crosby abused his kids; his wife, Dixie, was an alcoholic.
They knew, I knew, everyone knew, that Hollywood was corrupt and heartbreaking. And nothing my parents taught me disenchanted the magic. Judy Garland singing “Over the Rainbow” still evokes in me the wide open wonder of childhood. Cathy and Heathcliff on the moors are icons of star-crossed lovers; Gary Cooper is a patron saint of integrity.
Our Woke overlords get Golden Age Hollywood wrong. They present it as a white supremacist monolith of WASP masters dictating films that would brainwash youngsters into hating Indians and loving some imaginary heteronormative master race. A Wokester with an ax to grind can certainly cherry-pick Hollywood products that are thoroughly racist. That cherry-picking creates a distorted history. “The Birth of a Nation,” from 1915, is indeed evil, Confederate propaganda. But in spite of its huge box office, the film was condemned by prominent black and white Americans, including Jane Addams and Rabbi Stephen Wise. It sparked riots, and filmmaker D. W. Griffith was tarred as a racist. He made subsequent films, “Intolerance” and “Broken Blossoms” in an attempt to refurbish his image. Hollywood profited from, but also paid a price for its forays into blatant propaganda, and Hollywood changed its product, even its profitable product, in response to righteous condemnation.
D. W. Griffith was probably the only successful filmmaker who was the son of a Confederate army colonel. Golden Age Hollywood was largely created by immigrant Polish Jews, Irish, Germans, Italians, American societal outcasts, gay men and lesbians. The Jews who invented Hollywood – in the phrase of historian Neal Gabler – wanted very badly to reach, and to be loved by, the masses in America and around the world. “If you want to send a message, call Western Union,” Warsaw-born producer Samuel Goldwyn is supposed to have said. Goldwyn, so much an immigrant that he was famous for butchering the English language, wanted to make movies that served any American Joe or Josephine. Movies should not send ideological messages. Movies should move; move in the sense of action, and move in the sense of moving the human heart to tears, joy, laughter. That human heart was understood to be universal. Yes, Goldwyn was a Jew from Warsaw who spoke fractured English. Yes, he was making movies for Christians named Smith and Jones living in Iowa. You didn’t have to make a movie featuring recent immigrants or retail store clerks or French Canadians to move those specific demographics. Rather, you had to aim for the humanity common to them all. Hollywood films perfected a cinematic language that transcended barriers between people and created a community, united by their response to flickering images that didn’t specifically reflect any of their lives, but that somehow touched all of their dreams.
Those moving images, contrary to Woke preachment, were, more often than not, not “white supremacist.” Busby Berkeley, the son of an actress, created kaleidoscopic phantasmagoria that reflected nothing in the real world, except for the desire to use human imagination to escape the Depression. Jean Arthur, who was probably a lesbian, wore buckskins, wielded a whip, and drove mules. Hollywood pushed for acceptance for minorities like blacks, immigrants, and Jews, pulled back in response to pressure from racists, and then pushed forward again, always trying new ways to hit art’s target, the human heart. As early as 1935, the legendary Bill Robinson, a black man, danced onscreen with superstar Shirley Temple. Paul Robeson’s father was born a slave. Robeson himself was a Rutgers valedictorian and football star. With a magnificent athlete’s build and a stirring bass baritone voice, Robeson starred in “Show Boat” in 1936. His rendition of “Ol’ Man River” is a lengthy musical number, featuring many black male singers, depicting the suffering of blacks under slavery and Jim Crow. “The land ain’t free,” Robeson sings. As he is shown carrying large bales of cotton, he sings of “bodies all aching and wracked with pain … darkies all work while the white folks play … let me go away from the white man boss.” In 1939, David O. Selznick worked hard to present a positive image of African Americans in “Gone with the Wind,” changing some of the more egregious aspects of the book. “In our picture I think we have to be awfully careful that the Negroes come out decidedly on the right side of the ledger.” Black actor Lennie Bluett tells how Clark Gable, the film’s biggest star, cooperated with him, a mere extra, to desegregate on-set toilet facilities.
The point is not that Golden Age Hollywood was a monastery of virtuous monks. “Hollywood Babylon” is a better sobriquet for all the adulterers, drug addicts, moral cowards, and outcasts of the day. Even Hollywood’s Jewish moguls notoriously dropped the ball during Nazism’s rise; see this review of “Imaginary Witness: Hollywood and the Holocaust.” The point, rather, is that the Woke characterization of Hollywood as steering the wheel of racism and chauvinism is a distortion.
There’s a more important point here, though. It’s not so much about the progressivism of Hollywood bigwigs, as about how Golden Age films were constructed and received. Again, the filmmakers were themselves largely outsiders, trying to get in. The crowbars they used to jimmy open the lock of American homes and consciousness were their mastery of a storytelling technique that vanquished differences between filmmakers and their audience, and between audience members, and also the filmmakers’ hard-won, virtuosic command of mere flickering lights on a screen.
That a fat, abused, dyslexic, first-generation kid like me could watch a film like 1935’s “Top Hat” and identify with Ginger Rogers, in a dress made of feathers, dancing with Fred Astaire in a gazebo poised over an indoor canal, has nothing to do with the aesthetically useless Woke concept of “representation.” According to this concept, you can’t get anything from art that doesn’t include someone like you. If you are a fat dyslexic girl, no movies that don’t include a fat dyslexic girl can move you. Our Woke overlords would be driven to apoplexy by my appreciative reception of the feather-dress dance scene from “Top Hat.” I can just imagine what a Wokester would say. “Both characters are white. Both characters are cis-gendered. Both characters are able-bodied. Where are the fat dyslexics in this scene?”
Here’s the answer. There aren’t any. There are also no white people in this scene. Is any Woke overlord so stupid that she thinks that white Americans in 1935 were wearing dresses made of feathers and shining, flawless hairdos constructed of spun sugar? Many white American women in 1935 looked like Dorothea Lange’s “Woman of the High Plains,” that is a gaunt, exhausted field worker wearing a burlap dress made from a feed bag and an expression of infinite despair. Even that High Plains woman, wrestling with the Dust Bowl and hunger, could afford a movie ticket in 1935. My immigrant mother first tasted peanut butter during a Depression-era excursion to forage for food in a garbage dump. Someone wealthier than she had left some peanut butter in the bottom of the jar. My father was a child “hobo” “riding the rails” seeking work. But my hungry and homeless parents did spend some of their pennies on movies. Because art is necessary. Because movies fed their souls. Because for the length of “Top Hat,” they didn’t see “someone who looks like me.” They saw someone who looked like they looked in their dreams.
Hollywood did try to make a movie about someone “who looks like me,” a movie of “representationality” for poor, Eastern European immigrants. There was, in fact, deadly prejudice against immigrants like my parents one hundred years ago. One of my family members was murdered in an anti-immigrant assault. Hollywood attempted to address this prejudice in the 1937 Humphrey Bogart film “Black Legion.” In the film, an American nativist turns to violence after a Polish immigrant gets a job that he, the nativist, feels should have gone to him.
I find “Black Legion” unwatchable. It’s heavy-handed, preachy, and stiff. I’d much rather watch “The Awful Truth,” a 1937 screwball comedy directed by Leo McCarey and starring Cary Grant and Irene Dunne. McCarey, Grant, and Dunne are at the top of their game in this frivolous merengue. I’d rather watch a well-made film that “does not represent me” than an aesthetic botch that tries to and fails. “The Awful Truth,” as totally divorced from my own real life as it is, offers me something I need as badly as I need hard-hitting history. It offers me escape. It offers me entertainment.
Golden Age Hollywood films were made by outsiders trying to get inside, and their tool was a storytelling style that lent itself to universal human concerns. Audiences managed to read their own stories into what they were seeing, and the films were designed to be read that way. My mother didn’t like “Black Legion” any more than I did. My mother loved John Wayne and she rooted for the Indians in every Western. “They are like us, Slovaks,” she would inform me, intimately. “We, too, have been driven off of our lands. We, too, had to fight, with just sticks and stones, against powerful invaders.” She interpreted movies that featured Indians as celebrating Indians, and, by proxy, Slovaks. She saw the Westerns she wanted to see. My mother loved Paul Robeson. When she heard him sing “Ol’ Man River,” she thought of her own life, her people’s lives, of endless, thankless, hard work. These aesthetic experiences encouraged my mother’s feeling of unity with Indians and African Americans.
In the 1995 documentary, “The Celluloid Closet,” gay audience members recount how they saw themselves in Hollywood films about straight people. Susie Bright, a lesbian, invented her own alternate scenario to “Morocco,” a movie featuring a love affair between sex gods Marlene Dietrich and Gary Cooper. To young Susie, the real story revolved around Dietrich and a female extra in the cast.
There are even African American women who can appreciate the best of what “Gone with the Wind” has to offer. One black woman, Cheryl Teeg, wrote that the history of slavery is not the point of GWTW; rather it’s about how two very different women, hard Scarlett and soft Melanie, handle catastrophe. “I love it, and it is one of my favorite movies of all time. My grandmother loved the book/ movie too … The point is the collapse of a proud and almost naive society of upper class people, the stark realization that they made a grave miscalculation, their struggle for survival, and their attempt to carve a new place in a world that works opposite to what they had always known. It’s about the strength and perseverance of Scarlett, how she goes from a delicate socialite to a hardened survivor, while remaining fascinatingly selfish, and unintentionally hilarious.”
Asked what book “made you what you are today,” Ayaan Hirsi Ali responded that she couldn’t name one, but several. “When I was 9 or 10, in Kenya, the Nancy Drew books showed me a type of empowered girl that I was not used to at all … When I was older, Charles Dickens inspired my sense of justice and fairness. George Orwell criticized liberals for apologizing for Communism; he continues to inspire me to persist in my position that Islam unreformed, when put into practice, leads to a dystopia.”
Our Woke overlords classify Ayaan Hirsi Ali as black; she must only appreciate black authors. Our Woke overlords’ classification system is worthless. Blackness is not Hirsi Ali’s most important feature. Her most important feature is her fearlessness and her insistence on taking action to do right. She is in the same class as Nancy Drew, as Dickens, as Orwell. Skin color doesn’t matter in the authentic classification system, any more than it mattered to my mother, when she saw her story onscreen, in cinematic depictions of Native Americans, and in Paul Robeson’s singing.
Samuel Goldwyn was told that he couldn’t produce a film version of a book he was interested in, because it was about lesbians. “That’s all right; we’ll make them Hungarians,” he replied. There’s a kernel of truth in Goldwyn’s malapropism. That gay people, Slovak immigrants, and black women could and did see their stories in Golden Age Hollywood movies makes sense, given two aesthetic restrictions filmmakers in the Golden Age worked under. The first was the Motion Picture Production Code. This code was heavily influenced by activist Catholics who wanted to limit graphic depictions of sex and violence onscreen. The other feature affecting filmmakers was the communal nature of viewing. It was nearly impossible to watch a movie alone. Entire families would go to the movies together. Ivy Leaguers and the illiterate, immigrants and the native born, all sat in the same theater. Violent films about criminals had to be careful of grandmothers in the audience; romantic films had to factor in any little kids. Given these features, allusion and suggestion were built-in to films. In place of graphic sex scenes, the filmmaker would show ocean waves crashing onto a shore. In place of sadistic violence, a villain would arch an eyebrow, laugh maniacally, and the scene would cut to black. Without nudity or gore, sheer artistry produced amazingly erotic scenes, like this one with Greta Garbo, and disturbing violent scenes, like this one with Jimmy Cagney. Suggestion in movies trained audiences in participating in filmmaking, in creating in their own minds what could not be depicted onscreen. I realized how thoroughly I had learned to “fill in” what was not shown after a revival house viewing of 1933’s “The Bitter Tea of General Yen.” I was describing to friends how much I loved the movie, and I mentioned an alluring red dress worn by Barbara Stanwyck. Only hours later did I catch myself – I had been watching a black-and-white movie. I had added the red myself. Just so, minority group members could add their own story to films about movie stars more perfect and remote than any human being who ever lived.
Film fans kept nagging me to watch the 1956 film “The Searchers.” “It’s a classic. You have to see it.” I didn’t want to see it because, unlike my mother, I don’t like Westerns and I don’t like John Wayne. I finally went to a library that had a copy and sat down at the library’s VCR. I felt like I was doing homework. Immediately, with the opening scene, director John Ford had me wrapped around his finger. I still dislike Westerns and John Wayne, but “The Searchers” is one of the best movies I’ve ever seen. Ford’s use of light, space, character, comic relief, allusion, features that are independent of the Western genre, captivate me. Ford pooh-poohed talk of his own artistry, as in this interview, but he was brilliant. The film’s opening scene has been written about a great deal. One article dubs it “100 Seconds of Greatness.”
“The Searchers” does not represent me. To say that its main characters and I are “white” is childishly meaningless. I have nothing in common with Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) a Civil War veteran and Wild West desperado. I shared “The Searchers” with a Muslim friend from Syria. From the first scene, she, like me, was utterly sucked in by the film’s artistry. At first, as the film drew to a close, she was silent. Then she burst into chatter, and then tears. In every scene, Ford aims for, and hits, universal humanity.
There’s a famous, and highly disturbing, scene in “The Searchers.” Ethan Edwards happens upon white captives who have been living with Comanches. The white women are clearly insane. Their rescuers, US Cavalry, attempt to pacify them by handing them toys. Ethan stares at these women. Many filmgoers interpret Ethan’s facial expression as demonstrating his “white racism” against Indians. The poor women are insane, one blogger argues, because “they likely bore witness to a cavalry massacre.” White men doing white man things drove these poor women over the edge. White racist Ethan Edwards’ face shows hatred for these captives because they have “gone native” and are more Indian than white.
I have read accounts of Comanche ritual torture. Diabolical acts, including being forced to watch their infants being tortured to death, did drive some women captives insane. I don’t see “white racism” on Ethan’s face when he looks at the captives. Rather, I see Ethan’s confrontation with what author Joseph Conrad dubbed “the horror, the horror.” Ethan has seen the bodies of several people he loved desecrated in ways too obscene for him to describe to anyone. “Don’t ever ask me!” he shouts when asked to describe one atrocity. “As long as you live, don’t ever ask me more.” In any case, that the very same scene can reasonably be read in multiple ways is testimony to the artistry of “The Searchers.”
A blogger wonders who the leading lady of “The Searchers” is, and decides, correctly, that the leading lady is Martha Edwards (Dorothy Jordan), Ethan’s sister-in-law. This is remarkable, because Martha is onscreen for mere minutes, disappearing forever after the movie’s opening scenes, and she speaks no weighty dialogue. Martha smooths Ethan’s coat with her hand. Her tiny, mundane gesture – smoothing a coat – has prompted pages of analysis. One critic remarks that many of those commenting on Martha’s tender handling of Ethan’s coat think that they are the only viewer who saw it happen. Ford so thoroughly draws his viewer in that she thinks that she is sharing an intimate moment with a film character. It is through details like the coat-smoothing that Ford renders Martha a larger-than-life force in the film. At a key moment, Ethan is about to murder Martha’s daughter, Debbie. At that moment, Martha’s Theme plays on the soundtrack. Ethan does not kill the girl; we know it is Martha’s influence that stayed his hand. Martha has been out of the film since the first brief opening moments, but she lives in Ethan’s heart, and she is still affecting key plot points. In the original script, Ethan says, when he changes his mind about murdering Debbie, “You sure favor your mother.” That statement made it more obvious that Martha’s influence on Ethan prevented him from murdering Debbie. Ford deleted the line from the script, relying on the more subtle clue of the song to reach his viewers’ hearts.
To add another layer, and there are always more layers with “The Searchers,” though it is never mentioned in the film, Martha’s Theme is in fact, “Lorena,” a lachrymose ballad of star-crossed love and irretrievable loss that had been a favorite of Civil War soldiers like Ethan.
“The Black Legion” didn’t fail for me as a film because it had a message, that is, a message against nativism and in favor of acceptance of Polish immigrants like my parents. It failed for me as a film because it lacks artistry. It is heavy-handed and preachy. Film critic Molly Haskell is quoted saying, of “The Searchers,” that it depicts how “Love dissolves hatred, mercy dissolves authoritarianism, maternal and paternal instincts unite in a single, all-encompassing figure.” That’s a preachy message. Ford did not send that message lecture-style. He sent it through artistry, through the mere wisps of a song on the soundtrack, a song that the viewer perhaps only registered subconsciously. Hollywood had been developing this artistry for decades, the ability to use flickering images on a screen to bypass human diversity, that is, to maneuver past this or that skin color or income, politics or orientation, and to reach the universal in human hearts.
Golden Age Hollywood was not a monopoly of white supremacist WASPs hard-selling white, male heroism to brainwash simpletons. Golden Age Hollywood was a Babylon of buccaneers and outcasts spinning tales with the desperate, intoxicated, power-mad fervor of Scheherazade, dancing as fast as they could to keep one step ahead, not of a Sultan who would behead them in the morning, but of anti-Semites and morals policemen, blackmailers and gossip columnists breathing down their necks, ready to expose their scandals to public outrage and boycotts. It was their very desperation, that free-market generated tension between what they wanted to do and what they could do, that created a perfect storm that made Golden Age Hollywood one of the most powerful aesthetic forces in history.
Recognizing how powerful films are, our Woke overlords now demand to vivisect them. There are new diversity and inclusion standards for Academy Award contenders. While it starred white men, the New York Times reassures its readers, the film “The Irishman” had a woman casting director and a Mexican cinematographer.
Diversity hiring is a risky business, as recent articles about Vice President Kamala Harris demonstrate. Some have ventured that the fatal shooting on the set of “Rust” may have been a “diversity hire gone wrong.” Hannah Gutierrez-Reed, the film’s armorer, was 24 years old and had received negative feedback on her previous assignment. But she was a woman and “Latinx,” and her presence ticked off items on the required diversity list.
In addition to diverse behind-the-scenes teams, movies must now tell more stories about black heroes. NPR critic Eric Deggans made this very demand of superstar Tom Hanks in 2021. In fact, Hanks had already made “News of the World,” a 2020 film that depicts white men as pretty damn awful – racist, violent, genocidal, power-mad, and generally unpleasant.
The opening scene of the strongly hyped 2021 production of “Scenes from a Marriage” includes Oscar Isaac, an Hispanic, Jessica Chastain, white, and Sunita Mani, South Asian. Then a black actress appears. In a series that focuses almost exclusively on two married people, the creators managed, immediately, to check off all the ethnic boxes. Mani asks Isaac and Chastain their preferred pronouns. She wants to be called “she.” He wants to be called “he.” “Scenes from a Marriage” is poke-in-the-eye obvious in its adherence to Woke dictates; this shattered my willing suspension of disbelief.
I tried watching something more lighthearted, “A Castle for Christmas,” a silly but endearing romance. Brooke Shields plays a divorced American woman who travels to a remote Scottish village and becomes best friends with Andi Osho, who is Nigerian. And looks Nigerian. And has a Scottish accent, and lives in a remote Scottish village. I guess the day will come when we are all so used to diversity casting that the presence of a Nigerian wearing plaid and speaking with a Scottish burr in a remote Scottish village will not interrupt the willing suspension of disbelief we need even for silly romance movies, but I’m not there yet.
Early reviews of “The Power of the Dog” intrigued me. Jane Campion directed, wrote, and co-produced. Her 1993 film, “The Piano,” is one of the best films I’ve ever seen. I went to Wikipedia and read the plot of “The Power of the Dog.” Here is that plot, including the ending. George (Jesse Plemons), a rancher in 1925 Montana, marries the widow Rose (Kirsten Dunst), who has an effeminate son, Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee). George’s brother, Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch), his fellow cowboy, is cruel to Rose and Peter. Rose becomes an alcoholic. To save his mother, Peter tricks Phil, the cruel cowboy, into handling the hide of a cow that died of anthrax. Phil dies. The End.
This plot astounded me. It sounded so simplistic, even juvenile. Like the plot of a throw-away episode of a thirty-minute television anthology series. I revere “The Piano,” and I was sure there had to be more to it.
I coerced a friend into watching the film with me. (Friend – I apologize.) “The Power of the Dog” is a beautiful film. Ari Wegner’s cinematography is so rich you feel you could dip a spoon into the screen and withdraw light liquid as honey. Scenes are so beautiful they could be images you’d frame and hang on the wall. Campion shot the film in New Zealand, not Montana, and, as anyone who has seen the Ring movies can attest, New Zealand boasts sensuously rolling hills and vast crystalline skies. Wegner and Campion freely allude to “The Searchers,” specifically its opening and closing scenes contrasting brightly lit landscapes with dark, domestic interiors (see here).
Kodi Smit-McPhee’s face and body are tremendous assets to his performance. He is tall and as thin as a runway model. He has large eyes and lush lips. He looks excruciatingly vulnerable, the inevitable recipient of bully blows in high school. But he has the intelligence and talent to convey that there is more here than meets the eye, and when this nice young man commits the film’s climactic murder, you are not surprised. In this he reminds the viewer of Anthony Perkins in “Psycho.” Both are androgenous, homicidal mama’s boys.
Other than Smit-McPhee’s performance and the film’s visual beauty, though, “The Power of the Dog” is a failure. Its fulcrum is domestic psychological abuse. Phil Burbank, as written, and Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance as Phil lack verisimilitude. Cumberbatch scowls and knits his brow in virtually every scene. This is not frightening. Domestic abusers are terrifying to the degree that they are shape-shifters. The parent who beat you and threatened to kill you on Monday might approach you with your favorite sweets on Tuesday, and be a completely calm and charming person when interacting with other, powerful adults. Phil shows no such manipulation, and no such instability of personality. He is, thus, much less scary and much less accurate a portrait. A victim knows how to approach a man who is perpetually scowling. How to approach someone who loves you one day and comes close to killing you the next? Abuser instability presents a maze to the abused, a maze that is often impossible to navigate successfully.
Victims of domestic sadists are rarely the flaccid doormats that Rose and George are. More than one reviewer has commented that Jesse Plemons’ performance as George is so catatonic he could have been replaced with a mannequin with no loss of realism. Victims struggle against abuse, trying timeworn strategies like bargaining, flattery, confrontation, avoidance. Phil is mean to Rose once and she immediately collapses into incoherent and publicly humiliating alcoholism. The viewer sees little reason to champion Rose, a character who makes no effort to rescue herself.
In fact the film could be read as a brief in favor of domestic sadists. Phil, the villain, is the only competent rancher. He is the one who is shown, graphically, castrating bulls, herding cattle, ordering rough cowboys to work, to eat, and to recreate with prostitutes, and the cowboys obey him in all of these assignments. The same cowboys ignore George. The movie never asks, but the viewer must: what happens to the ranch once Peter murders Phil? It falls to catatonic George and drunken Rose. It, in short, falls apart, and everyone descends into poverty. Bad guys are the only competent guys is this film’s confused message.
Montana cowboy Phil is also Phi Beta Kapa in Classics from Yale. This gratuitous detail just made Phil more unbelievable to this viewer.
For long stretches, nothing happens onscreen, except a visual display of New Zealand’s ample wonders. By “nothing” I do not mean that action consists of significant glances or quiet but pregnant dialogue. I love such films and such subtlety. I mean nothing happens. At all.
Weirdest of all, Phil is cruel because Phil is gay. He is shown fondling and masturbating with a bandana that belonged to the long dead Bronco Henry. He has a secret cache of gay porn. When he hears George and Rose having sex, he fondles a leather saddle that had belonged to Bronco Henry. Effeminate Peter murders gay Phil to protect drunken mommy Rose.
Published reviewers heap praise on “The Power of the Dog.” Amateur moviegoers are not so kind. Rotten Tomatoes‘ professional reviewers award TPOTD a 96% rating. The amateur rating, on the other hand, has steadily gone down. It now stands at 64%, and it will descend as more people see the film. The rating has also gone down at the International Movie Database. Many “prolific reviewers,” at IMDB, that is film fans dedicated enough to have contributed more than 300 reviews, dismiss TPOTD as “beautifully photographed but boring. Yes, simply boring.” “ABSOLUTELY nothing happened;” “atmospheric nothingness;” “arty twaddle;” “very beautiful but I was detached, unmoved, unimpressed, goes nowhere … moves at the speed of molasses in January … I felt no tension whatsoever .. Endless moments are presented as significant because they move slowly and there is next to total silence. I just didn’t care;” “I had a difficult time remaining awake;” these quotes reflect a trend of prolific reviewers assessing TPOTD as a boring film. Reviews judged “most helpful” by others reveal a similar theme: “The power of falling asleep … a bunch of nothingness;” “Slow, ponderous, and ultimately unsatisfactory;” “Very beautiful and very boring;” “In dire need of a script;” “Nothing happens;” “Pretentious, indulgent, unskilled, boring … what a waste of money;” “nothing to see here” are typical comments from “most helpful” reviews.
We’ve been here before. Professional reviewers praise a film excessively, and hardcore film fans reject that same film. What’s going on? Possibly what’s going on is Woke.
Praise for “The Power of the Dog” is accompanied by assertions that the film destroys the cowboy, that quintessential symbol of white, American masculinity. In fact if you search the term “toxic masculinity” and “The Power of the Dog” you find pages of essays. As no less an authority than the New York Times put it. “The Power of the Dog” is “a dazzling evisceration of one of the country’s foundational myths,” that is cowboy Phil, “a swaggering man’s man.” It’s possible that those adoring ‘The Power of the Dog” don’t boost it so emphatically because it offers them a valuable aesthetic experience. Rather, they cherish the film because it bashes the cowboy and heterosexuality. Their championing of this film smacks of spite, given that, in “eviscerating” the “swaggering man’s man,” it depicts one gay man as a sadist, and another gay man as a killer.
When arguing a point, I like to rely on objective facts. It is a fact that there is a disconnect between how audiences respond to TPOTD, and how professional reviewers respond to it. But here’s the fact I wish I could harvest. I wish we could somehow measure the aesthetic pleasure movie fans get from a well-made film, yes, a film like “The Searchers.” And I wish there were a way to measure when a viewer is feeling rewarded by a film because that film punishes someone the viewer hates. TPOTD, as pages of essays on the web assert, punishes “toxic masculinity.” Did the viewers who value “The Power of the Dog” really enjoy it? Or were they just marinating in spite? I don’t have the answer to that, but one thing I do know is that a healthy society requires art created through the rough and tumble feedback loop of the free market. Art honed to meet ideological needs is no less toxic to society than mathematics, engineering, or science crafted to meet ideological needs.
We must throw out the past: Jefferson statues, pancake mixes, Golden Age Hollywood. I want films that include persons and themes that could not be depicted before. I’d pay money to see a movie about a fat dyslexic girl. But I demand that that movie is well-made. I don’t want to be preached to; I don’t want to support a film made only to “eviscerate” the hated white male hero. I wish we could combine the virtuosity of the old masters, the Leo McCareys, the John Fords, with modern inclusion. I hope that day comes.
Danusha Goska is the author of God through Binoculars: A Hitchhiker at a Monastery.