THIS is the one week out of the year when Republicans in Hollywood come out of the closet (and I'm not talking about today's pivotal midterm elections). In the famously liberal world of show business, being a conservative writer or actor is a quixotic pursuit, like a Cubs fan longing for a trip to the World Series or an antiwar activist hoping to land a show on Fox News.
But this weekend Michael Moore followers will have to take a backseat to Michael Medved fans, thanks to the third annual Liberty Film Festival, which opens Friday at the Pacific Design Center. The festival is the brainchild of Jason Apuzzo and Govindini Murty, husband-and-wife film devotees who are on a mission to establish a conservative beachhead of cultural influence in the movie business.
Having watched a batch of the films slated to screen this weekend, the festival still seems a few years away from being a real cinematic force, though it features several well-made documentaries, most notably "Suicide Killers," a chilling portrait of imprisoned suicide bombers by French Algerian filmmaker Pierre Rehov.
As it turns out, Apuzzo and Murty's most inspired idea is their Libertas website (www.libertyfilmfestival.com/libertas). Launched in early 2005, the festival spinoff has emerged as a must read for anyone who cares about film and enjoys seeing Hollywood blowhards and hypocrites take a few jabs to the head. I couldn't agree less with most of its politics, but in an era in which most movie sites are dominated by gossips and geeks, Libertas is one of the few websites that actually takes movies -- and their cultural influence -- seriously.
To say that the site is defiantly right wing would be an understatement. If it has a central theme, it would be that moviegoers won't spend money on movies populated with obnoxious liberal stars who deride President Bush and undercut the war on terrorism. Libertas blamed the box-office failure of "All the King's Men" on Sean Penn, saying his vitriolic attacks on Bush have made him box-office poison.
The site's rhetoric is often just as harsh as anything you hear from Penn. After Variety announced a film starring Reese Witherspoon that involves a CIA operative in the Middle East who questions his mission after observing a secret police grilling of a suicide bombing suspect, Libertas raged: "What these films are doing to embolden the enemy and turn potential allies in the Middle East against us is unmistakable.... And here's the biggest actress in Hollywood doing our enemies bidding.... Shame on these people. They're as dangerous as any terrorist."
Many of the most inflammatory posts (like the one above) are written by a filmmaker using the nom de plume of Dirty Harry. Apuzzo won't reveal his identity but says the site's regular contributors disagree on many films. Still, the site has also attacked "Catch a Fire" as "another apartheid movie with an anti-Christian theme thrown in just to impress the Academy" and dismissed "Blood Diamond" sight unseen, with Dirty Harry saying, "I'm assuming 'Blood Diamond' is anti-American because well, [liberals] Leo [DiCaprio] and [director Ed] Zwick are involved."
Fortunately, Libertas has more than just political vitriol. Michael Kim provides shrewd analysis of Hollywood economics. Apuzzo keeps tabs on vintage films airing on Turner Movie Classics. A recent posting offered the 15 top conservative horror films, the winner being "The Exorcist": "A priest who doesn't molest children finds his faith and sacrifices himself for another. And Jesus saves the day! How did this one slip through?"
Libertas' politics often drive me around the bend, especially when Murty goes on about how Hollywood movies are undermining the war on terror. (Silly me, I thought the war on terror was being undermined by the war in Iraq.) But Libertas has an undeniable intellectual energy, not unlike Newt Gingrich during his rise to power in Congress. The site's contrarian ideas certainly represent a breath of fresh air in a town where you can go to dinner parties for years on end without ever hearing anyone question liberal conventional wisdom on any issue.
Murty and Apuzzo first established themselves as minority combatants attending Yale. Apuzzo graduated in 1992 with a degree in philosophy, and Murty left in 1997 with a degree in East Asian studies. Today they're like an old married couple -- during our interview they often interrupted each other, snapping, "Let me finish, please!" They admire iconoclasts and Big Thinkers. Murty's favorite professor at Yale was Harold Bloom, and Apuzzo did his doctoral dissertation at Stanford on Thomas Mann.
At Yale, Murty was drawn to conservative causes. "I was irritated by Yale's liberal orthodoxy," she says. "In fact, being in Hollywood feels a lot like it was at Yale."
Their goal is to be filmmakers, not just cultural commentators. Murty has worked as an actress (she was named JerseyGOP.com's Republican babe of the week last year) and Apuzzo is writing screenplays. But in conservative circles it is a widely held belief that there is a blacklist against conservatives in Hollywood. "It's not overt," says Murty. "But why would you need an organized blacklist in a town where you have like-minded people who only want to hire other like-minded people? Most conservatives feel they have to stay undercover or their careers will be hurt."
I can't prove them wrong -- or right. No one will name any names. Still, I found it unsettling that people so concerned about a blacklist could shun movies simply because of a star's politics. Should I really stop watching Colts quarterback Peyton Manning because he gave $2,000 to GOP Tennessee Senate candidate Bob Corker? Or fire my plumber just because he had an anti-abortion sticker on his truck? So why should an actor's political beliefs be any different?
Apuzzo says moviegoers care about such matters, citing his experience of hearing a theater audience laugh out loud when Tim Robbins came on screen in "War of the Worlds." "It was palpable why they were laughing," he says. "The level of activism of stars has intruded on their ability to play fictional characters. When I saw Alec Baldwin in 'Aviator,' I couldn't get past the fact that this was the guy who'd said he'd leave the country if Bush were elected. People just can't separate the raving lunatic they see in the media from who they see on the screen. It's a big turnoff."
What especially bothers Apuzzo is the way this political stridency has infected the work of filmmakers today. He offers, as a comparison, Gillo Pontecorvo's "The Battle of Algiers," which he admires "because both sides, the French and Algerians, have their say. Too many filmmakers today wear their politics on their sleeves. They want to shock people instead of engage them with good stories."
Still, I find a lot of holes in the argument that regular folk are turned off by lefty political posturing. Murty criticized George Lucas last year for saying the last "Star Wars" movie was an anti-Bush parable about the war in Iraq, with America as the evil empire. So why did a zillion people happily pay to see the movie? And why have Murty and Apuzzo remained loyal Lucas fans? It turns out some people -- if held in enough Libertas esteem -- are exempt from political monitoring.
"We very much support Lucas and Spielberg, even though they obviously dislike Bush, because they're great filmmakers," says Murty. "If a film really sets my imagination on fire, I'm willing to overlook just about any political craziness from its creators." She cites Meryl Streep as someone who "can mouth off" all she wants. "She hates Bush, but she's a great actor. I loved her in 'The Devil Wears Prada.' "
George Clooney doesn't rate a pass. "He's so obnoxious in his political beliefs," says Murty. "I'm sorry, but he's no Laurence Olivier." As for "Flags of Our Fathers" co-writer Paul Haggis, Murty calls him a "radical leftist," citing a speech he gave at an anti-war rally run by International Answer, which she describes as a "well-known Stalinist, pro-North Korean organization."
I confess that remarks like that took me back to the days of that "other" blacklist, the one in which leftists lost their jobs because of their politics. For me, if Ring Lardner Jr. could write "M*A*S*H" and "Woman of the Year," his being a Communist was a small price to pay for such artistic delights.
The few times when the Libertas duo and I were able to put aside our differences usually involved cinematic marvels from the past. We all turn out to be fans of Fritz Lang's dazzling "The Testament of Dr. Mabuse," a movie that screens Sunday night at the festival. Of course, Libertas sees "Mabuse" as a 1930s prototype of an Al Qaeda evildoer, whereas he reminds me a little of Joe McCarthy.
I'm hoping the Libertas duo will find a way to make movies of their own, so we'll have something other than politics to debate. "We don't want our whole lives to be run by politics," says Murty. "We're first and foremost film people. I admit that I'm much happier watching 'Lawrence of Arabia' than reading the National Review."
Ah, the piercing baby blues of Peter O'Toole. Finally something we can all agree on.
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