On the last (rather good) episode of The B-Movies Podcast, tucked snugly into the pages of CraveOnline, you heard myself, my tenacious co-host William “Bibbs” Bibbiani, and our very special guest Alex Stapleton, discuss briefly a recent new story about how one of the frothing pundits on Fox News reported that the recent hit The Muppets was actually an attempt to sneak some anti-capitalist, anti-rich, pro-liberal agenda onto the unsuspecting children who were taken to see it. This is patently absurd, and the accusation – to me anyway – sounds less like actual sociological theorizing or legitimate film criticism, and more like a desperate need to grab a few glimpses of negative attention. It doesn't take a very sophisticated mind to see that The Muppets is not pushing any kind of political agenda. I'm reminded of the time Jerry Falwell accused Tinky-Winky the Teletubby of being a homosexual creature with a gay agenda.
What's more, and we all pointed this out on the show, greedy rich men have been used as villains and antagonists in movies since at least the early 1930s (which no doubt had a lot to do with The Crash). It's not that filmmakers (either in the 1930s or today) feel that the country should espouse communism, or attack the rich, or even to merely stir the pot of mild class warfare. They are using an ancient dramatic tradition of focusing on an underdog protagonist so that we, the hoi polloi, can relate to them better. Or at least recognize their situation. It's rare that the main character of a play, film, or novel is already a happy, powerful, well-to-do rich person at the outset, and then stays that way throughout the course of the drama. One of the simplest of dramatic stories involves a simple change of character, and the overcoming of hardships. This is basic Screenwriting 101 stuff. It's one of the barest and least complicated of dramatic structures. Kermit and his gang are suffering, and they want to reunite and recapture the old showbiz feelings they once shared. In order to do this, they must buy back their old studio. In order to up the stakes (for the audience), the studio is placed next to a ticking clock, in the form of an oil baron who would tear it town. The struggle to achieve a certain goal, and the time limit. Drama at its simplest. In The Muppets, it works just fine.
Rich bad guys are easy to write, and always make sense. Why are they used so often? Well, as is so often the plot point, they are driven by iniquitous greed, and not virtuous humility. These films are not slamming the rich (well, not per se; there may be a few filmmakers out there with an agenda), they are slamming the vice of greed. Most films, you'll find, have a (usually simple) moral that promotes a certain simple virtue, and perhaps slams a simple vice. This can be done sloppily or to great effect, but is mostly calmly and easily presented.
The pundits at Fox News may feel differently. They probably stand behind films like Atlas Shrugged, Part 1, wherein the characters are all rich, and are depicted as victims of a political culture that would strip them of their natural superiority. It's too bad that film was such a dull, plodding mess, otherwise the philosophical message may have been clear.
If there is a crowd of people out there who feels that Hollywood is often pushing an anti-capitalist agenda, well, they're probably outraged a lot. Especially when some of the greater films come along that celebrate the triumph of the poor underdog in the face of greed. Here's a few legitimately great films that capitalists would loathe.
YOU CAN’T TAKE IT WITH YOU (dir. Frank Capra, 1938)
No one seemed to have the underdog tale down better than Frank Capra, one of the finest of American directors, and a filmmaker who seemed to openly espouse the purity and goodness of the everyday human working-class hero. Each of his films seemed to be about how an average person or persons managed to overcome the obstacle of wealthy people to achieve their goals. Even his famed romance It Happened One Night was about a runaway heiress who was taught the gloriousness of human romance by a charming working reporter. Of all of Capra's films, though, the one with the clearest up-with-the-people message is probably You Can't Take it With You, whose very title implies the ephemeral nature of money.
You Can't Take it With You tells the story of an eccentric typist (Jean Arthur) who wants to marry her boss (Jimmy Stewart) much to the consternation of his father (Edward Arnold). The rich folks in this film are so mean-spirited and object so wholly to Jean Arthur's wacky family that they proceed to enact a plan that would have them all homeless. The Sycamore family is charming, flip, and stand strongly for a kind of working-class ideal. It's revealed over the course of the film that they refuse to pay taxes on property they clearly own, and seem to have a sort of communal life ethos. Why, that's practically communism! And while the Sycamores eventually do come to ruin, they are so placid and Zen, Capra is clearly siding with them. These poor picked-upon commies are our blithe heroes. I can just picture the capitalist pundits clenching their fists in rage.
WALL STREET (dir. Oliver Stone, 1987)
Many of the films made in the 1980s featured a recently-financially-risen yuppie swine, dressed in nice suits and often sporting slicked-back hair, as the cackling new face of Evil Wealth. Most every film with a yuppie is, on some level, an open criticism of Ronald Reagan's newly installed form of laissez-faire capitalism. You can easily become vastly wealthy in the stock market, but you will become a greedy, status-obsessed jerk. You'll also do a lot of cocaine, evidently. More recent films like American Psycho are a bit more explicit about the soulless machismo-laced non-entities that filled up those power suits. But in 1987, when Reagan was still in office, left-wing rabble-rouser Oliver Stone made one of the decade's most damning criticisms of greed in the form of Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas) in his now-seminal film Wall Street.
Wall Street is about an ambitious young stocks trader named Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen) who catches the eye of Mr. Gekko, and is ushered quickly up through the ranks of extreme wealth and privilege. The more money he accrues, the more he is respected by his mentor, and by the business community at large. Eventually, Mr. Gekko makes a deal that would screw Bud's father, and net Gekko millions. At the end of the film, Bud confronts Gekko about his dubious ethics. “How much is enough for you?” Bud rightly asks. Gekko calmly and convincingly replies “It's never enough.” This is not a game about earning a living, producing anything of value, or contributing to the community in any way. This is about a primal and animal need to conquer. To Oliver Stone, this is what the economy has become. A pack of greedy weasels whose moral compasses were long ago abandoned for nice cars and pomade.
Gecko's famous “Greed is good” speech is often seen as a chilling and horrific display of moral bankruptcy. But, as the 2000 film Boiler Room pointed out, a lot of young ambitious stocks traders watch the film and draw the wrong message, hailing Gekko as a hero. Sorry to break it to you, but Gekko is an empty human husk, and a villain of the highest order.
INTO THE WILD (dir. Sean Penn, 2007)
Recent college grad Christopher McCandless (Emile Hirsch) has grown tired of civilization, and takes to the road, on foot. He wants to live as naturally as possible, sleeping under the stars, scrounging for food, and trying to live a life based on barter, good will, and entrusting oneself to providence. This comes as a shock to his rich family, who not only can't understand his motives but resent his intentional disappearance. They offer him cars, money scholarships, jobs, and he rejects them all. William Hurt plays his father, and he seems at a total loss.
Sean Penn is notoriously left-leaning, and clearly sympathizes with the nearly saint-like McCandless over his hoity-toity rich family. McCandless' rich family seems like a group of shallow weirdos whose only solution to every problem can be boiled down to its monetary value. Chris, meanwhile, seeks the spiritual and the philosophical. He lives a life of intentional denial. For a society based on consumption, this can be heroic. Or, if you're a hardcore capitalist, upsetting and foolish.
INSIDE JOB (dir. Charles Ferguson, 2010)
One last one.
This recent Academy Award-winning documentary film pointed out one of the most damning details of the American economic system: In the wake of the 2008 financial collapse, half-hearted investigations began as to who was responsible. A look at the maddeningly opaque halls of power began to reveal that many of the people in charge of businesses were often consulting college professors. The CEOs of many of the culpable businesses were often involved in politics, and many had held office. It seemed, Inside Job indicated, that the more money you make, the more you move into a cloud-like circle of mad, wealth-accumulating oligarchs, where the revolving door between business leadership, politics, and academic philosophy spun wildly.
Inside Jobpointed out that the system was flawed. That capitalism, if left to its own devices, naturally grows hugely greedy rich men. And these are not wicked rich men for dramatic purposes. These are the real thing. I have heard people in positions of extreme, extreme wealth try to defend their actions. But when a person who makes less that $20,000 a year listens to excuses being made by a man who makes millions while he sleeps, it starts to sound disingenuous. Capitalists must hate this movie. It goes after them directly.
Next: Bibbs singles out Citizen Kane, Machine Gun Preacher and the most damning example of all…
FROM THE DESK OF WILLIAM BIBBIANI:
I covered this issue last week in an article entitled No, Seriously… The Muppets Are NOT Liberal Propaganda. I will briefly revisit my bullet points up front, many of which Witney already discussed. The Muppets is not overtly anti-capitalist, but its villain happens to be a cartoonish rich guy named “Tex Richman.” Given the enormous literary history of using powerful men and women in positions of wealth and authority as antagonists, from the vile Henry Potter in Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life to the merely shallow and out of touch Lady Augusta Bracknell in Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, it seems clear due to the simple nature of The Muppets’ storytelling that Mr. Richman is but a stock antagonist, and that no overt agenda is to be inferred. If there were, why would The Muppets need to solve their problems by making $10,000,000?
Did Fox News make too big a deal about this? Oh yes. Did they misinterpret the film? Definitely. Did they cover it across all their programming? No, so perhaps you could argue that the entire point has been blown out of proportion, and that labeling “Fox News” as the perpetrator of this misreading is too simplistic. But the segment in question did spend a whole hell of a lot of time hammering the point home, so a certain response seemed reasonable. You know what else seems reasonable? Pointing out that there are many other movies that actually justify an anti-capitalist reading. They may not promote communism, a term which is far too often misapplied, but they do warn against the perils of rampant financial interest, and a supposedly innate level of corruption that stems from acquiring large sums of money. Witney listed a few. Here are some others I’d argue are more worthy of capitalist ire than The Muppets, whether or not you agree with their message.
CITIZEN KANE (dir. Orson Welles, 1941)
“If I hadn’t been very rich, I might have been a really great man.” I could just leave it there.
Orson Welles’s masterpiece Citizen Kane is considered by many to be the greatest of all movies, and with good cause. It’s ahead of its time in almost every facet: it’s perfectly shot and acted, and boasts a complex, rich screenplay full of character, insight and subtext. One of the most obvious subtexts is a general disdain for money. The title character, based largely upon the legendary tycoon William Randolph Hearst, is presented as a man whose destiny was irrevocably altered, for the worse, by being taken from his childhood poverty and raised by a millionaire. Kane had no love for money, particularly, but went on to confuse ownership with loving relationships, which alienated everyone around him and ultimately resulted in his lonely death, with no mourners who knew him well enough to comprehend the personal meaning of his mysterious, dying word: “Rosebud.”
In reality, and I can’t believe I’m giving a SPOILER ALERT for a movie 70-years-old, Rosebud was his childhood sled. While it is often interpreted as a symbol for lost innocence, I refer you to the scene in which we see a young Charles Foster Kane attack his adopted father with the sled during their first meeting. “Rosebud” represents more than halcyon days, but also a single (and last) attempt to fight against affluence in favor of simpler joys and personal relationships – however flawed – with his actual family. Kane spent the rest of his life buying everything he could, but was unable to use his vast riches to buy love. Not a glowing endorsement of capitalism, right there.
MACHINE GUN PREACHER (dir. Marc Forster, 2011)
My most recent example comes from just a few months ago, in the form of Machine Gun Preacher. The film tells the based-on-a-true story of Sam Childers, a former felon and later born-again Christian who dedicates much of his life to saving child soldiers in Sudan. It’s an almost impossibly blunt film, but I found it quite affecting, and wound up giving it a fair recommendation despite its blatant message-mongering.
But the message extends beyond Sudan and into the homes of the audience themselves. Late in the film, Sam seeks the aid of his Christian brothers and sisters in the United States, many of whom enjoy prosperous lifestyles indicative of significant, if not great riches. What he discovers, to his horror, is that his rich “friends” are unwilling to share their hard-earned money with a charity. They’d prefer to spend hundreds, even thousands of dollars catering a party than just cheap out on the potato salad and help people in need. Childers never overcomes his disgust for these people by the end of the film. They are presented as selfish monsters. Granted, this is also a Christian theme. The Bible has a few choice passages about the perils of money, including one from Jesus Christ who said, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” It seemed a little too snarky to put The Passion of the Christ on my list, though.
THEY LIVE (dir. John Carpenter, 1988)
Like Witney’s example, Wall Street, John Carpenter’s indictment of the affluent Reagan Era demonizes the rich. In this case, quite literally. It’s the story of impoverished working men played by Roddy Piper and Keith David, who discover that the capitalist society surrounding them is all a façade used to sublimate the poor and middle class masses. They put on sunglasses that allow them to see the world in black and white, stripped of obfuscating advertisements and innocuous detail. Billboards boasting seemingly harmless advertisements actually read, very clearly, “OBEY.” Dollar bills are clearly marked, “THIS IS YOUR GOD.” Capitalism as a symbol of fascism. That’s a pretty clear message right there.
The perpetrators are, naturally, alien conquerors, but they are working in cahoots with the rich human members of society, who naturally have much to gain from this arrangement. In the interest of profit, they have sold out humanity itself. Damn. Someone actually complained about The Muppets?