The left-wing magazine the Nation can apply its hidebound brand of analysis to serious public-policy topics. Typical of this is a December book review wherein the Nation's Europe correspondent writes, "If you look at Communism as merely the story of crimes, terror and repression...you are missing the point. The Soviet Union did not rest on the gulag alone. There was also enthusiasm, construction, the spread of education and social advancement for millions..." It's this kind of stuff that makes the Nation...the Nation.
However, this spring, as last spring, the Nation devoted almost an entire issue to the movie business and its social and political causes. A year ago, with impeachment a stinging rebuke to Hollywood's favorite president, stars like Alec Baldwin stood on the magazine's platform and railed against conservatives' attempt to remove Bill Clinton from office. Currently there's no similarly galvanic matter before the public, so one had to wonder if this year's show-business issue would measure up as far as venom, silliness, or both were concerned.
The Nation being the Nation, it did not disappoint.
Most of what the non-showbiz types bring to the table here is exactly the rhetoric you expect from this magazine, placed in an entertainment rather than a political context. Sometimes it is in a political context, too. Washington editor David Corn, in a column that runs as part of the Hollywood package but has almost nothing to do with Hollywood, praises former conservative Arianna Huffington for her move to the left. (Arianna lives in southern California and midwifed the Warren Beatty presidential boomlet; maybe that's why.)
Another piece deals with a little-known American filmmaker named Robert Kramer whose "politics seemingly derived from a stew of Marx, Herbert Marcuse and Frantz Fanon...When...the long Carter/Republican nightmare took hold, Kramer left the country and established himself in Paris." With that kind of a worldview, you now know why Kramer is so little known.
But the real wackiness in the issue emerges from those who make their living making things up. Surprise, surprise: Oliver Stone is represented. In a story on entertainers' involvement with Buddhism, Stone opines, "Christ was all about pain and suffering - about a guy dying on a cross - whereas Buddhism is about detachment from suffering. I've identified with pain and puritan Anglican guilt all my early life. Now I don't choose to live like that." With the aid of Buddhism, Stone says, he has gotten "out from under the monstrously oppressive God the Father."
Happy Easter to you, too, Mr. Stone.
It takes a lot to top Stone, I know, but writer/director Alexander Payne ("Election") is at least equal to the task. In a symposium featuring filmmakers such as Kevin Smith ("Dogma") and Kimberly Peirce ("Boys Don't Cry"), interviewer Peter Biskind quotes a "provocative statement" that Payne once made: "Being a young American filmmaker is worse than making films under Communism, because the commercial and ideological exigencies are so strict that they suppress creativity." Biskind then asks, "What did you mean by that?"
This was Payne's chance to declare, "Boy, that was stupid," or "What can I say? I was drinking," or something to that effect. But this is the Nation, remember? So instead he responds, "You always work under cultural and ideological constraints. Under Communism the workers are always good, the capitalists are always bad. How is it different here where the lead character has to be sympathetic [or that] by page 30 such-and-such has to happen[?]...There are just assumptions about how things should be that outrage me...What is this anal thing about everything in a movie having to be clean, pretty and beautiful? Like the typical American family, it's upper middle class with a big open kitchen, and they all have Range Rovers."
The way Hollywood operates, Payne argues, is "more rigid because you could at least make art under Communism. I think if I lived in an oppressive country I might become a truly great filmmaker."
Several years ago when the cue-balled singer Sinead O'Connor was spewing forth her America-hating rhetoric, the rap artist M.C. Hammer paid for an airplane ticket to send O'Connor back to Ireland. I'd like to see someone step forward and foot the bill for Payne's fare to a Communist country where he can "become a truly great filmmaker." I understand North Korea's beautiful this time of year.