Dystopian Visions

By DePietro, Thomas | The American Conservative, April 2011 | Go to article overview

Dystopian Visions


DePietro, Thomas, The American Conservative


Every year around this time, Hollywood celebrates itself with heavily promoted award shows. The stars preen and praise each other for their courage in bringing to the

screen high-minded and serious stories about neurotic ballerinas ("Black Swan"), a boxer with a junkie brother ("The Fighter"), and a king with a speech impediment ("The King's Speech"). The only politics usually comes from an off-the-cuff remark by one of the winners on behalf of a trendy cause.

The entertainment world either avoids politics or relies on the most tired of liberal nostrums. It's no surprise that conservatives often dismiss the whole business out of hand. But genuine political theory and serious art sometimes show up in unlikely places.

As the movie critic Manny Farber argued, most mainstream directors rely on big-budget artifice--what he called "white elephant art." He valued instead movies and moviemakers on the edges of the industry, with their "termite art"--their freewheeling virtuosity, devil-may-care ideas, and visionary integrity. Before Farber, few critics took seriously the antic genius of Preston Sturgess or the tabloid grit of Sam Fuller. Farber was, as a recent film reviewer called him, the perfect example of "the critic as libertarian."

A genre that proves Farber's point and should be of special interest to cultural conservatives is the dystopian scifi flick: over-the-top depictions of a world thrown into chaos by war, ecological disaster, oppressive government, corporate greed, or simple fate. I like to think of the entire genre as a rebuke to lefty journalist Lincoln Steffens, who declared about the early Soviet Union, "I have been over into the future and it works." Dystopian movies suggest the opposite and take much of their inspiration, if only indirectly, from the 20th-century's classic portrayal of a totalitarian future, George Orwell's 1984.

One of my favorite anti-totalitarian movies is the trippy "Zardoz" (1974), set in a future of genetic engineering run amok and in which the secret of this violent, stratified society rests in a sacred text, The Wi ZARD of OZ. The advertising campaign for this unusual film declared it "Beyond 1984" and proclaimed, "I have been to the future and it doesn't work." Dystopian film is a wonderful antidote to mindless progressivism. Things don't always get better, and scientific advances often raise more problems than they solve. …

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