I was too cowardly to join my anarchist comrades in their Reagan/Mulroney-era civil disobedience exploits, which sometimes involved throwing blood (real or—mostly—otherwise) onto some enemy’s edifice.
Instead, I fantasized about hurling paint all over Ted Turner’s Atlanta offices as a protest of my own. That’s because, in 1986, the cable broadcasting mogul bought MGM and Warner Bros.’s massive libraries of movies and loudly vowed to colorize the black-and-white ones, even the likes of Casablanca.
When my father died I didn’t really care, but seeing John Huston with tubes up his nose begging Turner to keep his philistine hands off The Maltese Falcon shook me, literally.
I wasn’t alone, but the furious backlash simply wound Turner up. During one toddler-level tantrum (“I like things in color. We see in color”) he makes Donald Trump at his least refined sound like the director of the Uffizi:
The last time I checked, I owned the films that we’re in the process of colorizing. I can do whatever I want with them, and if they’re going to be shown on television, they’re going to be in color.
They aren’t, of course. Today, Turner Classic Movies is beloved precisely because it broadcasts its namesake’s collection uninterrupted and (mostly) untouched.
Before every national election, TCM devotes considerable airtime to political fare, but this year—along with slotting in old reliables like The Best Man and Gabriel Over the White House—they tried something new: handing coveted “Guest Programmer” spots to National Review’s Jonah Goldberg and, as his opposite number, Leon Wieseltier, formerly of The (now eviscerated) New Republic.
I can practically hear the hearts of our resident “JOOOOOO!!!!!”-haters quickening, “Tell-Tale”-style. But to those still reading rather than speed-scrolling down to the comments, here’s what you (might have) missed:
National Review has famously beclowned itself with ham-fisted lists of the best “conservative” movies, as critics both left and right have delighted in pointing out. But I wasn’t surprised to see that neither of Goldberg’s TCM selections included, say, Red Dawn or Team America: World Police. His guest-programmer stint provided Goldberg with a timely opportunity to demonstrate that, his predilection for quoting Star Trek and The Simpsons aside, his personal tastes were never really as plebeian as those of the average (remaining) NRO commenter or Alaska-cruise-er.
But first, which films did liberal Wieseltier choose? For starters: Elia Kazan’s America America, because, he explained, the United States is a nation of immigrants just like his own grandparents, except for the Native Americans, naturally so sleepy zzzzzzzzz—the usual hokum that posits a bad poem on an old French statue as a viable immigration policy, and makes you want to tikkun the guy right in the olam.
Wieseltier’s next pick was Fritz Lang’s antilynching “problem picture” Fury, because, he said, it reflects the “ascendancy of demagoguery in our politics,” the rise of mob rule.
Now, Fury is a worthy and powerful film, but it would have been more fascinating had Lang been permitted to shoot his original conceit: that the lynch mob’s prey, instead of being white, innocent, and Spencer Tracy, would have been not only black, but guilty. Wieseltier wouldn’t have found that version of Fury so supportive of his thesis: namely, that that darned “dark night of fascism”—the one progressives are forever warning/hoping is “descending in the United States”—is really, truly making landfall this time for sure, in the incarnation of Donald Trump.
Wieseltier called out Trump by name on TCM. Goldberg, on the other hand, never so much as alluded to Hillary Clinton. I’ll bet TCM pointedly asked both men to restrict their remarks to the philosophical and abjure the nakedly partisan, and (of course) the liberal broke the rule and (of course) the conservative did not.
(Which, to quote a classic film that understandably wasn’t on either man’s short list, sounds like “the history of the world for the past twenty years.”)
So which movies did Jonah Goldberg pick? For one, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington—a pedestrian pick, true, but at least he challenged the lazy yet weirdly persistent reading of its director’s oeuvre as “Capra-corn”; in fact, there are scenes in Frank Capra’s movies that give Billy Wilder’s a run for their cynical, misanthropic money.
Goldberg told the TCM host that Mr. Smith was “in fact the darker of the two films” he’d programmed that night. So which was the first?
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