Tag: movies

Freedom on Film

It’s Oscar time again, and once again there are some Best Picture nominees of special interest to libertarians. Dallas Buyers Club is a terrific movie with a strong libertarian message about self-help, entrepreneurship, overbearing and even lethal regulation, and social tolerance. 12 Years a Slave is a profound and painful movie about the horrors of slavery in a country conceived in liberty. Philomena is a tender personal story that sharply attacks the Catholic church and its censorious attitude toward sex, themes that would resonate with some libertarian viewers. This wasn’t the best year for libertarian movies – 2000 was pretty good – but libertarians will have some rooting interest Sunday night.

As I told Washington Post film critic Ann Hornaday in 2005, “America is basically a libertarian country, so Americans are going to put libertarian themes into the art they create, and sometimes it’s more explicit and sometimes it’s less so. But it’s not a big surprise to see individualism, anti-totalitarianism and fighting for freedom and social tolerance showing up in American art.” Here are some of my favorite examples (and of course they’re not all American):

Shenandoah, a 1965 film starring Jimmy Stewart, is often regarded as the best libertarian film Hollywood ever made. Stewart is a Virginia farmer who wants to stay out of the Civil War. Not our fight, he tells his sons. He refuses to let the state take his sons, or his horses, for war. Inevitably, though, his family is drawn into the war raging around them, and the movie becomes very sad. This is a powerful movie about independence, self-reliance, individualism, and the horrors of war. (There’s also a stage musical based on the movie that’s worth seeing, or you could listen to the antiwar ballad “I’ve Heard It All Before” here.)

War may be the most awful thing men do, but slavery is a close contender. Steven Spielberg’s Amistad (1997) tells a fascinating story about a ship full of Africans that turned up in New England in 1839. The question: Under American law, are they slaves? A long legal battle ensues, going up to the Supreme Court. Libertarians like to joke about lawyers. Sometimes we even quote the Shakespeare line, “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers” — not realizing that that line was said by a killer who understood that the law stands in the way of would-be tyrants. Amistad gives us a picture of a society governed by law; even the vile institution of slavery was subject to the rule of law. And when the former president, John Quincy Adams, makes his argument before the Supreme Court, it should inspire us all to appreciate the law that protects our freedom.

Guide to Libertarian Movies

I’m delighted to report that Miss Liberty’s Guide to Film is available again—on Kindle. My friend Jon Osborne worked for years on this project, but the 2001 book has been out of print for years. It’s the best available guide to movies with libertarian themes, with more than 250 short reviews.

What are the best libertarian films? Well, the book doesn’t rank them, but some that make his list of Top Libertarian Films are Amistad, Animal Farm, Fahrenheit 451, Shenandoah, and We the Living. Libertarians may be familiar with all of those, but he also recommends the lesser-known Cash McCall, East-West, Improper Conduct, and many more.

No such list is exhaustive, of course, or uncontroversial. When I listed some of my own favorite libertarian-themed films, I included some that Osborne doesn’t: So Big (1953) and My Beautiful Laundrette. Not to mention the republican Gladiator and the anti-Nazi, anti-communist Sunshine, both released in 2000.

Few if any of these movies are like libertarian essays on film. Osborne includes movies that have such themes as anti-socialism (under which he includes anti-National Socialism), anti-war, bureaucratic abuse of power, creator as hero, freedom of speech, individualism, social tolerance, and voluntaryism. Each film is rated for both its libertarian content and its entertainment value, and also briefly reviewed.

Osborne mostly stopped reviewing—and maybe even seeing—movies when his daughter was born, so there aren’t many movies here from the past decade. But from All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) to Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002), there are enough movies here to keep you busy for the rest of the year.

Politics Is Better as Fiction

If the season’s got you thinking cynically about politics and politicians, TCM has the movies for you. It’s running a series all this month called “American Politics on Film.” You’ve missed classics like “A Face in the Crowd,” but there’s still time to catch “All the King’s Men” this Thursday night, about a Southern reformer who becomes corrupted by power, and “All the President’s Men” on Friday night, about an ambitious Westerner who was probably corrupt long before he got power. Also on Friday night: “Advise and Consent” and “Seven Days in May,” made from the great political novels of the 50s and 60s. Whatever happened to great political novels, anyway?

For movies about freedom, click here.

Business in the Movies

Libertarians have often complained about the selective and hostile portrayal of business in Hollywood movies. A couple of little-known Hollywood movies that offer a different view are going to be on television this week.

The 1960 film “Cash McCall,” starring James Garner as an early “corporate raider,” was voted ”Best Libertarian Picture” at the 1994 First International Libertarian Film Festival. Take that as you will. But arguably it does show, as the late lamented Miss Liberty website said,  ”a talented investor who overcomes envy and anti-success prejudice.” And it’s on TCM Saturday night at midnight.

USA Network meanwhile, is broadcasting “Taking Woodstock” 22 hours early, at 2 a.m. Saturday (i.e., very late Friday night). I wrote about that movie for Liberty magazine in 2010 (not online):

The movie Taking Woodstock, directed by Ang Lee, led me to the book of the same name by Elliot Tiber. I knew of Woodstock as a hippie happening a bit before my time. What I found interesting about the movie and the book was the portrayal of the Woodstock Festival, “Three Days of Peace and Music,” as an impressive entrepreneurial venture.

In 1969 Tiber was a 33-year-old gay designer living in Manhattan, while spending his weekends trying to save his parents’ rundown Catskills motel. One weekend he read that some concert promoters had been denied a permit in Wallkill, N.Y. He came up with the crazy idea of inviting them to hold the festival on his parents’ property. Lo and behold, they showed up to check it out. Taking the lead was 24-year-old Michael Lang, who went on to become a prominent concert promoter and producer.

The Tiber (actually Teichberg) property wasn’t suitable, but Elliot drove Lang and his team down the road to Max Yasgur’s nearby farm. At least that’s Tiber’s story; other sources say he exaggerates his role. He did play a key role, however, in that he had a permit to hold an annual music festival, which up until then had involved a few local bands.

There’s a wonderful scene, better in the movie than in the book, when Lang and Yasgur negotiate a price for the use of the farm. We see it dawning on Yasgur that this is a big deal. We see Elliot panicking that the deal will fall through, and that without the festival business his parents will lose their motel. And we see Lang’s assistant reassuring Elliot that both parties want to make a deal, so they’ll find an acceptable price, which indeed they do.

And then, with 30 days to transform a dairy farm into a place for tens of thousands of people to show up for a 3-day festival, Tiber describes (and Lee shows) a whirlwind of activity. “Within a couple of hours, the phone company had a small army of trucks and tech people on the grounds, installing the banks of telephones that Lang and his people needed.” Helicopters, limousines, and motorcycles come and go. A few hundred people are erecting scaffolding, stage sets, speakers, and toilets. The motel keepers are trying to find rooms and food for the workers and the early arrivals. The local bank is eagerly providing door-to-door service for the mountains of cash flowing into bucolic White Lake, N.Y.

Meanwhile, there are a few locals who don’t like the whole idea. In Tiber’s telling, they don’t like Jews, queers, outsiders, or hippies. Maybe they just didn’t like a quiet village being overrun with thousands of outsiders. In any case they had a few tools available to them. A dozen kinds of inspectors swarmed around the Teichbergs’ motel. The town council threatened to pull the permit. Tiber writes, “Why is it that the stupidest people alive become politicians? I asked myself.”  At the raucous council meeting Lang offered the town a gift of $25,000 ($150,000 in today’s dollars), and most of the crowd got quiet. Max Yasgur stood and pointed out that “he owned his farm and had a right to lease it as he pleased.” That didn’t stop the opposition, but in the end the concert happened.

The psychedelic posters and language about peace and love – and on the other side, the conservative fulminations about filthy hippies (see John Nolte’s movie review at BigHollywood.com – can obscure the fact that Woodstock was always intended as a profit-making venture. That was the goal of Lang and his partners, and it was also the intention of Tiber, Yasgur, and those of their neighbors who saw the concert as an opportunity and not a nightmare. The festival did rescue the Teichberg finances. It ended up being a free concert, however, which caused problems for Lang and his team. Eventually, though, they profited from the albums and the hit documentary Woodstock….

Tiber writes, “One of the great benefits of Woodstock—a benefit that, to my knowledge, has never been written about—was its sexual diversity.” But I think the fact that there were gay awakenings at Woodstock — and three-ways and strapping ex-Marines in sequined dresses — would surprise people less than the realization that Woodstock was a for-profit venture that involved a lot of entrepreneurship, hard-nosed negotiation, organization, and hard work. Taking Woodstock (the book, but better yet the movie) is a great story of sex, drugs, rock-and-roll, and capitalism.

Those of a different political persuasion may prefer TCM’s Dalton Trumbo extravaganza tonight.

Mao’s Last Dancer

The movie “Mao’s Last Dancer” is a sleeper hit, says the Los Angeles Times:

It features no big-name stars, drew mediocre reviews and traffics in the esoterica of Chinese ballet.

And yet “Mao’s Last Dancer,” the true story of a ballet performer who defected to the United States in 1981, has become one of the season’s biggest art-house hits.

Bruce Beresford’s Australian-produced film tells of Li Cunxin, an 11-year-old Chinese boy plucked from his rural village in 1972 under the reign of Mao Zedong to dance for the Beijing Ballet. While in residence at the Houston Ballet a decade later, he defected to the United States after a politically charged standoff that involved the FBI and diplomats from China and the U.S.

It’s been in theaters for three months, and I finally saw it this weekend. You can’t usually wait that long to see an indie film, but this one’s been hanging on under the radar. It’s a great story about Chinese communism, politically controlled art, and one individual who chooses freedom. In a climactic scene, the Chinese consul tells Li “the Party knows what’s best for you” and Li responds, “I know what’s best for me.” (The language is a little different in Li’s autobiography.)

The New York Times dismisses the movie as “nothing more than an old-fashioned tear-jerker,” complaining that it is

stuck in an earlier era of heavy-handed clichés about Chinese innocence and American experience. The juxtaposition of wide-eyed villagers and labored aphorisms with shopping malls and casual sex may accurately reflect Mr. Li’s book, but on screen it feels absurdly outdated.

Um, yes. The movie is set between 1972 and 1981. That was Mao’s China, even the China of the Cultural Revolution and the Gang of Four, and then the very earliest days of the liberalization under Deng Xiao-ping. Today it looks dated, as do most movies set 30 or more years in the past. Anyone who has visited China recently might not realize just how stunning the Houston skyline would have looked to Li in 1981. But I saw the Shanghai skyline seven years later, in 1988, and I know that Houston would have seemed a different world to Li at that time.

No doubt the Times reviewer also disliked the scenes in Chinese schools where students are told that China has the highest standard of living in the world, while the “capitalist and imperialist nations” live in unimaginable horror. And maybe the scene of Madame Mao visiting the Beijing ballet academy and demanding that the students perform only revolutionary ballet. But that was the reality of Maoist China.

I’ve written before about the remarkable dearth of anti-communist movies in Hollywood, especially when you consider that communism lasted far longer and killed far more people than national socialism, about which there have been many movies. Of course, this movie wasn’t produced in Hollywood; it was produced in Australia by the Australian director Bruce Beresford (“Breaker Morant,” “Tender Mercies,” “Driving Miss Daisy”). And “Mao’s Last Dancer” is as much a story of individualism and breaking out of a world that would hold you down (not unlike “Billy Elliott” or “October Sky”) as it is a political movie.

The fact that Li was allowed to visit the Houston Ballet temporarily in 1981 was a sign of the changes that were happening in China, and the country has made much more progress since then. But China is still not comfortable with this story, and the producers were forced to shoot some scenes in secret after being denied permission to film in China.

With Christmas movies coming, “Mao’s Last Dancer” won’t be in theaters much longer. See it now.

‘Avatar’ Is about Property Rights

In the Los Angeles Times today, I write about “Avatar”, which has just become the biggest-grossing movie in Hollywood history, and how conservatives have missed the issue at its core:

Conservatives see this as anti-American, anti-military and anti-corporate or anti-capitalist. But they’re just reacting to the leftist ethos of the film.

They fail to see what’s really happening. People have traveled to Pandora to take something that belongs to the Na’vi: their land and the minerals under it. That’s a stark violation of property rights, the foundation of the free market and indeed of civilization….

“Avatar” is like a space opera of the Kelo case, which went to the Supreme Court in 2005. Peaceful people defend their property against outsiders who want it and who have vastly more power. Jake rallies the Na’vi with the stirring cry “And we will show the Sky People that they cannot take whatever they want! And that this is our land!”

Economists may wonder about the claim that “Avatar” is the highest-grossing film of all time. The Hollywood Reporter estimates that so far it may only have sold half as many tickets as the 1997 “Titanic,” and Box Office Mojo says that adjusted for inflation “Gone with the Wind” remains the movie with the highest U.S. revenue, followed by “Star Wars.”

Michael Moore’s Billionaire Backers

I wrote in Libertarianism: A Primer, “One difference between libertarianism and socialism is that a socialist society can’t tolerate groups of people practicing freedom, but a libertarian society can comfortably allow people to choose voluntary socialism.” (In the final section, “Toward a Framework for Utopia.”)

Now Ira Stoll notes the irony that it was very successful capitalists who put up the money that allowed Michael Moore to make his anti-market screed Capitalism: A Love Story:

The funniest moments of all in the movie, though, may just be in the opening and closing credits. We see that the movie is presented by “Paramount Vantage” in association with the Weinstein Company. Bob and Harvey Weinstein are listed as executive producers. If Mr. Moore appreciates any of the irony here he sure doesn’t share it with viewers, but for those members of the audience who are in on the secret it’s all kind of amusing. Paramount Vantage, after all, is controlled by Viacom, on whose board sit none other than Sumner Redstone and former Bear Stearns executive Ace Greenberg, who aren’t exactly socialists. The Weinstein Company announced it was funded with a $490 million private placement in which Goldman Sachs advised. The press release announcing the deal quoted a Goldman spokesman saying, “We are very pleased to be a part of this exciting new venture and look forward to an ongoing relationship with The Weinstein Company.”

So maybe I should add a corollary to my claim:

One difference between libertarianism and socialism is that a socialist society won’t put up the money for people to make libertarian movies, but in a capitalist/libertarian society the capitalists are happy to put up the money for anti-capitalist movies.

And if you doubt that a socialist society would discriminate against anti-socialist movies, you can either observe socialism in practice — in Cuba, China, the Soviet Union, East Germany, etc. — or read the chilling words of bestselling economist Robert Heilbroner in Dissent:

Socialism…must depend for its economic direction on some form of planning, and for its culture on some form of commitment to the idea of a morally conscious collectivity…

If tradition cannot, and the market system should not, underpin the socialist order, we are left with some form of command as the necessary means for securing its continuance and adaptation. Indeed, that is what planning means…

The factories and stores and farms and shops of a socialist socioeconomic formation must be coordinated…and this coordination must entail obedience to a central plan…

The rights of individuals to their Millian liberties [are] directly opposed to the basic social commitment to a deliberately embraced collective moral goal… Under socialism, every dissenting voice raises a threat similar to that raised under a democracy by those who preach antidemocracy.