Unfinished Companion Article to
“On the Right Side of the Theater Aisle” by James Ulmer
New York Times, June 25, 2005
James never really got it. But then I was never able to be objective, hallmark of a good reporter (which James was). But how could I be? I’d lived the story, inspired the article and made the introductions to the inner-sanctum. James spent, at most, six weeks holed-up writing at trendy west side coffee houses, doing interviews by phone with many of the contacts Bannon had provided, conferring with the New York Times and consulting with me to “get it right.” In fairness to James, he was trying to balance my impassioned agenda with the omniscient Times need for objectivity.
“I really like these people,” he said. “Yes, they are extremely nice,” I replied. “Odd isn’t it, but they really are likeable. Makes you want to be a Republican.”
“Well, they are doing better than we are, that’s for sure. Maybe there’s something to it. Maybe if we changed parties, we’d be rich, too.”
We were being seduced.
James especially liked Barbara Nicolosi, former nun and founder of Act One, a Christian non-profit screenwriting program—even in Hollywood Jesus can be non-profit—since 1999 dedicated to “movie and TV projects that respect and serve the global audience.” To this day, Act One has produced little or nothing of value. But the great liberal Jewish conspiracy that suppresses talented Christian writers is another story.
Back to James. He and Nicolosi chatted for hours on the phone. She was brilliant, he said, she loved him. After his article came out, what she really thought spewed forth on her web page like dark bile, a most unchristian vitriol that shocked us both given the ‘camaraderie’ James had imagined. “What a devious bitch,” I said.
But what could you expect? James was a liberal. Sort of. As a reporter, he can go both ways which is okay. I understand because for years I’d been doing it, too. Later, I said to a friend, “When you’re sitting in a room working on a film with someone and they tell you they want to be “the Leni Riefenstahl of George Bush,” you don’t just get up and walk out of the room.”
“No,” my friend replied, “they might shoot you in the back.”
“No,” I countered, “it’s because you realize you’ve reached the inner-sanctum of darkness and you want to stay—to be a fly on the wall. You’re teetering on the edge of evil and you want to stay, on the inside, to watch and learn.”
“Yes, of course,” he replied…
I tried to convey what I knew to James. After the article came out, we drew up a documentary proposal for the BBC. I added endless commentary but it never made it into the proposal. The problem was that he was missing the point. His take was too “objective”—that was the word he used; but I kept saying it went deeper; he didn’t get it; we weren’t showing the real danger in what was going on—in Hollywood, in the country.
“I’m Alfred Russell Wallace to your Darwin,” I said, and then explained: Darwin never really got the concept of the origin of the species. He got the idea from Wallace and, true gentleman that Darwin was, credited and honored Wallace. He got the Royal Society to publish Wallace’s small tract, then afterwards, took him along to scientific gatherings to defend speciation. Why? Because Darwin didn’t really get it. He kept lapsing into Lamarckism. Wallace’s simple premise: Species arise coincident in time and space. Darwin’s vision was via Lamarck: Cut the tails off rats for long enough and eventually rats will breed without tails.
“So,” I said to James, “you need me. I’m your Wallace.”
In addition to being the source of the article—having written In the Face of Evil with Bannon, a film based on Peter Schweizer’s book “Reagan’s War”— I had become an authority on the dark underbelly of the Christian Right’s agenda that was seeping into Hollywood. My insider status placed me smack in the middle of what I saw as a dangerous underground, fraught with political underpinnings. And so, as the nice, seemingly well-meaning Hollywood politicos waged their values crusade on the backs of ancient conspiracy theories, their passion informed my own conspiracy theory… and I reacted with my own passion.
The Madness of Conspiracy Theories
A brief aside on conspiracy theories is necessary to set the stage and place the hidden agenda of the Christian Right (the Culture of Life) and their values crusade in perspective.
According to Seymour Lipscott and Earl Rabb in their book “The Politics of Unreason,” comprehensive conspiracy theories or the concept of the Other have been a driving force in American culture since the late 1700’s when the French Illuminati (Freedom Fries, anyone?) were seen as the source of all evil in the world. As villains, the French Illuminati were replaced over the years by Masons, Catholics, Blacks, immigrants—Irish and Italian—and, last but not least, Jews. (Muslims did not make it into the book but they are the latest Other.) The universal constants of these movements as put forth by the authors are, as follows:
The Conspiracy Theory must hold the enemy or source of evil (an Other group, or –ism) as extensive in space, hence international; it must be extensive in time, hence stretching back into history and forward interminably, unless it is stopped by good men. It must be vast in design—hence a decisive factor in turning history.
At its heart, there is often a secret elect, hidden from view. (Caves are perfect for this purpose.) In addition, these elite few—whose desire is always to save the world by ruling, or rule the world by saving—are often affiliated with an arcane center such as the Vatican, the Kremlin, Harvard, MIT, Yale, the White House or the President.
Other keynotes are the simplification of issues, polarization, and moral absolutism. Often arising at times of millennial and centennial transition, these movements are always “adopted by those who think they know how to make heaven on earth.”
Let me add my own observation: these movements, seemingly harmless at first, often ride in on the winds of messianic nationalism and take, at first, the well-meaning face of extreme patriotism or religious and ethnic allegiances. In pre-Nazi Germany, the Gods of Valhalla rode in on the strains of folk songs extolling a once-upon-a-time Golden Age: Wagner, folk dancing, and an innocent longing for better times. If you want to know them, look for the “again”—as in “Make America Great Again.”
Knowing the above, I acknowledge that I am co-opting the techniques of classic Conspiracy Theory but since the motto of the School of Might is “whatever it takes,” so be it. I also feel it is my responsibility to speak out after falling into the well and seeing, first hand, the neocons, drunk on their own mass “politics of unreason.”
For this reason, I will draw from their own book of incantations—words, metaphor, hyperbole, repetition—and though I will also simplify, I will try to refrain from polarization and absolutism.
Because the people of this country need to hear how the media and politics are evolving to control them. I’m here to tell them.
Leni Riefenstahl would, indeed, be proud.
The Horror of Leni Riefenstahl
But back to my own story.
To confess: I wrote with Steve Bannon. A Republican. Yes. But then I used to be friends with lots of Republicans and Steve was no different from most of them—a plain, cloth-coat Reagan Republican of the harmless variety. We all knew them. Then 9/11 happened. Some went all militant overnight. Others had been closet militants all along and 9/11 gave them the license to come of out the closet and dance the “I told you so waltz” on Main Street all over the USA. And they did so—with a vengeance.
I met Steve in the early 90’s. We shared a love of esoteric subjects that was rare in Hollywood. And his interest in Plato, Marcus Aurelius, ancient Rome, and Shakespeare’s violent plays never tipped me off to his connection to Leo Strauss. But then why would it? First, I’d never heard of Leo Strauss. And the fact that his computer password was “Sparta” also meant nothing to me. I didn’t know, as he later told me, that Strauss’ mantra was “Athens loses, Sparta wins.” It took me fourteen years to realize I was Athens.
Sitting in his office, under the photograph of Ronald Reagan in his plain brown suit, I never hid the fact that I was a Democrat and liberal, so it’s not as if either one of us was being disingenuous. But it was years later I realized that he was one of “them”—spawn of the culture of life: fundamentalists, religious fanatics and politicians who worship at the altar of John Wayne. Over all those years, had I been dancing with the predator?
It all came home to me during the making of our Reagan documentary, In the Face of Evil. In fact, it came crashing down around me and sent me on a search for my own personal conspiracy theory—and a closer look at Leo Strauss.
It seemed Bannon lived by a certain popular conception of Strauss’ philosophy: namely a belief that the masses can be lied to because they cannot handle the truth and need a class of political elites to lead them so society can function. Lies are okay. Leo said so. Elites must rule. Leo said so. Who knows if he actually said so but it’s what many of his followers believed and lived by.
The last time we met in LA it was November 2009. I sat at his desk and he spoke about Jefferson and how we needed to return to the original values of the Constitution. Only landowners should be allowed to vote, he said. I expressed alarm. The original Constitution excluded blacks, I pointed out and Wendy was black. “She’s family,” he said, dismissing the implication.
Notes with James, 2005
Maybe add CULTURE OF LIFE vs. CULTURE OF DEATH. That’s important. Belongs here but maybe it should be moved up earlier and be worked into the proposal. It’s very important to the agitprop nature of their language, movement, etc.
As we examine the players, we’ll unravel the story behind the movement: its origins, goals, and its unique nature as the first overt use of the media in American culture (since World War II) to galvanize public opinion towards a common cause.
Ultimately, whether the reader is right-wing or left-wing, Christian, non-Christian, Jewish, insider or outsider, they will be forced to question “censorship” versus “free-for-all” speech, “responsibility” versus “truth in art;” and, at the end, they will see with new eyes, like Paul on the road to Damascus, the conflict between simply promoting good old-fashioned “values” and the conscious manipulation of the media towards a political end.
From In the Face of Evil
NARRATOR (VO): While the Beast played upon mankind’s dark side, the visionaries of Hollywood played to his better angels: compassion, mercy, human dignity. These visionaries differed in taste and style yet shared two common elements: ruthlessness and uncompromising patriotism.
Ronald Reagan was first and foremost a product of the Hollywood Studio system – a system that took the story of the immigrants and pioneers efforts to forge a country from a vast wilderness and turned it into a heroic struggle: order vs. chaos, good vs. evil, producing something more permanent and powerful than all the destructive elements of the Beast…
Within this setting, on a vast stage of remarkable landscapes, they set about translating western civilizations’ legends into simple stories that embodied the hero’s quest…
These stories defined what it meant to be a man… and what it took to be a hero.
BRING UP SONG: WE SHALL GATHER AT THE RIVER OVER SCENE
FADE MUSIC AND BRING UP – WAGNER from Riefenstahl’s “Triumph of the Will.”
BEGIN NARRATION OVER WAGNER
NARRATOR (VO): The Beast, too, understood the power of myth. Entire countries could be moved to riot… or subsist in silence; to follow… or revolt; to obey… or disobey. Sound and image were the key to the manipulation of “mass man.” On this awareness, the Beast developed an elaborate “propaganda” machine:
An apparatus so powerful it could change the world… anywhere, any place, any time; so powerful that no country, no Founders’ dream, no piece of paper could not be changed, undone, or overturned.
The Beast looked to the West and saw the most important instrument: Hollywood—the vessel; the most powerful crucible on earth.
And onto this stage, the players now assembled for the prologue to a coming global conflict: the Third World War: where the battlefield would not be confined to borders or beachheads, but to the very hearts and minds of every man, woman and child on earth.
In 2005, James and I decided our proposal (working title “Rapture on the Right”) would close with a look into the future – or should we say, back to the future. For as Reagan had set the tone and temperament for the rise of a new conservatism 25 years ago, so the new generation of young professionals moving into Hollywood were, in many ways, ideological heirs to the Reagan legacy.
NOTE: Go into the Reagan legacy: the High Noon, take no captives, anti-relativist, anti-intellectual, aw shucks, white hat, John Wayne, a 1000 years of darkness, paranoid anti-“ism” world that led to “Wall Street” the movie.
Their views of the world are not the views that I or my age grew up with. (Ginsberg). They are against “liberalism” in the sense of being against social activism. They see the world in absolutes, blank and white – if you’re not for me you’re against me. They are the new SITH LORDS. The New Deal for them is long dead.
The emphasis with these new young filmmakers and professionals is now on earning big money and gaining fast-track access to the levers of power to protect them from an uncertain future – a seminal movie for this generation is “Wall Street.”
Should Art Imitate Reality?
Is liberal filmmaking simply representing life rather than trying to influence it. Where do you draw the line? When do excessive violence and sex as borderline pornography become its own form of propaganda to draw in dollars and influence? The old “Does Hollywood lead or reflect culture” argument might be reworked here in the context of this latest art/reality schism. Should content be manipulated by the writer/director producer/creator to reflect a POV that will influence turn-out at the polls, national elections? America against the world. Doris Day vs. Frederico Fellini. Oh, no. Not a return to fifties filmmaking!
Is It Just a Movement or Is It Real?
The rise and fall of movements in America. They come and go but always with the same agenda: to reform a world they perceive has gone bad, with villains on either side, facing off. What’s at stake? It’s always the very essence of life and death to the proponents. Both sides. Devils and adversaries everywhere. Right and Left. Liberal and Conservative. The battle is between girlymen and gunslingers. Is there no O.K. Corral – ever? Are we doomed to walk the streets at high noon in a world of white hats vs. black hats, ever vigilant, every watchful, ever fearful. Are we our own worst enemies?
Is the world of war and politics, good vs. evil and the “movements” that afflict us with unreason and insanity, paranoia and fear, inseminating the ‘pure realm of art’? Are the politicos cloning themselves as movie producers in order to wage wars and influence the world?
And who is Leni Riefenstahl anyway?