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Left Eye on Films

Cartoons with Class

by JOE ALLEN And PAUL D'AMATO

The recent death of the right-wing evangelist and founder of the Moral Majority, Rev. Jerry Falwell, has provided an opportunity for many people to comment on the influence of the Christian Right on American politics and culture. Falwell relentlessly attacked Hollywood, blaming it for the decline of "traditional values."

Calling actors "moral perverts," he was fanatically obsessed with rooting out any sign of tolerance toward gays and lesbians. Most famously, he complained about on the long-running PBS children’s program Teletubbies, claiming that Tinky Winky was gay.

Falwell’s crusade during the last decade was taken over by James Dobson’s Focus on the Family and the Traditional Values Coalition (TVC). The Shrek series, produced by Dreamworks, has particularly irked them (Shrek the Third was just released). They have repeatedly attacked the widely seen and highly profitable series for "promoting homosexuality" and tolerance toward transgender characters.

Focus on the Family and the TVC complained for example about a scene in Shrek 2 where Pinocchio’s nose grows when he is asked if he wears women’s underwear and a bar scene featuring a female bartender with the voice of Larry King and a five o’clock shadow. The TVC accused Dreamworks of "promoting cross-dressing and transgenderism."

The gay sex-obsessed right has failed to notice other subversive scenes in this and other cartoon features. There’s the evil fairy godmother, who is, according to Shrek, "the largest producer of hexes and potions in the whole kingdom." Shrek and Co. attempt to infiltrate her factory posing as union organizers:

Shrek: We represent the workers in all magical industries, both evil and benign…Are you feeling at all degraded or oppressed?

Security guard: Uh…a little. We don’t even have dental.

Moreover, one of the key themes in Shrek is that physical beauty and passive femininity aren’t all they’re cracked up to be.

The 1998 animated productions Antz and Bug’s Life dealt respectively with exploitation and national liberation. In one scene in Antz, worker ants down tools and engage in a sit-down strike, while the evil General Formica, who has a secret plan to snuff out the worker ants, demands that they get back to work. "Buzz off, I’m important!" answers one of the strikers. Formica notices a couple leading the chants:

Formica: Notice the big one, holding hands with the female?

Carpenter: Well, uh, who notices workers, sir?

Formica: No one should have to. Have him brought to me.

Most Hollywood producers agree with Formica. "Class is often invisible in America in the movies, and usually not the subject of the film," film critic Roger Ebert once remarked.

Naturally, not all cartoons contain dangerous messages. The 1995 Disney film Pocahontas, for example, offered its young viewers a cloying love story between the conquering hero John Smith and Pocahontas, whose animated form was apparently based on supermodel Christy Turlington.

Robert Eaglestaff, the principal of the American Indian Heritage School in Seattle, commented at the time that portraying a love story between John Smith and Pocahontas was like "trying to teach about the Holocaust and putting in a nice story about Anne Frank falling in love with a German officer.’"

* * *

THIS HIGHLIGHTS an aspect of the Hollywood system–that popular animated, fantasy or science fiction films can become vehicles for dealing with controversial subjects while a suffocating conformity is imposed on most high-profile mainstream films as studios search for the next mega-blockbuster.

During the long nightmare of McCarthyism, stretching into the mid-1960s, TV and film writers, producers and directors who wanted to tackle controversial issues were forced to present their content behind a screen of science fiction or fantasy.

"I found that it was all right to have Martians saying things Democrats and Republicans could never say," producer and host of the Twilight Zone Rod Serling once explained. As the PBS American Masters online profile of Serling notes, he "was often hounded by the conservative censors for his uncompromising attention to issues such as lynching, union organizing and racism."

The stifling atmosphere change slowly but surely under the impact of the civil rights and antiwar movements–the high point was the airing of Roots in 1977, the first and only television miniseries that dealt with slavery (and was, by the way, very popular with both whites and Blacks).

Movies, within certain limits, reflect the changing social context in which they are made. The late Gene Siskel, Roger Ebert’s longtime collaborator, made this observation in 1991: "In a fine 1979 book called The Movie Brats, Michael Pye and Lynda Myles profiled six filmmakers who were among the first wave of film school graduates and who had come to prominence in the 1970s …

"The authors argued that the film revolution these directors participated in grew out of social changes in the culture itself. That makes sense. And so, believing that the past is prelude, if you want my prediction about the future of the movies, I believe things will not get better or more exciting until we have some good old-fashioned upheaval in this country and the world beyond."

What will it take to put real issues back into mainstream films? That process may already be underway.

Take, for example, Shooter, a typically overblown 2007 thriller about a former military sniper Bobby Lee Swagger (Mark Wahlberg) who gets drawn by an ex-general back into service, ostensibly to protect the president from assassination, only to find that he is being framed.

"Do we let America be ruled by thugs?" the general asks Swagger. "Sure, some years we do," quips Swagger. When Wahlberg’s character confronts the senator who is behind setting him up, the senator makes a speech in which he explains that there are no heroes and villains, no Democrats and Republicans–only "haves and have nots."

Joe Allen is a movie buff, who writes regularly for Socialist Worker and the International Socialist Review. He lives in Chicago. Email: joseph.allen4@att.net

Paul D’Amato is the author of The Meaning of Marxism.