Arbitrary and ephemeral as they may be, everyone loves a good ranking of movies. The BBC’s recent list of the 100 greatest films since 2000 was no exception. Is “Mulholland Drive” truly the best film of the past 16-plus years? Did 2014’s “Boyhood” benefit from recency bias? Why wasn’t [that filmmaker you really love] better represented? “Sucker Punch”: snubbed yet again!
It was also interesting to take a look at the individual lists put together by the 177 critics chosen to participate, especially when they chose to flesh out and explain their decisions, as this blog’s proprietor did. The BBC is to be commended for reaching out to a diverse array of film critics in order to avoid complaints that the group was not solely white and male and American, as well as for the fact that a variety of types of outlets and contributors — full-time critics and freelancers alike — were given a voice.
There was one notable omission from the 177, however: None of the critics chosen were vocal conservatives.
Matt Anderson, editor of culture for BBC.com, explained the thought that went into choosing the respondents and pushed back against the idea that those on the right lacked a voice in the poll.
“We invited critics from newspapers and broadcasters, specialist film magazines and websites, film archivists, festival programmers, academics and freelance critics not attached to any publication,” Anderson said. “We didn’t consider the political position of the outlets whose critics we invited, but conservative publications are nonetheless well represented — the Daily Telegraph, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, La Nación, the Jerusalem Post, etc. — though this is to do with their prestige and prominence rather than their politics.”
Still, as a conservative friend who shall remain anonymous and who is very familiar with the sect known as Film Twitter put it, “none of the Anglophone critics are identifiable acknowledged conservatives.” My friend and I have our suspicions about a couple of the respondents, but there weren’t really any out-and-proud right-of-center writers in the group.
It’s a gap that jumped out at me, for reasons that are, perhaps, obvious. A portion of the paucity has to do with the fact that there are, frankly, very few “identifiable acknowledged conservatives” in the critical corps. Still: We exist! One of us has even managed to win a Pulitzer Prize.
Stephen Hunter, the longtime Washington Post movie critic who took a buyout in 2008 and now spends his days writing thrillers, won the Pulitzer for criticism in 2003, earning praise “for his authoritative film criticism that is both intellectually rewarding and a pleasure to read.” The self-confessed conservative — in a 2000 essay on “The Patriot,” he wryly wrote about being accused of being a liberal by Ollie North during a radio interview; “I’m not,” he noted, adding with a wink, “Don’t tell anybody; maybe they haven’t noticed yet” — was kind enough to discuss the state of film criticism with me during his vacation in Jackson Hole, Wyo.
“I find it dispiriting,” he said of the ideological uniformity of the critical corps, telling me that he too had noticed the BBC list’s homogeneity. “One consequence of this is that I don’t read a lot of film criticism any more. … Because of that sort of fundamental unwillingness to take on both sides equally, I find it depressing, and tedious. Unvariegated.”
A critical corps lacking in intellectual diversity can’t help but create a body of work that’s also lacking in perspectives, one that is out of step with a far more evenly divided country. If diversity is a value worth striving for, it’s a value worth considering across many dimensions, including ideology.
While noodling through the case of the missing conservative critics, I sometimes think of sociologist Jonathan Haidt and his efforts to root out — or, at least, create awareness of — liberal bias in the social sciences. The left-right imbalance in the academy is nothing short of eye-popping:
I asked the thousand-or-so people in the audience to declare their politics with a show of hands, and I estimated that roughly 80% self-identified as “liberal or left of center,” 2% (I counted exactly 20 hands) identified as “centrist or moderate,” 1% (12 hands) identified as libertarian, and, rounding to the nearest integer, zero percent (3 hands) identified as “conservative or right of center.” That gives us a left:right ratio of 266 to one. I didn’t think the real ratio was that high; I knew that some conservatives in the audience were probably afraid to raise their hands.
Perhaps, as some have suggested is true of the social sciences, liberals are simply more drawn to film criticism. Maybe. But as Nick Kristof has written, rank ideological prejudice of this sort almost inevitably bleeds into hiring practices. And younger writers can intuit that.
“Young critics, if they can get in the business, understand that there’s no future in being a conservative critic. As a practical, technical thing you aren’t going to get attention, you’re not going to rise by being a conservative critic,” Hunter said. “There are considerable pressures on them to conform. Very few [young critics] have the resources to avoid the pressure to conform.”
Which is why it might make sense to offer the few right-of-center — or, at least, non-left — writers spots on prestigious lists such as these, to show younger right-of-center writers that there’s room for them at the table.
The New York Post’s Kyle Smith is arguably the most prominent conservative critic in America, given his home city and publication, and would make a fine addition to lists like the BBC’s. As would the critics for conservative journals National Review and the Weekly Standard, Ross Douthat and John Podhoretz, respectively. I’m sure young libertarians who write about culture would be encouraged by the inclusion of Reason magazine’s Kurt Loder or Peter Suderman. Longtime conservative cultural writer James Bowman would certainly have an interesting perspective to offer. Rebecca Cusey, a member of the Washington Area Film Critics Association, contributes regularly to the Federalist and Patheos and would bring a smart, right-of-center Christian view to such lists. There are few conservatives who write about film more knowledgably than Victor Morton, even if he doesn’t always do it for pay.
The big question is whether it would have made any difference. It’s hard to say: I would be shocked if the authors listed above submitted lists with a great deal of overlap, thus diluting any influence they would have on a ballot such as this one. At the margins, though, you might see some changes.
“Zero Dark Thirty,” which was hurt by a nonsensical left-wing Oscar-season campaign revolving around its fealty to history, and “The Hurt Locker,” which was hailed by conservatives for taking a more human and humane approach to American soldiers, may have both received a bump. One wonders if the first- and third-highest-grossing R-rated films of all time, “American Sniper” and “The Passion of the Christ,” would have made the list. I can’t help but wonder if Mel Gibson’s banishment from polite cinematic society has unfortunately rendered the brilliant “Apocalypto” untouchable. No need to fear that kooky conservatives would add a travesty like “God’s Not Dead” to the list — but the crowd-pleasing “Amazing Grace” might have made the cut.
Either way, a list with more conservative voices on it would be a more inclusive one. And my understanding from the past two decades or so of commentary on a variety of issues is that more inclusion — better rates of representation in media, if you will — is a positive unto itself.