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Being a reactionary, I’m a sucker for high-production-value period piece movies. The period piece is the native genre of the reactionary. A really good period piece creates the optical illusion of time travel – backwards, of course, to a place with worse hygiene, but better costumes and manners. As everyone knows by now, according to Oakeshott, “To be conservative … is to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible, the limited to the unbounded, the near to the distant….” etc., etc. Well, the past is most of these things by definition.
Time travel into the future, by contrast, is for liberals. To be a liberal is to believe that history is an orderly procession toward the broad, sunlit uplands of enlightenment and flying cars; to believe that certain ways of thinking are outmoded, while others are modern and progressive, with good people marching forward and bad people standing athwart history yelling “Stop!” This view is popular with Whig historians, Hegelian idealists, children, H.G. Wells and Lincoln Steffens (who, in Soviet Russia, saw the future, and it worked!). But such people are wrong: history is not an unstoppable freight train of progress – it’s a bunch of half-blind people stumbling around in the dark from one dead end to another, stepping on each other’s fingers.
Not all retro time travel works for me. Star Wars doesn’t, even though it takes place a long, long time ago. Nor does The Hobbit. Yes, Tolkien’s vision of a green and pleasant mythical arcadia appeals to a certain kind of conservative anglophilia. But all the magical flimflam is in violent conflict with Oakeshott’s precepts. A good period piece is all about gritty, granular realism; it abhors magic, mysticism and CGI.
I was thinking about all this last weekend, while thoroughly enjoying the Coen Brothers’ masterpiece, Inside Llewyn Davis. The movie takes place in 1961, eight years before my birth – distant, yet familiar. What is also interesting about that year is that it marks the approximate high water mark of American civilization. Shortly thereafter, the long, slow slide began, although there was enough momentum to carry the country through another few years to the Apollo moon landings, which are without question the apex of mankind’s (personkind’s?) achievement. In this respect, Inside Llewyn Davis tills the same furrow as Mad Men, but without the belabored, semi-ironic adherence to mid-century authenticity. What Mad Men accomplishes studiously and self-consciously, Llewyn Davis achieves seemingly without effort or artifice. It just picks you up and dumps you unsentimentally into 1961 Greenwich Village.
The Coens are absolute masters of the period genre. To appreciate a good period piece, a conservative temperament helps; to recreate the past convincingly on screen requires not only genius, but a love for the past. The Coen Brothers are conservative geniuses. No wonder Harry Reid keeps denouncing them from the well of the Senate (although I don’t understand how they can be responsible for global warming).
I am always looking for a good period piece. My short list of favorites includes the following.
Russian Ark (2002). The entire film, all 96 minutes, is a single-take uninterrupted stroll with a steadicam through the Hermitage Museum and Russian history. It’s a dazzlingly choreographed piece of czarist propaganda. Doesn’t get much more reactionary than that. My favorite part is where Nicholas I, sovereign of a mature and self-confident world power, receives and accepts the abject apology of the Persian Shah for the massacre of Ambassador Alexander Griboedov and his diplomatic staff at the hands of an Islamic mob. It starts at the 54:05 mark here. Notice that what Nicholas does not do is throw an innocent filmmaker in prison and then crawl on his belly to the United Nations to explain that the mob had a number of understandable grievances and that Russia basically had it coming. Nope, he is upright throughout.
HBO’s Rome (2005; first season only – season 2 sucks). Deftly scripted and lavishly produced, only actual time travel back to the last days of the Roman Republic could rival this almost tactile experience for sheer spectacle. I would take only slight issue with the politics. Caesar’s rise, and the terrifying descent of the Republic into anti-constitutional lawlessness and civil war, are an object lesson in what happens when a charismatic populist transforms politics into a conspiracy between the super-rich and the underclass. This is a political pattern that would have some slight resonance with us today, if only we had an effective charismatic populist politician somewhere in the picture. Personally, I would have played up this angle. But in any case, you get the sense that the Republic was running on fumes. The anti-Caesareans are a disaster: Pompey is vain and bungling; Cicero is effete; Brutus dithers. On the other hand, Cato, the one true defender of conservative Roman virtue, is admirably crusty and curmudgeonly. Again, echoes of the present abound.
Ragtime (1981). What I love about this movie is not its time machine quality, which is merely OK, but that it is not what it appears to be. Taken at face value, E.L. Doctorow’s book, as realized by Milos Foreman, appears to be a lush romp through turn-of-the-20th-century America that uses a story of racial injustice as its narrative vehicle. But in fact, the whole thing is a slick and highly entertaining piece of political agitprop masquerading as a period piece. The movie and the book feature a number of historical figures, notably Booker T. Washington. At the climactic moment, the authorities bring in Booker T. to try to talk some sense into Coalhouse Walker, Jr., the movie’s magnetic protagonist, by appealing to Walker’s intelligence, sense of justice, and the fact that his reckless and selfish actions are about to undo decades of Washington’s work on behalf of black Americans. Walker rejects these appeals and the standoff ends badly. I read the book years ago and enjoyed it, but didn’t really understand what it was about until I saw the movie recently. It’s basically a brilliant race revenge fantasy. Doctorow was a leftist writing in the early 1970s at the height of the black liberation movement. Both Walker and Booker T. Washington are portrayed sympathetically, but ultimately Booker T. loses the argument. W.E.B. DuBois is out of the picture, but casts a shadow on the message of the movie. His approach was far more radical than that of the bourgeois-leaning Booker T.
Ultimately, Ragtime is not about the early 1900s; it is about the 1960s and 70s, when bourgeois values were crumbling and the Constitution-inspired civil rights movement of MLK was being hijacked by the Black Panthers. Doctorow was cleverly taking sides in that argument. The cast is great: Samuel L. Jackson, James Cagney, Norman Mailer, Mandy Patinkin and Howard Rollins Jr. Jack Nicholson and Fran Drescher also make appearances. And Elizabeth McGovern is much more fun here than in Downton Abbey 30 years later. (Downton Abbey is good too, of course, as Rob Long, James Delingpole and other prominent Ricocheti have noted.)
Finally, The Three Musketeers/The Four Musketeers, (1973, 1974, respectively), with Michael York, Raquel Welch, Charlton Heston, Faye Dunaway, Richard Chamberlain and Oliver Reed. This has been a favorite of mine since about age 10. The makers of this version had the good sense to know they couldn’t improve on Dumas’ original, stuck to the book and just concentrated on transporting the viewer into the realm of Louis XIII and Richelieu – an arch-reactionary’s paradise. It is easy to forgive the several charming anachronisms (e.g., a proto-submarine, flying the Union Jack, for the Duke of Buckingham to steal away the Queen of France (the Union Jack is the anachronism)).
Addendum: Sorry, I am now being told that it is the Koch Brothers – not the Coens – who are the main cause of global warming. Apologies for any confusion.