Published:

This is the first entry in a new ConservativeHome column focusing on culture. It will be edited by Peter Hoskin, and generally appear on Fridays.

As
they say, January is a time for looking back as well as forwards — so I hope
you’ll forgive a bit of accountancy that’s hanging over from 2012. It’s this
list of last year’s highest grossing films:

  1. The Avengers — $1,511,757,910
  2. The Dark Knight Rises — $1,081,041,287
  3. Skyfall — $1,023,949,764
  4. Ice Age: Continental Drift
    — $875,236,450
  5. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey — $830,691,777
  6. The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn, Part 2 — $821,909,597
  7. The Amazing Spider-Man — $752,216,557
  8. Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted — $742,110,251
  9. The Hunger Games — $686,533,290
  10. Men in Black 3 — $624,026,776

Spot
anything, other than the abiding popularity of superhero movies? How about the
upwards impetus of films that, while not explicitly political, are broadly conservative
in outlook? To my eyes, three of the top five films belong in that category.


We
already know about Batman and The Dark
Knight Rises
: this billionaire growling and bludgeoning his way through the
mob was the subject of not one but two
ConservativeHome posts last summer. Yet what about Skyfall, the latest 007 movie? Its literary and cinematic genealogy
means that it was always going to have conservative traits — the patriotism,
the stiff-upper-lippery, etc. — but no other Bond film goes so far in making a
feature of them. Basically, it’s an essay on the continuing relevance of its
hero and his “old ways” in a world that is restlessly, sometimes dangerously,
new. He is, Skyfall concludes, the
knife we need when computers fail; a hangover from the Empire, here to protect
us from tyrants. No wonder Judi Dench’s M quotes Tennyson’s Ulysses:

“Though much
is taken, much abides; and though/We are not now that strength which in old
days / Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are; / One equal temper of
heroic hearts, / Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will / To strive, to
seek, to find, and not to yield.”

And
then there’s The Hobbit, which is
certainly the least political of all the three films, but which counts as
conservative by dint of its source material. While J.R.R. Tolkien was no polemicist,
you could almost say his books are about the same thing as Skyfall: the continuing relevance of the old ways in a world that
is restlessly, sometimes dangerously, new. Except here, instead of a killer in
a tuxedo, we have the verdant smallholdings of the Shire. Instead of M reciting
Tennyson, we have kings and heirs and lords and birth-rights. And, true to the
books, all of this makes it into Peter Jackson’s film.  

This
isn’t to say anything about the politics of the filmmakers behind The Dark Knight Rises, Skyfall and The Hobbit; just about how their films come across. And they come
across even more forcefully thanks to the comparative absence of any left-wing
films. Of the films listed above, only The
Hunger Games
stands out as particularly left-wing — and even that’s up for
debate
.

Naturally,
this doesn’t mean that there is no left-wing cinema. Directors such as Ken
Loach and Jean Luc-Godard, with works such as The Angels’ Share and Film
socialisme
, continue to profess the faith. Robert Guediguian’s The Snows of Kilimanjaro and Allan
Sekula and Noël Burch’s The Forgotten
Space
were among the finest films I saw last year, and Gus Van Sant’s Promised Land is among those I’m most eager
to see this year. But so little of that is filtering up into the multiplexes. Despite
Hollywood’s alleged political biases, and despite the Occupy-style discontent
that followed on from the recession, left-wing values are currently struggling for
box office takings. There have been plenty of documentaries critical of the
banks, but the most financially successful of the past few years — in fact, the
second
biggest
political documentary of all time — is one that is critical of
Barack Obama.

As
for what all this means, firm conclusions are hard to come by. Who, after all,
is to say whether a film is attracting audiences because of its implicit
politics, as well as because of its lead actor? Who can be sure whether people are
connecting with Batman’s power agenda, rather than just his awesome car? But,
as so many social historians have done with the cinema of the Great Depression,
it’s still worth trying to divine some answers. Very few trends happen entirely
by accident.

The
first and easiest port-of-call in these situations is the one marked “Escapism”.
Cinemagoers want to be delivered from their everyday concerns, the argument
goes, and so they seek out films which go against the grim certitudes of their
time. Thus, in the 1930s, there was the cycle of gangster films which suggested
that even the most downtrodden Joe could rise to seize the world, even if he
was gunned down soon afterwards. In rationed, post-War Britain, there were the
Ealing comedies and the fantasies of Powell and Pressburger. And now — who
knows? — perhaps folk want films which depict stability, security, green fields
and confident nationhood.   

A
more prosaic explanation may be the demographic one. Although there are
fluctuations, cinema attendance has generally been in decline — and it has
declined faster among young people, who are more likely to just download a
movie off the Web instead, or else play a video game. Indeed, a recent report from
Goldman Sachs, of all places, found that cinema attendance among 12-24
year-olds has fallen by 40 per cent over the past decade. The remaining
audience may be becoming more conservative just by virtue of being older.

But
I suppose the real question is whether there’s anything deeper going on with political
attitudes. And the answer? That it’s possible, although it’s difficult to pin
down. One particularly comprehensive study, for instance — by Paola Giuliano
and Antonio Spilimbergo for the Institute
for the Study of Labor
— has it that,“…individuals growing up during recessions tend to
believe that success in life depends more on luck than on effort, support more
government redistribution, but are less confident in public institutions.” On that account, people turn both left
(“ support more government redistribution”) and right (“less confident in
public institutions”) during times of hardship.

Perhaps
the strongest evidence for a rightwards shift during this last downturn is
contained in recent editions of the British Social Attitudes survey. The
proportion of people wanting an increase in public spending continued to fall
between 2007 and 2010, reaching a twenty-year low of 31 per cent, although it did
rise slightly in 2011. The number believing that benefits are “too high and
discourage work” has climbed to a new peak, and so on. The latest edition sums
it up with the words, “Neither redistribution in general nor welfare benefits
in particular are as popular as they once were,” although it stresses that
these trends predated the recession, and could turn.

So
where does that leave Hollywood? Well, you can bet that it will keep on giving
the people what they want — and, for now, that means Batman, James Bond and
Bilbo Baggins. If only politicians could match up.

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