Books & Culture

Once Upon a Time in Conservative Hollywood

Does the world really need low-budget, right-leaning genre movies when high-budget right-leaning movies are already being made by people with exceptional talent?

The elevator pitch for “Run Hide Fight,” a film currently in production, is simple: “a 17-year-old female ‘Die Hard’ in the middle of a school shooting.” Swap out cop Bruce Willis for student Isabel May, exchange the Nakatomi Plaza in “Die Hard” for Vernon Central High School in Texas, and you have the plot.

It’s an offensive idea for a movie—and a dumb one. “Run Hide Fight,” written and directed by Kyle Rankin, is being produced by Rebeller, a new right-leaning film production company. Rebeller is the brainchild of Dallas Sonnier. Sonnier is also the founder and CEO of Cinestate, a film production, distribution, and publishing operation launched in Dallas in 2016.

According to Sonnier, Rebeller will offer films in the “outlaw cinema” category, focusing on “genres that Hollywood is ignoring and from scripts that Hollywood is too afraid to touch.”

Yet mainstream Hollywood is already producing films much more daring, and more conservative, than “Run Hide Fight.” Quentin Tarantino’s award-winning “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” is the best example. It’s a subversive film that anathematizes the 1960s. It’s also stylish and smart.

Cinestate, under which Rebeller will operate, is known mostly for the films of S. Craig Zahler. Zahler’s films include the western “Bone Tomahawk,” with Kurt Russell and Richard Jenkins; “Brawl in Cell Block 99” with Vince Vaughn; and noir police drama “Dragged Across Concrete” with Vaughn and Mel Gibson.

Zahler’s films, in the words of one critic, have “gotten attention for their hyperviolence and reactionary politics.” Liberals have accused Cinestate of producing films in which the heroes are all white men and the antagonists minorities. For his part, Sonnier rejects the idea that he’s pushing a Trump-savvy brand: “I didn’t even vote for the guy,” he said in an interview. “I don’t necessarily crave a conservative audience, but that may be an outcome, and it wouldn’t surprise me. I understand that audience deeply. But it’s not a mission statement.”

Risk-Averse . . . Or Decent?

“Run Hide Fight” might not be part of fulfilling any mission statement, but it’s hard to argue that it is not a conservative provocation. For years the script was passed around Hollywood studios but Rankin noted that after the Parkland, Florida school shooting in 2018, the story became “radioactive.”

“Everyone I talked to for this piece confessed to initial trepidation about the project, which scared them and still seems to scare them, despite their firm belief that it can play a positive role in the conversation,” he said. “But in an increasingly risk-averse industry, the answer was a hard ‘no.’”

Perhaps Hollywood wasn’t simply being risk-averse, but what conservatives are always demanding they be: decent.

After years of reaction a the hands of Hollywood and the media, conservatives have found footholds in journalism, publishing, and social media, but their mirth at “owning the libs” can become reductive—and in the case of “Run Hide Fight,” it has tipped into misjudgment. The poor taste sounds like the result of a late-night bull session among young attendees of a Democratic Socialists of America conference: “Hey guys, who can come up with the craziest, wildest, most offensive idea for a right-wing film, a movie that would represent not conservatism, but a parody of deplorable conservatism? How about ‘Die Hard’ set at Parkland?”

Recalling “Shadow Cinema”

The best filmmakers can analyze and criticize a culture with nuance, irony, and even subtlety.

In critic Charles Taylor’s book Opening Wednesday at a Theater or Drive-In Near You, the author celebrates the “shadow cinema” of America after Vietnam—movies like “Prime Cut” (1972), “Vanishing Point” (1971), “Eyes of Laura Mars” (1978), “Two-Lane Blacktop” (1971), “Ulzana’s Raid” (1972), “American Hot Wax” (1978), and the Pam Grier vehicles “Coffy” (1973) and “Foxy Brown” (1974).

The shadow cinema was reserved for films in the spot between greats like “The Godfather” or “The French Connection” and horrible grindhouse grunge. “For me, the staying power of these movies has to do with the way they stand in opposition to the current juvenile state of American movies,” Taylor writes. “The infantilization of American movies that began in 1977 with the unprecedented success of ‘Star Wars’ has become total. Mainstream moviemaking now caters almost exclusively to the tastes of the adolescent male fan.”

Rebeller is marketing itself as outlaw cinema, but “Run Hide Fight” seems too adolescent and predictable to be truly iconoclastic. To be sure, shadow cinema wasn’t great. Still, the films offered an ambiguity that didn’t “hold the realities of human behavior hostage to ideology.” A character could have an abortion and feel terrible about it. Films could both love and resent America and capitalism. Good guys bit the dust. In these films, Taylor found “the connection to the world, and to real-life emotions—not to mention the craft—that today’s blockbusters and remakes and churned out franchises work so hard to avoid.”

Then there is David Lynch’s 1986 film “Blue Velvet,” which combines surrealism, horror, nostalgia, and humor into a truly odd and unique package. Lynch shocked liberals when he came out as a conservative. As Variety writer Owen Gleiberman noted, “Born in Montana in 1946, he was a quintessential child of the ’50s, and he reveled in the Eisenhower era.” Lynch “was attracted to its dark underbelly, to lifting up the rock and looking at whatever was under it, but for that reason—out of that very obsession—he fetishized the safety of the surface, the square American values he’d grown up with. The reason he never rebelled, except in his art, is that he thought it was that squareness that made his inner wildness possible.”

As Lynch told Gleiberman, “I didn’t like hippies.”

From the Ridiculous to the Unoriginal

To try to combine a school shooting with a film like “Die Hard” is unoriginal and tone-deaf. “Die Hard” is not a drama that is closely analogous to real-life violence—like, say, “Saving Private Ryan.” It’s a fantasy that is enjoyable for its unreality, a ballet of mayhem that is violent, corny, ridiculous, sometimes touching, and ultimately cartoonish (the final punishment of villain Hans Gruber is right out of Wile E. Coyote). Audiences love “Die Hard” because it is so obviously fake, a celluloid carnival ride.

To attempt to commingle this high-octane dream with dead children at school shootings is not bold or rebellious. It is a base and lazy middle finger to perceived enemies. “Run Hide Fight” shares the same space if not the same politics as Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ, taking something sacred and dragging it down to the lowbrow

Further: does the world really need low-budget, right-leaning genre movies when high-budget right-leaning movies are already being made by people with exceptional talent?

Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” is a brilliant revisiting of 1960s Hollywood. Praised by everyone from the New York Times to David Bentley Hart, the film is a celebration of male friendship and the work ethic that graphically depicts a war veteran and stuntman beating senseless a member of Charles Manson’s cult.

“Once Upon a Time . . .” was nominated for five Golden Globes and will probably receive at least that many Oscar nods. As a countercountercultural statement, it’s much more rebellious than anything that has come out of Cinestate.

There’s also “Ford v. Ferrari,” a marvelous film about the American spirit and the importance of risk-taking for idiosyncratic oddballs who become champions by refusing to abide by conformist corporate culture.

Perhaps most iconoclastic is Terence Malick’s beautiful new film, “A Hidden Life,” which submerges the viewer into the mystery of love and Christian martyrdom.

A recent article revealed that the cast and crew of “Run Hide Fight” paused production for a moment of silence on November 14, when a 16-year-old gunman killed two students and himself at Saugus High School in Santa Clarita, California. That was a good opportunity for Sonnier to shut the film down for good.

Conservatives have never prided themselves on the idea that they have no limiting principle.