Blue State – Red State Movies

It is hard to find the time to actually venture to a movie theater to share movies with a large audience and experience films the way they ought to be experienced. A poor substitute is to wait until movies manage to make it to DVD so they can be enjoyed in a moment of free time. This week I found the time to watch two films from 2004 that could not have been more different: Sideways and National Treasure. The first is a “blue state” movie, while the latter is a “red state” movie. The terms “blue state” and “red state” refer to those states that voted for John Kerry or George Bush for president in 2004, respectively. Here, we use those terms as a metaphor for the cultural elites who primarily dominate the northeast and the west coast, as opposed to middle-Americans with traditional values who dominate the south and the west.

Sideways is a small film about two dysfunctional middle-aged men, Miles (Paul Giamatti) and Jack (Thomas Haden Church), embarked on a wine-tasting trip through California wine country. The golf and sexual adventures punctuate the periods between wine consumption. Miles is a moping divorcee, failed novelist, and an unhappy middle school English teacher who doesn’t see the nobility of his profession. His only real passion is wine tasting, but even this often serves only to illustrate how skill and knowledge can quickly degenerate into sullenness. A typical wine-focused evening will begin with an erudite assessment of wine from the type of soil it was grown in, through fermentation, and aging. Ultimately, Miles descends into a drunken stupor that reveals his deep and amply justified self-loathing. It is hard to imagine a less interesting character. If possible, Jack is even shallower. He is an aging B-movie actor making up for lost celebrity and fading looks by bedding as many women as possible before his scheduled wedding at the end of the trip. These very different personalities are only linked by a shared history that began as roommates in college.

Of course, Sideways resonates with the New York Liberal angst and received five Oscar nominations. The New York Times review identified with Miles and averred that, “And therein lies the great cosmic joke of this heart-piercing film: without struggle and pain, Miles wouldn’t be half the good and decent man he is, though he certainly might complain a little less, venture a little more.” How is a middle-aged man who steals money from his mother to finance a wine adventure “good and decent” by anyone’s moral calculus?

There is little that is admirable in this movie. The only truly sympathetic character is Maya (Virginia Madsen), who is an earnest and fetching thirty-something divorcee working as a waitress while she earns a master’s degree. In the closing scene of the movie, when Miles tries to reconnect with Maya, we seem him knocking on Maya’s door. We are left to guess what happens next. If she is wise, Maya is hiding under the bed from this unappealing loser.

It is not surprising the seven professional critics at the Yahoo movie site rate the movie “A”, while the 14826 Yahoo users rate it “B.” This latter rating is probably as high as it is because the movie’s Oscar nominations influence opinion. Sideways could only be a “blue state” movie.

National Treasure is radically different. Rather than boring us in mediocrity, National Treasure is an action-adventure based on the premise that clues to a historically and monetarily valuable treasure were hidden by a small cadre of our Founding Fathers, members of the Masons. One key clue can be found on the back of the Declaration of Independence.

The film is historic in the same way that Star Trek is scientific. There are just enough legitimate historical or scientific references to allow a willing suspension of disbelief about the rest. Star Trek uses special effects to make us buy into the authenticity of its vision of the future, while National Treasure shoots many of its scenes on location: in the National Archive, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, the Library of Congress, or on the streets of the nation’s capital.

The hero Benjamin Franklin Gates (Nicolas Cage) is a descendent of Thomas Gates, a stable boy of Charles Carroll, the last-living signer of the Declaration of Independence. Desperate at the moment of his death, Carroll entrusts young Tom with the clue that the “Secret lies with Charlotte.” The clue, the story, and a passion to seek the treasure pass down through generations of the Gates family

It turns out Charlotte is the name of a ship which Ben Gates manages to find only to be provided other clues which ultimately lead to the Declaration of Independence and the treasure. Tension is provided by the fact that an alternate, less altruistic group, is seeking the same treasure and both are being pursued by the FBI launched into activity after Declaration is stolen.

Sure the plot is contrived, but the story is also heroic and admirable. Ben Gates is a man of genius and perseverance. The feminine interest is Dr. Abigail Chase (Diane Kruger), a curator at the National Archives. While in Sideways, the men exploit vulnerable women. In National Treasure, Dr. Chase is as smart and passionate as Gates. The happy circumstance of a brilliant and gorgeous woman is not common, except in “red state” fantasies. In “blue state” daydreams, women are attracted to dysfunctional men.

The New York Times complains that movies are too often populated by, “infallible heroes and comic-book morality.” What they really mean is that when we see mediocrity in film, it relieves us of the burden of expecting too much from ourselves. Gee, we are better than that guy. He has the same problems I have. The certainty that noble aspirations are unrealistic shoves hope into a corner.

In the world of the New York Times, morality is never clear but always cloudy and contingent. What the Times calls “comic book morality” is simply the realization that sometimes moral choices are clear. No matter how important a wine-tasting trip is, one should not steal money from one’s mother. No matter how attractive a woman is or how lonely we are, it is not right to exploit her sexually the very week before we marry another. What is so difficult for the Times to understand?

There is a place everywhere for ennobling films with conspicuous heroism. There is an even more important place everywhere for films that deal with moral conundrums with which good and honest people struggle. However, it is primarily in “blue states” where one finds a place of honor for self-indulgent films where flippancy, feigned urbanity, and verbal acuity trump decency and honor.

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