I’ve done more than my share of decoding culture for political subtexts. But sometimes cultural messages are best articulated in terms of values rather than politics.
Last week, for example, an interviewer for Film Comment commented to director Judd Apatow that
Time and again, you show us couples trying really hard to work out their problems rather than simply calling it quits and getting that divorce (or, in the case of Knocked Up, that abortion), which is something I think some critics have misconstrued as a strain of neoconservatism or family-values propaganda in your work.
I was struck by the phrase “family-values propaganda,” which implies an insidious political agenda. Critics have indeed fretted over whether there is a strain of social conservatism in Apatow’s movies. But he responds to them in terms of relationships, not politics:
I grew up on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and M*A*S*H and All in the Family and Taxi, and what that imprinted on me was that families are complicated but we love each other and at the end of the day we’re there for each other.
In his comedy Knocked Up, for example, the two leads are faced with an unplanned pregnancy after a one-night stand. They choose not to take the easy way out – an abortion and parting of ways – but to make a go of their relationship and embrace parenthood. This mature choice smacks, to some of Apatow’s critics, of a stealthy, rightwing anti-abortion agenda.
If they politicized something that positive and life-affirming as “propaganda,” imagine how these same critics would perceive a politically incorrect film like the 1966 Alfie, which made Michael Caine a star. Caine plays a callous womanizer who pressures a married woman he has impregnated into a “back-alley” abortion. Afterward, in a silent, riveting scene, he is deeply distressed by the sight of the (offscreen) lifeless fetus. Alfie begins to understand that his cold selfishness leaves a trail of pain for others and will ultimately leave him alone; that permanent relationships are the most fulfilling and humanizing; and that abortion has a real human toll. He confesses his epiphany to a friend:
I don’t hardly know what I was expecting to see. Certainly not this perfectly formed being. I half-expected it to cry out… And I thought to me-self, “Y’know what, Alfie? Y’know what you've done? You murdered him.”
Controversial enough for that era – but it would be even more so today. It’s impossible to imagine such a hard-hitting anti-abortion message playing out in a Hollywood film in our politically correct times. Indeed, in the sanitized 2004 remake starring Jude Law, Alfie’s character is softened and his women, raised on Sex and the City, are less vulnerable. The abortion element of the plot is so watered-down, no abortion even takes place. Despite the more direct, emotional honesty of the 1966 version, today’s mainstream critics would inevitably politicize it as “pro-life” and savage the film for its stark depiction of abortion’s disturbing reality.
It’s disheartening that for many, the stigmatized phrase “family values” represents more of a political threat than a positive ideal. Judd Apatow’s films manage to strip away that political context and demonstrate how those values impact his characters and their relationships for the better.
(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 11/14/12)