I’d first like to praise Rothbard for being a ‘critical’ critic, as opposed to either nicey-nice ‘reviewers’ that are more concerned with the leading lady’s hairstyle, or to the opposite extreme, obscurantist pseudo-intellectual con-artists to which entertainment and having a clear point is a mortal sin. He understands that plot and entertainment are integral to meaning. To Rothbard, both dim-wittedness and pretension are equally to be avoided at the movies.

In his informative contribution to literary theory in the Volker Fund memo collection, Romanticism and Modern Fiction, he champions the tightly-plotted detective novel. The romantic method is much superior to both the naturalist school, which by ejecting plot pretends not to have values at all, and the avant-garde, which deliberately makes its meaning opaque for ‘art’ points.

Applying this to cinema, it is indeed sad that plot is relegated in importance to ‘mere’ entertainment in the critical community, as if a slick Hollywood blockbuster can never achieve beyond petty ‘distraction’. But entertaining movies can have A Point. In fact, Rothbard argues that by utilising plot, the author can best communicate his values. The characters each represent a moral vision, and through plot these visions can be pit against each other, the prevailing one being the author’s final statement.

The best kind of movie, for Murray, is an intelligent, tightly-woven, story-driven entertainment that communicated worthwhile values. Winners included the Dirty Harry and Death Wish pictures, that depict moral crusaders enforcing true rules of law. The James Bond franchise is a consistently good exponent of bourgeois principles. He saw Woody Allen’s Annie Hall and Manhattan as hilarious and perceptive critiques of LA and New York yuppie subcultures. If it can translate a true set of values, and can do so with enough thrills and laughs, it’s a success.

The worst kind were not those that simply failed but deliberately failed to entertain, and especially those that did so in service to some morally bankrupt principle. In this he condemns Fellini, and particularly the “absurdist, nihilist monstrosity” Juliet of the Spirits.

Most maddeningly, he hated my favourite film, 2001: A Space Odyssey.

“…there have been few movies of any genre that have been worse than that pretentious, mystical, boring, plotless piece of claptrap.”

Admittedly, it has no clear protagonist and an ambiguous value system which makes it difficult to work out on first viewing. Almost nobody likes it if they have only seen it once. For this it would not be unfair to say Rothbard was a little close-minded on movies that challenged typical structure whilst maintaining meaning.

European films, in general, are suspect, because they tend to be ponderous and distasteful of bourgeois values. And this is where I begin to shuffle in my seat. Really, Murray? Smiles of a Summer Night is Ingmar Bergman’s only worthwhile film? These unfortunate mishaps make me only 99.8% agreement with Rothbard’s entire worldview.

Yet what makes his writings on film essential is how insightfully he puts them in political and cultural context. In his superb comparison of the first two Godfather films (70s) with Goodfellas (90s), he somehow shows that this newer and much inferior incarnation of the gangster picture is the epitome of the sympathetic view of petty criminals by the left, and suffers in comparison to the Mafia, an institution that seeks justice.

GoodFellas is peopled exclusively by psychotic punks, scarcely different from ordinary, unorganized street criminals. The violence is random, gratuitous, pointless, and psychotic…”

“One great scene in The Godfather embodies the difference between right and left anarchism. One errant, former member of the Corleone famiglia abases himself before The Godfather (Marlon Brando). A certain punk had raped and brutalized his daughter. He went to the police and the courts, and the punk was, at last, let go (presumably by crafty ACLU-type lawyers and a soft judicial system). This distraught father now comes to Don Corleone for justice.
Brando gently upbraids the father: “Why didn’t you come to me? Why did you go to The State?” The inference is clear: the State isn’t engaged in equity and justice; to obtain justice, you must come to the famiglia. Finally, Brando relents: “What would you have me do?” The father whispers in the Godfather’s ear. “No, no, that is too much. We will take care of him properly.” So not only do we see anarcho-capitalist justice carried out, but it is clear that the Mafia code has a nicely fashioned theory of proportionate justice. In a world where the idea that the punishment should fit the crime has been abandonedand still struggled over by libertarian theoristsit is heart-warming to see that the Mafia has worked it out in practice.”

The Godfather and The Godfather Part II, then, are closer approximations of libertarian utopia than many a movie, which is a remarkable conclusion considering Francis Ford Coppola thinks his creations are critiques of capitalism.

Finally, you read Rothbard on film for the same reason you read any Rothbard: it’s a blast.

On Schindler’s List:

“… watching a concentration camp for three hours is not exactly my idea of a fun evening at the theater; anyone who enjoys watching concentration camps is better advised to watch the French film Shoah, which is a full nine-and-a-half hours long, to be topped off by Hans-Jurgen Syberberg’s absurdist seven-hour German film, Our Hitler. Then, if your appetite for watching Nazis hasn’t yet been slaked, you can segue to the fifteen-and-a-half hour German film Heimat. And then, maybe, as they say these days, we “can put it all behind us,” and get on to other topics. Or is that too much to ask?”

On The Piano

“In the end, the two “lovers” go off in a Maori canoe, carting the grotesque Grand Piano with them. For some unexplained reason, [Holly] Hunter, who had spent the entire movie moping about her beloved piano, suddenly decides to tell the Abos to toss the piano overboard. Her foot gets caught in the rope, drowning along with her damned piano. Unfortunately, however, even that small moment of delight was denied me, and she is rescued.”

And finally, on Basic Instinct

“Directed by Paul Verhoeven, whose return to Holland would be welcome.”

Rothbard could have been a formidable professional critic if he so desired. His analytical style is reminiscent of Pauline Kael, and had similar expectations of a movie. In the end we can be grateful that he decided to dedicated his efforts to more encompassing ends.

You think you’ve figured Rothbard out, that he has nothing more to teach you. Later you’ll be researching another topic, and find out that Rothbard wrote on it too, and what do you know, the result is more on-point than most other articles or books on the subject. He was a thinking and writing machine, and nothing was beyond the scope of his brilliant mind.

Rothbard’s film reviews can be read in The Complete Libertarian Forum under Mr First Nighter