Conservatives set out to win the culture through cinema. Instead, they made campaign ads.

Roundup: Pop Culture & the Arts ... Movies, Documentaries and Museum Exhibits

The American Film Renaissance, held in Washington D.C. the first week of October, billed itself as "the only film festival in the world devoted to celebrating America's timeless traditional values like freedom, rugged individualism, and the triumph of the human spirit." In shorthand, AFR is a conservative film festival. During its first wine-and-cheese afterparty, one Washington lawyer aptly reinterpreted AFR's mission statement, saying he hoped the festival "will get Hollywood to go back to the pro-American films that they used to have. Like the ones John Wayne used to be in."

He's not alone. Figures on the Right from William F. Buckley Jr. to Tom Wolfe have lamented that conservatives have focused on electoral politics to the exclusion of cultural endeavors. Think tanks, magazines, and activist groups can accomplish political tasks, they say, but culture-makers shape our prejudices and ideals in a subtle though more profound way than any policy paper or election. Liberals may lose at the ballot box, but through the box office, they are winning America's hearts and minds.

AFR, founded five years ago by lawyers Jim and Ellen Hubbard, is supposed to be the conservative film movement's workshop and showcase. Unfortunately, the festival reveals that self-conscious conservatives are largely incapable of producing good films. Worse, whenever they get their hands on the tools and money to produce quality work, their talents are employed less as storytellers informed by great truths about man and civilization than as political operatives obliged to serve the GOP.

The top-billed film of this year's festival was "An American Carol," a slapstick spoof produced by David Zucker, the man behind "Airplane," the "Naked Gun" flicks, and a series of unaired Bush re-election commercials. "Carol" tells the story of "anti-American" documentarian, Michael Malone, who sets out to abolish the Fourth of July. Why? Because he hates America, we're told. To the delight of the audience, JFK, General Patton, and George Washington make appearances to slap the Michael Moore lookalike and teach him that America is the greatest country ever. By the end, the liberal filmmaker realizes that being American means being pro-war (any war), and that's okay.

To prime the audience, before AFR screened "Carol,"the conservative crowd was treated to an extended trailer for Oliver Stone's scabrous Bush biopic, "W." Predictably, "An American Carol" received an extended ovation, and "W." was jeered. Of course, neither film will have an enduring effect on the culture. But each will gauge the relative box-office clout of conservatives and liberals as demographic groups. And the political Right is desperate to prove that it is not just a movement but an audience....

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