I tend to be an absolutist when it comes to matters of censorship, and if the decision by Universal Pictures to cancel the Sept. 27 release of “The Hunt” was a case of censorship, pure and simple, then I’d be against it. But I believe, in this instance, that the word censorship would be misapplied. There is censorship and there is timing, and in the case of “The Hunt,” a politically charged thriller about a group of “globalist elites” who hunt down people for sport (it sounds, sight unseen, like a variation on the classic 1924 short story “The Most Dangerous Game”), you could argue that a movie studio got caught up in a perfect storm of disastrous timing that would have made the film’s release, as scheduled, seem less a provocation than a brazen act of insensitivity.
In the wake of the shootings in El Paso and Dayton, any film that serves up, as megaplex escapism, the spectacle of Americans ritually shooting other Americans feels like the wrong movie at the wrong time. (Is there a right time for it? We’ll get to that shortly.)
As I read it, there are two motivations behind Universal’s decision. After 9/11, Americans grew comfortable with the idea that certain things shouldn’t be depicted in popular culture, at least for a while, because it was simply “too soon.” Too soon became a meme no one questioned, because no one thought it was about censorship (and, in fact, it wasn’t). Few fretted much about the idea that images of the World Trade Center were being edited out of films like “Spider-Man” or “Men in Black II,” or that the release of a movie like Arnold Schwarzenegger’s terrorist thriller “Collateral Damage” got delayed by four months. In the realm of popular culture, human sensitivity matters, or at least it should.
But there’s another factor that, in all likelihood, fed into the decision not to release “The Hunt,” and that factor is undeniably political (which doesn’t necessarily make it wrong). In the nine days since the El Paso massacre, many have felt that that shooting, not just in its horror but in its overtly articulated white-supremacist underpinnings (which are part of the horror), may, at long last, have marked a tipping point in the national dialogue about gun laws. For the first time in maybe forever, the right seems not just on the defensive about this issue. The right seems on the run.
Is Mitch McConnell’s declaration about a new Republican openness to background checks a piece of political posturing or an actual shift? It’s too soon to say (I lean toward thinking it’s posturing), but the very fact that we’re having this dialogue right now is meaningful. It may mark a shift in something more important than the Republican Party: namely, the consciousness of the American public itself. And if that’s indeed the case, that the liberal — or, as I think of it, the common-sensical and humane — position on gun laws is, in the wake of this tragedy, gaining a traction that it has sought and failed to gain for years, then it would be sheer folly, in the midst of all that, to release a high-profile piece of entertainment that depicts the “elites” the Trump camp has declared to be its sworn foes hunting down their “lowly” adversaries as a kind of gleeful bloodsport. In blunt political terms, the optics are horrendous. And so, for the sake of finally grappling with this issue in a way that could save lives in the future, the notion of putting “The Hunt” on the shelf makes practical and human sense.
Will it stay on the shelf forever? One of the reasons I’m not too concerned about the specter of censorship — and this, admittedly, is sheer speculation — is that my gut tells me that “The Hunt,” at some point, will be released. But if that’s the case, then why didn’t the studio just say so? Because in the realpolitik realm of corporate image management, it would be awkward, if not untenable. “We believe the release of this film, in the wake of El Paso and Dayton, would be unseemly…but six months from now, it will be just fine!” That could well prove to be how it works, but by saying that it’s “canceling” the release of “The Hunt” instead of “postponing” it (to some indefinite future), Universal is doing what it feels like it has to do right now, which is to put out the fire.
Why do I suspect that “The Hunt,” at some point, will see the light of day? Because we’re living in a world where today’s all-consuming trauma is tomorrow’s dusty and forgotten headline. That, sad to say, is the way media culture now works; it’s the way our hearts and minds, increasingly under the spell of media culture, now work. “The Hunt” will likely seem a lot less incendiary next April than it does right now — and, in fact, if the studio waits that long, then the movie might actually seem ideally timed for the presidential Civil War of 2020. Of course, the bottom line is the bottom line. I think there’s a good chance “The Hunt” will at some point be released simply because too much money has been spent on it, and there is, theoretically, too much money to be made on it. That’s not the kind of thing that movie studios like to swallow forever.
And what of the film itself? Given the liberal outcry over guns that occurs every time there’s a mass shooting, is it hypocritical for liberal culture to create a movie like “The Hunt”? Since I haven’t seen the movie, I’m loath to comment on it. Is it a thriller? A satire? A projected act of vengeance? A movie in which wealthy globalists hunt down desperate nationalists, only to learn that they’ve become the bad guys? Who knows?
What I will say is this: If there’s a key tactical difference, today, between the way that liberal culture works and the way that Trump culture works (I say Trump, rather than “conservative,” because he has now fully branded that side), it’s that the right, for 30 years, has understood the symbiosis of politics and showbiz, and the left, by and large, has not. If you said that Fox News and Breitbart and right-wing talk radio succeed in doing what they do by misrepresenting facts and reality, you’d certainly be correct. Yet something that liberals are too often oblivious to is that the Fox News vision of the world, apart from its factual distortions, turns politics into a Punch-and-Judy gladiatorial thriller, a Celebrity Death Match that never ends. And by transforming politics into a perpetual movie, a kind of dramatic opioid that provides an ongoing vengeful high, it has transformed the right into a dark entertainment cult. That’s part of how they win.
Liberal culture needs to answer that with its own (moral) form of entertainment. That is, with a presidential candidate who can match Donald Trump in sheer charismatic force. But when liberal culture starts turning politics into unreal big-screen spectacle, I would argue that it’s playing the right’s game on the right’s own terms. Looking to win petty battles, by shooting reactionary ducks in a barrel, is how liberalism could lose the war.