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Compassionate fascism 

I can't write a review of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. I walked out on it. For all I know, it went on for a few more hours after I left, as it seemed to have every intention of doing. And for all I know, somewhere along the line, maybe it redeemed itself. After all, its quality is undisputed. It's nominated for Oscars: Best Picture and, just to be on the safe side, Best Foreign Film. But after an hour and a half of its relentless pageantry, I'd had enough.

So I can't review it. But I can tell you why I hated what I saw. I think it's a fascist vision, pure and simple. It is an unbridled celebration of the warrior spirit. Its style is lush and seductive; its scale is vast. It is filled with opulent fantasies of omnipotence, stoked by aspirations skyward--fighters soaring through the air and such. It is about spiritual quests, pursuits we New Agers always find very compelling to watch. These quests idealize mystic freedom and end in balletic displays of power, will and domination, with all those presumably thrilling fight scenes. The forces that need to be crushed are defined as evil; they always are.

These are among the time-honored hallmarks of fascist art, and this movie reminds me of nothing so much as the films Leni Riefenstahl starred in, before she became the Official Filmmaker of the Nazi Party, films like The Holy Mountain (1926) or The Blue Light (1932). Typically, Riefenstahl played a spunky, wholesome heroine driven toward an impossible goal--an unconquerable mountain to be climbed, an elusive führer to be worshiped. And the tone was much the same as that of Crouching Tiger: Isn't it cute that a woman can be a warrior? And even more stirringly, isn't it grand that we could all achieve such ecstatic heights? When Riefenstahl made these films, few had heard of Hitler. Decades later, when critics suggested these films had paved the way for Nazism, few doubted it.

We live in a country that has just elected--and I use the word loosely--a leader whose platform of anti-federalism would have done a militia proud. Incapable of articulate speech, this president is George Orwell's worst nightmare, substituting canned platitudes, delivered haltingly, for actual sentences. His rhetoric is that of the so-called "center," but his policies are of the far right, and to split the difference between these positions, he obfuscates wildly, in a manner that history has made all too familiar. His cabinet, as sinister as Dr. Caligari's, mimics multiculturalism while towing an egregious party line at every turn. I don't mean to suggest that fascism lurks among us, a hidden dragon, to be guarded against. I think it is here, starkly visible, triumphant and unquestioned. In that light, the American success of Crouching Tiger is alarming indeed.

We need not deny that the film is "captivating," just as we ought not to doubt the oft-declared "compassion" of this president. Fascism has always had its compassionate side. You can see it in the tear the leader sheds, in tribute to his own pride and courage, just before the dropping of the bomb.

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