Thursday, January 29, 2009

Film Industry in 'Capitalist' Shock

This week's non-union New Statesman takes us back to the heady days of Louis Althusser and 'base-and-superstructure' Marxism, though without using those terms. Robbie Graham and Matthew Alford's article 'The Power Behind the Screen' belongs to a tradition that dates back at least as far as the 1930s and F. D. Klingender and Stuart Legg’s book Money Behind the Screen.

The story goes that because the Hollywood studios are – this emerges early in the piece – capitalist enterprises, they have an obvious interest in maintaining the status quo. This will come as news to few people, and fewer still New Statesman readers – a magazine whose financial situation has of course no effect whatever on its contents, and which remains defiantly independent of party politics.

Still, it is interesting to note that the troother doc Loose Change, here identified as a product of the ‘counterculture’, had trouble finding a mainstream distributor. More interesting still, we learn that Paul Greengrass, when he made United 93, which did get a distributor, was actually following a sinister Neocon agenda that supported ‘Bush’s official 9/11 story’. The authors report that

just one month prior to the release of United 93, 83 per cent of CNN viewers confirmed their belief "that the US government covered up the real events of the 9/11 attacks". With the official narrative under attack, the US government welcomed the release of United 93 with open arms: the film was a faithful audiovisual translation of the 9/11 Commission Report.

I guess we shouldn’t expect any better from the magazine that gave us the ‘kosher conspiracy’. But what really bites is the chronic cinematic illiteracy involved in this kind of thing – which is only a more detailed and tendentious version of what gets published all the time elsewhere. (I’m sure I’ve seen more than one article claiming that – already – films being released in cinemas now reflect the Obama victory.) In this particular case the problem, apart from the implication that Greengrass’s film is covering up for Mossad or whoever really did 9/11, is that the values represented by United 93 – collective action, competence, love of one’s fellow man and the like – are not values one associates with the last administration at all.

Their precis of Munich, which ends on ‘a lingering shot of the World Trade Center, its twin towers standing as monolithic reminders as to "why we fight",’ ‘a corporate-backed endorsement of Israeli policy,’ is even worse – simply put, they have completely misread the film, as well as giving us an international Jewish conspiracy theory to chew on. If anything, that lingering shot of the WTC on the foggy horizon – they don’t look very monolithic – is meant to at least suggest that 9/11 was in some way a result of the failure to resolve Israel/Palestine. No-one could see the film as cheerleading for Mossad, at any rate, and it certainly drew a lot of criticism from pro-Israeli pressure groups – which only goes to demonstrate the perils of trying to get a political ‘read’ off a film based on who paid for it.

More amusingly, Graham and Alford end by telling us what they do like: 'American Psycho, which criticised corporate capitalism; Hotel Rwanda, which highlighted the failings of US foreign policy, and Lord of War, which focused on the arms trade.’ Now, American Psycho is a lovely bit of work, but critique of corporate capitalism, or any kind of capitalism, it is not; far superior to the book, it is nonetheless still your basic businessman-in-his-suit-and-tie demonology. Nothing wrong with that of course, but there’s no need to front that it’s The Hour of the Furnace; Lord of War meanwhile is just a dull movie picking up points for saying that the arms trade is a bad thing, not good like you thought. (That’s two Lee and Herring articles in one paragraph if you’re counting.)

In the end, this kind of article, which, as I say, is a media staple, and not just on the left, rests on the idea that the most salient thing about any film is its politics – but moreover, its politics as elaborated in the synopsis of the film, rather than its texture, as in United 93, or even just in its detail, as in Munich. In the end, this kind of article is bad criticism.


Raw Patrick said...

Getting to the end of the o.g. article I can imagine the authors looking down the wiki list of Lion's Gate films, trying to find a third explicitly political film and before having to settle for the more oblique (to say the least) American Psycho.

HKM said...

other lions gate titles they could have mentioned:

atlas shrugged
the saw franchise
the hostel franchise