Two related questions

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pirateman asks —

"How do you think that the movie industry, based upon the last 8 years of movies, have reacted to the Bush Administration and everything that’s come along with it? I only ask because I feel like there were a bunch of movies in Bush’s first term (3 Kings comes readily to mind) which really talked about or dwelt upon the fact that the country’s leadership was a bit fucked. Do you think that the last 8 years have had an influence? And if so, what?"

destroyerzooey asks —

"The Conservatives have a built-in mechanism of believing that everything The Other Guys say is dirty lies, smear tactics, etc, while meanwhile Their Guys are the ones saying all the worst, most unbelievable shit … [their campaign] has nothing to do with facts or truth or ideas or change. What’s it all about? Is it just about belief? The guys putting up my roof believe that Sarah Palin is aces and that Obama is a lying, deluded sack of shit?"

Show business has an effect on politics and politics has an effect on show business and here are two examples:

If there is one thing Hollywood has learned in the past eight years, its that no one wants to see a current-events drama about the war in Iraq.

I could have told them that — Iraq is too traumatic, too immediate, too troubling to be dealt with in realistic terms. To deal with a current event, Hollywood must find a metaphor. People go to the movies to be entertained, not to be given strong lessons about the current state of affairs. An audience can spot that shit that from a mile away. Look at this poster, fr chrissakes, dripping with concern, with a bunch of actors all looking worried — who would grab a date, gas up the car, drive to the theater and plunk down $25 to see this? Who would need to be told that politically-motivated kidnapping and torture is — gasp — bad? Either you already agree with the movie, in which case you’re going to the theater to pat yourself on the back for your enlightened viewpoint, or else you’re never going to be attracted to the project to begin with. Rendition (which I have not seen) belongs to a class of movies the marketplace has, for better or worse, passed by. To establish an identity in an ever-more pressurized marketplace, movies these days need some kind of strong hook, something that makes it A MOVIE instead of something one could just as well watch on TV. Rendition may have done very well on cable, although I’m told that even the exemplary Recount did little traffic at HBO.

The hits that Hollywood has found in the disaster of the Bush administration (Three Kings dates to 1999, and was not a particularly big hit) connect with an audience by taking the political situation and re-stating it as a metaphor. Revenge of the Sith, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, 300, The Return of the King, Spider-Man 2, Iron Man, The Bourne Identity, The Incredibles, War of the Worlds, Transformers and especially The Dark Knight all address the current political situation in dramatic ways without ever mentioning Osama bin Laden, George Bush or Saddam Hussein. (I would go so far as to say that our current cinematic superhero boom is directly tied to our situation in Iraq.) A movie cannot preach or teach or attempt to convert — it’s a losing battle, the audience can see it coming and will resist. A movie is a dramatic narrative and must engage the audience on a dramatic level. I didn’t mind that 300 was a lurid, bloodthirsty, propagandistic pro-war movie; clearly there was a lot of pent-up anger and frustration about the political situation and the audience embraced it for its cathartic appeal.   But compare the hit-you-over-the-headness of 300 to the subtlety and density of The Dark Knight — both movies address the current situation in strong metaphors, but The Dark Knight offers no easy answers, just an ever-rising sense of urgency and dread. 300 served its audience well and made everyone a lot of money, but The Dark Knight has become a phenomenon, the movie of the year.

(A mentor of mine once said: "When I was young, I thought that good political drama told the audience what to think. When I got a little older I felt that good political drama raised a question. Now I realize that good political drama doesn’t do either thing — good political drama simply presents a situation, fairly and in all its complexity, and the audience asks its own questions.")

destroyerzooey’s question points in the other direction, to the Hollywoodization of our political life. A presidential campaign is upon us, and, as is typical, the world is going to hell in a handbasket and the news is full of headlines regarding who called who what name.

Conservatives keep demanding "Well, why doesn’t Obama tell us his policy ideas?" Guess what: he has been, repeatedly — it just hasn’t been reported. Meanwhile, McCain fills the airwaves with anything but policy ideas and gets to frame the debate. He makes an advertisement that — not even kidding — suggests that his opponent is a child molestor, and the ad gets played, over and over and over, on all the news shows. Even if the showings are bookended by commentators saying it’s an abominable piece of shit, it nevertheless has the intended effect of casting doubt on Obama.

Why does this happen? It happens because the news, for reasons too vast to go into here, is show business. The news is a TV show, just like American Idol and House and Project Runway. We’re deciding who will lead the free world, and that means big ratings for news shows. A news show, just like any other TV show, needs characters and themes and drama and conflict and narrative, or else people will change the channel. An intelligent, passionate politician clearly outlining his plan for universal health care won’t get an audience, but OH MY GOD DID YOU HEAR WHAT SO-AND-SO SAID ABOUT SO-AND-SO?! works every time. Once a narrative is set into motion, the news outfits cling to it, develop it, emphasize it when the news fits and disregard the news when it doesnot. Because it makes for bigger ratings. The Republicans, who have clearly demonstrated over and over that they have no regard for their country and will gladly betray it for the sake of retaining power, are excellent crafters of narrative, which the news people fall over themselves to scoop up and broadcast. (This is the reason why I stopped watching television news.) And so McCain is "the maverick," even though he’s clearly not, and Obama is "the elitist," even though he’s the self-made son of an African goat-herd. The Republicans cannot possibly run on their record because their record has plunged the country into enormous debt and world-wide contempt, and so they must craft a narrative about how Obama sneers at hockey moms and why won’t anyone protect poor little Sarah Palin from that big meanie? Facts don’t matter — the Republicans are quite open about that.  All that matters is the narrative, and as I’ve recently noted, narratives often must avoid historical accuracy — lie, essentially — in order to work.


10 Responses to “Two related questions”
  1. johnnycrulez says:

    It’s weird how resistant people are to messages in their movies. Even when the movie succeeds on every level as a film people will still complain if they think that it has any sort of message to give them. (Wall-E)

  2. quitwriting says:

    This is probably one of the best explanations I’ve seen, ever. We need a M*A*S*H for this generation.

  3. This immediately made me think about war movies in specific. What I think is incredibly telling is that, according to my limited knowledge of movie history (correct me if I’m missing something), there was no great Vietnam War movie until several years after the conflict was officially ended. As far as I’m aware, Apocalypse Now was the first truly significant one and that hit in 1979, four years after Saigon fell. Oliver Stone’s Vietnam movies started off with Platoon in 1986, Kubrick did Full Metal in 1987. Though I don’t actually know how any of these actually did with audiences at the time of their releases, they’ve all been held up as critically loved over the years. And they all came years after the fact. Really seems like direct examinations of our national grief in our fiction just can’t happen until we’re safely removed from it. Don’t get it really, but there it is.

  4. Yeah, definitely had a forehead-smack moment when I remembered Deer Hunter immediately after posting. Still, one year off, ’78 was five years after American withdrawal. Random thoughts: oddly, Coming Home has never been on my radar, never seen it and never had anyone recommend it. And I think MASH found an audience when it did, despite obviously being couched in the context of Vietnam, because of a combination of it being the Korean War, it being genuinely funny, and Altman being Altman.

    Does a movie like Syriana ever have a chance at finding a large audience in theaters? I can’t imagine something like that ever hitting big, even if it didn’t hit right in the midst of the real-life shittiness it deals with. Definitely a movie that fits that definition of good (great) political drama that presents a situation in its full complexity, and prods the crowd to form their own questions.

    • Todd says:

      MASH was an enormous hit, the only really big hit Altman ever had.

      I saw both Coming Home and Deer Hunter several times each in the theaters back when I was 17 and a very serious moviegoer. I remember thinking that Coming Home was an intense drama but I’m guessing it hasn’t aged well.

      I think a movie like Syriana does have a chance in theaters, but I think Syriana itself was a little too something for a mass audience — too complicated, not balanced well, trying to do too many things at once, I’m not sure.

  5. chatoyant_1 says:

    First of all, I’m really enjoying your recent posts that sit outside the Spielberg frame.

    I wanted to add that perhaps as well, something changed in the last decade, and the burden in terms of reflecting on this past decade of war and politics was carried by non-Hollywood film-narrative routes. I’m thinking of the increased presence of documentaries of a certain quality.

    For example, the excellent “Our Brand is Crisis” of 2005 establishes a compelling fly-on-wall narrative, even drama but driven by real events. You don’t need actors when you can observe the day-to-day of James Carvell and a high-powered team of consultants, hired to work on keeping the president of Bolivia in power. Of course this is about Bolivia, and then-President Goni trying to stay in power while an indigenous movement is brewing and Morales is on the way.. and as a film, it does a wonderful job of mirroring the recent American election process, considering how the skillsets there become exported as “spreading democracy globally”, with consultants doing the same magic as we are perhaps seeing with McCain now.

    The consultant’s syntax is all there at work – like detailed media coaching with the candidate, secret focus groups, and emergency ad-making sessions that alter the message to fit the moment.

    Other wars somehow “ended”, there was some kind of final outcome scripted. Film scripts naturally appeared after a certain point. The backers of this new war were never concerned with “endings”, which in a way is problematic for a Hollywood that still requires to get some of that so-called distance. As for “Deerhunter” after Vietnam, I would compare to the situation of after WWII and especially addressing the Holocaust, Hollywood delivered an example of a credible reflection in terms of boht filmic language and story, in “The Pawnbroker”. But that took till the 1960s.

  6. yetra says:

    The first Iraq related film I actually can’t wait to see is going to be The Lucky Ones. But that’s just because it looks to be a lovely character driven road trip buddy film with some amazing actors. I’m curious to see how it does.

    I think we’re living in a situation nowadays (last few decades) where people in general are more drawn to emotion than to rationality. Which is why so many people are distrustful of having someone who is actually really smart be elected into office. As if being smart is a bad thing. And also why, when Democrats try to fight Republican tactics by point out all the facts, and lies and inconsistencies and rational arguments, it sways no one at all, and simple comes off as condescending and petulant and whiny.

    As a rationally minded person, I so wish things weren’t this way, but as a realist, I am SO SO SO happy that Obama is so fucking Charismatic, that he is touching people on an emotional level the way he has been. That is what is going to win this thing, if we win it (oh god please we have to).

    FYI, great book recommendation: How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World: A Short History of Modern Delusions. Fascinating, yet depressing.

  7. mikeyed says:

    Amazing! 😀

    Fucking irrelevant bullshit. Answer the question, sir. Will you or will you not critique The Dark Knight?

  8. To deal with a current event, Hollywood must find a metaphor. . . . The hits that Hollywood has found in the disaster of the Bush administration (Three Kings dates to 1999, and was not a particularly big hit) connect with an audience by taking the political situation and re-stating it as a metaphor.

    This also explains why BATTLESTAR GALACTICA is such a favorite.