Where They Have Holes In Their Souls
We bask in a certain reflected glory from the newspapers we read. To “take” The Times is to be far more intellectual, far more highbrow, than someone who takes the Mail. To read the Mail is to be far more responsible than someone who gawks in the Mirror. A Guardian reader is highbrow with a human face: intellectual, aware, like other “broadsheet” readers, but with a much greater commitment to making the world a better, fairer place. Independent readers share the same commitment, perhaps a little less earnestly.
Because we locate some of our identity in what we read — some sense of who we are as intelligent, caring people — we may react with rage when the newspapers we take are criticised. To suggest that “my” newspaper is biased and superficial can seem to imply the same of “me” and “my” beliefs about the world.
A similar glow of pride reflects on us from cinema screens. How we love to declare our appreciation for the latest thoughtful, sensitive, challenging movie. Again, we may reinforce a sense of ourselves as smart and caring from the films we watch. Of course we don’t like the gung-ho rubbish, but we do believe there is a certain satisfying stream of liberal, even leftist, movies challenging power: think George Clooney, Oliver Stone, Tim Robbins, and a few others. Matthew Alford, author of Reel Power: Hollywood Cinema and American Supremacy (Pluto Books, 2010) does not agree.
In his book, Alford sets the charges for a controlled demolition of the myth that there is any kind of serious challenge to US foreign policy coming out of Hollywood. By the end of the book, not just Stallone, not just Schwarzenegger and Willis, but the entire edifice of liberal credibility has collapsed into its own footprint. Alford writes:
One of the recurrent themes of the body of films in Reel Power is that even many of the most politically sophisticated of them assume the essential benevolence of US foreign policy, even when they express tactical concerns over using force. To suggest that foreign policy is the result of deeper, more unseemly economic and political interests is virtually unsayable.
Over the last couple of weeks we have been e-chatting with Alford about his book.
David Edwards (DE): Life was awful in the old days — cinema-goers were subjected to propaganda masquerading as entertainment. We all know how German filmmakers boosted Hitler’s fortunes in the 1930s and 1940s. And between 1948 and 1954, Hollywood made more than forty anti-communist films with titles like I Married A Communist and I Was A Communist For The FBI. Happily, today, we can all go to the cinema relaxed in the knowledge that we are watching completely open, independent, uncompromised versions of the world. We’re not propagandised to believe anything in particular — it‘s just entertainment. That’s right, isn’t it?
Matthew Alford (MA): It’s curious that we can easily accept there was propaganda in the distant past, under dictatorships and during former wars, but we shy away from the idea that there are parallels with our own modern societies. Still, these days — and especially prevalent since the 1980s — there is a sizable body of national security cinema that glorifies US power systems and the use of extreme force against official enemies across the world. Imbued with a blinkered sense of fear and American victim-hood, products like Rules of Engagement, Amerika, and 24 are frequently not ‘just’, even if they are, ‘entertainment’. More liberal products like Hotel Rwanda, Charlie Wilson’s War and Munich are more subtle but at least as dangerous, as the book details.
DE: So why, in our time, +do+ the big corporate studios consistently make films that glorify the US war machine? Many people may find this counter-intuitive, thinking, ‘Well, a movie studio just wants to make movies that are popular with huge numbers of people — they couldn’t care less about the politics of the message’. Can you succinctly spell out for our readers why a US corporate movie system would produce such a biased, pro-military result?
MA: Corporate Hollywood has no imperative to tell the truth or act responsibly, except to the extent audiences can compel it to do so. The six major studios that control the industry “breeds a kind of person who is invested completely in power and money, and human considerations and concerns are secondary”, as producer Jon Avnet put it. Or, as Julia Phillips, author of the industry classic You’ll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again, remarked: “Hollywood is a place that attracts people with massive holes in their souls.”
In such an environment, it becomes very easy in cinema to demonise official enemies, dismiss indigenous populations, make heroes of the US military/government, and tidy up the world with a spectacular series of nice explosions and shootings. This is especially the case when the national security apparatus is involved in productions, making it impossible to step out of the ideological madhouse, even for those who are uncomfortable in their straitjackets. The Pentagon and CIA routinely offer advice, people and equipment to production sets and, in exchange, film-makers are obliged to toe their line.
So, for instance, the Pentagon provided Black Hawk Down with eight helicopters and 100 soldiers. The film rewrites a controversial history of US intervention in Somalia, providing a depiction of American suffering and innocence that is extreme even by Hollywood standards, juxtaposed with an evil or otherwise worthless enemy population. One of the specific changes the Pentagon requested was the identity of one of the US soldiers because in real life he had been sentenced to fifteen years in jail for statutory rape. Not good PR.
DE: In your book you cite Major David Georgi, one of the US Army’s on-set technical advisers, as saying: “If they don’t do what I say, I take my toys and go away.” Terrence Malick’s film, The Thin Red Line, was denied cooperation from the Pentagon because of ‘its depictions of cowardly soldiers, callous leaders and alcohol abuse on the battlefield’.
So the US military subsidises pro-war films, just as advertisers subsidise mainstream newspapers that provide a conducive ‘selling environment’. But there are also direct links between companies making films and companies making weapons. Can you tell us about some of those?
MA: Yes, the parent company of Universal studios is General Electric — one of the biggest multinationals in the world with an appalling environmental record and which at least until the early 1990s was making nuclear weapons for the US government. There are also various people I name in the book who simultaneously sit on the boards of major studios and defence contractors.
Iron Man — absurdly dubbed a ‘pacifist’ picture — thanks the aerospace giant Boeing for its on set assistance in its end credits. Recently, the defence contractor Raytheon showed off their new invention – a motorised robotic suit intended to endow soldiers with superhuman strength – at an event specifically timed to coincide with the DVD release of Iron Man 2. A good reason not to buy pirate DVDs is that you’re helping buy weapons for violent gangs. It’s hard to see why this principle shouldn’t be applied universally.
DE: I loved the quotes from the big stars in your book. Bruce Willis made a public offer at a concert for US troops in Iraq to give a million dollars to anyone who captured Saddam Hussein and allowed him “four seconds” with the Iraqi leader. Willis had to back-peddle when Saddam was actually captured! When Arnold Schwarzenegger visited Ramstein Air Force Base in Germany in 2004, he told US troops: “Do you know how they translate ‘Ramstein’ in the English language? It means ‘We’re gonna kick some ass’.” Have you get any more gems like these?
MA: I enjoyed Arnie’s other comment, when he inspired US troops in Iraq with a rousing “You are the real Terminators!” Criticising the military is meant to be this great taboo but here’s the Governor of California comparing them with time-travelling killer robots.
DE: So the corporate giants have deep ties to the arms industry, are subsidised by the Pentagon, and are ideologically aligned with a similarly soulless US war machine. But still dissent +does+ get through. I recently (a bit late!) saw the film Avatar by James Cameron. It clearly is intended as bitter criticism, not just of the genocide perpetrated by European colonists on the indigenous peoples of America, but also of the war in Iraq. One of the few things I felt was missing from your book was this comment by the hero in the film, Jake Sully, a former US Marine. He says:
“This is how it’s done. When people are sitting on shit that you want, you make ‘em your enemy. Then you’re justified in taking it.”
To me, that was James Cameron using his power, success and celebrity to get away with summing up the Iraq war, because that‘s exactly what happened. Aren’t people like Cameron forced to play the industry like a piano — saying one thing in public, for example, “I am very pro-America. I’m pro-military”, as Cameron did — and then sneaking in what they really believe in disguised form? Can you discuss any other examples of that?
MA: The starkest case is Starship Troopers, where maverick director Paul Verhoeven deliberately made a Chomskyian critique of US empire whilst selling it as a dumb-ass shoot ‘em up.
In the case of Avatar, we’re really talking about a cosmetic form of dissent. Rupert Murdoch, the notoriously right wing ultimate owner of Avatar, reportedly ignored the film’s politics and focused on the utility of its 3D technology for football matches. I wonder if he would have felt differently had Cameron taken the film’s philosophy to its logical conclusion. One ending I heard proposed would have had the US military personnel uniting and turning on their own masters in a show of peaceful resistance to tyranny. How about that as a political statement, drawing on Spartacus and V for Vendetta, with an Iraq War twist? No way.
So what did we see instead? A deus ex machina — the wildlife suddenly join the Na’vi’s fight against the invading Marines. Now, in my professional role I don’t usually judge movies on their artistry but, I mean, isn’t this the kind of story twist that we ALL wrote at school when we were 6 years old? Maybe the final scene should have been Jake waking up and it was all just a dream… or was it?
DE: Yes, and it was appalling that it was a former Marine who saved the day.
MA: Well, if there’s got to be a hero I don’t think it should always be Buddha armed with a joss stick. But yeah, Avatar wasn’t exactly the great triumph of imagination it was billed to be.
DE: What are the latest examples of national security cinema?
MA: Two of the most breathtaking cases in this half of 2010 are Unthinkable — Samuel L. Jackson endorsing the very extremes of torture, and Red Dawn — China invading the United States. The mind boggles.
DE: How has Reel Power been received?
MA: It only went on sale worldwide in October but we’re getting excellent responses so far. Liberal commentators have seemed less able to understand the point that Reel Power advocates creative (and, by extension, political) freedom, rather than advocating one system of beliefs over another.
DE: What are your plans now?
MA: A sequel to Reel Power is on the cards. I also recently unearthed a ‘lost’ autopsy report that said Hollywood screenwriter Gary Devore was murdered — not the victim of a bizarre traffic accident, as the authorities spun it. As part of a small team working in L.A, I am putting together a documentary, novel and screenplay about Gary’s disappearance and death. Did Devore discover too much about CIA black ops/ drug running? If anyone wants to invest in this multi-faceted project we are open to offers.
DE: Many thanks for taking the time to answer our questions about your book. Very best of luck with those projects.
The author can be contacted directly here.
A short-list of Alford’s on-line work.