Training Wheels for Consumerism: US Film Culture is “Psychoanalysis in Reverse”

One of the things I’ve noticed over the last decade has been the rise of a certain fan culture and fan perspective that has replaced critical analysis of culture and artworks. It is the valorizing of commercial corporate “entertainment” in a language of cute post gonzo self referential infantilism. It is, usually anyway, the erasing of any analysis of ideology. Art is entertainment and hence, somehow, political analysis is just buzz kill.

Essentially this new progressive critic is more a reviewer, a consumer advocate. Like a restaurant reviewer. There is little that goes beyond a discussion of plot, and rarely, if ever is the context of corporate funding brought up. There is box office, but that is it. Popularity.

Paul Gottinger and Kip Klippenstein wrote (here in Dissident Voice) a corrective to the fawning reviews of Captain Phillips, the latest Tom Hanks’ vehicle.

 Captain Phillips is keen to mention that the Maersk Alabama was carrying some humanitarian aid, but neglects to mention the US’ extensive crimes in the region. For example, the US supported the brutal dictator of Somalia, Siad Barre, until his loss of power in 1991. The US’  “humanitarian” mission, “Operation Restore Hope,” killed 7,000–10,000 Somalis and resulted in a civil war, famine, and political chaos.

In 2001 the US closed al Barakaat, a money transfer company, claiming that it was being used to funnel money to al Qaeda. The organization had no connection to al Qaeda, and thousands of poverty-stricken Somalis depended on the money transferred through al Barakaat from family abroad. Somalia specialist Michel Del Buono stated that the decision to close al Barakaat was “equivalent to killing civilians.”

In Act of Killing, another exercise in white superiority, and one that fails to mention CIA complicity in turning over the names of communists to be executed. After Kennedy’s assassination, the US orchestrated the overthrow of Sukarno. But who cares, right?

Culture is part of a fabric of training and conditioning of the populace, and  it instills values, it normalizes police virtue and military heroism. Studios and networks are vetted by the Pentagon if the military is depicted. So extensive and well entrenched are these factors that hardly anyone notices more.

Eileen Jones, who writes both for the increasingly irrelevant Jacobin (under the stewardship of another opportunistic apologist for fandom, Bhaskar Sunkara) and Alternet (who should know better, I’d have thought) and teaches at Berkeley (the latter fact is cause for a deep breath and dharma practice….but onward) is the quintessential voice of the new proto-hip embrace of reactionary junk. She recently wrote a piece called, “America  Can Make Great Movies, But We Fall on Our Faces When We Try to Make Snobby Art Films.”

Here is the start of paragraph three:

But any marveling over the Escape From Tomorrow ends there. It stinks to high heaven.

Well, nothing like breaking out the ad hominem attack right from the gate. ‘ Stinks to high heaven’ is, presumably, a technical term of some sort.  After a brief description of plot, Jones adds, “It’s textbook art film stuff.”  Ah ha, the real crime is revealed. The film had ambition! Now, the film may or may not have any value. The odds are it has very little, but the problem is; its not a bad film because it is “textbook art film stuff.” What the fuck does that mean? Oh, Jones tells us: “You could literally take scholar David Bordwell’s essay, “The Art Cinema as a Mode of Film Practice,” and use it as a checklist to track every rote, silly thing this film is doing.”  One then can only assume Bordwell is the final arbiter of such things for Ms. Jones. It really doesn’t matter, because Jones continues: ” I spent years in the independent film world, and I know these audiences so well. So eager, so anxious to appear fascinated by this junk! After all, the film was in black-and-white, and it’s playing at an art-house theater, and you gotta respect cinematic artistry!”  Holy cow. Years in the independent film world. Years I tell you.

See, the problem is, such asides, meant to somehow establish cred, are mostly embarrassing, but they also reveal the condescension that lurks behind the populist facade of Eileen Jones, “who knows that audience so well.” What kind of remark is that? Honestly, what can that possibly mean? All people who go to see “art” films (be nice for a definition of some of this stuff) are….what? Cowed and insincere?  I mean such writing is infantile and idiotic. It’s also smug and harbors beneath the attempts at coolness,  a sort of aggression toward the medium itself, the medium Jones is, in theory, an expert on and about which she writes .  Jones continues by quoting herself, and her own book (no, really she does), but which I’m not going to do.

Here is the very next paragraph after the plugging of her own book:

 Look, we’ve got plenty of museum arts already—ballet, opera, painting, ‘legitimate’ theater, classical music. They were hot stuff in their day, but now nobody pays much attention to them except small, devoted bands of connoisseurs. Plus whatever ordinary citizens can be prodded into paying dutiful obeisance to moribund high-culture forms, such as herds of resentful schoolchildren on forced field trips   Is it too much to ask that we keep film off the museum-art list? That we maintain a few really “lively arts” for ourselves—we, the people?

This sort of faux populism masks a rather obvious class enmity. Oh, we the people? The idea that somehow the masses, the working class, are not much interested in ballet or painting (and yeah, painting is so five minutes ago) is a form of elitist patronizing that reveals the spine of this manufactured  ‘hip’ posture.  We the people want our own art form. I mean I honestly hardly know where to begin to explain all that is wrong with this sort of thinking.  One of the obvious problems with writers like Jones is that they just lack much critical acumen. They have no interest in the politics of culture, only in the “entertainment” aspect, as if entertainment were a quality that fell out of the sky and existed in whole form unrelated to Madison Avenue, the US State Department, and the historical formation of class. Jones is interested in consumption, in her own enjoyment, and little else.  Adorno wrote pretty cogently on the Culture Industry, and Benjamin on the origins of photography, and the evolution of film from a seaside amusement novelty to the vast corporate empire of telecoms and multinationals that it is today. And Jonathan Beller has written on the implications of the “attention economy,” and the rise of a new form of labor and the extraction of value from leisure and the occupation of our dream life by the film strip. But none of this gets in the way of Jones’ endlessly simplistic and reductive fan notes.

Now, Jones goes on to discuss, in a sort of abbreviated way, the nature of genre. Her position seems to be that the genius of the Hollywood system (sic) is genre. And, there is truth in this, but not the truth that Jones finds. Most of the hundred years of Hollywood has meant the production of jingoistic reactionary militaristic and misogynist propaganda. The fact that a handful of German Jewish emigres escaped National Socialism and arrived in Los Angeles to make, over the course of maybe seven or eight years, a series of remarkable genre crime films (later dubbed film noir by the Cashiers du Cinema critics) was actually something of an anomaly. The film noirs of Lang, Siodmak, and Wilder, and Preminger and the curiously sui generis offerings of producer Val Lewton, all took place at a particular moment, historically, the result of a confluence of factors, including a good deal of source material from American pulp prose writers such as James Cain, Cornell Woolrich, and David Goodis, all themselves the products of mid century American urban malaise and post war working class angst. The simplistic notion, which Jones promotes,  is that somehow the Capitalist system magically gives birth to a certain savant like ability for studios to churn out great (entertaining) “genre” doesn’t even rise to the level of reductive. She writes,

When popular genre entertainment made a big comeback in the late-’70s and ’80s, it was in an increasingly degraded “kiddie” form courtesy of the rampant success of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg’s Star Wars and Indiana Jones franchises.

Well, it’s true that in 1977 Freidkin directed what he thought would the first of a three part epic when he remade Wages of Fear (Clouzot’s 1953 classic), as Sorcerer. It was released the same month as Star Wars and consequently bombed commercially, ending Freidkin’s dream of the second and third parts. It additionally ended a certain chapter in American film-making. The infantile fantasies of Lucas…which indeed were “kiddie”-like, ushered in several decades of increasingly simple minded and increasingly reactionary cartoon junk. Freidkin was the final chapter, as it turned out, of that arc that began at the end of WW2 with Hawks and Ulmer, Josehp H. Lewis and even Welles. For those directors, even if self conscious about the fact,. were social critics in some fashion, and they made narrative that included the real world of paranoid city streets,  distrust of authority and all institutions, and the atomization of U.S. society. The brief flurry of post Viet Nam noir (Who’ll Stop the Rain, Cutter’s Way, or their precursor in Point Blank) served only as epitaph.

The rise of the comic book vigilante and the super hero, coincided with the rightward shift of US politics. Spielberg was a seamless fit with Reagan and Clinton and Bush (read Curtis White’s essay on Saving Pvt. Ryan). The critical edge of some work ( Schrader’s Blue Collar for example, or Burnett’s USC diploma film Killer of Sheep) was lost in the mass marketed and hyper branded world of “summer blockbuster” franchises. Hollywood became more risk averse as a managerial model for human success entrenched itself. People were treated like portfolios (high risk youth, etc). The Pentagon increasingly vetted scripts, and the world of Phillip Marlow became the world of Dragnet. The knight errant in a quest for truth became just an anal sadistic cop, became Dirty Harry and Hill Street Blues. The entire thrust of ’80s and ’90s cop narratives was to suggest the police had inner lives. The truth, that cops have no inner lives and that is why they become cops, is glossed over in this new adoration of authority .  The high water mark for fascist love of violence and authority is probably Zero Dark Thirty, the Hollywood answer to Triumph of the Will.  To conflate the work of directors like Siodmak with a director like Bigelow, or Spielberg, is to so profoundly erase all critical perspective that the mind goes numb.

Jones is that sort of not-yet-middle-aged professor of film who thinks she has to pander to her rather (I suspect she believes) dumb students. Be hip, be cool, and make fun of the strawman “indi film.” It is easy to find terrible independent film, as it is equally easy to find terrible studio film. Genre is a term in desperate need of re-definition at this point. But such projects (of re-definition) are not simple, and more importantly, there are political questions enclosed within all narrative, and today, perhaps, most especially in film narrative. A film such as Blue Caprice probably manages to reach the Eileen Jones definition of ‘indi’. It is also no doubt one of the best films of the last several years to come out of the U.S. But there are scores of terrific European independent film, and directors such as Audiard, Dumont, and Claire Denis are reinventing old genre forms. And oh, Jones wants to point to American television as some new frontier of exceptionalism, when in fact a half dozen products now on the air to great critical acclaim are just knock offs of European TV series. Most often these days, Danish TV. The impulse to valorize the deeply reactionary and hyper violent Hollywood blockbuster, not to mention the consistently racist Hollywood blockbuster and comedy, is rather stunning in a critic who presents herself as somehow ‘of the people’. Yeah, well, only SOME of the people.  Jones has earlier written a very favorable review of The Lone Ranger, the stunningly tone deaf and egregiously racist Johnny Depp vehicle. Oh, that Eileen Jones is such a contrarian. Kewl.

The new reactionary fan culture of Jacobin and, it seems, Alternet, and the same with Mother Jones and In These Times (where one can get weekly updates and capsule reviews of the new Jenji Kohan “comedy” Orange is the New Black–also, rather obviously racist) seems to have colonized a big chunk of the new left (whatever that is). But it is this posture that has helped pave the way for a resurgent racism in media. Zero Dark Thirty is the new Refeinstahl, Orange is the New Black is, not much differently than Breaking Bad or , well, The Lone Ranger, the new colonial narratives of white superiority. Captain Phillips, the valentine to US commercial shipping and white courage, is only another example.  Jones does not believe culture is implicated in our material existence. its all just entertainment.

Jones ends her piece with this:

There’s a brave little band of directors battling the tide of stupidity in order to Save Our Cinema—this movement to be known hereafter as SOC(K)!—that includes the Coen Brothers, Quentin Tarantino, and Gore Verbinski. There are others, too, of course; but these filmmakers best exemplify a certain tendency toward beautiful craft combined with intense worker-energy and an almost reckless buoyancy in their genre films, the qualities that get rarer and rarer in American films of the 21st century.

These are her exhibits for excellence. All three are deeply DEEPLY reactionary. The Coen brothers have for a decade now, gotten a pass for making oddly tedious films about other earlier films. Tarantino makes childlike films that exist almost narrative free, and soaked in a gratuitous pointless cartoon violence, and Verbinski, well, he made The Lone Ranger.  Now, given that there are a dozen outstanding young directors, some making big budget films (Paul Thomas Anderson), its sort of curious to see three such uninteresting, and more importantly, politically regressive directors listed as the saviors of film. The distrust of ambition, the hostility to “culture” speaks to an impairment of critical faculties, and more, of a class hostility. Jones herself is of little interest, but she serves to introduce the more important question, which is why so much of the left so culturally impaired? Why this fan adoration of politically fascistic film? That one has to explain to people that Captain Phillips is racist feels tedious. It SHOULD be obvious. Tarantino is at heart a fascist. So is Verbinksi. The politics of Orange is the New Black, or Breaking Bad, or Homeland (a series so reactionary, so relentlessly propagandist, pro-Israeli and so shockingly Islamophobic, that one really does wonder that more is not said about it). So is most of Hollywood. It really shouldn’t need to be explained. The tropes of US foreign policy as virtuous, of the FBI as chaste and principle, or the ATF and DEA, and local police departments, coupled to the fantasies of the U.S. policing of the planet, are embedded in mass culture. How many cop dramas discuss the wholesale shootings of unarmed black teenagers?  Also embedded is surveillance. The fact of CCTV is now a given in almost all cop procedurals. I see nothing about invasion of privacy, no films that depict the petty quisling operatives who forced down Bolivian President Morales’ plane, and nothing about the School of the Americas, or of US involvement in support of dictators from Papa and Baby Doc, to Suharto to Mobutu. O The memes of Castro as evil and Chavez as evil, Serbs as evil, Russians as mostly evil; these are touchstones of popular narrative. This is what studio projects largely reinforce. And it is more than just the content. As Ruth Fowler  points out in her critique of 12 Years a Slave.

Steve McQueen’s movie has failed to deserve the praise it’s been showered with. Ultimately, the movie fails to achieve anything apart from turning a problematic book into a problematic movie, a movie which elides difficult and important questions, which is peppered with ellipses (the perspective of black females is, to my mind, un-examined even with Patsey and Eliza’s small but pivotal roles), and ensures that black people will once again be seen on screen as slaves, as maids, as cotton pickers, as victims, as a race of people incapable of articulating their own oppressions, rescued only once they put on a bonnet, learn how to hold a teacup properly. It is only with our generous approval, with gushing reviews, with the pompous declaration by white liberals that the movie we funded, based on a book we half-wrote, published and disseminated, is worthy of an accolade we created, do we white people authenticate the experience of our black brothers and sisters…”

The form is white, and when Fruitvale Station or 12 Years a Slave, or Act of Killing are gushed about by that educated white 20% that Chomsky spoke of years ago in Manufacturing Consent, or when Hollywood distorts the Assange story, the content is often almost irrelevant (though the content of the latter is stunningly dishonest). For everything is filtered through a lens of white patriarchal supremacist ethos. The form subsumes the content. The entire industry is white, male, and reactionary. And Eileen Jones, and the rest of these non-critical voices, apologize for and valorize this crap, in the name of their self branded marketed identity, they are no different than FOX news. The failure to discriminate and to make not the effort to really create a dialogue about how film might operate today as art, is just intellectual laziness and worse, its a form of political cowardice.

Most fans get angry when this is brought up. I suspect Eileen Jones would get angry too. DON’T INTERFERE with my enjoyment. Art is meant to awaken, not to put to sleep. And I am reminded again, of Leo Lowenthal’s comment in the ’40s, that “the culture industry is like psychoanalysis in reverse.”

John Steppling is an original founding member of the Padua Hills Playwrights Festival, a two-time NEA recipient, Rockefeller Fellow in theatre, and PEN-West winner for playwrighting. He's had plays produced in LA, NYC, SF, Louisville, and at universities across the US, as well in Warsaw, Lodz, Paris, London and Krakow. He has taught screenwriting and curated the cinematheque for five years at the Polish National Film School in Lodz, Poland. Plays include The Shaper, Dream Coast, Standard of the Breed, The Thrill, Wheel of Fortune, Dogmouth, and Phantom Luck, which won the 2010 LA Award for best play. Film credits include 52 Pick-up (directed by John Frankenheimer, 1985) and Animal Factory (directed by Steve Buscemi, 1999). A collection of his plays was published in 1999 by Sun & Moon Press as Sea of Cortez and Other Plays. He lives with wife Gunnhild Skrodal Steppling; they divide their time between Norway and the high desert of southern California. He is artistic director of the theatre collective Gunfighter Nation. Read other articles by John, or visit John's website.