Defending Hollywood

On the 7th of November, 2011, in a now-infamous entry on his blog, Frank Miller let loose a startlingly vituperative, borderline psychotic rant on Occupy Wall Street, calling those participating in the most promising political movement in contemporary America “a pack of louts, thieves, and rapists, an unruly mob, fed by Woodstock-era nostalgia and putrid false righteousness,” “clowns” who “can do nothing but harm America.” Choosing not to burden the few fans he still has with any actual thinking, he spewed out a lot of puerile puns- calling OWS a “movement” only in the sense of “bowel movement”- and accusing those protesting of hurling “garbage” that- get this!- would play into Al-Qaeda and their various Evil Islamicist pals’ unceasing attempts to Destroy America.

The absurdity of all this, not least from a writer/artist who used to take a notably anti-corporate line back in his ‘80s heyday, is so crashingly obvious that Miller’s original piece is barely worth commenting on. Where does one start? With the overall meanness, the small-mindedness? The cocaine-fuelled rantiness? The paranoia of a man stuck in 9/12-mode, when it ought to be clear that unregulated corporate capitalism has done more harm to the world in the last 5 years than Al-Qaeda has in the last 10? Best to just shake one’s head and move on, trying to forget the Dave Sim-like mental decline of a man who used to be one of the most important figures in modern comics. Miller deserves nothing more than some vigorous jeers on social media, and he got that, but unfortunately (not for him, for us) he also got novelist Rick Moody writing a piece for The Guardian taking Miller’s rant not as the barking of a lunatic but as a smoking gun, a peek behind the curtains into the politics of the whole of Hollywood and comics both.

Moody’s piece, published on the 24th of November, is titled “Frank Miller and the rise of cryptofascist Hollywood.” What Moody is training his sights on here is the notion that Hollywood, seemingly a provider merely of entertainment, actually peddles propaganda. Feel free to take a moment to let the crashing obviousness of that sink in. After all, it came as something of a shock to Moody to realize this (when he was in his early 30s!) while watching Under Siege, and he still seems to be reeling from it almost 20 years later. “Before Under Siege,” he writes, “I had a tendency to think action films were funny. I had a sort of Brechtian relationship to their awfulness.” Some of you must already be thinking, why even bother engaging with an argument put forth by someone so condescending as to characterize the IQ of an entire genre in one reductive swipe? You’re right, of course, but let’s press on. Like many a person gripped by the force of a revelation, he now seems to find political allegory everywhere. Gladiator, for instance, is an allegory about… wait for it… George W. Bush’s candidacy for president; he concedes that neither Russell Crowe nor Ridley Scott are American citizens (I’d be inclined to double check that, actually; I think it’s a fair guess they have a pretty secure immigration status), but it doesn’t seem to have occurred to him that the film went into production in 1999 , before W. was on the culture’s radar. “Is it possible to think of a film such as Gladiator outside of its political subtext? Are Ridley Scott’s falling petals, which he seems to like so much that he puts them in his films over and over again, anything more than a way to gussy up the triumph of oligarchy, corporate capital and globalization?” Let’s pause a moment to consider this. Consider that in this last interrogative, what is at best a fringe interpretation of the film is blithely assumed to have the status of fact. Consider, too, that this interpretation depends not only on an easy one-to-one relationship between contemporary politics and the narrative, but also on the idea that Gladiator is a celebration of Roman oligarchy and political succession. One would, then, expect the coronation of Commodus fulsomely to be celebrated in the film; in fact, most viewers perceive Commodus as the villain of the piece.

For Moody, a whole series of sweeping generalizations follow, to him seemingly so patently obvious as to hardly require evidence or logic to support them. Most action film stars of the 80s and 90s- and therefore their films- defend “a conservative agenda,” and/or justify vigilantism. Likewise, the more recent superhero adaptations are marked by a “moral framework that is just as simplistic as in action films, if not more so, and the triumph of the social order is just as violent, and just as relentless….” Less enlightened viewers may be distracted by that seductive opiate of the masses, CGI, but once you peel back a layer of spectacle, the politics are glaringly obvious: “Might is right, the global economy will be restored, America is exceptional, homely people deserve political disenfranchisement, and so on.” Thus he returns to Frank Miller: for Moody, the politics of Miller’s online rant are of a piece with the politics of Zack Snyder’s adaptation of 300 (a common interpretation of the film is that the Spartans are Americans and the Persians stand in for the whole horde of contemporary Middle Eastern devils gathered to thwart us; but arguably the film is if anything a classic case of Hollywood’s studied ideological incoherence, such that the film may be read almost as easily with the Spartans as Iraq/Afghanistan and the Persians as Americans- who, after all, invaded who?).  But this film, so truly hysterical in so many ways (homoerotic? homophobic? both?), is taken to be typical, not in any way exceptional. And here’s the rub: it typifies not only all of contemporary Hollywood product, but also all of comic book politics. In his single most odious sentence, Moody writes that “At least comic books themselves are so politically dim-witted, so pie-in-the-sky idealistic as to be hard to take seriously”; this is some small advantage given that movies are so much more insidious. Nowadays, “in the Marvel and DC era of Hollywood,” movies are always either “self-evidently shilling for large corporations (with product placement) or militating for a libertarian and oligarchical status quo (which makes a fine environment for large, multinational corporations).” If you aren’t part of the solution, whatever that may be, Moody thinks you’re part of the problem: “Paying your $12.50, these days, is not unlike doing a line of cocaine and pretending you don’t know about the headless bodies in Juarez.” So, the “hard right, pro-military” politics in Miller’s online rant aren’t only accounted for in his own work, or those of his adapters, but in fact in comics generally and “in the larger project of mainstream Hollywood cinema.” American movies, too, “agree” that “war against a ruthless enemy is good, and military service is good, that killing makes you a man, that capitalism must prevail, that if you would just get a job (preferably a corporate job, for all honest work is corporate) you would quit complaining.” Comic-book adaptations have “so degraded” cinematic art that what was once a “humanist” form now can do little but repeat the platitudes of the 1%. “Whatever mainstream Hollywood is now, Frank Miller is part of it.”

Now, anyone who happens to get some pleasure from Hollywood films is likely to be inclined to be hostile to all or part of Moody’s ravings. In fact, if you either watch studio films or read comics, you are likely, as I do, to find Moody’s rant nearly as cretinous as Miller’s. Neither are especially hard to pick apart, either. One could point out that it’s a bit of a stretch to see Frank Miller as “part of” mainstream Hollywood: there are all sorts of reasons its unlikely that Miller has had a particularly profound influence on contemporary Hollywood politics; the one film he made on his own was a disaster; Robert Rodriguez appears to have abandoned plans for Sin City 2, and no other adaptations of his books seem to be anywhere near the boil.  But ultimately, Moody is after much bigger game than Frank Miller. I won’t spend much time defending comics, except to point out that a condemnation of comic book politics ought to at least address the origins of the superhero in the mythology of the golem that the Jewish creators of almost every major character drew upon, and the fact that like the golem, the superhero traditionally fights for the underdog as much as he does for the status quo. But how does one defend Hollywood, in the context of its politics? Should one, in fact? It is certainly the case that seeing a movie is not in itself a politically effective form of activism, and perhaps in that sense, sure, more comparable to snorting lines of coke than to doing anything to stop drug lords in Juarez killing people. An infinitely more sophisticated version of what I take to be Moody’s point here is taken up by the likes of Jonathan Beller in writing about cinema in terms of the attention economy (grossly simplified: how capitalism colonizes your attention, and thus solicits your tacit quiescence, through media). But as I understand it, that’s more about how cinema circulates as a cultural mode, how movie-watching functions in a broad sense, than it is about the political content of any individual film. When it comes to that, Moody is surely right about SOME films; it doesn’t get much more pro-military than Transformers, a film designed as a shill for at least one corporate entity (Hasbro). However crude his sense of politics is from the get-go, it seems to me that the key question lies in the validity of the generalization.

Certainly, one response to Moody might be the old reactionary, ultra-conservative line about Hollywood liberalism, but any reasoned response is likely to shift from the general to the specific, to question how applicable Moody’s claims actually are. For instance, one might point out that a condemnation of Hollywood politics ought to begin with a recognition of the number of times that the baddies are corporate suits. Of course, as with the gangster film, in such cases a systemic critique can be avoided by depicting EvilCorp as an aberration, a perversion of the capitalist pursuit of wealth by those who ignore the values of community and law and order. The many, many films where the baddie is a politician or military officer similarly show the antagonists as aberrations, but because the case here is complicated by the fact that said baddie is actually a part of the system, there’s at least a bit of room open for a holistic criticism of the establishment. Here and there, too, a blockbuster attacks corporate capitalism or the American government in ways that don’t give orthodox ideology any easy way out, at least if you are willing to grant that Hollywood’s most subversive statements are almost always clothed in at least some layers of allegory and metonymy. Avatar may be racist, but it is also unequivocally critical of corporate and military collusion in economic imperialism. This last summer, Rise of the Planet of the Apes had audiences cheering for the apes to win their liberation from (and revenge against) the humans, basically cheering on the end of civilization. Whether you took it as an allegory of management and workers, or colonizers and colonized, or, most directly, masters and slaves, it was a clearly pro-revolution film. It was also a movie celebrating collective action rather than individual achievement, just as we might say of A Bug’s Life or even the Ocean’s trilogy.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes might be something of an aberration, just as Syriana was in getting audiences to root for a terrorist bombing at its climax. But most Hollywood films, even the blockbusters, don’t have conservative politics as such, nor the leftist inverse: they are purposely incoherent in an attempt to bypass criticism from any quarter, to provide contradictory evidence to fuel a response to any such criticism, and to provide plausible deniability to avoid conflicts around their carefully designed marketing strategies and release patterns. Superhero movies demonstrate this quite well. X-Men: First Class might come down on the side of Charles Xavier’s message of pacifism, tolerance, and peaceful change rather than Eric Lehnsherr’s violent resistance, but it still shows the mutants ruthlessly betrayed by the country they fought to save. The Dark Knight shows a city where a vigilante is needed to protect threats to the status quo, but ultimately rejects not only the surveillance technology Batman uses with no regard for civil rights, but even the idea of vigilantism. Then too, though people like Moody tend to slide from criticizing blockbusters to criticizing all of Hollywood as if those are coterminous, in fact it needs to be remembered that not all Hollywood product fits into that category. As much attention as blockbusters receive, there are still medium and low-budget films released by the majors, and in all kinds of categories, and even now some of them are made as much to garner prestige as to make a killing at the summertime B.O.- and that’s leaving aside the amount of television production the studios engage in.

My response to Moody- looking for individual cases that escape or complicate easy generalizations- is a time-honored one, the one taken by perhaps Hollywood’s most influential defender, Andrew Sarris: to look not at the forest, but at the trees. By insisting that critics look at what differentiates Hollywood films via attention to the individuals who make them (one in particular, of course, the director, but the idea of looking for marks of individuation through the creative worker has broader applicability) rather than the larger narrative and generic patterns (and clichés) that characterize Hollywood cinema as a whole, Sarris and other auteurists managed to shift the whole terrain of film analysis: to paying attention to the fine grain of textual details, and also to subtext, to the notion of looking for what a film “Is Really About” whatever the story (and whatever the overt politics). Whatever debates arise around the idea of looking for a single Creator in a collaborative medium, the salutary impact of auteurism on film studies derives from the fact that they didn’t just claim high-art status for movies in general and Hollywood in particular, they also made a claim for the validity of close, detailed studies of cinematic texts. But if that was a clear gain for all film scholarship, the auteurists opened up whole new realms to explore for students of popular cinema in particular. Auteurism at its birth is nothing if not a high-art way of looking at mass-culture objects, and by looking closely finding a level of artistry equivalent to or more satisfying (because more subtle, more veiled) than the more overt pretensions of the art cinema that announces itself as such. At the same time, critics of auteurism tend to get as caught up in polemics as Sarris himself; however much Sarris courted controversy by defending Hollywood, a sympathetic reading of his key essays (“Notes on the Auteur Theory 1962,” “Towards a Theory of Film History”) reveals much more modest claims than opponents attribute to him. No-one claims that every Hollywood film counts as art in an evaluative sense (as Sarris tended to use the word, however much the very idea of film authorship is caught up in a discursive shift in the use of the term “art” from an evaluative to a descriptive sense), nor that every director is an auteur: the auteur director’s strength is a function of the weaknesses of others, those who do not or cannot reshape and personalize their material.  As a defense of Hollywood, auteurism actually requires a willingness to dismiss most of its products at the same time as it requires a willingness to pay some degree of attention to all its products.

The auteurist demand that Hollywood be taken seriously and studied closely has been influential almost beyond the calculation of it, on journalists prepared to recognize that Hollywood is or at least has been capable of producing art, on academics carving out terrain for teaching and research, on filmmakers hoping to do personally significant work inside the commercial system. Yet in reportage and opinion on popular culture, debates over Hollywood’s capability of producing art are renewed every few years. Sarris and others may have convinced people to at least pretend to appreciate John Ford, Howard Hawks, and Alfred Hitchcock, and influential reviewers like Pauline Kael may have helped to alert moviegoers to the likes of Altman, Coppola, and Scorsese in the 1970s, but since the studios renewed their commitment to the blockbuster in the late 1970s, critics and even scholars have tended to take as jaundiced a view of Hollywood as was ever found pre-Sarris. The auteurists may have convinced people to take classical Hollywood seriously, but that doesn’t necessarily translate to the contemporary period.

Time plays its tricks, for one thing: when people think of classical Hollywood, even the most knowledgeable tend to think of Ford, Hawks, Hitchcock, of Casablanca and The Awful Truth and a handful of other classics that taken together represent only a small percentage of the studios total output from the ‘20s through the ‘50s, for most of which time they put out over 4 times the number of films they do now. Few outside of the most hardcore scholars and buffs grapple with the studios’ run of the mill fare from this period. Even people who know that Hollywood produced an enormous amount of twaddle in the classical period can forget that in the slew of ads for Jack and Jill or New Year’s Eve. To say that Hollywood made more great films in 1939 than in 2009 may be right, but arguably the percentage is not far off, especially once we factor in “independent” films distributed by boutique divisions of the majors.

Others are simply so hostile to the blockbuster trade that they can’t or don’t try to understand what it is such films are trying to do. They cannot differentiate a good action film from a bad one because they apply the wrong criteria (cf. Moody’s comments on the stupidity of action films). It is simply missing the point to require an action film to provide psychologically detailed characters as riven by doubts and insecurities as most of us are, or plausibility, or narrative intricacy. By finding the films wanting on such grounds, commentators, even academics, have been lured into mis-describing the films as if they had no psychological causation or narrative to speak of, when even the weakest examples of the genre provide a stable, character-driven narrative armature so as to generate audience involvement with what transpires onscreen. The action film is not about literary values; when it has them, they are perhaps a bonus. Instead, at its best, action cinema embodies things that Hollywood has always been very good at: spectacularizing narrative and narrativizing spectacle, using a wide range of tools in the medium’s arsenal to create audiovisual symphonies that are as close to a “pure cinema” as anything the avant-garde ever produced (not that there is any such thing as pure cinema; cinema’s impurity as a medium is one of its most enduringly exciting characteristics).  Caught up in their notions of literature as the highest form of art and importing those criteria to cinema, lionizing their version of classical cinema and refusing to approach the contemporary on its own aims, norms, and merits, some not only cannot see what’s still being done successfully in Hollywood films, they wouldn’t admit it if they could (much like those Sarris wrote of who found Hollywood a kind of painted lady, contemptuous of her even as they guiltily succumbed to her charms). More than that, they can’t even comprehend those who would defend it.

The reaction to Tom Shone’s extraordinarily eloquent defense of post-Jaws Hollywood, Blockbuster: Or, How Hollywood Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Summer (one of the best books on American film for a popular audience published in the last few decades), is telling, because some reviewers not only didn’t agree with Shone’s arguments, they wouldn’t grant any legitimacy to him or what he was trying to say. Reviewing it for Film Comment, Adam Nayman summed up: “The message is clear: cinephiles, drop your grudges (and that new book on Abbas Kiarostami), put Back to the Future in your Netflix queue, and let the healing begin. Shone’s success in making a halfway convincing argument for this dire entreaty speaks either to our encroaching apathy in the face of Hollywood’s global dominance or the effectiveness of his own affably insinuating soft-pedal critical approach.”

Now, keep in mind: Shone is not saying all blockbusters are awesome sauce. He’s celebrating the very best films of Spielberg, Zemeckis, Cameron, et. al., and being quite tough on the likes of Roland Emmerich while he’s at it. That Shone is far from uncritical should be considered when you’re pondering just how “dire” his entreaty here is. While Shone is snarky about the art cinema, the either/or fallacy here says at least as much about the reviewer’s own prejudices; people consistently, inexplicably write as if it’s not possible to enjoy The Wind Will Carry Us and Die Hard both. (Does that date me? Maybe I should say, both Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives and Mission: Impossible 4.) Finally, there’s the line about Hollywood’s global dominance. Commerce: this is the crux of the problem. No-one has any trouble compartmentalizing the best films of the classical era from the way studios conducted their business, but without the benefit of time, inundated with current Hollywood and the culture and economics around it, that can be much harder. In fact, perhaps it should be; the business of filmmaking was at least as savage then as now.

Questions of the role of the critic arise: given that Hollywood is a globally hegemonic cinema, what are the responsibilities of the critic? Implicit in Nayman’s review is the idea that the critic should support the underdog, should celebrate cinema outside the corporate-entertainment monoculture, should praise films that do things differently than Hollywood films, all of which seems true and uncontroversial. But for many of the more highbrow critics, it is an extension of this logic to say that the critic should oppose Hollywood hegemony with all their verbal might, and that this means rejecting what Hollywood is in the business of making. Of course our sense of cinema will be impoverished if we only ask one thing of it; does that mean we are obligated to reject that one thing on principle? In an interminably long, pointlessly anecdotal, borderline incoherent review of Blockbuster and two other books on contemporary cinema, Peter Biskind’s Down and Dirty Pictures and Dade Hayes and Jonathan Bing’s Open Wide, David Thomson (an extravagantly overrated critic, and one who has always been hostile to contemporary Hollywood) has this, and only this, to say about Shone’s entire project: having noted that both Blockbuster and Open Wide talk about the economics of the contemporary blockbuster, he writes, “What is striking (and so disturbing) in these books is the uncritical tone of this business history. Hayes and Bing and Shone seem to say that the way things are going is not just natural, but admirable. It’s a business, after all. You feel that these writers are gently trying to prove their suitability for a studio job. But the gelding of film criticism is part of the larger failure to stand up and denounce the wretchedness of what this complacent business is churning out.”

Hayes and Bing are talking purely about economics in their book, and certainly don’t get into whether or not the films are any good; why should they?  But Thomson assumes every piece of honest writing must denounce said films, either oblivious to Shone’s praise of the best of them, certainly unmoved by it, or unable to comprehend that someone sincerely might like some of these sorts of movies. The mere fact of praising any of them is toadying for Thomson (in fact, Shone did leave his job as film critic for The Sunday Times, but to write a novel, not to be a studio exec). It’s hard to imagine a more willfully obtuse, closed-minded, high-handed, self-righteously dismissive response to a contrary position. Like Nayman, Thomson conflates the process and the product; if we are to resist Hollywood as the culturally-hegemonic corporate capitalist beast that it surely is, they seem to say, we must first reject all that comes from it. It is precisely because English-language film critics today are split between studio shills manufacturing blurbs for posters and New York-based pseudo-intellectuals contrarily promoting the latest from Iran and Romania that few, if any, are reliable guides to Hollywood, which, by virtue of its dominance, its sheer ubiquity, would seem to be a fairly urgent area of inquiry, rather than one that can be merely dismissed.

Academics grapple with similar issues in the study of popular cinema. Postmodernism is supposed to have dissolved the boundaries between high and low culture, but there are plenty of corners of the academy, and not only in English departments, that this paradigm shift seems to have bypassed. The idea of taking Hollywood seriously is still out of bounds for a lot of academics, let alone films based on comic books. These people need to read the opening chapter or two of David Bordwell’s Planet Hong Kong, as good as one-stop defense of popular cinema as I know. They should consider that virtually all cinema is made for some sort of marketplace, be it the multiplex or the gallery, such that all of it is made with some economic considerations in mind; and with those come expectations about form and representation. Even once we’ve dispensed with the likes of them, though, the question remains: What stance do we take to Hollywood? What does one stance or another get us?

One illustrious figure in the field once told a colleague of mine that in his department, Hollywood is taught as “the enemy.” As put, that seems inadequate to me. Certainly, the American film industry is as ruthless and amoral an example of capitalistic economic and cultural imperialism as you can find, and those of us who teach it should acknowledge that. Some will stop there, concluding that to go further in appreciating Hollywood films is to help do the industry’s work, to promote the industry either explicitly or implicitly. But my love for the films, and my estimation of what they can and can’t, do and don’t do means I have a deeper investment in Hollywood cinema than would allow me to leave it at that. It simply isn’t the case that the economics of film production directly determine every formal aspect of the films themselves; Althusser’s notion of relative autonomy is important here, the idea that cultural production is relatively autonomous from the economic base. Making films about superheroes may itself be economically determined, but that doesn’t explain the formal achievements of Christopher Nolan in The Dark Knight, or Sam Raimi in Spider-Man 2, or Kenneth Branagh in Thor. It may be a business decision to put a man in tights in front of the camera, but not, or not directly, how to film him. That Hollywood largely supports the economic status quo may be true, but does not exhaust the subject, even if what counts as a political “subversion” is so disguised as to be unintelligible to most viewers, and Hollywood films so caught up in the larger circuits of capital that the idea that one might have a subversive impact is virtually inconceivable.

The problem is, how to reconcile a healthy suspicion of Hollywood as an economic and cultural institution with a keen, open understanding and appreciation of what Hollywood cinema does (and doesn’t do)? But that’s not the only problem. The fact of Hollywood’s global dominance, the extent to which Hollywood is an oligopoly and the extent to which it has colonized people’s idea of what cinema is, is enough to put the study of Hollywood front and center. But when running a film history class, say, how do you adequately explore Hollywood without marginalizing other cinemas? How do you take Hollywood into account without dismissing it but also without perpetuating its hegemony? It’s true that students often have a reflexive resistance to Hollywood, and that does some of the work for you; merely defending even some aspects of Hollywood cinema can upset their expectations more than any Godard you could show them (maybe not more than “Un Chien Andalou,” though; that eyeball shot gets ‘em every time). But I have no answers for any of these questions. I will never be wholly comfortable spending 6 weeks of a 13-week film history survey class on Hollywood, with only one week each on French cinema (the New Wave), German cinema (the ‘20s), Russian cinema (ditto), Japanese cinema (postwar), etc., but I also can’t figure out how to talk about the world’s dominant cinema in less than 6 weeks. For the other questions, I can only rely on this: cinema, even Hollywood cinema, maybe especially Hollywood cinema, is too complex a phenomenon to be reduced to any one of its aspects, including the business of it.

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  • Fierce Pika  On January 17, 2012 at 11:09 pm

    Good post–nothing is more irritating than people who cannot engage with what a film is trying to do, irrespective of its attempt at “art”. There is a corollary: what is sometimes moving and intelligent does not always make for a good movie–it might be better suited to literature.

    Something that intrigues me in what you seem to be setting up is the possibility for an *aesthetic* approach to cinematic political economy–that is, you can use its aesthetics to make an argument about its political economy. Perhaps this is old news, but for those of us not researching cinema this is an intriguing idea.

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