The film and TV world are useful studies because of exactly how they both reflect social reality, and at the same time, create social reality.
But it’s not that simple. Let me just make a few observations, or really, just ask questions.
How do films that cost fifteen million dollars get made? How do films that cost eighty million get made? Is is the same process? How do films that cost one hundred and sixty million get made? How do one million dollar films get made?
When I was last in Los Angeles, I made the rounds of studio’s new micro budget divisions. I found them run by the same morons who run any division at a studio. Same people. Same gold rolexs, same myopic world view, same marketing concerns and same lack of literacy. I found in many ways the same issues were in play if you were making a five million or an eight million dollar film, that were in play for a half million dollar web-isode. The people who run studios do not think of film as a part of culture, or art, they think of it as a business. Period. Marketing prols are in every meeting, and they have, largely, the final say on a lot of stuff.
But the real question I am slowly getting to is, ok, if you have bought the rights to a DC comic book, then sure, a studio might get on board and attach an A list talent (sic) and viola, soon you might have a sixty million dollar film. Of course you have to factor in nepotism hugely here. Hollywood liberals love to pretend its not a deeeply nepotistic culture, but it is. And there are sub mafias of course. The USC film school mafia, the Carnegie Mellon guys, etc. And sub sub mafias. The Barry Diller clones, the people who came up at William Morris or CAA, or worked with so and so. The various gay mafias, the various Beverly Hills High School mafias, and on and on and on. This makes Hollywood no different than any other business culture. Its who you know and that’s that. But the point I am slowly crawling toward here has to do with WHAT gets made and why and how.
Lets take actors. Actors are, by and large, pretty ignorant. Not all by any means, and usually they are, as a class, probably marginally more aware of the world than, say, executives. But still, one measure of the decline of taste would be to look at the guidance an actor like Brando got, or even a Bogart, or Tracey, and the fact that today you have actors….DeNiro for example, who one might think would have a fair degree of autonomy in what he makes, but chooses one bad film after another. I can’t think of a career meltdown quite as pronounced. His doppleganger, Pacino, has faired better. Not a lot better, but better. But the overwhelming evidence suggests these choices are largley unexamined. Does one think Ben Affleck understood exactly why Gone Baby, Gone was compelling in its authenticity? In its capture of the working class mileu of south Boston? His next film as a parody of this, The Town and right up to his recent screamingly racist piece of state dept propaganda, Argo.
Now, this is really getting close to what I want to ask about. The master narrative is a very powerful tool in the reinforcing of the status quo. This is obvious, but often I think it also passes unnoticed. The figure of authority, either military or domestic police, is so unbelievably entrenched that its clearly now a fixture in the subconscious of a large swath of the population in the U.S.
One of the real masterpieces of American film is Charles Burnett’s 1977 diploma film for the USC film school, Killer of Sheep. Burnett, however, was to follow this with studio work of vastly inferior quality. And work that featured the police as protagonists. How and why does this happen?
Speaking of DeNiro, his latest exercise is self immolation was Freelancers with 50 Cent (aka Curtis Jackson).
From Hollywood Reporter puff interview with ‘Fitty Cent’…
The Hollywood Reporter: How you do you pick the projects you take on now, and what in particular sort of appealed to you about this one?
50 Cent: I have a crew of people that actually sit down and read all the screenplays, and when things stick out to them, they send it to me and I get a chance to read them myself. On this project, what was really interesting is I read the entire screenplay and I didn’t know if my character was a good guy or a bad guy. Internally, he’s being pulled in multiple directions by both crews that he was a part of, from his best friends growing up and then Sarcone when he [joins the police force]. And even with his girlfriend, it wasn’t acceptable for her in the early stages [until] he became a police officer, but he did more dirt as a police officer than he did in his original life.
So that was what made the project itself exciting to me. And then when I was able to sell that to [Robert] De Niro first, to get it to him and have him check it out. His agent got him to look at it, and he was interested in the project. Immediately, I told Forest [Whitaker] he was doing it; De Niro was just interested, but when Forest checked it out already having in mind me and De Niro, that made it easier for me to get him on board.
Where I grew up, the police were the enemy. There was no confusion about this. The cops were the enemy, and the justice system something to be avoided at all costs, though usually that proved impossible.
There was no ambivilence. The urban landscape of the U.S. features the police to a degree unimagined in the rest of the world. One should not be surprised then that fictional creations, narratives, will feature cops. If one compares the work of Eddie Bunker, who I knew and worked with, you don’t see the police as in any way ambivilent. There are no noble cops, or redemptive encounters. Bunker’s pov is that of the criminal, of the outsider, of the poor and marginal. Bunker is, however, the exception. The bourgois perspective on narrative structure demands redemption, demands consolidation and a restoration of stability. This must happen on both a material level, and on a psychic level. The outsider needs to be re-incorporated into society, domesticated and obedient, or needs to be either killed, or condemned to exile. The figure of the exile, which I touched on with Adorno in the previous post, looms large in the 20th century unconscious. It links to anti semitism, to totalitarian themes and to that periphery that stands for a dangerous failed state, both of mind and of society. The inside and the outside. The most threatening trope, in a sense, to institutional cultural production, is that of the voluntary exile, a figure that embodies mysteries that exist outside a logic of bourgois understanding.
I think the role of crime is almost inexaustible in narrative, probably forever, but from the industrial revolution onward it’s taken a very specific form. Dostoyevsky, Kafka, Melville, Dickens, and Robert Louis Stevenson, through to Jim Thompson, David Goodis, Chandler and Hammit. In the U.S. the outlaw is part of the foundational myths and one that is, I would argue, more indelible than any other. Iceberg Slim and Donald Goines, Malcolm himself, and Bunker and Malcolm Braley, Genet, film noir and German Expressionsim. The figure of the criminal continues to unintentionally suck the energy of all narrative. Institutional product, if one really steps back a second to examine it, is in the business of domesticating the criminal. There is no more popular figure in studio film that an outsider brought safely to the inside. If I were to, almost randomly, pick a variety of products, films and TV and fiction, I could point to that same reality found in Milton. Satan is where the sexual energy is. Its where LIFE exists. In Dr Zhivago its Tom Courtney’s character, a stand in for Lenin, who is the most sexy (when I was 12 I highly identified with that character). The failure of the Coen Bros mal-adaptation of No Country for Old Men was to mis read the racial colonial sub text of Chigurh. The blue eyed demon of the book became a Spaniard. The petit bourgois sensibility of the Coens unconsciously reacted by attempting to simplfy the implicit critique of McCarthy’s novel. The pathology of gunfighter figurs, Billy the Kid or Wyatt Earp, is neutralized, usually by casting, in studio product. The OK Corral is now the American passion play acted out almost compulsively.
The refusal to accept domestication is probably the biggest sin in the corporate imagination. Stability translates to acceptance of domination. One of the more popular narrative models is that of brothers, one of whom becomes either a cop of priest, and the other a gangster. And at this intersection we arrive at Christianity. Figures such as priests, cops, and gangsters are now iconic, they are signifiers and have no real meaning outside their symbolic purpose. For narratives that feature black and brown, there are an entire sub-set of cliches that are latched onto. Same, today, for Arabs. The role of women is probably even more complex, and worthy of a seperate posting. The acceptable parameters for female protagonists is linked to women creators of this product. In other words Kathryn Bigelow is now an honorary man. Her persona cannot be seperated from the junk she produces. To some degree this is true of black “stars” as well, which sort of leads us back to Ice Cube and 50 Cent. One of the problems in writing about this stuff is that an exhaustive analysis would require a book length entry. For the de-sexualizing of American popular culture is a topic difficult not to include here. The puer aeternus syndrome…and here I would have to disagree to some extent with Jung, for the eternal youth of this designation is now really more a marketing creation than an eternal psychological type. Its not Peter Pan so much as it is the eternal teenager. And it’s not the shadow of the senex, the corrective to Apolonian order, as it is a sub catagory of that symbol of order. The destruction of liberating youth, of sexual intensity and potential for growth is narrowed down to simply the failure to ‘mature’. The definition of maturity in US capitalist world view is obedience. Respect for authority and a limiting of dissent. Dissent equals immaturity.
An interesting exception to this might be Gus Van Sant’s Drugstore Cowboy. Its one of the few films in which the tension between social order and a search for self fulfillment is played out in a narrative of societal oppression. I can think of a half dozen classic noir films that exhibit something of this as well. The German Jewish emigre directors were reflexivly frightened by state power.
So, the question of choosing police state narrative as the default setting for legitimacy seems a genuine one. There is a deep need in a frightened U.S. populace for familiar symbols of order. I often wonder at the obvious fantasy elements in a show like Homeland and whether the audience, in general, really believes them. I suspect they don’t consider this or experience it at this level. They don’t question it. It is the virtual world, the private screen in their psyche were life can be negotiated safely. The paternalism of the state is the backdrop against which various story lines are played out, always with the unspoken assurance that problems will be rectified. So, the projects that are chosen are the ones that cohere to this semblance. The only ambivilence involved will be with superficial plot aspects (per the 50 Cent interview above). The realities of things like racism are simply not thought about, unless in terms of superficial reform.
I was reminded of the master discourse this week when the PR campaign began on Malala, the 14 year old girl shot by Taliban. So the story goes. Its not important if this is true or not, only that it is curious how many great photographs of studio quality seem to exist of this girl. But never mind, she is, as Margaret Kimberley says, a “worthy victim”.
The victims of empire are not worthy. The children killed by domestic police are not worthy, and certainly Arab children are not worthy. So, here are simultaneous narrative currents, one which is produced by the Spectacle, and therefore unquestioned, because it’s truth isn’t the issue. It’s purpose is to provide that comfort zone, that reliable screen for personal viewing. The other is reality. But reality is much messier and begs questions. How much the master narrative influences daily experience is a real question. How and what these mechanisms do is a complex topic. Clearly, though, given the denial exhibited by the U.S. public during this election season its obvious that the effect is pretty severe.
The overt racism of Argo isnt really addressed in reviews, at least that I’ve read, in the same way it’s not questioned with Homeland, or a dozen other films such as The Kingdom. Cognitive dissonance is no longer even dissonant. I’ve written already about the blurring between TV shows and electoral politics. There is such micro-managed stagecraft involved now that things such as the debates are nothing more than corporate PR presentations.
That the corporate institutions of culture now produce very specific storylines and more importantly, perhaps, specific characterizations set against specific backdrops (urban black menace, urban latino menace, gang warfare, drug dealers on every corner, an embattled police force, an omnipotent CIA and DEA fighting an endless war against terror .. meaning against Muslims…)is clear, and so it’s not really any surprise that actors and directors and music celebrities, simply cleve to the established system, and play their uncritical role in this continuing spectacle. Now I only point this out because I feel that cultural awareness is now so infected with celebrity, and with fan worship, that the same blurring we see between politics and TV is seen between critical judgement and fan worship. And if not worship, at least a dilattante taste (oh, I think Keira Knightley still shows promise, etc).
The appropriation of grass roots talent is built into the system, and the final backdrop is always Capitalism. There can be no world without Capital. Making it, means MAKING MONEY. And no matter how reactionary a Jay-Z may be, he gets a pass because he ‘made it’, he is the american dream trope personified.
Exceptions slowly get less visible (Harry Belafonte comes to mind). The work of writers like Iceberg Slim still defies comfort. But today there is a cottage industry for a certain kind of branded outlaw art. The more obvious examples were exposed (JT Leroy, Margaret Seltzer, or Mischa Defonesca) but the posture still seems to be a pretty guaranteed income engine. Everyone from Jerry Stahl to Mary Karr, to David Carr has carved a niche market in an over saturated genre. The fact that Jim Carrol or Burroughs even, still seem profoundly superior mostly has to do with an approach to sales. Again the sheer volume of product makes the entire question of culture up for debate. What is culture for at this point?
Sometimes I think, well, if it’s for sale, it is somehow infected. The fact that commodities reproduce these relations of exploitation cant be denied. The answer isn’t to abandon culture. The answer is to stop paying for it. Every year children of the rich or merely affulent trek to New York to find a career in some form of cultural activity. As curatorial assistants, magazine editorial assistants, or just as artists. They plug into the vast apparatus of cultural reproduction. And they play assigned roles as curators of institutional product.
So when the children of the underclass, in far fewer numbers, look to engage with the societal machine, they do so from another direction. Fewer are chosen. But if chosen even fewer refuse the annointed blessing of the corporate suits. I certainly blame nobody suffering under financial duress. Everyone of us accepts money. There is no such thing as blood money. Its a tautology. All money is blood money. We are all caught.
So what is the future for culture? What part does it play in pedagogy? In social change? How does it intersect with the commodity form? This is maybe one of the central issues I started this blog to talk about.
So, one thing is clear. Unless mass corporate culture is rejected, awareness of what class is, what authority means, what fascism is and racism and gender exploitation….all of it is msytified by the culture industry will remain obscured. The culture industry is there to further societal control and domination. I often think the numbers of bad poems written in workshops across the U.S. The number of bad stories in MFA programs, and the bad student films. The amounts are astronomical. The need for reclaiming something pre-capitalist seems quite clear.
Maria Louise Von Franz:
“Some women want a passive man if they want a man at all; the church wants a tamed man–they are called priests; the university wants a domesticated man–they are called tenure track people; the corporation wants a team player, and so on…. Passivity increases exponentially as the education system turns out “products.”
The desire for the outside runs counter to the comfort zone need created by a system of domination. Of profit. Of war.
“In order to keep the grandeur feeling a child may refuse to remember ugly facts of childhood, may look away from disorganization, abuse, abandonment, lack of protection, and skip over our parents’ indifference, addictions, or dark side.”
That this system has its default setting on a bland generic sadism has created a blinkered narrowed desire for narrative that suggests virtue lies in professionalism, in a detached morality of efficiency. It isn’t really efficient, but it provides that impression. Cops, politicians, and salesmen. These are iconic roles worthy of stories. The very people who have no inner lives. The truth bleeds through, of course, but it’s just as quickly supressed. The puppets of empire refuse to believe in the suffering of tens of millions. I saw a posting on facebook about Bill Clinton. Praising the fact that there were no wars under his Presidency. How can even the most stupified believe this? These lies are the currancy of Empire. The escape valve is exactly what propaganda has always used, demonize the most powerless. Demonize arabs, inner city black youth, barrio youth, undocumented laborers. The pleasures of the culture industry seduce all of us. And I dont think that matters, in the end. I think when we arrive at a place where there is no alternative, then I will start to worry.
A poem from Vallejo: (Bly trans.)
The Black Riders
There are blows in life so violent—I can’t answer!
Blows as if from the hatred of God; as if before them,
the deep waters of everything lived through
were backed up in the soul . . . I can’t answer!
Not many; but they exist . . . They open dark ravines
in the most ferocious face and in the most bull-like back.
Perhaps they are the horses of that heathen Atilla,
or the black riders sent to us by Death.
They are the slips backward made by the Christs of the soul,
away from some holy faith that is sneered at by Events.
These blows that are bloody are the crackling sounds
from some bread that burns at the oven door.
And man . . . poor man! . . . poor man! He swings his eyes, as
when a man behind us calls us by clapping his hands;
Swings his crazy eyes, and everything alive
is backed up, like a pool of guilt, in that glance.
There are blows in life so violent . . . I can’t answer.