I have suggested before that as the hegemonic world power, the U.S. influences the way in which narrative is interpreted. The values it expresses are those of the ruling state. With the U.S. that means the military is the always the engine for high moral purpose.
Alongside this is the increasing scavanging of the lower classes. The corporate culture industry feeds off the lower classes. It does so in a variety of ways. There seems to be no end to the constant stream of “gritty” crime films, all of which seem to announce their own “edginess”. There are cartoon versions such as The Expendables and their are the prestige versions such as the recent Killing Them Softly. One might reasonably ask, has this not always been so? The answer is sort of.
What has changed however is that the deeper layers of meaning are now expressed in an ever more condensed shorthand. James Gandolfini, who became iconic in his portrayl of Tony Soprano, is featured in Killing Them Softly, thereby announcing the theme without the theme really having to be announced. He is a signifier for gangster. The fact that layered over the narrative is a naive economic allegory, only serves to suggest just how internalized are the assumptions at work in this stuff. The underclass itself had no hand in the making of this film. Nobody from the underclass worked on it. That in itself does not disqualify the film from relevence, but it points up the class relationships at the heart of the culture industry.
The military is the other backdrop to everything. All the way back to 1957, C. Wright Mills said that WW2 was the point at which the “merger of the corporate economy and the military bureaucracy came into its present day significance”. In 1961 Eisenhower made his now famous address on the military industrial complex. However, today, though this was true from the start, the military is not just Lockheed Martin or General Dynamics or Boeing…it is not just the death merchants who make bombs and guns. It is also the entertainment industry, the media, think tanks and policy research foundations, and the surveillance industry — it is almost everything, actually.
So, prestige products, those ostensibly having nothing to do with the military, still exert a power over how narrative is read. This is often obvious, but more often is quite subtle, and its very pervasiveness is what allows it to permeate everything of a performative nature. The easiest to identify is to examine how masculinity is defined and expressed. Characters of sexual appeal, men anyway, must colonize and subjugate all around them. Now, in the case of the new liberal scavanging of the underclass, this takes the form of simple violence. It is couched in reactionary cliches about the violence that is at the heart of human nature (“its a jungle out there”). In the Israeli attack on Gaza, I cant count the times I heard white liberals apologize for this barbarity by saying, essentially, ‘its a jungle out there’ –it’s a tough world, etc. Talking tough is the hallmark of the new reactive white masculine crisis. Now, there is something else at work in crime stories that makes a simple analysis dangerously reductive. All narrative contains an identification with transgression. A Lacanian re-telling of our own psychic formation, of our own Oedipul drama. As Lacan said, we know our mothers can only love us as criminals. However, there are qualitative distinctions to be made here. The author of 99% of Hollywood film is not the director, nor the writer, nor the actor, but the corporation.
The culture industry erases individual expression. And perhaps it’s useful to look again at this scavanger relationship to the working class from Hollywood. In the old WW2 propaganda films, one would find, almost always, one guy in the platoon from Brooklyn, another from Texas, or at least the South, and one who was an intellectual…meaning he wore glasses. These were, in comparison to today, very simple codes. Today there is a shift toward the idealization of professionalism. The virtue of not asking questions, or muddying the moral waters by questioning authority, but only to do one’s duty. There is a lot of sentimental hand wringing brought out to show the “cost” of “having” to punish people — the alkie cop, the world weary soldier or cop or CIA agent. The imperitive is not ever questioned, however. I have noted a marked increase in respect for authority coupling to sex appeal. The clean cut young soldier…who may be battle hardened, but always answers yes sir and no sir.
One of the few films to really explore the pathology of this was the much neglected Harsh Times
David Ayer’s film examined the soul sickness of this obedience. The worship of sadism, and racism, and domination that is the heart of institutional violence. Usually, however, the clean cut young soldier or cop is there as sex symbol. This is a shift away from the counter culture heroes of the 60s, 70s, and even 80s. The post Viet Nam noirs….many very good, actually (Cutter’s Way, Who’ll Stop the Rain) may have been partly masculinist self examination, but they retained a tragic impulse at the center of the loss of potency. That has shifted as the embedding of the US Military in the entertainment industry has increased. Lets remember that the Pentagon (and Department of Defense) has given millions of dollars to Newsday, ABC Radio Networks, the National Newspaper Publishers Association, Murdoch’s Newscorp, as well as Reuters, and the Washington Post, New York Times, L.A. Times and the Tribune Company. What is it giving this money for? Well, what do you think?
When Don Rumsfeld attacked the U.S. Media, he was performing a bait and switch — for one of the constant memes out there is that the media is “liberal”. The fact is that the U.S. corporate media is fully in sync with the Pentagon and the U.S. military on everything. This includes film and TV.
So, back to this scavanging of the underclass. The trend toward “authenticity”, toward edginess, is simply branding. The films are corporate and the performances are corporate. Brad Pitt is not drawing upon any personal experience, he is aping behavioral ticks gleaned from previous Hollywood film, and from “research”, probably, done through “meeting” with real life criminals.
The sense of slumming is something I’ve written about before. The Hollywood actor tourism with the under class. The resultant performances are not just imitative, in the crudest sense, but imitations of class bias, of the paternalistic fetishizing of the proletariat. It extends, of course, to the camera. The entire project is mediated by this core class tourism. Everything is looked at as if its in a diorama at the Museum of Natural History. The exhibits of the underclass. Running alongside this is the frisson of percieved danger — itself a fetishized concept, a prejudice about the lower classes. All the old colonial era bigorty is re-branded. If I’m correct about white masculinity feeling ever more threatened, ever more powerless, then it’s easy to see the results in today’s culture industry. Again, mediated by the U.S. Department of Defense. In fact the DoD spends a good deal of money making its image sexy and appealing.
The U.S. DoD owns 711,000 acres outside the United States. It has over 700 bases outside the United States, and in thirty eight countries. Over 230,000 personnel are stationed outside the United States. As Nick Turse says, the U.S. military is the world’s global landlord. This relationship to the rest of humanity is reflected in what is produced by the mediated culture industry. The imperialist project becomes a micro drama even in its scavanger narratives. The default setting is domination….one way or another.
One of more disturbing aspects of these relationships, re-manufactured daily, is that the public….and this is of more relevence when thinking of ‘prestige’ products…now seems to have lost the ability to distinguish or locate the dynamics at work. Its not simple…for often things overlap. A film such as Harsh Times, for all its virtues in capturing something truthful about the sociopathic personality in uniform, also betrays itself in a number of other ways. It cant help but do so. However, the ‘reading’ of these products, of the narratives, has been so truncated that real aesthetic resistance must be re-thought.
Speilberg’s latest bit of revisionist storytelling, Lincoln deserves a mention here. There is a useful review here:
My point is really that aesthetic resistance, radical aesthetic critique, must be able not just to analyse the (rather obvious) reactionary political points in a film like Lincoln, but to see them reflected in the performative poaching of the “lower classes” from Brad Pitt, or in the worship of the military and police in endless TV and film.
The complexities of acting, and its relationship to the master narrative, to class and race and gender is worth a whole seperate discussion. It is linked to aesthetic theory, to ideology, and to, on an even deeper level, the historical role for art.
Clair Danes just won an emmy for a cartoon performance so exaggerated and bizarre that it belongs in a time capsule to be studied by future generations. It is no less camp than poor Lindsay Lohan’s bio-pic turn as Liz Taylor. So what is at work that allows one to be rewarded, to be applauded seriously, and one to be this season’s camp laugh fest? Well, admittedly the bio pic in question was never really intended as more than an ironic giggle, while the other is framed as “drama” — a prestige TV product where Danes is surrounded by ‘prestige’ actors. Yet that is only part of the explanation. There is more at work, and it would require a close reading of these performances to unearth the particulars. My sense, though, is that Danes bi polar CIA operative is a specific white male fantasy. The talented woman, still in need of male rescue.
The constant reinforcement of a white supremicist narrative permeates corporate entertainment. Almost everything is couched in these terms. As the sense of impotence intensifies, the narratives double down on their insistence. It seems important that any analysis of film and TV, and really of any narrative, recognize this — and start to identify the ways in which it occurs in acting, as well as in image. Cultural tourism appears in Ben Affleck visiting war criminals in Africa, accompanied by spook to the stars John Pendergrast … or any UNESCO photo op….
(see Keith Harmon Snow….http://www.consciousbeingalliance.com/2012/08/us-agents-of-covert-war-in-africa/)
or in any liberal paternalistic guide to the rescue of the world’s poor. Especially in that need to bomb them into gratitude. It appears in crap genre TV like Hawaii Five O or in prestige exercises in authenticity like Killing Them Softly. The prestige work, in this latter case, is remarkably well made … and hence even more insidious.
The Pentagon’s holdings are larger than Hungary or North Korea, and it gives out contracts greater than the GNP of Portugal — its fingerprints are on all of this, even down to the most purile reality show. So, its Joey Greco to Brad Pitt, Claire Danes to Ben Affleck — it is MSNBC and it is FOX News. The structural setting is white supremicism, and pro Capitalism. Any chance for artwork to step outside this requires first that it be recognized.