THE ARTIST AS A [CLOSET] PROPAGANDIST
The Rise of America’s own Leni Riefenstahl—Yay!
Dateline: New York, 23 December 2012
I wake up this morning to see (in half disbelief) yet another disgusting trailer for a movie whose images immediately conjure up another ARGO…this time by Kathryn Bigelow who, by all rights, should be getting a special salary from BOTH the Pentagon and the CIA.
Apparently she’s come up with another pretentious flag waving film, ZERO DARK THIRTY. (http://www.zerodarkthirty-movie.com/). Yes, Bigelow’s specialty is to produce effective propaganda in seriously artistic (take note) pastel tones: no coarse, loud or glossy elements on that palette. At the official site we’re told, breathlessly, and a bit reverentially, that, “Zero Dark Thirty reunites the Oscar winning team of director-producer Kathryn Bigelow and writer-producer Mark Boal (THE HURT LOCKER) for the story of “history’s greatest manhunt…A chronicle of the decade-long hunt for al-Qaeda terrorist leader Osama bin Laden after the 9/11 attacks, and his death at the hands of the Navy SEAL…bla bla bla…” Bigelow and her writing-publicist team, good reflections of a narcissistic ingrown subculture that banishes details that might create marketing inconveniences, obviously never heard of Carlos, “the Jackal”. Well, all is permitted in the land of infinite egotistical indulgences in the name of art.
Entr’acte: A Petty Backstory
So far the buzz has been wildly and shamelessly favorable, yet another reflection of the decline of US culture (see below). But hold on. Perversely and uber pettily, as things go in the latter days of the New Rome, in which molecule-sized matters quickly acquire cosmic dimensions when the wrong toes are trampled, for a picture that is unabashedly and mindlessly supportive of imperial criminality, militarism, etc., both sine qua non pillars of ruling class agendas, the opening of the film created a huge tempest in a teapot, as summed up by the Wiki,
Opponents of the Obama Administration charged that Zero Dark Thirty was scheduled for an October release just before the November presidential election, so that it would support the reelection of Barack Obama by reminding the public who gave the command to initiate the raid that killed bin Laden…
The Yahoos may not be entirely pissing downwind. There’s no denying that Obama and the Democrats shamelessly and abhorrently bragged every chance they got about ObL’s assassination, before and during the campaign. That classified info denied other petitioners was wink wink handed over to ZDT’s producers. Petty as this whining may sound to those who realize the whole thing is just one more inconsequential distraction staged by the duopoly, the sociopaths have a point.
As might be expected from the dizzying pseudo diversity of opinion that colors the American establishment, the movie reviews have been almost unanimously flattering. For such people, most of them true believers in the immaculate conception of US foreign policy, historical truth counts for little, even in a film that slyly suggests it’s based on truth but betrays it, and only the exogenous details—intramural gossip, technical factoids, fidelity to the [deceitful] script, etc.— merit attention. It’s an inverted value system in which the most important things are ruled out a priori. This point is mordantly made by my colleague Joe Giambrone, editor of the Political Film Blog, in a separate comment on this film, so I’ll just ask you to go and read it there.). Meantime, the loyal Wiki sums up the situation for us:
early reviews of the film have been positive. Richard Corliss’ review in Time Magazine states “Zero Dark Thirty is a movie, and a damned fine one” calling it “a police procedural on the grand scale” and “blows Argo out of the water.”.
The Hollywood Reporter said of the film, “it could well be the most impressive film Bigelow has made, as well as possibly her most personal.” Variety was respectful but not quite as effusive: “The ultra-professional result may be easier to respect than enjoy, but there’s no denying its power.” The Associated Press reported that early film reviews “revealed that the film features the waterboarding scene while at the same time playing audio of President Barack Obama saying that he does not believe the US should use torture.” One reviewer said the waterboarding scene takes up almost the whole first fifteen minutes of the film. The film currently holds a 100% “Fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
Which means that Zero Dark despite the noise is just pretentious “24” hokum writ large, with the more polished bells and whistles that a major Hollywood production usually affords, but most assuredly not much better in artistic fiber or social effect. Given this distressing and inevitable fact, why cackle so much, you may ask? My reason is spelled out later, but first let me recognize a few unchanging habits of the movie industry.
Old habits die hard
Hollywood and the entire American infotainment apparatus have long produced propaganda artifacts in the guise of legitimate drama. We did it before WW2 and during WW2 and compulsively during the seemingly endless Cold War. The thing to remember here is that each generation of artists and technicians have brought to the fore an ever more cynical, more self-conscious, and far more refined (or pretentious) product. In instructive ways, Hollywood’s latest styles of injecting propaganda mirror the evolution of systemic manipulation in broader terms, especially when it comes to subservience to the goals of American foreign policy.
The “auteur” as propagandist—some early buds
Given its improbable mix of imported geniuses, tough egotistical business types, and local schmaltz, Hollywood has always been part impressionable provincial yokel with a badly disguised inferiority complex, and part proud refuge for sophisticates in the otherwise arid cultural environment of Southern California. To this day the question remains unsettled. Is Hollywood (which now includes most television production and Broadway in a natural symbiosis) an improbable American Mecca for the dramatic arts as some of the native narcissists proclaim? Or is it just a crude courtesan for whom money is the one and only reason for being? The record shows both, of course, with the proportions constantly shifting from epoch to epoch and even production to production.
Those in any case are the admitted lines in the bioblurb. But the resume would be incomplete without the most insidious role, that of partially unwitting salesman for the system’s crimes. I say partially unwitting because Hollywood, as a place where creativity and big money intersect, has a fairly large population of people who eagerly deceive themselves in thinking that their work, mediated by forces they barely understand, is above and outside anything as sordid as shilling for a particular political agenda. Such conceits received a huge infusion of validity with the rise of “auteur” theories among French intellectuals in the late 1960s. Many of the nouvelle vague directors—Truffaut, Godard, Rohmer, Chabrol, Varda, etc.—wrote, scripted, scored and often art directed and acted in their movies, in a protean manner that had not been seen since the days of Chaplin. Many were also respected critics. The aspiring geniuses in California took due note. By the late 1970s the virus had taken hold and auteurs, US-style, were sprouting all over the place.
Art equals truth, or so they say.
Among the first to answer the call were members of Hollywood’s openly right-wing tribe. Macho fantasists like Michael Cimino (The Deer Hunter), John Milius (Red Dawn), and others of lesser stature. These directors saw themselves, in part, as “restitutionists,” artists pursuing a “balance” for what many saw as a Hollywood riddled with liberals and reds, a nest of subversives. The right and the establishment (the latter only a more camouflaged version of the right) have long feared the power of movies to distribute messages inimical to the status quo. As film historian Steven J. Ross has noted,
“Political Hollywood started much earlier than most people realize. In 1918, FBI leaders William J. Burns and J. Edgar Hoover were so worried about the power of movie stars to affect the political consciousness of a nation that they ordered secret agents to maintain close surveillance over suspected Hollywood radicals. Four years later, Bureau agents confirmed their worst fears. “Numerous movie stars,” they reported, were taking “an active part in the Red movement in this country” and were hatching a plan to circulate “Communist propaganda … via the movies.”
Hollywood produced a fair share of films in the 1940s and 50s that could only be cataloged as thinly veiled examples of anti-communist propaganda (this was in addition to the US federal government, which had also produced “instructional” films carrying the same message.). Really the only wildly popular anti-communist film ever made (Ninotchka, 1939) justly became a classic, but the vast majority were crude artifacts designed to reinforce antileft paranoias that quickly sank from view. I Was a Communist for the FBI, I Married a Communist, The Woman on Pier 13, and many others now mercifully forgotten would be seen as an embarrassment by the rightwing auteurs working 30 years later.
Consistent with his huge ego and honoring the jingo tradition, Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter (1978) was a bloated, dishonest vehicle crammed with good actors (a damn shame, don’t these people ever ponder what they are lending their talents to?) unwittingly bolstering a huge lie. It made oodles of money. One of its highlights was an apocryphal and brutal “Russian roulette” game in which American prisoners (a zonked out Christopher Walken made a lasting mark with that role) were forced to participate in, to the consequent horror of US audiences, even if, as a rule, as far as Indochina was concerned, the savage horrors were almost uniformly visited on the locals. No Western journalist ever found a trace of such game, even among those most disposed to falsify things in the service of our national mission, but the damage was done. Efficient as a propaganda, the Deer Hunter was nonetheless old school, coarse in its manipulation techniques (“naturalistic”) compared to the simultaneously more refined (“casual propaganda”) and cgi-loaded approach employed in current pictures, a method in which Kathryn Bigelow, our own Riefenstahl, excels.
The auteur in search of big themes
Despite Cimino’s controversial outing (in those days some mainstream critics used to denounce what they perceived as blatant propaganda), the Vietnam war also elicited a few remarkable films, including some that fully qualify as classics. Coppola’s Apocalypse Now remains a tour de force, despite its self-indulgence and multitude of embellishments, and Hal Ashby’s Coming Home still resonates with its poetic truth and memorable performances by Jane Fonda, Jon Voight and Bruce Dern, a true mirror to the conflicted age it chronicled. So did Oliver Stone’s brilliant Born on the Fourth of July, Viet-vet turned-war-resister Ron Kovic’s biopic, again with magisterial performances by Tom Cruise and Willem DaFoe; as well as Stone’s Platoon, and Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket—all fine tales of innocence lost and moral vision regained at great personal cost. That some of the leads, notably Jon Voight and Tom Cruise were airheads, and the former has become a card-carrying rightwing evangelizing lunatic does not detract from such work, although it’s a sad commentary on the malleability of actors. So yes, while Hollywood culture always packed a fairly sizable contingent of rightwing jerks and opportunists (the Rambo saga and Red Dawn mined the perennial anticommie chauvinist lode at the more visceral level, etc.) the 1970s, at least, presented the public with more balanced and truer visions of our militarism and its horrid consequences around the globe.
Then by the 1980s everything changed. Ronald Reagan, the man who best impersonated the Dorian Grey character of American foreign policy until Obama arrived on the scene, ascended to the throne, and the propaganda levels, primed at the very top by a superior snake oil salesman, went from stream to torrent. With imperial meddling again on the rise, Hollywood wasted no time in rolling out suitable product.
Readers who pay attention to such things may recall the infamous Top Gun (1986), manufactured by Tony Scott, Ridley’s brother (both then already artistically in free fall), a film which could be fairly described as a thinly veiled recruitment poster for naval aviators, and the military in general. Unsurprisingly, Top Gun was produced by one of the most abject and mercenary teams in Hollywood history, that of the late, hyper self-indulgent Don Simpson (a man of outsize appetites even by the permissive industry standards, and a heavy drug user and partier; a 1998 book by journalist Charles Fleming reported that Simpson’s prescription drug expenses were over $60,000 a month at the time of his death), and the notoriously slimy Jerry Bruckheimer, who continues to turn out toxic and escapist material to this day. This is the man responsible for much of the “militaro-policiac” fungus currently infecting television in the form of endlessly transmuting CSI strains, all differing only in location and cast but sharing the same squalid plot architecture: CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, CSI: Miami, CSI: NY, Without a Trace, Cold Case, and so on. It’s tediously repetitious but also enormously profitable. Putrid meat attracts maggots, and in a rotting society artistic bankruptcy assures success. Top Gun, upon a modest $15 million investment would go on to return more than $350 million in box office gold, and the cash register is still clinking. This is the kind of hit that makes men like Bruckheimer believe they are gods. Top Gun was not alone, of course, the Reagan Dark Ages also gave us other films to release our minds from the “Vietnam Syndrome.” A previous film, the slightly less insidious An Officer and a Gentleman (1982) had already efficiently transformed the old Cinderella story into a Pentagon fable. And it would get worse.
By the turn of the century, with the Empire now again aggressively on the march across the globe in the wake of the USSR’s implosion, Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down (2001), produced —you guessed it!—by Jerry Bruckheimer (who obviously has some very good chums in his Pentagon closet), was also an apologetic flagwaver, albeit one that showed the impressionable kids that people could actually get killed while massacring the barefoot dark savages. Against such truculent backdrop, The Bridges at Toko Ri—based on the Michener book—looks now like a model of coy self-restraint.
In any case, since the turn of the century, as the crimes and audacity of the empire have grown larger, so have the audacity and proficiency of the filmmakers (and media mills) in presenting such dubious enterprises as above reproach. And this is precisely where the likes of Ms. Bigelow enter the picture, so to speak.
Ms. Bigelow’s sin
History repeats itself but rarely in exactly the same manner. And since technology has advanced practically without interruption, doing propaganda for a criminal, smug, meddling superpower in the 21st century acquires a different, much more horrendous dimension than in earlier decades. The stakes are far higher now. There is no countervailing USSR. The polar caps are melting. The UN is in the pocket of the NATO alliance and its accomplices, or neutralized at best, and the party duopoly’s differences, always more fantasy than fact, have finally become almost impossible to discern. The unraveling of American democracy is well-nigh complete. The plutocracy and its minions rule. In this context, cheerleading for the empire is particularly odious, unworthy if not revolting to any true artist. This much should be fairly obvious to even a moderately well informed person but apparently in Hollywood, where reality is made to order, it’s not. In short order, a whole cadre of Hollywood filmmakers have come to the fore to excel in this sordid niche. Few would dispute that Kathryn Bigelow —the former Mrs. James Cameron—practically leads the parade.
Using empathy for our “warriors” as the reason for her fascination with these macho topics, Bigelow’s glorification of our storm troopers and intel “assets” has made her now the “poster girl” for imperial propaganda, our own Riefenstahl. Of course with her ample H-wood connections, strikingly imposing looks, Amazon 5 ft-11 frame, and well-padded bank account, at 61 Bigelow is sitting pretty on top of the world. She has the buffers to laugh us all critics into irrelevancy. But the question lingers: What kind of self-imposed cocoon does such an ultra privileged (and lucky) person inhabit? Who’s keeping Bigelow from seeking the truth? In fact, what kind of cockamamie “research” do these people do when preparing their scripts? Or, perhaps less elegantly, what kind of fuckard is that who fails to comprehend the obvious (after all that has happened) and fails to dig diligently under the rather transparent veneer of smug propaganda that wraps our actions?
Maybe the following can shed some light. My colleague Bill Blum (Rogue Nation) just sent me a copy of his latest book, America’s Deadliest Export: Democracy, which I’m prepping for a review. In his introduction he says:
“The secret to understanding US foreign policy is that there is no secret. Principally, one must come to the realization that the United States strives to dominate the world, for which end it is prepared to use any means necessary. Once one understands that, much of the apparent confusion, contradiction, and ambiguity surrounding Washington’s policies fades away…”
So I must suppose—giving her the benefit of the doubt, which I suspect she scarcely deserves—that Bigelow hasn’t figured that yet. What do you call that, intellectual laziness?
Sadly for the battalions of highly perched bourgeois feminists who want to believe that a world ruled by women would be a better world, Bigelow reminds us that class almost always trumps gender. The two evil Rices—Susan and Condi—Hillary Clinton, Golda Meier, Margaret Thatcher (a mean spirited bastard of remarkable durability), and many other women once in prominent positions demonstrate that they are as likely to act criminally, self-servingly and with deliberate evil intent, or sociopathic disregard for the consequences, as the worst of their male counterparts when in the service of an immoral system. Admittedly, men have a much longer history of violence and criminality, but many women are quick studies. Maybe length of service to evil does not equate with genetic predisposition. In any case, my bet is that Bigelow is not going to see the light any time soon. Why should she? The gilded corridors and accoutrements of American power are far too seductive to give up over something as trivial as principle.
Needless to say, don’t let Bigelow and her ilk have the last laugh. Don’t give in to curiosity. Keep you distance from this film. Political obtuseness, artistic vanity, or worse—witting complicity with the forces that are bringing this poor world to a tragic end—are not to be rewarded.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Patrice Greanville is founding editor of The Greanville Post. This article was transcribed by Sean Lenihan, to whom we extend our thanks.
SUGGESTED LINK: Zero Snuff Thirty, by Joe Giambrone