(Swans - May 9, 2011) Hollywood cinema exerts an insidious indirect influence over the lives of billions of people worldwide, and the collateral damage resulting from its propagandistic output needs to be challenged. Everyday tales of humanity are dissolved and reconstructed to manufacture the necessary illusions conducive to supporting the holy creed of American capitalism. "We might remember," as Michael Parenti observes, "that the most repressive forms of social control are not always those we consciously rail against, but those that so insinuate themselves into the fabric of our consciousness as to remain unchallenged, having been embraced as part of the nature of things." And Hollywood's endless reels of entertaining fare/propaganda serve this repressive and distracting function more than adequately. Matthew Alford's excellent book, Reel Power: Hollywood Cinema and American Supremacy (Pluto Press, 2010), thus helps pierce the heart of Hollywood's propaganda machinery, undermining the mainstream media's ludicrous portrayal of Hollywood as a hotbed of progressive activism, and explicating how the self-righteous actions of the few liberals and progressives in Hollywood actually "serve the powers that be." (1)
Alford's main focus is on films "that have some claim to being critical of US power" with a budget of above around $30 million -- "from the end of the Cold War (circa 1990) to the present day" -- with the bulk of his text disemboweling five film genres, each scrutinized within stand-alone chapters covering war, comedy, action adventure, science fiction, and political drama. The well-known films dissected by Alford's scathing pen include the likes of Black Hawk Down (2001), You Don't Mess With the Zohan (2008), Collateral Damage (2002), Independence Day (1996), and Rules of Engagement (2000). A further chapter "examines the films which have been championed as Hollywood's most subversive work, and have come in at under the $30 million budget mark," and provides a useful critique of ostensibly progressive films such as Hotel Rwanda (2004) and Home of the Brave (2006). Here it is important to emphasize, as Alford does, that the "way that occasional films frame political events is less important than the general trends." Thus this review will not summarize Alford's entertaining film-by-film explosion of liberal servility in Hollywood's glimmering hills of power. Instead this article will focus on his exposition on the real raw power controlling the dream factory. This is because the most significant trend isolated in Alford's book is "Hollywood's de facto purging of critical content right across the board..." (2)
Of course at present few people would argue that there is an enormous public demand in the United States for reflexive films challenging official narratives of US power; although the demand for such films is certainly greater elsewhere in the world. On the other hand, "there is some public demand for simplistic, unchallenging narratives" and it is important to acknowledge "that it is not always easy within traditional genre constraints to present more interrogative political perspectives." But as Alford makes clear, this does not explain why it is so "extremely difficult for a film to emerge through the Hollywood system that criticises US power at a systematic level..." To understand this phenomenon, one needs to turn to "several less obvious but decisive industrial factors that ensure Hollywood generates considerable sympathy for the status quo and, indeed, frequently glorifies US institutions and their use of political violence." (3) According to Alford, these industrial factors are Concentrated Corporate Ownership, (4) Commercialization, (5) State Support and Infiltration, (6) and Retribution by the Powerful. (7) This framework has its intellectual origins in Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky's Manufacturing Consent and, indeed, Alford has written a thesis and academic articles theorizing a "Hollywood Propaganda Model."
Alford also discusses Other Explanations that shape Hollywood power-friendly output, blowing out of the water oft-repeated nonsensical arguments, like for example "that generic conventions... are not conducive to generating oppositional narratives." As Alford points out, even though there are some reasons why Hollywood discourages genuinely radical output, "all films can find ways -- even if just by making small and simple cuts and adaptations -- to reduce their slavishness to or glorification of established power systems." Likewise, he demonstrates that a demand for "simplistic escapism" does not necessitate "stereotypical fodder"; as "if simplicity is all that is required, films would be able to promote slogans expressing solidarity against government/corporate repression, like 'Freedom to the Workers' and 'No Blood for Oil', but this is not the case, so political factors appear to be decisive."
Needless to say the celebrity "dream factory" is no hotbed of dissent, and low and beyond...
... any tendencies toward social responsibility and political free thought are feeble at best in Hollywood and, in such an atmosphere, the movie industry is liable to fall into reinforcing ideologies that are promoted by official and unofficial mouthpieces of the state. Most notably, influential commentators frequently promote foreign policy narratives that polarise "good" and "evil", with the West as the good guy, or at least "the lesser evil." This has translated well into cinema... (pp.19-20)
But Alford asks: "Aren't we now in a fresh era of celebrity power, far removed from the cliché of the scheming cigar-chomping moguls that dominated the mid twentieth century?" His answer is a resounding no! Reel power rests firmly at the top of the corporate heap. In response to other liberal commentators, such as Ben Dickenson, who suggests that "figures in Hollywood... have embarked upon... a 'tumultuous path' to 'social justice'," Alford is skeptical, saying that, "Such trends have been highly exaggerated." Indeed the gross inflation of the extremely limited and far from challenging dissent that can be dredged together in Hollywood means that even liberal magazines propagate the fictional nightmares of the powerful conservative elites running the show, with the American Prospect somehow alleging that "Hollywood is manifestly leftist." (8) Alford rightly points out though that there is plenty of room for liberals in Hollywood cinema, with movies galore to upset all manner of political partisans. Yet as Alford reminds us:
[E]ven many of the most politically sophisticated [films examined in Reel Power] ... assume the essential benevolence of US foreign policy, even where they express tactical concerns over using force. To suggest that US foreign policy is the result of deeper, more unseemly economic and political interests is virtually unsayable. Negative consequences of warfare are not the result of government policy but rather of "bad apples" or "rogue elements" in the mix. The most reprehensible crimes, such as the US assaults on Indochina and the Middle East, at worst create trauma for the U.S. itself. (p.35)
Portrayals of Hollywood as a left-wing establishment are as illusionary as is the myth that many Hollywood films challenge American supremacy. No one would deny that "there are prominent liberals in Hollywood," but to suggest that their political influence is all pervasive is a long way off the mark. Individuals like Ben Affleck, George Clooney, Sean Penn, and Martin Sheen do form a loose liberal establishment of sorts, but their power fades into insignificance when compared to the Murdochs of this world. In all honesty we could only refer to Hollywood as being a left-wing establishment if we were to also "ignore numerous right-wing stars, censors and industry professionals, the presence of the national security services and -- most importantly -- the industry's business leaders working within a rigid corporate system." (9)
To contextualize the political insignificance of Hollywood's "dissent," Alford invites his readers to imagine what Hollywood would be like if it was a news studio. He writes:
Such a media organisation -- let's call it "Hollywood News, Inc." -- would relentlessly pump out stories ratcheting up the threats to the United States, particularly to its government, military and major cities. It would editorialise for the use of military force -- unilateral and illegal where necessary -- to solve these problems; force would be portrayed as a panacea which has been successful throughout history. In the dead of the night, barely watched -- and with limited distribution -- a ragtag body of actors would read a short dissenting bulletin, which would then be derided or more often ignored by the anchors for the rest of the day. Hollywood News, Inc. would, in short, be just as reactionary as Fox News. (pp.170-1)
One can only imagine that on the domestic front, Hollywood News, Inc. would actively undermine popular efforts to organize people to resist the relentless manufacture of such anti-democratic media porn. As Alford concludes, "political and corporate forces drive a wedge through the relationship between artist and audience -- being concerned with neither art, nor entertainment, nor democracy." This divisive anti-democratic wedge must be removed, if humanity is to be rescued from the "reductive [and] solipsistic" fare being churned out by the motion picture industry. (10)
Films could, and should, undermine stereotypes and promote archetypes -- the former being "narrow, stale and culture-specific, while the latter is 'so true to humankind that it journeys from culture to culture'." Mass entertainment can invigorate human life, providing a menu far beyond the escapism that dominates current film production values; moreover, as Alford points out, "audiences enjoy being challenged -- rather than patronised." Furthermore, as Alford said in a recent interview, "Hollywood isn't really obliged to educate us, but it sure as hell shouldn't miseducate us." (11) Yet the public is unlikely to gain any democratic satisfaction from Hollywood until they organize to challenge the corporate powers that be -- raising aloft the issue of humanity's need for stimulating, not just titillating, entertainment. This is a serious demand, and the vital need for popular mainstream films shorn of the insatiable demands of the military-industrial complex is one that will need to be fought against powerful vested interests on a global scale for many years to come.
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Michael Barker is an independent researcher who currently resides in the UK. In addition to his work for Swans, which can be found in the 2008, 2009, and 2010 archives, his other articles can be accessed at michaeljamesbarker.wordpress.com. Please help fund his work. (back)
1. Michael Parenti, "Foreword," In: Matthew Alford, Reel Power: Hollywood Cinema and American Supremacy (Pluto Press, 2010), p.xiii, p.x. Michael Parenti's own excellent book that examined Hollywood cinema was Make-Believe Media: The Politics of Entertainment (Wadsworth, 1992). (back)
4. "Just six theatrical film studios, known collectively as 'the majors', control the vast majority of the world's movie business from production to distribution: Disney, Columbia/Sony Pictures Entertainment, Paramount Pictures, 20th Century Fox, Warner Brothers and Universal. The majors are owned by multinational 'parent' corporations, respectively the Walt Disney Company, Sony, Viacom Inc., News Corp, Time Warner Inc. and (until 2009) General Electric/Vivendi. Smaller but still significant companies include MGM, United Artists, Lionsgate, as well as Dreamworks SKG, which is named after its billionaire founders Steven Spielberg, Jeff Katzenberg and David Geffen. 'The studios are basically distributors, banks, and owners of intellectual copyrights,' summarises Richard Fox, vice-president of Warner Brothers." Alford, Reel Power, p.4. (back)
5. "Product placement and merchandising deals for toys, clothing, novelisations and soundtracks are attractive to movie-makers because, even if the movie fails, the manufacturer incurs the loss. This is only fair, since the movie is the advertisement. Product placement in motion pictures is valued at $1.2 billion annually and, since the average movie costs $30 million just to market, 15 such deals can be very useful in adding millions to turnover. Indeed, the James Bond movie Die Another Day (2002) made between $120 and $160 million from associated brands for the twenty or so product placements." Alford, Reel Power, p.6. (back)
6. Here Alford considers the influence of the "Pentagon's muscle," the FBI's propaganda campaigns, and the influence of the CIA and US Department of Defense in Hollywood, which "remains relatively significant, judging by what little information is made public." Alford writes: "In 1995, the CIA began pursuing an ostensibly more open policy, setting up its own Hollywood liaison office and 'advising' on several movies (either as a formal organisation or by individual case officers), such as Enemy of the State (1998), Bad Company (2002), The Rogue (forthcoming), Fard Ayn (forthcoming) and -- most significantly for this book's focus on US foreign policy -- Charlie Wilson's War (2007) and The Good Shepherd (2006)." Later he writes, "When interviewed by Tricia Jenkins, the CIA's 2007-08 Hollywood liaison Paul Barry said 'The added value we provide is at a story's inception. We can be a tremendous asset to writers developing characters and storylines.'" Alford, Reel Power, p.10, p.11, p.12, p.14. (back)
7. "In an extensive series of anonymised interviews with industry figures, the magazine Fade In documented the inner business workings of the studios, including widespread allegations of brutish behaviour by numerous executives --often naming names. One screenwriter claims 'Paramount is a mess. I've worked on a number of movies at Paramount, and I believe it comes from the top. [Parent company Viacom Chief Executive Officer Sumner] Redstone likes instability in his executive branch. He doesn't want anyone to feel too secure in their position.' A producer claims that Fox 'hate filmmakers, they hate producers, and they hate directors after the movie is shot... It's common knowledge that [Chief Executive Officer] Tom Rothman hates producers. He's very vocal about it. But they're unbelievable marketers.' A director claims 'Everyone there is operating out of fear. Everyone is scared of the iron fist, whether it's Rupert Murdoch or Peter Chernin or Tom Rothman. So the atmosphere is a negative atmosphere.'" Alford, Reel Power, p.18. (back)
9. Alford, Reel Power, p.169. Of course right-wing media commentators like Michael Medved are not entirely wrong for portraying Hollywood as dominated by liberal ideas. As from the perspective of "traditional conservative and Christian values," the "heavy use of swearwords on screen" may be upsetting, "but of much greater concern should be that US power remains routinely represented in hopelessly blinkered and self-congratulatory terms." (p.174) In the foreword to Reel Power, Michael Parenti expands on this point, acknowledging that "in certain cultural ways, Hollywood actually has been 'subversive', with its sexually explicit scenes, verbal profanity, tolerance of deviant lifestyles (including homosexuality), and its supposed disregard for family values. For reactionaries, such seemingly decadent proclivities are seized upon as proof that the film industry rests in the hands of America's enemies." (p.xii) (back)