By Patrice Greanville. Republished from The Greanville Post.
THE ARTIST AS A [CLOSET] PROPAGANDIST
The Rise of America’s own Leni Riefenstahl
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 subtly flag waving film, ZERO DARK THIRTY. (http://www.zerodarkthirty-movie.com/). Yes, Bigelow’s specialty is to produce effective propaganda in subtle pastel tones: no coarse, loud or glossy elements on her palette. At the official site—or is it a shrine to her supposed artistry?—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 (seemingly they never heard of Carlos, “the Jackal”)…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…”
You get the point.
Although the film is now scheduled to open December 19 and may be postponed till early January 2013, the buzz has been for the most part favorable (see below). But hold on. Perversely, as things go in the latter days of the New Rome, for a picture that is unabashedly and mindlessly supportive of imperial criminality, militarism, etc., both sine qua non pillars of ruling class hegemony, the opening of the film already created a huge tempest in a teapot, as summed up on 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…
There’s no denying that Obama and the Democrats frequently bragged about ObL’s assassination before and during the campaign, so, petty as this whining may sound to some ears, the sociopathic reactionaries—scarcely models of morality— were not entirely imagining things.
As might be expected from the “respectable diversity of critical opinion” that inhabits the American hologram, that bizarre, incestuous, self-referencing Bubble incapable and unwilling to examine its own depressing reality, the movie reviews have been almost unanimously flattering. After all, for such people, most apparently true believers in the immaculate conception of US foreign policy, historical truth counts for little, and only the exogenous details—intramural gossip, technical factoids, fidelity to a deceitful script, etc.— merit attention. 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:
So far, 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″ and “Homeland” 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 rather 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.
Hollywood and the entire infotainment apparatus of this decaying society 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 brought to the fore an ever more cynical, more self-conscious, and more refined (or pretentious) product. In instructive ways, the evolution of systemic propaganda has been mirrored closely by the transformation in the way Hollywood has presented social reality and in particular foreign policy. Honoring the jingo tradition, Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter (1978) was a bloated, dishonest vehicle crammed with good actors (which is a damn shame, don’t these people ever ponder what they are lending their talents to?). 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, except that, as a rule, the savage horrors were almost uniformly visited on the Vietnamese. 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. But the Deer Hunter was old school, coarse in its manipulation techniques (“naturalistic”) compared to the simultaneously more refined and cgi-loaded approach used today. Film propaganda today both in script construction and cinematography is far more cartoonish, as befits a more infantilized age, with many Hollywood decision makers eager to please that artistically-poisonous demographic of juvenile males brought up on violent video games.
Despite Cimino’s controversial outing (in those days even some mainstream critics used to denounce what they perceived as blatant propaganda, something we rarely see these days), the Vietnam war also elicited a few worthwhile films, including some 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 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; Oliver 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, 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 highest levels 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 matters may recall the infamous Top Gun (1986), manufactured by Tony Scott, Ridley’s brother (both then already in free fall artistically), 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 generous 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 material to this day. This is the man responsible for much of the creative “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. Incidentally, as we all know putrid meat attracts maggots, so 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 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 a 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 (from an industry perspective the separation between feature films and tv fare is now almost nonexistent) have come to the fore to excel in this sordid niche, relishing their membership in this dubious club. 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 beautiful looks, Amazon 5 ft-11 frame, and well-padded bank account, at 61 Bigelow is sitting pretty on top of the world. She can laugh us all into irrelevancy till the end of time. 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 those who want to believe that a world ruled by women would be a better world, Bigelow shows that class almost always trumps gender. The two evil Rices—Susan and Condi—Hilary 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. 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. The gilded corridors and accoutrements of American power are far too seductive to give up over something as trivial as principle.
Patrice Greanville is founding editor of The Greanville Post. This article was transcribed by Sean Lenihan, to whom we extend our thanks.