Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Hollywood Propaganda

New Left Project talks to Matthew Alford, author of “Reel Power: Hollywood Cinema and American Supremacy”, about the myth of liberal Hollywood and the power of entertainment as propaganda.

Criticism of the media (not just the movie industry) is often seen as simply a matter of political perspective - i.e. those on the left criticise the media for being too right and those on the right criticise it for being too left. Whose interests (if any) would you say Hollywood’s politicisation really serves?

Hollywood presents perspectives from both left and right but always within a very narrow spectrum. What are the limits? With regard to films about American power overseas, there is a strong taboo on showing US foreign policy as being driven by corporate/ great power interests or from the perspective of the indigenous population. The default cinematic position is that US violence or its threat of violence (through military intervention, special ops, forceful interrogations, etc) is benign and indeed the best solution to the world’s problems.

Who benefits? Of course - the small network of owners and managers at News Corp, Viacom, Time Warner, Disney, Sony and General Electric/ Vivendi have most to gain. These companies are ‘the majors’ that dominate the entertainment industry and are plugged into the highest levels of corporate capitalism, including the arms trade. The national security apparatus, particularly the CIA and the Pentagon, also quietly assists on scores of films and TV shows to ensure that scripts function for their recruitment and PR purposes.

What do you think the difference is between the entertainment media and, for example, the news media?

In political terms, news and entertainment media are quite closely aligned – not surprising, since they are owned by the same bunch of billionaires/ millionaires.

If a news studio had the politics of Hollywood, what would it be like? ‘Hollywood News, Inc’ would be constantly pumping out stories that hype the threat to the US, particularly to its heroic military/ security apparatus. It would editorialise for the use of force – unilateral and illegal where necessary – to solve these problems. There may be dissenting voices on Hollywood News, Inc but they would have a brief slot in the small hours and the star anchormen would routinely deride or just ignore their views.

Sounds a bit like Fox News

Yes, and Rupert Murdoch has long been regarded as the most powerful man in both entertainment – not just in news. He announced his intentions in 1987 by temporarily replacing the famous Hollywood sign with the word ‘FOX’.

I imagine the main difference with Fox News would be that hourly news bulletins on Hollywood News, Inc would be announced to the theme tune from The A-Team.

For a lot of people, if you point out the potential propaganda aspect to a particular film narrative, they will tend to look at you as if you are a kill-joy and say something like “well, it’s just a story”. How much do you think entertainment effects our view of global politics and our perception of the world around us?

The CIA, the Pentagon, the FBI and successive White House administrations have explicitly acknowledged the tremendous propaganda value of Hollywood. There is a debate about the precise extent of the impacts amongst communications analysts but there is widespread agreement that is highly significant in managing perceptions of both domestic and international populations.

Nothing is ‘just a story’ – films are part of a socialisation process, just as we read Fairy Tales in part to help children make sense of the world. Of course, if someone asks you what article you’re reading in newspaper, it would be rather truculent to reply ‘It’s a propaganda piece consistent with establishment interests’. It would be more worthwhile though if you investigated the content of that article, identified its sources and what it omits, how it fits in with other material in the same newspaper, and so on. It’s the same with Hollywood – it does not suit corporate owners when audiences recognise the obscenity or the idiocy of the political messages they provide but this is best exposed systematically.

Jean Baudrillard once noted that the US effectively re-wrote the history of the Vietnam War by exporting Vietnam genre films around the world. Do you think we’re seeing the same thing with the invasion of Iraq and the “war on terror”?

The Bush administration’s approach to Iraq was so unpopular that Hollywood has mostly shied away from the dumbest forms of jingoism, with some exceptions like the Pentagon-endorsed TV movie Saving Jessica Lynch. Most typical is the narrative that sees soldiers fighting honourably but developing psychological problems, which was perfected by Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker). Western servicemen and women are therefore rendered the most significant victims, whilst the real casualty figures in Iraq suggest the suffering is spread much more widely.

The US first declared a ‘War on Terror’ in 1985. Hollywood has stuck closely to Washington’s line ever since, including the trend for Islamist villains in the mid-1990s (True Lies, Executive Decision), as the ‘clash of civilisations’ theory was gaining traction. More recently, we have had movies like Munich, Back Hawk Down and The Kingdom that support the notion of Western benevolence in the quest to stamp out Islamic terrorism.

With regard to 9/11 itself, no major studio has thought to question the government’s narrative despite the incredible popularity of alternate takes on that day’s events. The Pentagon and the White House warmly embraced United 93 and a string of other similar films.

Are there exceptions?

There are a few, but look what happens to them… Genuinely critical films such as John Cusack’s War, Inc and Brian de Palma’s Redacted opened in just a few dozen cinemas in New York and L.A. Disney told its subsidiary Miramax to ditch Fahrenheit 9/11, which led to Miramax’s bosses leaving to create a new company. CBS, NBC and ABC all refused to advertise Michael Moore’s DVD in between news programming. The pattern is familiar.

Hollywood output in the 1980s seemed very much defined by militaristic, hyper-kinetic action films. Films like Cobra, Rambo III, Top Gun, Death Wish (and dozens of others) all seem quite transparent in imbuing a sort of militaristic Reaganite ethos. Do you agree with people like Ben Dickenson who have argued that the twenty first century has seen the emergence of a “new radical Hollywood left”?

Hollywood’s reputation as being left wing or subversive, at least on issues of foreign policy, is laughable. Even the ultra-conservative David Horowitz, who campaigns against leftists in Hollywood, admits that 98% of people in his town have ‘inch deep’ politics at most.

In fact, there were more MPs in the House of Commons who voted against the War against Iraq than there were celebrities who signed the ‘Artists United to Win without War’ petition. Other controversial conflicts, such as the 1999 NATO campaign against Serbia, which was led by the liberal darling Bill Clinton, did not even elicit a whiff of criticism from Hollywood. Big name activists are vastly more visible than they are significant. They are also often happy to star in films that promote the same abysmal political viewpoints that they purport to oppose, hence the likes of George Clooney and Samuel L. Jackson heroically killing and torturing official enemies in The Peacemaker and Unthinkable.

The 1980s films you mention stand out because the lead characters were so ridiculous. But are more recent big budget productions such as Rules of Engagement, Iron Man, and You Don’t Mess With the Zohan – actually any less reactionary? The era is even back in fashion, too, with films like Sly Stallone’s The Expendables providing the same kind of crudity as its forebears, whilst remakes like Red Dawn and franchises like Rambo suggest that the 1980s has not really gone away.

Matthew Alford has written for the Guardian, New Statesman and BBC radio. His latest book “Reel Power: Hollywood Cinema and American Supremacy” is published by Pluto Books ( ISBN: 9780745329826, 232pp, £13.00).

About this article
Published on 24 August, 2010
By Matthew Alford, James Quinney

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