There was a fair amount of media chin-scratching last year about a supposed glumness and seriousness creeping into popular movies. The real trend, I think, is not towards the ‘serious’ but towards the reactionary.
For one thing, there’s recently been a spate of popular, lauded films and TV shows re-inflating Islamophobia (again) in a ‘nuanced’ form acceptable to liberals as well as to outright bigots. The much-lauded Argo depicts a heroic CIA rescue of American hostages in Iran. Always handy, being able to demonise Iran. (Modern Iran’s origin is, of course, a long and complex story, and does not present ‘the West’ in a good light… which is why nobody balanced and objective ever mentions it.) The much-lauded Zero Dark Thirty depicts torture as being both effective and morally conscionable, with the only negative consequence in sight being the discomfort of the torturers. It misrepresents ‘enhanced interrogation’ as being a valuable technique leading directly to the location of Osama and, by means of ambivalence and ambiguity (disingenuously used as a defence by the director), it effectively sides with the torturers. To be neutral about torture is to be effectively pro-torture. The enmeshing of the torture within a legalistic framework of neutrality and supposed utilitarianism is both very apt – the quintessential facet of torture as it is practiced by modern democracies is that it is steeped in punctilious legality – and very normalising.
These new liberal/Islamophobic popular movies, which also appeal to the criterati and the awards-boards, have come just as the American empire (and its allies) has beeing stepping up its rhetoric about the evils of Iran in particular, and the possibility of intervening in struggles in the Arab world. Clearly, part and parcel of the imperium’s cultural reactlash to/against the Arab Spring. This isn’t anything new. The previous round of mainstream liberal-inflected movies about the ‘War on Terror’ and Iraq were similarly punctual in their ideological addresses; as with the Vietnam movies of the late-70s and 80s, they served as an ostentatious display of American culture in the throws of ‘painful self-examination’ and ‘angst’ about a military adventure held in increasing public opprobrium. The Hurt Locker was more prompt than The Deer Hunter, but essentially peddled the same assumptions and the same normalising effects.
The buzz lately has been about two big movies from big directors, both tackling the issue of slavery. Spielberg’s Lincoln and Tarantino’s Django Unchained. Lincoln makes the destruction of slavery seem like the accomplishment of old white guys in government offices. It’s not actually that much better than Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. (Okay, that may be an exaggeration.) Lincoln nods in the direction of black soldiers and black resistance, but the essential story being told is the one long since abandoned by most historians: the story of the abolition of slavery being a legal coup handed down from Washington. The reality is that Lincoln’s emancipation proclamation was a recognition of something happening ‘on the ground’ as the slaves of the South rebelled in enormous numbers, stealing themselves from their owners and joining the Union armies. The film depicts Thaddeus Stevens as a radical who needed to rein himself in so that the real work could be done by the moderate compromiser Lincoln. Spielberg and his writer have both spoken of the film as a paen to political compromise. The subtext is one of support for a moderate, compromising liberal president in time of war. It is, in short, an exhortation to give Obama space to win at home and abroad through his moderate use of drones and kill lists, and his compromise with capital (which involves letting capital off the hook while making the American people pay). Django‘s racial politics are also hugely problematic, with the rebellious black man depicted as a one-in-a-million phenomenon, with the dynamics of the story defined by white people, with Django freed by a white man instead of through his own struggle. Django is not really about a black rebellion against racism or slavery. It essentially depicts a white man using a black man as a revenge weapon against other white men. Both movies fall into the same category as Avatar, in that they have been painstakingly crafted to appear ‘on side’ with an oppressed and enslaved ethnic group, while also objectifying them and stripping them of real agency, making their struggle seem like it has been shaped and won by Whitey. Interestingly, Spielberg did exactly the same kind of thing in Schindler’s List. His movie about the Judeocide is not a story of Jewish resistance in the midst of one of the most catastrophic moral failures in human history. It’s a success story about how some Jews were saved by a gentile capitalist. This is the American movie business for you, which has the heroic white gentile saviour (often exemplifying bourgeois values even if he’s not an actual businessman) as one of its most enduring and central narratives. This is one reason why Ayn Rand felt so much at home in Hollywood.
On the subject of the heroic, white, gentile, rich, businessman saviour… we should consider the latest mega-successful iteration of Batman. Bruce Wayne may not disdain conscience and altruism, but in shape and style he is, in many ways, a Randian hero. He takes it all upon himself, becoming the fountainhead of goodness and the Atlas upon which Gotham rests. Tim Burton’s movies downplayed Wayne’s role as a wealthy businessman (though he gets to play the ‘good’ capitalist vs Christopher Walken’s ‘bad’ capitalist in Batman Returns). Schumacher gives Wayne Enterprises a profit sharing scheme. These techniques slightly reduce the volume of the pro-capitalist blare inherent in the Batman myth, though without neutralising or forgetting it. Nolan’s trilogy, however, turns up the volume to 11. Wayne Enterprises is a force for moral and material good in society. There are ‘bad capitalists’ and ‘good capitalists’. Bruce’s father is of the ‘good’ variety. He prefers to be a doctor, but has his company build monorails to (somehow) help the poor, becoming an example to the rest of Gotham’s wealthocracy. The economic crisis in Gotham depicted in Batman Begins is an external event, artificially created and inflicted upon Gotham’s capitalism by the fanaticism of the baddies. The social conscience of the domestic rich is all that can save the city from being destroyed by the unleashed evil of the poor. Bruce follows in his father’s footsteps in that he offers an example. He becomes – forgive my degrading weakness for puns – the Dark Knight Exemplar. His violent, authoritarian project to beat law and order into people is the stick to his father’s carrot – both imbued with the same moral sense. That Bruce has a nauseating line in speechifying about the ‘good in people’ shouldn’t distract us from the quintessentially Randian idea in his heart: capitalism is heroic. Okay, there is bad capitalism (usually illegal) but ultimately the system is synonymous with social wellbeing, steered correctly through the efforts of a kevlar-coated Atlas. In case there’s any danger of us missing the point, Nolan gives us panoramas of glittering corporate skyscrapers, lush boardrooms, gorgeous secretaries, morally-minded executives, bad CEOs who ultimately get their comeuppance, etc.
Looking back a bit… Recently, Charlie Brooker (for whom I still have some time despite that embarassing hair and stubble he has now) wrote that The Dark Knight Rises and Skyfall were, essentially, the same film. In both, the hero of a big franchise is stripped of all his power and has to claw his way back up onto his feet. Batman starts his movie a miserable recluse, blamed for things that aren’t his fault, unshaven, hobbled and limping on crutches. Later, he gets pulverised in a fight and is left to rot at the bottom of a pit. Bond falls, literally and metaphorically, at the start of his film. Assumed dead, he is in fact in the Bahamas, drinking Heineken, letting himself get unshaven (that motif again) and out of shape. Both films focus on their hero’s quest to get himself back in trim and then to defeat the baddie who has made hay in his absence. This seems, to me, an obvious and not-so-subtle metaphor for the state of capitalism. The heroic, formerly all-conquering hero laid low by circumstances beyond his control and needing to climb back up into the light… well, this is essentially the mainstream narrative about where capital is at these days. The same essential formulation holds in many sectors of what we might, for want of a better word, want to call the modern ‘left’. Huge swathes of what was Occupy etc held ‘the bankers’ to blame for the crisis, as though banking and bankers were something extrinsic to capitalism, and as though capitalism was a victim of the bankers and their free-floating, contextless ‘greed’… which, as a description of what happened, is an example of accuracy becoming inaccuracy through incompleteness. A bit like saying that a rifle killed JFK and leaving it at that.
It’d be easy to discount my reading were it not for the fact that The Dark Knight Rises goes out of its way to support the established hierarchy of capitalism, and to lay the woes of Gotham at the door of the rabblement. The police and government, whatever their failings, represent order, stability, safety and noble sacrifice. Even the partial repudiation of the lies told to the public (for their own good) by Gordon and Batman is couched in terms of a noble mistake. Meanwhile, the envious unwashed ransack their way ruthlessly through the mansions of the rich, and the revolution is immediately tyrannical, setting up showtrials in a perverse people’s court. Gordon, brought to trial, gets to make a speech defending the establishment’s virtuous conception of law against the arbitrary and malicious revolutionary justice of Crane. Bane takes on the leadership of the angrily and inarticulately disaffected and, like all leaders of revolts against an established order, he is revealed to be an insincere opportunist, a self-seeking demagogue, simultaneously nihilist and fanatic. The Randian-with-a-conscience-and-bat-ears, meanwhile, has been dumped in a deep hole, from which you can only escape by climbing on on your own, and without a safety harness… which, as Stavvers observed, is a metaphor for reactionary ideas about poverty and welfare dependancy.
Skyfall, meanwhile, also cast its hero as recuperating from a a fall (really, note the falling and rising metaphor here!) and was noticeably reactionary even by the standards of Bond films. Whereas the almost-universally-loathed-but-actually-quite-good Quantum of Solacestrayed as close to a ‘realistic’ picture of the world as a Bond film could ever get without ceasing to be a Bond film, Skyfall ventured back into the zone of camp jingoism that is Bond’s traditonal territory. There is a certain accidental subversion in the depiction of M (Judi Dench) and her agents (Bond included) as ludicrous incompetents – really, they fuck everything up from start to finish, which is quite accurate as a depiction of the British ‘security services’ – but, overall, the film is a near-grotesque exercise in flag-waving. M gets to smack down the sneering bitchqueen MP at the inquiry (who has the temerity to accurately point out what a clusterfuck M’s reign has been and suggest that she ought to be held accountable to the taxpayer) with stirring words about the dangerous world in which we live now (all those evil swarthy people who’ve been killing British moles) and the need for MI6 to protect the Realm (some hope) and Tennyson and stuff and whatnot and blah. The villain, Silva, attacks the British anti-terrorism effort, and the palaces of the establishment, using his skills as a cyber-hacker. He’s al-Qaeda and Anonymous rolled into one. There is not a hint of queasiness over the grotesque way that Bond and M end up, on an isolated farm, menaced by heavily armed men in helicopter gunships, even as the film champions a national state currently doing similar things to people in Afghanistan. Yes, Bardem’s character is a shadowy reflection of Bond, but like all such shadowy reflections he is there to emphasize the difference between himself and his heroic mirror image. (Honestly, the Evil Reflection character is almost never there to undermine the good guy’s moral status. Belloq is there to show us that Indy is a good treasure-hunter. The Master shows us that the Doctor is a good renegade Time Lord.) The film mirrors its reactionary reassertion of British imperial values in the fractured world of today by being reactionary in terms of the aesthetics of the Bond series itself. QoS took Bond as far as he could go from his political and aesthetic homebases (not that far really, but everything’s relative); the post-recession Skyfall brings Bond back both politically and aesthetically. It’s very retrograde in every way, ending up with the mantle of sentimental/jingoistic/imperialist Britainishnesshood passed symbolically to Bond in the form of a Union Jack-clad bulldog, and then with Bond slinking back into his trad aesthetics, putting Moneypenny back in her place, recreating the old days of the patrician male M, now played by Ralph Fiennes. This isn’t the ‘new seriousness’. This is the old crap, still clinging to the bowl.
On the subject of Ralph Fiennes… I was rather startled by the forthright way he makes a small group of swarthy, cynical, disingenuous, manipulative agitators into the main cause of trouble in his film version of Coriolanus. I mention this to indicate that the resurgence of outright reaction in recent cultural production isn’t limited to the popcorn-shifting blockbusters. Fiennes’ film tries to position itself as an action-film and/or political thriller worked up from the basis of a Shakespeare text – and obviously aimed to be popular, albeit in a smaller-scale way than many of the movies in which Fiennes has recently had big supporting roles (i.e. Skyfall, and the Harry Potter films). But take another recent Shakespeare production – the muched fawned-upon National Theatre revival of Timon of Athens with Simon Russell Beale. Timon is a startlingly strange and subversive play about… well, it’s about a huge number of things, but a central concern is the nature of money, both as a metaphor for other things and as itself… indeed, one of the most startling things about the play is that Shakespeare appears to have realised that, in the bourgeois culture emergent when he was writing, money essentially is a metaphor. (This is something that Marx noticed when he quoted Timon’s coruscating and corrosive speeches about money at length in his Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844… but I digress outrageously.) One of the fascinating things about the NT staging was the way it strove to relate Timon’s fall – from splurge-happy wealth to utter destitution – to the recession and its political aftershocks. Tramp-Timon finds himself surrounded by protestors with tents and placards, becoming briefly a hero to an Occupy-style rebellion of the unwashed. Alcibiades, a disaffected general in the text, becomes the leader of Occupy Ancient Athens (there must always, of course, be a single Leader in these bourgeois conceptions of protest and revolution), and his march upon the city becomes an uprising of the tent and placard brigade. What makes this relevant to this essay is the trajectory of the Occupyesque rebellion in the NT staging. It very quickly – automatically – betrays its rhetoric and becomes a cynical exercise, with Alcibiades making a dirty deal in dumbshow with the corrupt Athenian senators, and presenting himself at the head of a new coalition… smartly dressed in the trappings of respectable power.
This is an old, old set of assumptions being utilised… but see how it rides in, as though by magic, on any attempt by even this corner of the culture industry to engage with Occupy and all that it entails. We’ve already seen how Hollywood responded to the Arab Spring and the demands of Obama’s imperial project. The top-level of the artsy British theatrical establishment reacted in essentially the same way to the recession and the Occupy movement. It’s no surprise to see poor old Shakespeare being pressed into service as part of an effort to reassert reactionary certainties in time of social strife. This is a time honoured tactic of British cultural and social hegemony. TV is getting in on the act too, with the glossy series The Hollow Crown, which turned the Second Tetralogy (Richard II, Henry IV Parts 1 & 2, and Henry V) into something resembling a cheap version of Game of Thrones, crossed with a self-consciously ‘straight’ and ‘trad’ iteration of plays that have usually been presented steeped in heraldry and nationalistic bling. Simon Russell Beale turned up again as Falstaff, leading into a version of Henry V that retreats from the politically ambiguous, grimey, bloody version put forward by Branagh in the late 80s, back to something more akin to Olivier’s patriotic version. The Hollow Crown has the guts to leave in the scene where Henry orders the murder of French prisoners (something which even Branagh wimped out on) but also cuts much of the cynical political wrangling at the start, as well as dumping the “upon the King” speech, during which an attentive audience might become squirmingly aware of Henry’s disingenuous self-justifications. This Henry V is slanted towards presenting the king as a justified imperialist who will do the dirty work if needs be. It approaches becoming the Zero Dark Thirty version of this deeply ambiguous and ambivalent play.
Of course, none of this is anything new in and of itself. During the trial scenes in The Dark Knight Rises, I was strongly reminded of – of all things – ‘Encounter at Farpoint’, the first episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. The scene in TDKR that I’m thinking of is the bit where Crane (AKA Scarecrow) conducts rigged show trials of establishment figures in front of a baying mob. It made me think of the scene where Q, dressed up as a judge, puts Picard and his crew on trial in a phantom version of a court from the “post-Atomic horror”. (I’d mention the offensively highlighted interracial make-up of both mobs… but that’s pretty much par for the course. At least TDKR didn’t have an evil oriental dwarf banging a gong). Commissioner Gordon gets his little self-righteous whinge about “due process” (forgetting the wonderful Dent’s Law he’s been using for years to lock people up without possibility of parole) just as Picard gets to quote Shakespeare (him again!) at Q. The line “kill all the lawyers” comes, of course, from Henry VI Part 2… in which Jack Cade is a cynical, machiavellian revolutionary who is fooling the idiotic mob into following his revolution and subjecting establishment figures to rigged show trials… just like the Judge/Q, and just like Crane, and just like Bane, and not entirely unlike Silva, or the NT version of Alcibiades, or the swarthy revolutionaries who stir the people up against Coriolanus, etc, etc, etc.
As I say, it’s nothing new. Coriolanus – on balance, a play that discounts the ‘rabble’ – was written partly as a response to grain riots. Jack Cade is an Elizabethan cultural warning against the false promises of those, going right back to John Ball and Watt Tyler, who said that “all things shall be held in common”. Such techniques are then, obviously, at least as old as the beginnings of Modern drama. They may be highly, even startlingly, consistent… but they are not constant. There are periodic lacunae in their predominance. The timbre and tenor of culture ebbs and flows with the times, with the level of struggle. 1968 penetrated the consciousness of even Terrance Dicks to the point where he co-wrote The War Games. By contrast, the great recession, the Arab Spring and Occupy appear not to have made a dent in Moffat’s solipsism… though this is perhaps unfair given that, although the worldwide tide of struggle is great, we (especially we in Britain) don’t appear to be experiencing it culturally as anything akin to 1968.
Maybe that’s partly why Doctor Who is playing it’s part in this upswing in the reactionary content of narrative media culture. The heroes of capitalist media culture – both fictional and real – have been wheeled out onto the battlefield. Bond is defending the empire (what’s left of it as an ideal) and Batman is defending private property. Shakespeare is once again defending hierarchy against the placard-wavers, and a feminist CIA officer is torturing Arabs for freedom. Lincoln is showing us all how great things can be when one moral man is in charge. And all of them are enacting a wish-fulfillment fantasy of capitalism once fallen, now rising again. Meanwhile, the Doctor is doing his bit. He’s hugging Churchill, palling up with Nixon (and, via his disingenuous rhetoric about slave revolts, effectively confusing him with Spartacus), championing the heteronormative at every turn and teaching clueless workers in high rise blocks how to solve all social problems by being better parents.
Unless it’s all just my imagination.