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. …