guardian.co.uk, Thursday 24 November 2011 23.00 GMT
A sturdy corollary emerges in the wake of the graphic artist Frank Miller‘s recent diatribe against the Occupy Wall Street movement (“A pack of louts, thieves, and rapists … Wake up, pond scum, America is at war against a ruthless enemy”), available for perusal atfrankmillerink.com). That corollary, of which we should be reminded from time to time, is this: popular entertainment from Hollywood is – to greater or lesser extent – propaganda. And Miller has his part in that, thanks to films such as 300 and Sin City.
Perhaps you have had this thought before. Perhaps you have had it often. I can remember politics dawning on me while watching a Steven Seagal vehicle, Under Siege, in 1992. I was in my early 30s. The film was without redeeming merit – there’s no other way to put it – and it was about a “ruthless enemy” and the reimposition of the American social order through violence and rugged individualism. Why had I paid hard-earned money for it? Good question. Before Under Siege, I had a tendency to think action films were funny. I had a sort of Brechtian relationship to their awfulness. And I was amused when films themselves recognised the level to which they stooped, as Under Siege assuredly did.
The moment of revelation could have come at any time. It could have come earlier, and it did among my more astute friends. Had I watched any of the later Rocky pictures, for example, or had I watched Rambo, I might have registered that there was little depicted in these frames but feel-good, reactionary message-deployment. But there were, apparently, films too embarrassing for me to see, Rocky IV and Rambo among them. I remember thinking True Lies, the abominable 1994 James Cameron film (featuring Republican governor-to-be Arnold Schwarzenegger), with its big, concluding nuclear blast – the nuclear blast we were meant to want to see – was, well, more than suspect. (I could never again watch a Cameron film without disgust. And that includes the racist, New Age blather of Avatar.) Or what about the expensive and aesthetically pretentious Gladiator (2000), which I still contend is an allegory about George W Bush’s candidacy for president, despite the fact that director and principal actor were not US citizens. Is it possible to think of a film such as Gladiator outside of its political subtext? Are Ridley Scott’s falling petals, which he seems to like so much that he puts them in his films over and over again, anything more than a way to gussy up the triumph of oligarchy, corporate capital and globalisation?
The types of men (almost always men) who have historically favoured the action film genre, it’s safe to say, are often, if not always, politically conservative: Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, Bruce Willis, Chuck Norris, Mel Gibson, even Clint Eastwood (former Republican mayor of Carmel, California), all proud defenders of a conservative agenda, and/or justifiers of vigilantism. With some of these celebrities, the kneejerk qualities of their politics are self-evident, and in other cases (Eastwood), the reactionary part of their world view is more nuanced. But the brand of politics is the same.
And yet with action films, the moral and political ideas in play are surpassingly easy to spot. What about the entertainment films that came later, during the era of CGI – the big-budget films primarily generated from more imaginary fare, such as the apparently numberless comic book franchises of Batman, Spider-Man, Iron Man, Daredevil, Fantastic Four, X-Men, Captain America, et al? In these cases, the moral framework of the product is just as simplistic as in action films, if not more so, and the triumph of the social order is just as violent, and just as relentless, though the films are couched in a sugary glaze of graphics and “wow” moments that distract from ideological branding. The CGI sheen is seductive enough that it’s sometimes difficult to divine the message at first. You are too busy being bludgeoned by the sounds and lights. Nevertheless, the message is there. Might is right, the global economy will be restored, America is exceptional, homely people deserve political disenfranchisement, and so on. It bears mentioning that these are films that are in many cases being marketed to children. When I was a kid, you could not gain admission to a film such as Dirty Harry or The French Connection. But an American adolescent can now see Batman in The Dark Knight, rated PG-13, without much difficulty.
The film 300, directed by Zack Snyder, based on a Frank Miller graphic novel of the same name, is just what you would expect from the heavily freighted right-wing filmic propaganda of the post-9/11 period: the Greeks, from which our own putative democracies are descended, must fight to the death against a vast but incompetent army of Persians (those hordes of the Middle East), who are considered here unworthy of characterisation – in fact, every character in the film is unworthy of characterisation – and the noble Spartans (the Greeks in question) achieve heroism despite their glorious deaths on the field at Thermopylae, by virtue of the moral superiority of their belief system and their unmatched courage. Ruthless enemy! From the Middle East! Heroic, rugged individualists! A big, sentimental score! Lots and lots of blue-screen! Endless amounts of body parts spewing theatrical blood!
It’s a barely watchable film, but what from Hollywood these days is not similarly unwatchable, when so many high-profile releases are based on a medium, the comic book, made expressly to engage the attentions of pre- and just post-pubescent boys. At least comic books themselves are so politically dim-witted, so pie-in-the-sky idealistic as to be hard to take seriously. But in the films of this era, the Marvel and DC era of Hollywood, even when the work is not self-evidently shilling for large corporations (with product placement) or militating for a libertarian and oligarchical political status quo (which makes a fine environment for large, multinational corporations), the work is doing nothing at all to oppose these things. Paying your $12.50, these days, is not unlike doing a few lines of cocaine and pretending you don’t know about the headless bodies in Juarez.
With this in mind, an honest recognition of cinematic propaganda, we shouldn’t be shocked by Frank Miller’s comments about Occupy Wall Street. It is naive to be shocked by them. But let’s evaluate the particulars of his remarks just the same. Miller tries to repel the OWS message (“Maybe, between bouts of self-pity and all the other tasty titbits of narcissism you’ve been served up in your sheltered, comfy little worlds, you’ve heard terms like al-Qaeda and Islamicism”) by reminding us that we are at war. This despite the fact that OWS is focused primarily on income inequality, and thus mainly taken up with domestic politics, such that OWS doesn’t really take a position on the “ruthless enemy” and doesn’t need to. Miller’s particular approach, the warmongering approach, is self-evidently reminiscent of the Bush/Cheney years, in which any domestic reversal was followed by an elevated level on the colour-coded risk-assessment wheel. But in this post-Iraq war moment – when the most aggravated conspiracies we seem to have in New York City involve, for example, a lone Dominican guy who advertises his hatred of the government on Facebook and who may have been entrapped by local police – our “ruthless enemy” just doesn’t seem quite as numerous as Miller’s Persian hordes.
Beyond Bush-Cheney fear-mongering, Miller’s further complaint seems to be that people who camped outdoors in Zuccotti Park for two months were not terribly clean. (The Spartans were no doubt tidier in Thermopylae.) But if the crowd of 32,000 who turned up to march in NYC last Thursday – after the “pond scum” had been ejected from the park – are any indication, this hygiene issue is no longer a reliable talking point for Miller (or for Newt Gingrich, the rightwing posterboy of the late 80s who has now entered the race for the Republican presidential noimination). The 32,000 included some professional types, at least one retired police officer and lots of elderly people, many of whom had recently showered. Same thing at UC Davis, and at Berkeley. Those college kids usually have showers in their dorms.
Miller also accuses the OWS protesters of being too technologically savvy. For example, he accuses them of playing Lords of Warcraft. Now, I admit it, I know nothing of multiplayer online role-playing games, nor do I own an iPhone nor an iPad. Nevertheless, I maintain I am correct in imagining that what Miller actually means here is World of Warcraft. This superficial mistake (suggests what should be plain: that Miller wrote his jeremiad quickly, perhaps late at night, when a lack of restraint is often linked with the onset of unconsciousness. He didn’t bother to reread it. He therefore overlooks at least one obvious point. Namely, no one is more likely to play World of Warcraft than the kind of adolescent boy who also thinks 300 is quality cinematic product.
Miller’s hard-right, pro-military point of view is not only accounted for in his own work, but in the larger project of mainstream Hollywood cinema. American movies, in the main, often agree with Frank Miller, that endless war against a ruthless enemy is good, and military service is good, that killing makes you a man, that capitalism must prevail, that if you would just get a job (preferably a corporate job, for all honest work is corporate) you would quit complaining. American movies say these things, but they are more polite about it, lest they should offend. The kind of comic-book-oriented cinema that has afflicted Hollywood for 10 years now, since Spider-Man, has degraded the cinematic art, and has varnished over what was once a humanist form, so Hollywood can do little but repeat the platitudes of the 1%. And yet Hollywood tries still not to offend.
Does that make American cinema cryptofascist? Is “cryptofascist” a word that you can use in an essay like this? I keep trying to find a space somewhere between “propagandistic” and “cryptofascist” to describe my feelings about Miller’s screed. But perhaps it’s more accurate to say the following: whatever mainstream Hollywood cinema is now, Frank Miller is part of it. And Frank Miller has done Occupy Wall Street a service by reminding us that our allegedly democratic political system, which increases inequality and decreases class mobility, which is mostly interested in keeping the disenfranchised where they are, requires a mindless, propagandistic (or “cryptofascist”) storytelling medium to distract its citizenry. We should be grateful for the reminder. And we might repay the favor by avoiding purchase of tickets to Miller’s films.