From the February 2001 issue of the Socialist Standard
Humanity has created a mostly "inhuman" society, and it is this condition itself that has become the subject of its art - we look at last year's US movies
Traditionally American narrative cinema has concerned itself with a central character or group and telling a story from their lives. More interestingly, these characters and the landscapes within which they move are symbols of the cultural concerns of the people who make movies: screenwriters, directors, actors, cinematographers and their employers, the producers and financiers. The purpose of this review of the last year's films is to discover these concerns and define any shared cultural/political trends in the American movie industry. It is symptomatic of the internal contradictions within capitalism that good films are made in spite of the system of production and not because of it; humanity has created a mostly "inhuman" society, and it is this condition itself that has become the subject of its art. Capitalists are ambivalent about this because although a powerful and entertaining observation of the social condition can provide them with a profitable movie it can also serve to undermine their ideology.
Such would seem to be the case in American Beauty which enjoys itself with an amusing destruction of suburban "middle-class" values and beliefs. As a result of his alienated life the hero develops an obsession with his daughter's best friend. This new focus in his life motivates him to turn away from his career and family but inevitably leads to greater social disaster. As he expires in the wreckage of his life the film provides us with a sentimental vision of the innocence of first love as salvation from the horrors of suburban American life. A film about alienation with no political content seems unlikely but that's what it takes to win a sackful of Oscars from the Hollywood establishment these days.
Although indulging a similar pleasure in portraying the despair and corruption of American society The Insider at least attempts a political perspective. Here we are back in one of Hollywood's favourite scenarios of David-versus-Goliath, where an individual takes on the might of big government or a corporation; in this case the tobacco industry. The triumph of the moral victory is monumentally pyrrhic in the context of the habitual crushing of workers' ethical sensibilities by the wheels of the American profit juggernaut. This is recognised by Al Pacino's last line: "when some things are broken they can't be fixed"; which for a socialist sounds like a rejection of reformism and a call for revolution, but is probably heard as a voice of despair and political impotence by the audience as they bask in the fleeting superficial glow of moral redemption provided by the movie's end.
Russell Crowe (the co-star of The Insider) went on to star in last year's mega-blockbuster Gladiator; an attempt to revive the historical epic genre. It has long been a cliché to regard this "sword-and-sandal" genre as a metaphor for American imperialism despite their anti-imperialist narratives because of the obvious delight in the reconstruction of the military spectacle of ancient Rome (Quo Vadis, Ben Hur, The Robe, Spartacus, etc). Unusually, in contrast to this convention, there is in Gladiator an explicit identification with Roman militarism right from the start. Maximus, the hero, is betrayed because of the power his military successes bring him. Although technically brilliant the movie resolves itself into yet another dreary revenge narrative. At least there is no Christian dimension and it does have entertaining references to its generic predecessors.
This self-referential theme is also responsible for Shaft 2000 which also attempts to revive a genre, this time one of the seventies known as "blaxploitation". The original star, Richard Roundtree, makes an appearance as Samuel L. Jackson's "Uncle Shaft" and their enjoyment of the usual urban carnage is all very amusing, but the cynicism exhibited by the characters is depressing when compared with the original's odyssey through black radical politics. In the political vacuum of postmodern America the Black Panthers are regarded as a mere retro-fashion statement.
An altogether more thoughtful investigation of another of postmodernism's themes can be found in Nurse Betty which examines the part that the relationship between media and audience plays in American cultural identity. Betty, as the result of a trauma, comes to believe that she is one of the characters in her favourite soap opera. After avoiding the pursuit of a contract killer and his apprentice she actually finds herself playing the part she has identified with in the soap opera itself. Only her potential killer understands her delusion because his own homicidal career has become an act for him. If, as the movie suggests, the American audience understands who they are by reference to media stereotypes then what we have here is a frightening vision of the power of the medium's social manipulation.
Yet another, but much darker, variation of the same obsession with identify can be found in Memento. Here our "hero" suffers from short-term memory loss and has to literally inscribe on his own body who he is and what has happened to him using tattoos. The narrative is retrospective and follows his story through the perspectives of the other characters. It is hard to evade the feeling that this is a commentary on the notoriously short attention span of the American audience. The episodic nature of the story reminds one of the seemingly inexhaustible appetite for the next novelty of entertainment, having forgotten what they've just seen.
If it is true that we can trace a shared theme in the preceding films in terms of alienated characters seeking an identity within a media-dominated society, then two last examples take this idea to its extreme. The first explores a trans-cultural identity where the protagonist assumes the persona of a samurai and calls himself "Ghost Dog". To further thicken the cultural stew the samurai is black, his master is a Mafiosi, his best friend is a French-speaking Haitian ice-cream seller and the landscape is New York. The superficial identities of the Dog and his friend unravel when the ice-cream is discovered not to be the "best in America" and that bushido philosophy cannot cope with love and betrayal. The trans-cultural conceit collapses with the realisation of their exploitation by the capitalist system.
To counter all of this cultural despair and remind us of its absurd comic potential we have Being John Malkovich. The spooky reality of the puppets contrasts with the surrealistic company that exists on half a floor of a corporate building which hides a secret portal into the head of the celebrated actor John Malkovich. Our puppeteer hero discovers the portal and from inside the head we experience the vacuity of a celebrity existence. He subsequently sells tickets for others to visit, and when one of the punters believes herself to be John Malkovich and attempts to influence his life, this betrays the existence of the portal to its owner. In a magnificently funny symbol of the symbiotic relationship between media star and his audience Malkovich enters his own head and experiences the full horror of the political and aesthetic sterility of the narcissistic showbiz culture.
American mass-media from the pulp fiction and nickelodeon of the 19th century to the sports arena and multiplexes of the early 21st has always relied on the opiate of novelty and entertainment; but the tensions and contradictions within the content of some of the best of American cinema might lead some to turn away from the coliseum of Hollywood and reflect like Derek Jacobi does in Gladiator, saying: "I'm not of the people, but I'm for the people." In such a rejection of the identities offered by the capitalist media we might all finally focus on the reality of the need to resolve the class struggle.