Movies Ignore Corporate Wrongdoers, Populist Messages

by Randy Shaw on July 13, 2010

Remember how films like Modern Times and The Wizard of Oz evoked populist themes to help Americans get through the Great Depression? Today’s tough economic times offer a similar moment – with producers able to choose among such villains as Wall Street speculators, oil companies, and those selling subprime mortgages. But the international corporate conglomerates that now dominate the film industry want no part of rallying people against corporate wrongdoers. Instead, as the July 11 New York Times reported, three new summer movies – including Angelina Jolie’s Salt, Farewell, and Countdown to Zero – focus on the long ended Cold War. Independent visionary James Cameron attacked military and environmental wrongdoers in Avatar, and it became the top grossing film of all-time. But Hollywood producers avoid populist themes, preferring escapist films that bear little connection to contemporary life.

Movies are Political

Many people believe that Hollywood films provide escapist entertainment, and should not be seen as sending political messages. We are told that studios are about making money, and that they would make tribute films to Karl Marx if that were good for the box office.

Well, the historic record and the films of 2010 say otherwise.

It was not solely due to box office concerns that films in the 1940’s stirred national patriotism, that the Cold War era saw an unending stream of espionage films (e.g. James Bond), and that anti-war movies emerged during the Vietnam era protests. Some were financial hits and others were not, but the pattern of films showed a broader ideology that transcended box office was at work.

Today, a powerful Hollywood ideology is as dominant as ever. This ideology is to avoid funding major Hollywood films where the villains resemble partners at Goldman, Sachs, or corporations preying upon local communities or powerless workers (see Chaplin, Modern Times), or which highlight how big money special interests influence the American judicial system.

This ideology believes that such topics are fit only for Michael Moore’s documentaries, or the controversial films of Oliver Stone. Even the occasional Up in the Air provides audiences with no specific corporate or political villain to target for action, so that its “realism” is more deflating than inspiring.

Summer 2010: Refighting the Cold War

After Avatar, whose anti-war, pro-environment message set box office records while rankling right-wingers, one would think that studios would be eager to tackle similar themes. But today’s studios seek safer targets, which is why three films set in the long ended Cold War will soon be released.

Of the three, only Jolie’s Salt is an American-made big budget film. And Countown to Zero is a documentary. But if one looks at all of the films to come out in 2010, one is struck by their absolute disconnection from the tough economic realities of our times.

We have Adam Sandler’s escapist (and critics believe inane) Grown Ups, the escapist Eclipse, Tom Cruise playing a secret agent with Cameron Diaz in the critically-panned Knight and Day, the escapist, high-budget The Last Airbender, the remake of The Karate Kid and so on. Next Friday Inception opens, which is described by Rolling Stone as “James Bond Meets ‘The Matrix’.”

That’s exactly as the latest Matt Damon action film was likely pitched in the Beverly Hills or Brentwood restaurants where such deals are made.

Where Have You Gone, Martin Ritt?

In today’s Hollywood, socially conscious film directors like Marty Ritt (Norma Rae, the Front, etc) would be working for HBO. Even stool pigeon Elia Kazan would not find big screen financing, and nor would Fred Zinneman (High Noon, From Here to Eternity), or John Huston.

Studio chiefs would fear financing Richard Brooks after his Elmer Gantry criticized religious zealotry, and Stanley Donen would get a one way ticket to Palookaville for making a film, Pajama Game, that backed female factory workers in their drive for a small raise.

True, commercial television is as bad if not worse, and it seems some networks are filling their entire schedule with espionage shows this year. And cable is little better.

And I completely agree, as Preston Sturges famously argued in his 1941 classic film, Sullivan’s Travels, that comedy is even more essential in tough times.

But Modern Times and City Lights, both of which spoofed the rich, were very funny. The difference today from prior eras is in the dramatically higher percentage of films utterly disconnected from the realities of contemporary life.

Most movies today do even not show people working in everyday jobs, a staple of films for decades. It’s as if film financiers are afraid to even show a workplace for fear it could cause “political” controversy.

I recall being told during the Ronald Reagan era that right-wing big budget films like the 1984 Red Dawn were a product of their times. Where then are the progressive Hollywood films for the Obama era?

Randy Shaw is also the author of Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century. Follow Randy on Twitter: @RandyTHClinic

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