Hollywood loses the plot

The ‘culture industry’ of Hollywood is deluding itself.

US actor Ben Affleck directed and starred in 'Argo', a film based on the US Hostage Crisis of 1979 [AFP]

“History’s never harder to write than when it hasn’t been fully written yet.” This is Jennifer Vineyard, writing for CNN about Golden Globe movie nominees, about Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty (2012) in particular. You read that sentence and you blink and wonder: “say what?”    

The sentence may appear like a logical somersault, but still it has a point – that writing or filming events of historical magnitude is always a precarious, invariably thankless, and at all times perilous proposition. Now the problem becomes particularly acute when the thing we call “history” is no longer limited to a particular nation-state, nor is writing, filming, or remembering it the exclusive prerogatives of its evident victors – for the vanquished have a say in the matter too.    

From the very instant that Christopher Columbus “discovered” America for Europeans, American history has always been integral to global history, and since American military roam freely around the globe over land, air, or sea, then the inhabitants of those territories too have a say about “American history”. 

Thus when Americans make a movie about the Hostage Crisis of 1979-1980, or about the assassination of Osama bin Laden, and they make it on a massive budget that in effect has a global audience in mind, then the innate provincialism of Hollywood faces a far more daunting challenge than a logically convoluted sentence can convey.

When you are a global empire, then there is no issue that is domestic to your own country or culture. You cannot wreak havoc around the globe from one end to another, and then plead “national” when it comes to your cinema industry, which is, by definition, integral to your global militarism.

This is not peculiar to this new empire – it is equally applicable to the old empire it has supplanted. When Daniel Craig visits British troops in Afghanistan as James Bond, then that James Bond is integral to British militarism. Period.   

Hollywood provincialism

Neither the provincial disposition nor the global reach of Hollywood is anything new. The hotbed of American cinema has always been very much preoccupied with things American, particularly when it has addressed global issues. But at the very least by virtue of the pomp and ceremony of the Golden Globes, the Academy Awards, and the projected (not factual) American cultural hegemony over the world what Hollywood films for America it also sells to the world. But this year in particular, the grand hoopla for two exceptionally retrograde films makes Hollywood ever so blatantly out of touch with reality as the rest of the world understands it.

You may say well, that it is the business of Hollywood to be in the business of fantasy and it has nothing to do with reality. But when that realm of fantasy itself turns to address historical issues beyond the political borders of the US and deep into its imperial domains, then its delusional conception of history becomes the hermeneutic context in which it is received.

Listening Post
Feature: The Zero Dark Thirty controversy

In Argo and Zero Dark Thirty, Ben Affleck and Kathryn Bigelow, respectively, have turned their attention to the American Hostage Crisis of 1979-1980 and the extrajudicial targeted assassination of Osama bin Laden (a vintage Israeli trademark) at a time when neither Iranians, nor Arabs, nor Muslim, and a fortiori neither the world at large, could care less about one or the other. You might think these are American traumas that needed addressing – and the answer to that too is a resounding negative. The current geopolitics of the region and the crippling economic sanctions that the US has imposed on Iran on behalf of its client colonial settlement Israel, and more than a decade into the milking the events of 9/11 for successive imperial wars in the Arab and Muslim world (under both Bush and Obama administrations) have rendered both these two events the simulacrum of ancient hand medieval history.

For almost a decade after 9/11 I taught a summer course on cinema of 9/11 and its aftermath to see if anything worthy comes out of the event, and concluded that with very few exceptions, the answer is negative. A few films like Paul Haggis’ In the Valley if Elah (2007) came out of that decade and nothing more. I was looking for a Deer Hunter (1978), a Full Metal Jacket (1987), or a Born on the Fourth of July (1989), in vain. I thus concluded that the 9/11 and the successive wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were in no way traumatic the way the Vietnam war was and thus no similar social or cinematic movement came out of these events. As evident in these films and their box office failures, Americans simply did not care about these wars for there was no draft and they showed it in the way they produced and received these mostly negligible films.

In this context Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, just like her previous film The Hurt Locker (2008), appears as yet another useless peg in the US imperial propaganda machinery, while Ben Affleck’s equally futile attempt to divert attention to a foreign atrocity at a time when the world at large is still suffering the consequences of multiple US imperial militarism in Afghanistan and Iraq (and beyond) – now capped with a “Kill List” and the deadly consequences of drone attacks on innocent civilians even in more Muslim countries.

If like me you sat through the Golden Globes ceremony and were left aghast at the ludicrous conclusion that Ben Affleck’s sophomoric Argo should receive both the Best Director and the Best Film award, while Stephen Spielberg with his Lincoln, Ang Lee with his Life of Pi and David O Russell with his Silver Linings Playbook were sitting there, that sense of unease points to something far more seriously flawed in and about American cinematic scene. One may have any number of issues with any one of these other films – but that they are the products of superior directorial intelligence is of no dispute.

You may opt for the generational explanation and say well these are all great veteran and more senior filmmakers and it is time to pay attention to younger talents – in which case you have to find an explanation for the fact that PT Anderson’s exquisite Master (2012) was not even in the competition.  PT Anderson (born 1970) is as young as Ben Affleck (born 1972) is and yet he is rightly and justifiably compared to Orson Welles and Stanley Kubrick. Before Master, PT Anderson had There Will Be Blood (2007) to his credit, before Argo, Ben Affleck had Gigli (2003)!

So why Affleck, why Argo, why now?

The culture industry

What Adorno and Horkheimer diagnosed more than half a century ago as “Culture Industry” is the modus operandi of American propaganda machinery. Hollywood need not be in bed with the military logic of the Pentagon. The Pentagon is embedded in the militant imagination of Hollywood. Thus the popular culture that it manufactures are there to be instrumental in manufacturing passive consent, predicated on false psychological enigmas that it procures and suspends for explanations. But that culture industry is no longer effective, for the market that it seeks to occupy is now happily and open-endedly global. Neither Americans nor anyone else around the globe is a captive audience to these delusional fantasies.

The psychopathological prevalence of conspiracy theories in the United States stems from the fact that the vision of reality that Hollywood wishes to project does not make sense and in the absence of any mainstream critical discourse imaginative dissent assumes bizarre pathological dimensions. Either docile and content or else pathologically suspicious and conspiratorial becomes the two available options. Under these circumstances critical dissent is either pathologised or else criminalised – by way of paving the main discourse for docile consent or delusional conspiracies. The global opening of critical discourse has put an effective end to this sad state of affairs in the United States and alternative discourses are emerging to which Americans as all others have recourse, and thus liberated from that culture industry.

Each in its own way, Argo and Zero Dark Thirty manufacture (in order to celebrate) a drama out of non-existent traumas – traumas that mean very little for history at the time that these two films were made – in 2012, more than thirty years after the American Hostage Crisis, and more than two year into the most spectacular revolutionary uprisings in the Arab world that has long since overcome and dispensed with the inanity of Osama bin Laden who was always a far more relevant trope to the American “War on Terror” than to anything remotely meaningful in the Arab and Muslim world.

From bad to worse

If Argo is late by 30 years, Zero Darky Thirty is late by an entire history. Argo excavates a minor drama in the history of American diplomacy without the slightest attention to what has happened in the world before or after that incident.

But one never goes to a Hollywood film to learn about history, and finding factual error with this inanity – as in fact Vincent Dowd has done in a very fine essay for BBC – is completely missing the point. For those of us who lived through the horrid 444 days of the American Hostage Crisis of 1979-1980 in the United Sates, one episode of Ted Koppel’s Nightline had more excitement, tension, fear, and loathing than the entire horrid two-hour movie of Ben Affleck. The issue is the timing of Argo – what does it mean to make a film about the American Hostage Crisis now – and even more pertinently what inanity should overcome a cinema industry to consider this the best film of the year at a time when PT Anderson’s masterpiece Master is nowhere in sight?

The cliché ridden Argo – from the under-appreciated CIA agent flying like Indiana Jones to his Oriental fantasies, to the suspicious looking servant at the Canadian ambassador’s resident, to the utterly ridiculous final sequence at the airport – is far more an effrontery to cinema than to history. Thirty years of the most globally celebrated Iranian cinema and evidently those who made this spoof did not think for a second they were making a film about a nation that has forever changed the history of cinema with its pantheon of filmmakers altering the very aesthetic course of cinematic realism. Just out of professional courtesy, when you want to make a film about Abbas Kiarostami’s country you may want to send a superior intelligence along.

Though Bigelow is a far superior filmmaker than Affleck, the same is even truer of Zero Dark Thirty. Bigelow and her lead character, the CIA analyst Maya, become obsessed with Osama bin Laden when Osama bin Laden had no historic role to play and had crawled to some labyrinth hideout in Pakistan. The hunt and execution of Osama bin Laden, based on sketchy intelligence and decided upon purely political calculations for the incumbent Democratic president, happened at a time when the Arab and Muslim world was alight with a massive democratic uprising.

In both these films Hollywood is so outdated, so out of touch with the world, so provincial in its political sentiments. Both these directors have done archival digging in search of a pathological fixation with events that have long lost their historic significance. All the hoopla that has been generated around these two films thus wish to pull the current condition of our political consciousness back to status quo ante, before the Green Movement in Iran, before the Arab Spring, before the Eurozone Crisis, and above all before the Occupy Wall Street movement.

Maya is the epitome of bad intelligence, nursing a fanatical fixation with a phantom fear that the bad intelligence had in fact manufactured, and doggedly going after the hunt that had defined her entire career. At one point the Director of CIA, Leon Panetta/ James Gandolfini asks Maya what has she done during her tenure with CIA, and she says: “Nothing!” That’s all she has done, that’s all she is, fixated on a phantom – and when CIA Islamabad Station Chief Joseph Bradley/Kyle Chandler refuses to cater to her demands, she threatens and intimidates him to accommodate her conspiratorial fancies.

Zero Dark Thirty wishes to establish a link between her delusional fixation and the capture and execution of Bin Laden. That link itself is delusional. That Maya’s conspiratorial fancies ultimately leads to locating Osama bin Laden has scarce anything to do with the torturous intelligence she was gathering, let alone with the purely political decision on part of President Obama to go and assassinate him.

It is not until the very last shot of Zero Dark Thirty, when Maya enters the belly of a massive military aircraft and sits down to be flown back home to the US and we see her absolutely drained and exhausted. A lonely and frightened soul in the belly of a soulless military machine is exactly the best metaphor of this reluctant empire that has no blasted clue what to with its military might, or moral self-righteousness.

This empire no longer enjoys any hegemony – and the material wherewithal of Hollywood does not give it any advantage. Years ago Barbara Streisand was making a silly movie at Columbia University and for weeks our campus was occupied territory by gigantic trailers – the result was a ludicrous inanity called The Mirror Has Two Faces (1996). The entire cast and crew of Abbas Kiarostami when he is shooting a film fits in the back of a small truck. There is more directorial intelligence in a single shot of Kiarostami than in miles after miles of celluloid that Hollywood wastes on trying to convince itself of one lie or another.   

But Ben Affleck is as much a representative of the best of American cinema as Abbas Kiarostami can conceal the banalities of the Islamic Republic – for before you could rest assured that Argo is the last atrocity we might see about the Hostage Crisis we read that the propaganda machinery of the Islamic Republic is in fact now up and about making a rebuttal to Ben Affleck’s flick and telling its own version of what happened! 

“Beam me up Scotty!”

Hamid Dabashi is Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in New York and the author of, among other books, Masters and Masterpieces of Iranian Cinema (2007).