Sunday, 27 November 2011

Hollywood and fascism

In friday's Guardian there was a piece by Rick Moody about Frank Miller, 300 (2006) and what Moody considered is the strong presence of "crypto-fascism" in present Hollywood cinema. The starting point for the article was apparently Frank Miller's attack on the Occupy Wall Street-movement. Moody is supportive of that movement, and Miller's attack was provocative, not to say offensive. So Moody is legitimately upset. However, instead of just answering Miller he goes on to attack Hollywood, republicans, globalisation and comics, in a sense proclaiming that it is all fascism. Most of Moody's comments about individual films (such as 300, Gladiator and Avatar) are confusing but I will not waste time on that, instead I want to put the article in a larger frame.

The first noticeable thing about the article is that it is written as if nobody before has suggested that 300 is fascist, or that nobody has ever used the word "fascist" in connection with Hollywood action films. Moody seems to think that he has invented the wheel, although he does say "Perhaps you have thought this before.". Yes, indeed, many have thought it before, myself included. 300 and fascism was connected by many critics. Rogert Ebert in his review said "They celebrate a fascist ideal.". The Guardian's own reviewer Peter Bradshaw, in his critical review, said "Pundits might be pretty quick to invoke Leni Riefenstahl in connection with this movie" (although it took Moody five years to connect the dots). If the film was indeed "crypto-fascist" it failed at the crypto-part. And leaving 300 aside, the claim that Hollywood action films are fascist is at least 40 years old. Pauline Kael wrote in her review of Dirty Harry (1971) that "The action genre has always had a fascist potential, and it surfaces in this movie."  but similar arguments have been made since the beginning of the 20th century. So Moody is part of a long tradition, even though he might not know it. In a sense, what he says about Hollywood has nothing to do with the present era or the films made today. These arguments have always been made, but the arguments are often-times weak and narrow-minded. (Many films that are to today considered masterpieces and classics have at one point or another been called fascist, be they American, Swedish (such as films by Bergman), Italian (Antonioni), Japanese (Kurosawa) and others.)

The big problem I have with the article is the irresponsible way it uses the term fascist. Among the things mentioned in the article as part of the same thing is Clint Eastwood, Chuck Norris, Arnold Schwarenegger, George W. Bush, Frank Miller, globalisation, comics, The Dark Knight (2008) and Spider-Man (2002). These are allegedly all example of fascism or crypto-fascism. But our personal politics are hardly ever as straightforward as Moody seems to think, and films are invariably more complex than to be able to be summed up in one word. Eastwood's politics might better be described as humanist conservatism, or potentially even liberal. Schwarzenegger's politics are also much more progressive then people seem to think, even if he did support Bush's re-election. But even if you happen to be a US republican, you are not by default a "crypto-fascist". (Of course it is entirely possible that Moody has his very own definition of what constitutes a fascist, and that everybody who does not share the same beliefs as Moody is in fact a fascist.)

As for the films, it is stretching it very far to suggest that practically all of Hollywood is "a mindless, propagandistic (or "crypto-fascist") storytelling medium to distract our citizenry." This complaint is also almost as old as the medium itself, but not even in small-sized dictatorships have it been possible to have such a control over the film medium. In any event, what does it mean for a film to be fascist? Are they films with a fascist message, if so what is a fascist message? Are they films using fascist aesthetics, if so what is that, and is it not possible to use fascist aesthetics without having a fascist message? Or do they just have fascist characters, and if so, are they treated critically or celebratory? Which character is the one the filmmakers identifies with? Is the hero a hero or an anti-hero? Which scene in the film is the key scene in terms of any political message? There are many such questions that must be asked, and they might not even be answerable after multiple viewings. It is naive, possibly romantic, to think that a film always has one, clearly defined and indisputable message.

So Moody comes across as ill-informed and confusing. This includes his condemnation of all comics as "made expressly to engage the attentions of pre- and 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". This is just plain wrong, and it is also safe to assume that many members of Occupy Wall Street and other Occupy movements read comics, and love them and are even inspired by them (as can be seen in the popular usage of masks and symbols from Alan Moore's V for Vendetta). Many of the occupy-ers do also in all likelihood like the films Moody is condemning, which would suggest that if they are crypto-fascist the propaganda does not work on the audience, or that the Occupy movement is in fact crypto-fascist too, or possibly that the films are actually not crypto-fascist. Either way Moody's alarm seems unwarranted.

But the biggest problem is that if we call Eastwood or Schwarzenegger fascists, even though they clearly are not, what shall we call those that are really fascists? We live in a time with rising ultra right-wing parties and ideas. Racial intolerance and xenophobia seems to be spreading. Neo-nazi cells are discovered in Germany. Anti-immigrants and anti-Muslim parties are winning elections. But with this lazy and irresponsible use of loaded terms such as fascism the words become meaningless and useless when actual fascism is involved. If Eastwood is a fascist, then what was Mussolini? What shall we call Anders Behring Breivik? If anybody is a fascist, regardless of their actual beliefs and actions, then nobody is a fascist.

It is a sign of how impoverished the intellectual and political debate is when Obama is said to be a communist or a nazi, when Sarkozy is called a neoliberal and anything to the right of you is fascism. I believe such lazy thinking, such an a-historical approach, is a bigger threat to democracy than Hollywood action films.

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