Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Are American Films Primarily Marketing Tools for the
Global Spread of American Political and Economic Power?

Another position paper for my performance theory class:

No, they’re not. Not “primarily,” anyway. “Primarily,” they are exactly what they appear to be, entertainment products manufactured by big businesses for the purpose of making money. However, that doesn’t mean that they do not also serve, secondarily, as “marketing tools for the global spread of American political and economic power.”

In order to get a handle on this it is important to observe that all cultural products are inherently ideological in nature, especially films. In 1995, essayist Michael Ventura wrote a column in the Austin Chronicle called “Forrest Gump, Why?” In it, Ventura deftly illustrates that the greatly loved film operates as a thinly veiled propaganda piece. The fact that Gump is mildly mentally retarded, but also held up as a sort of wise sage, strongly reinforces American anti-intellectual attitudes. That is, his continual quoting, while accomplishing amazing and celebrated feats, of his mother’s bland platitudes about how one ought to live, very loudly asserts that authority, rather than inquiry, is the most desirable way to understand existence. Ventura also illuminates how the film’s narrative itself reinforces traditional and conservative American values: Gump’s free-love practicing hippie girlfriend dies of AIDS; Gump works hard and ends up owning a successful business; Gump is a patriotic soldier and becomes a hero on the battlefield. All in all, Forrest Gump is shown to be something of a right-wing treatise. This essay outraged many Chronicle readers, and Ventura wrote a second column responding to his hate mail. In “Forrest Gump, Why Not?” he explains that “there’s no such thing as just a movie.” Indeed, such an analysis can be made of pretty much any Hollywood movie, and it’s safe to say that most of them tend toward the Gump end of the spectrum.

This conservative, pro-American ideology obviously comes from the hands-on film creators themselves, but it isn’t as clear that this outlook is also spurred on, perhaps more so, by the business system that makes Hollywood possible, and the government which allows it to exist. In 1988, Noam Chomsky and Edward Hermann wrote their seminal news media critique Manufacturing Consent. In it, the two authors convincingly establish what they call “the propaganda model” for understanding mainstream US news. They show that various business practices, economic and cultural pressures, and careerism strongly tend to skew the information product called news in a pro-business and pro-government direction. That is, the news really is propaganda, but it is not consciously or intentionally so. News skews rightward because it is good business for it to do so. Critics of Chomsky and Hermann have complained that they are engaging in conspiracy theorizing, but they miss the point: “the propaganda model” is an institutional analysis, which is not concerned with individual behavior. Hollywood, also a major media industry, behaves in a similar fashion. That is, movies are ideologically pro-capitalism and pro-government because it’s good business.

The De Zoysa and Newman essay downplays, in its final two pages, the detrimental cultural effects of Hollywood films around the world. Of course, they spend previously some thirty pages up-playing them. It’s hard to say how, exactly, American entertainment influences other cultures, but it is clear that the Hollywood film industry is so big, so good in terms of production values, and so heavily marketed, that American movies swamp all global competition—imagine trying to enter, from the ground up, the auto manufacturing industry, and competing directly with the big guys, without any market share, and with only a fraction of your competition’s capital, in order to get an idea of how difficult it is to compete with Hollywood. Throw in the fact that Euro Disney, deep in the heart of France, the great bastion of cultural resistance, is a thriving business. My guess is that Hollywood’s propaganda effects are underrated if anything.