Hollywood’s New Radicalism, by Ben Dickenson (I.B. Tauris, 2006). Book review

Hollywood’s New Radicalism is a fascinating account of attempts to subvert the film industry from within. Book review.

Submitted by Tom Jennings on January 16, 2008

The Empire’s New Clothes by Tom Jennings

The old-fashioned vertically-integrated movie business, where studio moguls reigned supreme and rigidly controlled all aspects of film production, broke down in the 1960s in the face of the commercial deregulation and restructuring needed to cater to changing cultural and technological landscapes and patterns of consumption. Those inspired by the countercultural and grass-roots energy of the era took advantage, extending the range of material reaching the public in films that were profoundly innovative, politically challenging and often extremely popular. Hollywood’s New Radicalism intelligently documents the subsequent interplay of commercial agendas and American political retrenchment, focusing on the efforts of liberals and leftists involved in film production to reflect their social awareness in their work – eventually culminating in today’s explicitly political mainstream cinema.

Sixties directors harnessed avant-garde art and European film styles and philosophies, taking advantage of the liberal atmosphere to realise freedom of cinematic expression, and their appeal to newly-affluent rebellious youth audiences massively expanded the cultural production sector. Impressive box-office business attracted venture capital throughout the 1970s, which rationalised the industry’s chaotic structure and narrowed content to the most predictably profitable. Previously buccaneering individualist outsiders were absorbed into Hollywood by the 1980s when the enterprise revolution tightened corporate grips and abandoned social commitments. Aristocrats like Oliver Stone screamed betrayal, but younger, more pragmatic independents continued exploring narrative and style on the margins. Many signed with newly consolidating 1990s studios – themselves desperately seeking niche markets – only to encounter the triple whammy of Clinton’s duplicity, Seattle’s protest revival, and the Old Testament logic of 9/11 and its aftermath.

The discomfort of film industry professionals concerning the inability to articulate progressive political change is best conceived in terms of the general disillusionment among the middle classes with social democracy, given their failure to predict or comprehend the unravelling liberal consensus. 1980s and 90s neo-noir, postmodern and ‘slacker’ stories then symbolise thoroughgoing refusals of traditional fallacies (not paranoid detachment or self-indulgence as Dickenson seems to assume) by those growing up without the benefits of 1960s naiveté, making possible new forms of collective mobilisation such as anti-globalization. However, the current Hollywood activism is unfortunately translated onto the screen using largely retrograde narrative conventions, without the stylistic and technical experimentation previously employed to reflect underlying malaises in Western society. The most obvious symptoms of war and corporate excess are thus mistaken for ultimate causes – whereas, ironically, the deeper colonisation of intimate life by the instrumental logic of commodification has Hollywood at its vanguard.

The book’s argument that commercial studio pressures are decisive constraints on the degree of social consciousness allowed into films makes intuitive sense. However, the implication that suitably nimble strategies among liberal filmmakers guarantees progressive content does justice neither to contemporary political circumstances – where the intentions and interests of the intelligentsia are so widely, thoroughly and understandably distrusted – nor to a media culture in which superficial appearance is seductively fetishised to mask the depressing difficulties of real life. It also downplays independent cinema’s diverse and troubled ambivalence. Negotiating prevailing tastes and engaging deeper desires while also offering genuine critique is much trickier than the voluntaristic idealism of celebrities suggests. So radical directors often skilfully portray middle class protagonists striving to maintain their positions entangled in complex local hierarchies and histories, with very mixed consequences for those with less room to manouevre. Regrettably, the latter’s rich social dynamic is often simultaneously homogenised into frozen victimised masses thawed by individual heroics.

Therefore judgements of films like Cradle Will Rock (1999), Erin Brockovitch (2000), or Dogville (2003) as ‘radical’ is highly problematic given their respective nostalgia for elite ‘proletarian art’ when ‘people knew their place’; sanctimonious self-marketing by the diligently aspirational underclass; and patronising contempt for resentful victims of history struggling to maintain humanity. Conversely, Bulworth (1998) transcends charges of cynical fatalism with its respect for ghetto philosophy and disavowal of hope in professional careerism; and Fight Club (1999) is dismissed as reactionary nihilism despite demystifying middle class ‘consumer politics’ – specifically the fascistic appeal of cult violence viscerally countering the sterile slow death offered by corporate and therapeutic lifestyles. In short, political implications surely depend on the responses and subsequent actions of viewers, not simplistic readings of film narratives as realist manifestoes or their makers’ complacencies as gospel.

Hollywood’s New Radicalism is certainly justified in identifying a fresh wave of liberal content – as last year’s I Heart Huckabees, Crash, Lord of War and The Constant Gardener show, and to which a slew of forthcoming films will further testify. The resurgence of cinema documentary also shows the dissatisfaction of sizeable audiences with both blockbuster entertainment and corresponding current affairs spin. But while corruption and malpractice by government and business, environmental damage, and the effects of corporate imperialism on the poor at home and abroad are now gratifyingly familiar on screen, merely updating clichéd cinematic formulae reproduces traditional resolutions revolving around heroes and leaders. As Dickenson emphasizes, prominent figures like Tim Robbins and Sean Penn belatedly realised that mainstream party politics is constitutionally incapable of keeping progressive promises. But then many moviegoers saw through that façade years ago, yet elections are still won by media stars (e.g. Governors Schwarznegger of California and Jesse Ventura of Minnesota) and presidential circuses still distract activists.

Hollywood liberals now initiate and support grass-roots campaigns rather than just cosying up to Democrat stooges. But, as the Live 8 debacle again proved, any ‘anticapitalism’ advocating stronger states, fairer trade and global institutional charity scarcely dents the status quo. Neither will we hold our breaths waiting for serious revolutionary politics from such a notoriously dictatorial and capricious system as the cinema, whose ‘talent’ cherish charisma over depth or substance. Nonetheless, its global output seeps into billions of psyches, spectacularising the obsessions and fantasies of the powerful. Along with this book’s clarity in dissecting the recent history of the entertainment sector, it is most useful for understanding how the more well-meaning creative denizens of tinseltown wrestle with their consciences in Hollywood’s new recuperation. Complementary analysis of how their efforts influence the lives of viewers can then illuminate cultural industry strategies for profiting from 21st century dissent, along with suggesting tactics for resistance for ordinary producers of cultural meaning (on screen and off) which do not depend on enlightenment courtesy of the stars in their firmament.

Book review published in Freedom, Vol. 67, No. 5, March 2006.

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