Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Film Crit Hulk has an epiphany tha tmovies are propaganda


Did you know that America still makes propaganda films?

Oh yeah. All the damn time. Seriously, ask yourself how many war films or even just blockbusters still feature US Military rushing into conflicts? How many feature these men sacrificing themselves? Doing their best, maybe making mistakes, but always emerging out the other side as somber heroes in some way? How many superhero movies feature said heroes rushing in, saving faceless foreigners in the crowd? How many sad, tragic films end up showing the American flag as some kind of beacon of hope? How many, even the most critical, represent Americans as being the most important people at the center the world purely by virtue as always being the main characters?

It's strange that we never think of this as being propaganda. No, we think of IT as being "default." Stories that are just stories. And they're all Americans because we're just reflecting our own selves. It's the kind of thing we take so easily for granted. I remember when first watching Doctor Who, I kept marveling at the idea that aliens were always picking London as their target vs. the "obvious" choices of New York or DC. But I was thinking of us as a default. Seems so harmless, right? Well, when these American movies go out into the larger world, you better believe they manifest as propaganda. For they paint a picture of the world that says, we are the center, we are the storytellers, we are the ones who matter, while they are just the fodder for conflict. As an outsider, you can see it plain as day. But from the inside, you miss the real problem that these movies often represent our foreign interests as purposeful, yet sometimes complex, but ultimately nothing short of benevolent, as we are the heroes of all the "the others" out there. This is absolutely propaganda. And perhaps we would we see it more clearly if we could get out of our own myopia and associations. Or to put it more succinctly...

The thing is, what I'm not 100% sure FilmCritHulk fully appreciates is that Wonder Woman can be (and has been) considered Americanist propaganda. Josephine Livingston made a point of saying so over at The New Republic.  In the comments section there's a reliable mention of how all art is propaganda but that not all propaganda is art.  Let's take a step further, all art is cultural imperialism and the ultimate question is what cause that imperialism is for.   I've enjoyed reading FilmCritHulk over the years but FCH might find it easy to forget that blue state cultural imperialism is still cultural imperialism.  It's no less a colonialist Pax Americana if we're talking about Star Trek  than if it's Red Dawn.  What may characterize contemporary American liberal art criticism is a bad conscience about the nature of the cultural imperialism.  It's easy to look down on the military industrial establishment while pardoning the sins of the entertainment industries as sacrifices and struggles taken up in the name of art. 

As the comments roll on one commenter using the alias MysteryArab insisted:

Propaganda is only so when its core function is warfare. To claim otherwise is to claim Cadbury's ads are propagandizing on behalf of chocolate. These fields do overlap, primarily because they are dependent on their mediums. They are not the same, though. There's a difference between ideology in art and propaganda. Calling Black Hawk Down propaganda, for example, is like calling beer commercials pornographic. I get what you're saying, and of course we can find some cerebral, categorical overlap, but you're not gonna jerk off to a Miller TV spot are you.

So marketing is marketing but it's only propaganda when the marketing is aimed at warfare?  How literally might one have to mean shots fired about the warfare part?  The cola wars were marketing wars but there was no propaganda as such?  That seems ever so slightly hard to believe.  It's not just that the fields overlap, it's that they differ not so much in the tools of the trade as the level of direction.  IF someone wanted to say the distinction between propaganda and marketing is that of a state vs a corporation using coordinated mass media and multimedia campaigning to achieve an end then maybe that holds up. 

Still ... that "warfare" assertion seems pretty weak.  To borrow categories introduced by Jacques Ellul half a century ago, couldn't this sort of claim mistakenly fixate on propaganda of agitation at the expense of considering more pervasive categories such as sociological propaganda or propaganda of integration?  When Marston made Wonder Woman he was explicit that he was making propaganda to depict the kind of women he believed should run the world.  It can seem as though there is a pious bromide that propaganda has to have some nationalist/militarist end in mind in order to qualify as such.  That hardly seems to be necessary.

As Ellul put it decades ago, there's a temptation to regard "our" stuff as news and factual reporting whereas "they" make propaganda when we've reached a point where every modern technologically "advanced" society cannot help but employ all possible methods of propaganda up to and including what is now regarded as public education. 

There was at least one commenter, if memory serves, who wrote that if it took Film Crit Hulk watching a Chinese action film to recognize that films are propagandistic that's sorta too bad. 


Cal of Chelcice said...

Beyond even propaganda, I occasionally consider how the play, which the film is a form of, has always functioned in a distinctly cultic setting and for a religious purpose. Ancient Greek drama wasn't merely eating, drinking, and having an emotional experience. It was directly tied into the cultic rites of the gods (namely Dionysus and Demeter in Athens). Having read some esoterica and watching films like Eyes Wide Shut critically, it's interesting to wonder how this cultic dimension has carried over. There are numerous films that intend to guide you into a new subjectivity in order to have a virtual experience. Given that Freud intended psychoanalysis to function religiously, it's interesting to ponder that classic scene of subjectivity transfer in Psycho when Norman Bates has dinner with the female protagonist. In traditional animism rites, one wore animal or ancestor masks to invite said being to possess. There's so many movies that criss-cross traditional spiritual beliefs and myths and psychoanalytic archetypes vis. Jung.

So, anyway, I don't intend to spook, but I keep a certain kind of self-consciousness about what I'm doing when I decide to watch something.

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

" I occasionally consider how the play, which the film is a form of, has always functioned in a distinctly cultic setting and for a religious purpose. Ancient Greek drama wasn't merely eating, drinking, and having an emotional experience. It was directly tied into the cultic rites of the gods (namely Dionysus and Demeter in Athens)."

Oh yeah! That's what I've been reading about with David Roberts' trilogy of books on modernism and the total work of art. He zeroed in on how the art was the religious rite/cult of the ancient societies and how in the wake of the perceived decline of Christendom in the West what could artists create that would be a suitable recovery the ancient Greco-Roman cults that could plausibly replace the Christian heritage?

That kind of animistic transfer is something I've been kicking around bringing front and center in "Optimus Prime and the Religion of Toys" that I'm incubating for Mockingbird.

I don't feel spooked by that approach, since it's the kind of approach my friend James Harleman has advocated. We met at Mars Hill a bit more than 15 years ago and I've been overdue to discuss his book Cinemagogue for a while. I meant to review it years ago but MH blew up and then other stuff happened in offline life and I just haven't written about the book yet.

This year has been more a year for composing guitar sonatas and reading a lot than writing reviews. I'm thinking of actually republishing all of my BTAS essays here at WtH for the 25th anniversary, for instance. My essay about Clayface got trimmed a bit as I recall ... .

Cal of Chelcice said...

I looked up his blog and it left me a bit uneasy. Now I only skimmed it, but it seemed to me that Harleman's material glowed with Kuyperian optimism. While I certainly have a catholic sense of tradition and authority, I'm reformed enough to distrust any joyful grab at the means. It's like Ellul's vicious critique of Billy Graham and his adaptation of mass media propaganda for evangelism. Perhaps there's a reason that the Apostle's did not proscribe worship in the form of a mystery cult or with an emphasis on dramatization. Even a critical stance is not necessarily a safe guard. Per the classic scene, the Ark of the Covenant melted your face whether you had good or bad intentions, the only way to survive is to not look.

Cal of Chelcice said...

I mean prescribe, not proscribe!

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

Well, at the risk of just using acronyms to articulate our respective differences James is RCA and I'm PCA, which might telegraph a bit in itself. We're both what I'd understand to be moderately conservative Reformed types but he leans more Clark Kent and I lean much more Bruce Wayne, which may be an apt analogy since James and his wife introduced me to Justice League Unlimited.

That said, I'm not sure he's even familiar with Kuyper as such. Would have to ask him at some point. We both concluded after our years at MH that there was a lot of reinventing of wheels that didn't need reinventing.

James' analysis is more globalist and generalist than what I do. As you know, when I decide to dig into something I dig in pretty far and deep, whereas James has a more public/extroverted approach. He's more about the big picture and I'm more into labyrinths of narrative and character continuity, heh, whether this is writing about cartoons or documenting the history of MH. :)