I doubt that the creators of War Dogs are remotely aware of the title’s Shakespearean allusion, which is as accidental as every other connection with the past in our post-culture. You probably saw the commercial fifty times in October. A couple of punks are getting rich selling arms to the U.S. government that they’ve bought from shady sources all around the world (e.g., Albania, awash in Chinese weapons and ammo after the Cold War). The central plot is supposedly factual. The Bush Administration deregulated arms sales in a manner that would allow small dealers to pursue government contracts… and this blow on behalf of efficient spending of public funds and against crony contracting with mega-corporations is–of course–represented by the film as corrupt and incompetent. The two f-bombing idiots might have stepped straight out of the scenes of at least half a dozen recent Wall Street/Jordan Belfort movies: thinking of nothing but money, doped up for half their waking hours, and aware of what they’re doing only to the extent that they understand themselves to be doing nothing–to be playing a shell game with no pea under any of the husks.
My son wanted to watch the flick over Christmas break, and I have to disclose that I myself didn’t make it through to the end. I’m really more curious to know what impact this kind of fare has on his generation than to find out how the cartoon ends. (As a student of cliche, I pretty much know that after twenty minutes.) When popular culture surrounds you with images of businessmen either boring each other to death in gray flannel suits or snorting coke and plotting how to get at the pensions of widows, how can your impression of reality not be affected?
To say that the entertainment media are undermining the morale of Western capitalism is itself a cliche, I know. It would be far more interesting to spend some time reflecting on how capitalist greed and amorality have created the entertainment industry. All I feel inclined to jot down for the moment, though, is that I can’t really see any coherent, premeditated conspiracy behind the demoralization. People tell me that academe is also trying to subvert our way of life, and I respond the same way: I believe the “establishment-bashing” is more accident–more being part of the club (the anti-establishment establishment) than deliberate sabotage. It’s the sort of ganging together that you observe on any playground.
Hollywood’s case is uniquely interesting to me, however, in that it makes enormous profits off of what its operatives see as humanity’s worst tendencies. Violence is evil–but a film without violence is a bore and a bomb; so Hollywood creates visions of violence that exceed almost anything perceptible in real life, and then either blames the causes of violence on the “evil class” or celebrates the violent rebel for blowing up that class. Exploiting the vulnerable is evil… so Hollywood exploits females in sexual displays approaching or surpassing the pornographic and the sadistic in order to paint the exploiters as arch-villains. You live only by representing the thing that you most hate, so that you may both legitimize it as a real and formidable presence in the world and cast yourself as the constant, faithful crusader against its dark power. Like the Puritan censor whose job is to smell out smut and send its producers to jail, you keep your nose in the dirt 24/7. If the dirt should suddenly go away, your perverted vital energies would gnaw themselves into oblivion.
Will we ever take a good, hard look at how we amuse ourselves, how our amusements are leaking into our souls, and how we allow clowns and impersonators to have such influence over our cultural life?