American-Made Claptrap Butchers History and Entertainment at One Blow

Hollywood is right: we inhabit a sick nation. One irrefutable proof of this is the non-stop claptrap churned out by Hollywood.

I don’t write movie reviews—and I did not, in any case, make it halfway through this sixth-grade collision of a camera with a boilerplate script. One does find oneself, however, retreating to the Tube over holidays and other occasions that bring relatives together who’d rather not listen to each other talk any longer than necessary.

Not being a film critic (the last great war movie I saw may have been Breaker Morant), I admittedly have little to fall back on by way of reference and context. I’ll simply content myself with saying this much about American Made: it appears to me to extend upon an incomprehensible style than even I can identify as a template (thanks to earlier holidays and similarly forcible exposure to “what’s hot”). Why would you combine a comedy with an opus claiming to be about history? Or to put it another way, what would cause anyone to view history as a stock of cliché jokes hatched at the expense of clueless two-dimensional cartoon characters? Was The Honeymooners the story of D-Day? Was Barney Fife at Thermopylae?

This idiot flick purports to tell the truth of the Iran-Contra scandal through the eyes of a pilot who graduated from taking reconnaissance photos to smuggling drugs to smuggling arms to… well, as I confessed, I made my excuses and left the room about halfway through. The pilot very annoyingly projects an almost utter incompetency in world geography, basic English diction (I told you a band of sixth-graders produced the script), and “buenos dias” level Spanish… yet, curiously, he’s meant to be cool. I suppose the subtext is that only an imbecile (and all Southerners are imbeciles to Hollywood) would get into bed with the CIA, and that our foreign operations are all run exclusively by such imbeciles. Or not quite exclusively: the recruiter of imbeciles is himself something like a combination of Mafia thug, Machiavellian cynic, and Gestapo fanatic. And lest that description mislead anyone into suspecting depth of characterization… no: I’m trying to portray a train wreck of stereotypes, not a coherent human psyche.

The blonde wife was the one source of relief, being extraordinarily cute—but that remark, of course, is no longer permissible thanks to its noxious degree of “objectifying” (even though her object-value is the “actress’s” sole reason for being in the film, and even though, as noted, all parts are thoroughly stereotypical).

Somehow, in Hollywood, you can project all the moral trespasses you claim most to deplore—bigotry, sexism, greed, corruption, exploitation, hypocrisy, gross abuse of power—onto representatives of the political ideology you most despise… and emerge satisfied that you have recreated history. This is a game that I observed to be played last year during another holiday “bonding” ordeal whose first hour I failed to endure: an infantilized rendition of a gun-running scandal called War Dogs. Still waiting for Hollywood’s take on Operation Fast and Furious, which actually possessed many of the qualities found in the undertakings of Middle School drop-outs.

Is this kind of thing, I wonder, just the utopian-brat class’s cathartic urination on adult events too complex and uncooperative to leave its hallucinogenic worldview unembarrassed? I mean, does the general public really pay money to sit through such pseudo-artistic excrement? Even worse… do young people in the audience, perhaps, really believe that history is a cartoon produced by bungling villains with cliché-filled balloons trailing out of their mouths?

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Hollywood: Feeding On What It Most Hates

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?