Jan 14, 2010

James Cameron and the politics of the blockbuster

It became commonplace last summer to observe that the right have become the new left. Where once it was the left who tipped tea bags into Boston harbor to protest the stranglehold of big oil, now it is the right pinning teabags to their hats to protest the growth of big government. An angry mob on the streets used to indicate that Move.On or ACT-UP had been sowing their usual sedition; now it tells you that Glenn Beck is having a book signing. If further proof were needed, James Cameron’s Avatar has been greeted on the right with the kind of immediate snarling antagonism reserved for Oliver Stone pics. In an article entitled “Cameron’s ‘Avatar’ Is a Big, Dull, America-Hating, PC Revenge Fantasy,” Big Hollywood’s John Nolte called it “Deathwish 5 for leftists.” No less an authority than MovieGuide, “the family guide to Christian movie reviews,” awarded the movie “four Marxes and an Obama” for its “abhorrent New Age, pagan, anti-capitalist worldview that promotes Goddess worship and the destruction of the human race”—an unfortunate formulation that also happens to clip most of my favorite Disney movies. But whatever. You get the idea. Drudge has been providing a daily drip-feed of joy-killing stories (“Vatican says no masterpiece,” “Audiences experience Avatar blues; depression and suicidal thoughts...”). In the words of one right-wing blogger: “This is cinema for the Hate America crowd.” Once you’ve gotten over your shock at seeing James Cameron pilloried as a typical Hollywood liberal—dude wrote Rambo for heaven’s sake!— the first response to this is: What took them so long? Ever since George Lucas revealed that the real model for his evil empire in the Star Wars movies was not Britain but America, it has been common practice for the makers of summer blockbusters to encode cryptic commentary of American foreign policy into their car chases and fireballs. Last year, The Dark Knight descended into a probing disquisition on the efficacy of torture. This summer, the makers of Star Trek conducted an equally spirited back-and-forth on the merits of diplomacy versus the phasers when dealing with obstreperous Romulans. None of those movies made a billion dollars in 21 days, however. Not only is Avatar the first time that the right has dipped its toe into the phosphorescent waters of allegorical science fiction, but the first time they’ve mobilized a hate-a-thon against a movie that stands to become extremely profitable. Normally when they come gunning for a movie, it’s meek, well-intentioned granola like Lions for Lambs, Rendition, or Good Night, and Good Luck—movies that can only perform a single one-armed push-up before collapsing face-down into the mud. When Michael Medved published his snit-fit broadside against Hollywood liberals, Hollywood Versus America, in 1993, he reserved the full force of his fury for such muscular Trotskyist tracts as Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ, Total Recall, and The Prince of Tides. Thus proving that when it comes to threatening the very fabric of democracy, the only thing that rivals heretical sex and bone-cracking violence is a picture about therapy with Barbara Streisand. Or maybe I am misinterpreting Medved’s thesis. Maybe it was just: Barbara Streisand! A blockbuster like Terminator 2: Judgment Day, on the other hand, Medved wisely ignored, since it would have scrambled his narrative: liberal elites have forgotten how to make good old-fashioned movies for real America. Cameron’s Avatar therefore puts the right in a bind. Having for years cited the failure of movies like In the Valley of Elah and Lions for Lambs as proof that Hollywood is too liberal-elitist to connect with the real America, they’re now turning on a movie that has done just that. Writing in the London Daily Telegraph, Nile Gardner professed himself shocked—shocked I tell you—by “the roars of approval which greeted the on-screen killing of US military personnel were a shock to the system, especially at a time when the United States is engaged in a major war in Afghanistan....” concluding that Avatar was “ one of the most left-wing films in the history of modern American cinema, and perhaps the most commercially successful political movie of our time.” The last time I looked American cinemagoers were not well-disposed to reward pictures offering them a sprightly mixture of ecological censure and high treason. And indeed, those killed marines are no such thing, but members of a Blackwater-style mercenary operation. Audiences are not stupid. Neither is Cameron. Yes, he included a bunch of tone deaf references to the Iraq war in his movie—“shock and awe,” “fighting terror with terror” and so on, every one of which succeeds magnificently in yanking you out of the immersive spectacle as surely as a kick to the shins. But any desire to push the Avatar-is-liberal-propaganda argument further must be met by a principled push-back against the incursion of so grindingly and narrowly ideological a focus into so mercurial and prismatic a medium as motion pictures. In other words: it’s about a bunch of blue people. Seriously. I haven’t seen this kind of wild mangling of pop culture since the heady hey-day of cultural studies, when you couldn’t move for seminars attended by four people entitled “Totally Recalling Arnold: Sex and Violence in the New Bad Future.” When it comes to standing in front of the freight train of popular filmmaking in the hopes that your use of the word “meta-textual” will bring the whole thing whistling to a halt, the left are so much better than the right. Academics on the left have subjected D. W. Griffiths’ Birth of a Nation and Victor Fleming’s Gone with the Wind to years of interpretative waterboarding. More recently, Peter Biskind subjected the seventies to a righteous inferno of indignation over the success of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. “Star Wars swept all the chips off the table,” William Friedkin told Biskind. “What happened was like when McDonald’s got a foothold, the taste for good food just disappeared... everything has gone back toward a big sucking hole.” Beneath the racy gossip of Biskind’s book, it wasn’t hard to discern the familiar strictures of old-school Marxism, wherein all money is evil, all success underserved, and class struggle the only eternal verity. Others on the left have made their peace with the Hollywood money makers—in their own inimitable fashion. A film like Ridley Scott’s Alien, for instance, has attracted acres of critical commentary, some of it readable. In a paper entitled “Son Of A Bitch: Feminism Humanism and Science in Alien,” Judith Newton found the third-act survival of the two woman and one black character “especially promising,” but disapproved of the panties Sigourney Weaver strips down to in the film’s final sequence—“not standard gear for space duty,” she noted sternly. “Ripley, though in many ways a fine and thrilling hero, is robbed of radical thrust.” James Kavenagh, in “Feminism and Anxiety in Alien” (Science Fiction Studies, vol 7, no 3, 1980) dissented: “I would disagree with an ideological denunciation of the film as simply another exercise in conventional sexism on the basis of the scene in which Ripley removes her uniform to appear in T-shirt and panties. Such criticism would be hard-pressed to avoid repressive and self-defeating assumptions about what constitutes sexism, and irrelevant assumption about what constitutes the film and its ideological discourse.” A cunning move—the panties weren’t sexist; the accusation that the panties were sexist was sexist. “Much has been written about the final scene, in which Ripley undresses before the camera, on the grounds that its voyeurism undermines her role as successful heroine,” arbitrated Barbara Creed, proposing a solution designed to unite both pro-panties and anti-panties camps: What if the panties “signify an acceptable and in this context reassuring fetish object of the normal woman?” Then, “the final sequence works, not only to dispose of the alien, but also to repress the nightmare image of the monstrous-feminine with the text of patriarchal discourses.” Voila. Easy when you know how. Academics on the left have perfected a way of writing about the movies that suggest only passing aquaintance with actual movie theatres, or the things rumored to show inside of them.
Maybe the right shouldn’t feel so bad about its mangling of Avatar. James Cameron was always going to be a tough nut to crack. His politics are an intriguing salad: doveish bromides strapped into the titanium exoskeleton of a hawk. Or as Colonel Quaritch says in Avatar, “A marine inside a Naivi body. That’s a potent mix.” It is, especially for a medium as fluid as cinema, which quickly bores of people in perfect agreement with themselves. Remember that Cameron was born in Canada in 1954, which means that when he was five, he saw the United States invade Vietnam; when he was 21, he saw them extricate themselves, which means that he spent his formative teenage years—the years he spent getting into guns and trucks and girls—watching the giant that lived next door receive the beating of its life. It left him with an almost forensic fascination for How The Mighty Fall, his enduring theme as a filmmaker from The Terminator through to Titanic. Think of the marines in Aliens, whooping it up in the drop ship as they load their gunclips, only to find that their superior firepower is useless on LV426 for fear of triggering the plant’s nuclear core. Their armor hissing with alien acid, they cannot ditch it fast enough. The film is a study in military hubris. Cameron may have beefed about what happened to his Rambo script—“The action was mine, the politics Stallone’s,” he would later complain—but he needn’t have worried: he already shot his Vietnam picture. Or think of the enemy he devised in Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Almost any other director would have come up with a Terminator that was bigger than Arnold—heftier, more hi-tech—but Cameron tacked the other way, devising a slim, sinuous shape-shifter, a Porsche to Arnie’s Panzer tank. What makes T2 such eerie viewing now is seeing how accurately it foreshadows the very real threat America would face on 9/11, a cellular, hydra-headed demon who absorbs every punch, its molecules scattering before regrouping again, deploying the sheer might of its attackers against them. Cameron has an uncanny feel for asymmetrical fights: it’s what gives his films such a vice-like grip on the national unconscious and makes him such a useful filmmaker to have around right now. If I were on the right, I’d be celebrating the director for his keen-eyed, conservative critique of Wilsonian foreign adventurism. Yes, its regrettable that the pivot point of the final battle hinges on the incursion of a deity, no less, but I also learned some interesting stuff about how to subdue any huge flame-colored dragons I see flying around the skies. You attack from above, where he least expects it. “Tarouk is the biggest baddest boy in the sky,” Jake sully informs us. “He never gets attacked.” With yet another airplane bomber in American custody, it would seem we cannot get enough of that lesson. — my article for Slate here


  1. The Actor Arnold is one of my favorate... he is so great in action movie i really ike his movie transformer...

  2. "A film like Cameron’s Alien"...

    Ridley Scott's Alien, surely? ;-)

    Very interesting!

  3. Thanks, I've made the correction