The James Clayton Column: Why is Hollywood attacking America?

Feature James Clayton 3 May 2013 - 06:23

With Olympus Has Fallen set in the White House and Iron Man 3 featuring The Mandarin, James looks at Hollywood's attacks on US soil...

If you've been to the cinema in 2013, chances are you've seen the United States of America being attacked. Who's the whipping boy of choice, and what's the punchbag that Hollywood has been working out its aggressions on recently? Most often, it's been the US of A itself.

This is also true of 2012, and great stretches of film history before, yet when I gaze across the recent movie scene the masochism mission really stands out. Sometimes it's a subtle or subliminal presence - an underlying subtext - and sometimes it's explicit and literally exploding in the audience's collective face, spraying splinters of the White House's front porch into their eyeballs. Assaults on America are occurring over and over in the cinema auditorium and you, citizen, are a returning spectator to the self-destructive fantasy spectacle.

Before I seek to find meaning in the malice I'll first address what I personally get out of this as one of those returning spectators. I come at these movies as a non-American who's particularly enamoured with the USA and wishes he lived there. I like basketball, motion pictures, can-do enthusiasm and using Americanisms, dude, so it feels like a distant spiritual home in a way.

Regardless, as much as I dig American culture and the beautiful people of the States, I can't completely cast off a critical viewpoint. Speaking generally, America is the Big Dog and it's nice to see big dogs get pounded occasionally. For the nation's dominance and posturing as 'Leader of the Free World', for its status as the figurehead of capitalism and for various other bad things (cultural imperialism, the policies of particular political administrations, high fructose corn syrup, etc) it deserves a bit of a bashing. That slice of schadenfreude is served up sans corn syrup in fiction films.

You can understand the appeal to audiences who enjoy streaks of anti-American sentiment, but what's in it for Hollywood? Ultimately, movies hold up a mirror to real life, so the films are simply recreating actuality and adhering to an 'art imitates life' ethos. Bombings and shootings keep happening in the country, and there's a constant fear of terrorism or attacks from hostile antagonists like Iran or North Korea. Arguably, the stories you see at the cinema are dramatic, action-packed embellishments of events you might see on the news, except they're stylised and safely contained on a screen, unlike real-life atrocities.

Reflection of reality aside, it's feasible to figure that the notable America-smashing in film links to a psychological atmosphere and prevailing cultural mood. Post 9/11, the national psyche is more conscious of the country's vulnerability and intermittent tragic incidents serve as a distressing reminder.

Cinema provides a space in which to articulate those anxieties, exorcise the fears and deal with dread feelings, but I reckon there's something else pushing the self-flagellation. There's got to be more than the mirror motive driving Hollywood's on-screen assailments and, furthermore, the audience's eager acceptance of what it experiences.

Casting my mind over the past movie year and the releases due in upcoming months, I detect a certain impulse in the ether - whether it be anti-American, repressed masochistic urges or something other. Psychic strains are crossing space and time, coalescing in the collective subconscious to find eventual creative expression through the cinema medium. Or perhaps it's just a coincidence that several films are simultaneously pummelling the White House with pyrotechnics.

I can't be certain and I'm just a simple old country doctor, Jim, not a metaphysicist who understands the intrinsic, esoteric workings of the universe. Still, as a doctor - I'm not really a doctor but in America you can be whatever you want to be so damn it, I'll be a doctor - I believe I can perhaps shed some light on the deeper motives that American moviemakers have for wanting to hurt the USA.

Of course, to attempt that, first of all I've got to try and comprehend Hollywood's relationship to America. It (and it's an It made up of many mixed Its) is American but may also be perceived as being America by the wider world. Is it an embodiment of America, an extension of the USA or a microcosmic sub-entity? Are these movie fantasies similar to imagined attacks on family members or on the self and is there, thus, some subconscious Oedipal kick or ego-death trip underscoring the special effects spectacle and subversive story beats?

It's an interesting and contentious issue if it's even a real issue at all. It could simply all be coincidence and I might just be fabricating lofty eaglecrap theories out of nothing because I'm not actually a credible, qualified doctor. Regardless, I'm going to generalise by configuring Hollywood as an avatar incarnation of the USA and scrutinise what lies beneath the surface.

White House Down, World War Z, Man Of Steel and other destructive juggernauts are looming on the horizon raring to raise hell on Uncle Sam's home turf. For now, though, I'll focus on the recent films that have already received a wide release and study the subtexts. How does Hollywood really feel about the homeland and what's the real reasoning behind the blockbuster beatdowns?

America hates its history

There be skeletons in this great nation's closet, and some directors like to raid that wardrobe and drag the retrieved bones out into the spotlight. The Mandarin made remarks about the massacre of the Native Americans in Iron Man 3 but the true horror of the USA's evolution was addressed in epic fashion as a main focal point in Lincoln and Django Unchained. To some extent people can comprehend, overlook or even defend the darker propositions of history that made the world what it is today. Slavery isn't one of those things, and the truth that America was built on the back of such an inhuman institution remains an uncomfortable taboo.

Enter Spielberg and Tarantino to judiciously damn the country's heritage and force film viewers to face ancient abhorrence. With Honest Abe Day-Lewis slamming down the shame of the nation and black Django shooting down the wicked white slavers, everyone exorcises the guilt and gets to cinematically trash the traumas of tragic history.

America hates its political system

The American political system? "It's a mess!" to quote Marty Huggins of election comedy The Campaign. Where the Zack Galifianakis and Will Ferrell comedy went for spoofery, other films have gone for the jugular and aimed striking stabs at the States' corrupt legal and jurisdictional institutions. Note, for instance, how Broken City and The Place Beyond The Pines showcase sleaze while Lincoln remarks on the inefficiency, compromise and self-serving dishonesty of Washington's political machine.

If those critiques aren't hyperkinetic enough for you and you want grand theatre, Iron Man 3 has assaults on Air Force One and Olympus Has Fallen shoots up the White House. All of this is valid because G.I. Joe: Retaliation has reminded us that the President is actually an imposter made out of nanomites. Smashing the system in violent style is, thus, providing a great service to the misled American population.

America hates its enemies and wants to remind you of how dangerous they are

Suburban American families and those who aren't panicky paranormal enthusiasts always need reminding that their neighbourhoods are threatened by alien invasion, which is where flicks like Oblivion, Dark Skies and The Watch come in. Turning to more likely terrestrial opponents, though, the movies are there to illustrate the ever-present danger represented by terrorists and North Korea. Individual anarchic threats like the Mandarin and Bane of The Dark Knight Rises are a natural cultural accompaniment to the War on Terror but what's most interesting is the escalation of North Korea to premier status as Ultimate Nemesis.

You can tell that we've moved on from the mockery of marionette Kim Jong-il in Team America as G.I. Joe: Retaliation regards the DPRK as the most dangerous of atomic nations. Red Dawn and Olympus Has Fallen raise the threat by having North Korea actually invade the Pacific coast and D.C. respectively. Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un could declare war any time, so consider Red Dawn and Olympus Has Fallen as essential instructional PSAs. 

America hates its culture

As the Mandarin muses that America is like a fortune cookie - fake, empty and characterised by a nasty aftertaste - many other movies likewise lacerate the consumerist pop culture that the country produces and peddles (or repackages and brands as its own). You don't have to go too far to catch semi-hypocritical critique of the American Dream, but I was personally most struck by the subversive, iconoclastic thrust of Harmony Korine's Spring Breakers.

Fronted by teen pop stars and James Franco's gangsta rap crime-king wannabe, Spring Breakers artistically highlights just how empty and amoral aspirational consumer culture is. The hedonistic parties and the crime sprees driven by false needs will not fill the holes in the ennui-stricken characters' (non-characters?) souls. The American Dream offers superficial thrills but no substance, and now James Franco is so upset about it all he's wailing Britney Spears tunes over a grand piano. It must have been a very bad fortune cookie.

America just wants to see cinematic self-destruction

If America hates itself and America likes excess, guns and action it makes sense that they all come together for a combustible cocktail shaken up for big screen presentation. If it's got better production values than the news, if it stars outstanding actors and if you can enjoy it with popcorn, even better. Plus, it's a brilliant bonus if Batman or Iron Man are on hand and involved in the carnage. God bless America, and God bless the American moviemakers who shoot it so well.

James Clayton is going to make it to America (the land of his dreams) one day and is simply waiting for either an invite from the Nanomite President or the fortune cookie that instructs him to begin his invasion. You can visit his website or follow him on Twitter.

You can read James' previous column here.

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