It hasn't been a great year for Oscar selections. There are three unimpressive films positioned to win big later this month at the 85th Academy Awards, leading with Steven Spielberg's Lincoln. The other two are historical pieces as well. Ben Affleck's spy thriller Argo portrays Iranians as mobs of furious ciphers in the retelling of the 1979 U.S. embassy hostage taking in Tehran. Kathyrn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty begins with a solid 15 minutes of CIA waterboard-ing and other forms of detainee torture as it builds the story of Osama bin Laden's assassination by Seal Team Six in 2011.
European philosopher Slavoj Zizek has noted that Bigelow and her team had access to information so highly classified it was denied to the 9/11 Terrorism Commission. Why did the authorities greenlight access to scriptwriters? And why now for Hollywood to tell such tales? "There is only one answer: to normalize it [torture], to lower our ethical standards," concluded Zizek in The Guardian.
Writer Naomi Wolfe has compared Zero Dark Thirty director Bigelow to German filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl, maker of the infamous 1935 Nazi propaganda film Triumph of the Will. Whether the comparison is warranted or not, Hollywood action films have obviously grown more militaristic and Manichean over time, creating a bonanza for holster-sniffing scriptwriters and "terrorism studies" consultants.
Producers wanting access to military bling for big-budget war films must first submit scripts to the Pentagon for approval. If the film accords with the values of the military industrial complex, doors are opened and Apache helicopters fly through. A decade into "a war that may never end, at least in our lifetime," in the words of former vice president Dick Cheney, filmmakers have reprocessed institutional paranoia, pre-emptive force, and American exceptionalism into Oscar-friendly shoot-'em-ups.
I like action films as much as the next guy, but I often walk out of movie theatres feeling that my chain has been yanked, my eardrums hammered and my pocket picked. Zero Dark Thirty felt like a police procedural with a hollow moral core, at least to me.
The dispiriting propaganda issuing from the silver screen brings to mind Umberto Eco's notion of "Ur-Fascism" or "eternal fascism." Ur-Fascism also grows up and seeks consensus by exploiting and exacerbating the natural fear of difference, the Italian novelist observed. "The first appeal of a fascist or prematurely fascist movement is an appeal against the intruders. Thus Ur-Fascism is racist by definition," Eco wrote in the New York Review of Books in 1995.
This persistent historical cycle derives from individual or social frustration, the author added. "That is why one of the most typical features of the historical fascism was the appeal to a frustrated middle class, a class suffering from an economic crisis or feelings of political humiliation, and frightened by the pressure of lower social groups."
Another signature of Ur-Fascism is Orwellian-like Newspeak, the habit of euphemizing the unconscionable. What else is "enhanced interrogation techniques" but Newspeak for torture?
Everybody is educated to be a hero in such a climate, said Eco, with life lived "as permanent warfare." Last week the number one box office film in the U.S. was Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters, a fractured fairy tale in which brother and sister massacre hordes of women by gun, sword and crossbow. It's worth noting that the witch-hunt meme originated with the Catholic church's murder of millions of women across medieval Europe for practicing pre-Christian rituals and healing methods. Often, bogus Vatican "intelligence" and local snitching resulted in accusations of witchcraft. Sounds familiar. (Incredibly, one commentator online concluded that Gretel's rescue by her brother in the film does not make her an ideal feminist role model for an independent, strong woman!)
There is a serpentine path from the video game console to the gun range to the recruiting station or the Cineplex. Colorado's most recent mass shooter didn't fire off rounds at a Judd Apatow comedy or Disney animation. With his hair dyed orange like the Joker, he appeared at the premiere of Batman: The Dark Night Rises. At best, Hollywood's slick, violent entertainment distracts adults from an unpleasant reality; at worst it programs children for more of the same. Golden, gleaming Oscar, standing erect with a drawn sword, has never before seemed a more appropriate prize for Hollywood's reigning dream merchants and fairy tale restorers. www.geoffolson.com