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Rosenbaum Jonathan: Movies as Politics

Rosenbaum Jonathan: Movies as Politics

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Preferred Citation: Rosenbaum, Jonathan.
Movies as Politics.
Berkeley, Calif London:University of California Press, c1997 1997. http://ark.cdlib.org/ark:/13030/ft6r29p15c/
To Samuel Fuller
Preferred Citation: Rosenbaum, Jonathan.
Movies as Politics.
Berkeley, Calif London:University of California Press, c1997 1997. http://ark.cdlib.org/ark:/13030/ft6r29p15c/
To Samuel Fuller
For diverse kinds of help on these pieces over the years, I'm especially grateful to ThomAndersen, Raymond Bellour, Cecilia Burokas, Ernest Callenbach, Richard Combs, RichardCorliss, Margaret Davis, Eduardo De Gregorio, Natasa
, David Ehrenstein,Pamela Falkenberg, Sandy Flitterman-Lewis, Carolyn Fireside, Penelope Houston, Richard T.Jameson, Kitry Krause, Bill Krohn, Michael Lenehan, Lorenzo Mans, Tom Milne, Laura Molzhan,Marco Müller, Richard Peña, John Pym, Bérénice Reynaud, Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa, Gavin Smith,Alison True, Michael Walsh, and Melinda Ward. For more recent help on this book, I'd like tothank Edward Dimendberg, Bernard Eisenschitz, Tom Gunning, Kent Jones, Adrian Martin,James Naremore, Gilberto Perez, Yuval Taylor, Alan Williams, and the John Simon GuggenheimMemorial Foundation.
Movies As Politics
Jonathan Rosenbaum
Berkeley · Los Angeles · Oxford 
 © 1997 The Regents of the University of California
Page 1 of 262Movies As Politics7/22/2006http://content.cdlib.org/xtf/view?docId=ft6r29p15c&chunk.id=0&doc.view=print
A feeling of having no choice is becoming more and more widespread in American life, and particularly amongsuccessful people, who are supposedly free beings. On a concrete plane, the lack of choice is often adepressing reality. In national election years, you are free to choose between Johnson and Goldwater orJohnson and Romney or Reagan, which is the same as choosing between a Chevrolet and a Ford—there is amarginal difference in styling. Just as in American hotel rooms you can decide whether or not to turn on theair conditioner (that is your business), but you cannot open the window.
—Mary McCarthy, Vietnam, 1967
I await the end of Cinema with optimism.
—Jean-Luc Godard, Cahiers du cinéma, 1965
Thirty years later, both these general sentiments describe an impasse in American life that isvividly reflected in the movies we see and the ways that we see them. If the range of culturalchoices apparently available at any given time merits some correlation with the range of political choices, it is also true that Godard's optimistic apocalypse heralds a new scale of values, though we don't yet know enough about these to be able to judge them with anyconfidence. Whether we condemn or applaud the prospect, a first priority might be a simpleevaluation of where we are.It probably isn't being presumptuous to assume that, in one way or another, as we nearthe century's end, everyone reading these lines is awaiting the end of 
kind of cinema,either optimistically or pessimistically. Whatever name or interpretation we give to thisclimate, we all feel that something is in the process of ending—unless we feel that it has endedalready. Something is also in the process of beginning; but whatever we choose to call it, Idon't think we can call it cinema in the old sense. The rapid spread of movies on video, theastronomical escalation of movie advertising, the depletion of government support for filmpreservation or new independent work (never very large to begin with), the return to a systemof theater monopolies and the concomitant phasing out of independent exhibition (whichallows for such
 alternative fare as art films and midnight movies)—what amounts, in short, to the junking of an already precarious film culture in the interests of short-term financial gains for bigbusiness—suggest a historical period being sealed off, so that the past isn't only anothercountry but a different planet, a different language, a different set of aspirations. Like MaryMcCarthy, we can learn this new language well or badly and say all kinds of different thingswith it, but we can't use it to lead us back to cinema in the old sense (cinema, let us say, thatwas still on speaking terms with the era of Griffith, Murnau, and Stroheim). That's a windowthat has been nailed shut, and unless we break through the glass—destroy the institutions andthe technology that separate us from the past—we have to get used to living in airconditioning.With only a few modifications, the above was written over a decade ago—first for a lectureat the Rotterdam Film Festival's Market in January 1985, then for an article published in
Sightand Sound
the following summer. The fact that much of what I said then still seems applicablesuggests not so much a protracted death rattle for cinema as a certain freezing over of filmhistory itself, at least as it's usually being recounted.I'm writing now in the fall of 1995, when the recent number one box office hit is SEVEN, astylish, "metaphysical" serial-killer movie whose designer grimness can be said to carry acertain ideological comfort: if mankind is hopelessly blighted and evil is both omnipresent andtriumphant—expressionist notions virtually carried over like dress styles from TAXI DRIVER
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(1976) and BLADE RUNNER (1982)—then it stands to reason that political change isn'teven worth hoping for and that legislation designed to make millionaires richer whileincreasing the suffering of the homeless is the only "realistic" kind we can contemplate. Yet iwe accept this made-to-order postulate, we have to overlook the fact that SEVEN originallyhad an even grimmer ending than it does now—an ending revised as soon as previewaudiences objected. We have to consider, in short, that the ideological demands made of entertainment are no more contradictory or foolish than those made of government or thenews in general, and that these are usually based on short-term guesses about what makes usfeel good, not long-term investments in what might make us stronger or wiser.After all, only a few years ago, during the Gulf War, there was another serial-killer moviethat helped to create the vogue for SEVEN: THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS. What seemedhorrific to me at the time about the specious claim that this movie was teaching us somethingimportant about evil or psychosis or violence was that it was being made just as we weregleefully devastating a country and people already oppressed by a dictator—mainly, it seemed,for the sake of holding a weapons trade fair. So our fascination with one individual, HannibalLecter, killing without compunction, may have betrayed a certain unconscious narcissism onour part; in fact, that crazy shrink had nothing
 on us. Moreover, our censored war news at the time also focused mainly on one demonicindividual, Saddam Hussein, and clearly all the corpses we and he were creating were made toseem secondary. This was star politics with a vengeance, and when Anthony Hopkins waseventually handed an Oscar, it was oddly evocative of the standing ovation George Bushreceived in Congress.A few months later, TERMINATOR 2: JUDGMENT DAY brought back THE TERMINATOR'Sformer villain, the Arnold Schwarzenegger robot, this time as a hero—neatly echoing Bush'sown reversals of policy (albeit in the opposite direction) toward Saddam in the Gulf and, twoyears earlier, Noreiga in Panama. In all three cases, the euphoria of watching a mean machineplow through everything in its path—whether this was Panama City, Baghdad, or an Americanfreeway—clearly mattered more than whether the machine happened to be a Good Guy or aBad Guy.In all three of the examples offered above, there's an effort to link a recent movie withevents that are contemporary with it—signaling one of the several polemical approaches tofilm and politics taken in this book, one that partially echoes the readings given to certainmovies I saw as a child in my 1980 memoir,
Moving Places
(2d ed., 1995). It could be argued,of course, that because neither Thomas Harris's best-selling novel nor Jonathan Demme'smovie is in any way inspired by the Gulf War, my juxtaposition of that war with the receptionof THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS simply and arbitrarily imposes my own political program onthis material. "Keep your politics out of your reviews," wrote an irritated reader in 1993 (as if he or I had a choice in the matter). "It'll destroy your credibility." But keeping politics out of movie reviews, I'd argue, is precisely what makes it easy to cheer and celebrate such CNN"movies"—or "turkey shoots"—as OPERATION DESERT STORM and WAR IN THE GULF.Indeed, a central issue in this book is how closely our news resembles our so-calledentertainment and vice versa; and what sort of relation either sphere bears to realitysometimes turns out to be my main subject. Those who question my description of STARWARS as "a guiltless celebration of unlimited warfare" may want to consider that my piece waswritten well before that movie title was used to identify a U.S. military weapons program. Itmight be argued that this proves nothing apart from Ronald Reagan's fondness for moviereferences, but my main purpose here and elsewhere in this book is to argue that what isdesigned to make people feel good at the movies has a profound relation to how and whatthey think and feel about the world around them.Like my previous collection,
Placing Movies: The Practice of Film Criticism
(1995), thisvolume contains reviews and essays written since the early 70s,
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