Hollywood goes cryptofascist

Frank Miller and the rise of cryptofascist Hollywood | Culture | The Guardian

The film 300, directed by Zack Snyder, based on a Frank Miller graphic novel of the same name, is just what you would expect from the heavily freighted right-wing filmic propaganda of the post-9/11 period: the Greeks, from which our own putative democracies are descended, must fight to the death against a vast but incompetent army of Persians (those hordes of the Middle East), who are considered here unworthy of characterisation – in fact, every character in the film is unworthy of characterisation – and the noble Spartans (the Greeks in question) achieve heroism despite their glorious deaths on the field at Thermopylae, by virtue of the moral superiority of their belief system and their unmatched courage. Ruthless enemy! From the Middle East! Heroic, rugged individualists! A big, sentimental score! Lots and lots of blue-screen! Endless amounts of body parts spewing theatrical blood!

It’s a barely watchable film, but what from Hollywood these days is not similarly unwatchable, when so many high-profile releases are based on a medium, the comic book, made expressly to engage the attentions of pre- and just post-pubescent boys. At least comic books themselves are so politically dim-witted, so pie-in-the-sky idealistic as to be hard to take seriously. But in the films of this era, the Marvel and DC era of Hollywood, even when the work is not self-evidently shilling for large corporations (with product placement) or militating for a libertarian and oligarchical political status quo (which makes a fine environment for large, multinational corporations), the work is doing nothing at all to oppose these things. Paying your $12.50, these days, is not unlike doing a few lines of cocaine and pretending you don’t know about the headless bodies in Juarez.

With this in mind, an honest recognition of cinematic propaganda, we shouldn’t be shocked by Frank Miller’s comments about Occupy Wall Street. It is naive to be shocked by them. But let’s evaluate the particulars of his remarks just the same. Miller tries to repel the OWS message (“Maybe, between bouts of self-pity and all the other tasty titbits of narcissism you’ve been served up in your sheltered, comfy little worlds, you’ve heard terms like al-Qaeda and Islamicism”) by reminding us that we are at war. This despite the fact that OWS is focused primarily on income inequality, and thus mainly taken up with domestic politics, such that OWS doesn’t really take a position on the “ruthless enemy” and doesn’t need to. Miller’s particular approach, the warmongering approach, is self-evidently reminiscent of the Bush/Cheney years, in which any domestic reversal was followed by an elevated level on the colour-coded risk-assessment wheel. But in this post-Iraq war moment – when the most aggravated conspiracies we seem to have in New York City involve, for example, a lone Dominican guy who advertises his hatred of the government on Facebook and who may have been entrapped by local police – our “ruthless enemy” just doesn’t seem quite as numerous as Miller’s Persian hordes.

Beyond Bush-Cheney fear-mongering, Miller’s further complaint seems to be that people who camped outdoors in Zuccotti Park for two months were not terribly clean. (The Spartans were no doubt tidier in Thermopylae.) But if the crowd of 32,000 who turned up to march in NYC last Thursday – after the “pond scum” had been ejected from the park – are any indication, this hygiene issue is no longer a reliable talking point for Miller (or for Newt Gingrich, the rightwing posterboy of the late 80s who has now entered the race for the Republican presidential noimination). The 32,000 included some professional types, at least one retired police officer and lots of elderly people, many of whom had recently showered. Same thing at UC Davis, and at Berkeley. Those college kids usually have showers in their dorms.

Miller also accuses the OWS protesters of being too technologically savvy. For example, he accuses them of playing Lords of Warcraft. Now, I admit it, I know nothing of multiplayer online role-playing games, nor do I own an iPhone nor an iPad. Nevertheless, I maintain I am correct in imagining that what Miller actually means here is World of Warcraft. This superficial mistake (suggests what should be plain: that Miller wrote his jeremiad quickly, perhaps late at night, when a lack of restraint is often linked with the onset of unconsciousness. He didn’t bother to reread it. He therefore overlooks at least one obvious point. Namely, no one is more likely to play World of Warcraft than the kind of adolescent boy who also thinks 300 is quality cinematic product.

Miller’s hard-right, pro-military point of view is not only accounted for in his own work, but in the larger project of mainstream Hollywood cinema. American movies, in the main, often agree with Frank Miller, that endless war against a ruthless enemy is good, and military service is good, that killing makes you a man, that capitalism must prevail, that if you would just get a job (preferably a corporate job, for all honest work is corporate) you would quit complaining. American movies say these things, but they are more polite about it, lest they should offend. The kind of comic-book-oriented cinema that has afflicted Hollywood for 10 years now, since Spider-Man, has degraded the cinematic art, and has varnished over what was once a humanist form, so Hollywood can do little but repeat the platitudes of the 1%. And yet Hollywood tries still not to offend.

Does that make American cinema cryptofascist? Is “cryptofascist” a word that you can use in an essay like this? I keep trying to find a space somewhere between “propagandistic” and “cryptofascist” to describe my feelings about Miller’s screed. But perhaps it’s more accurate to say the following: whatever mainstream Hollywood cinema is now, Frank Miller is part of it. And Frank Miller has done Occupy Wall Street a service by reminding us that our allegedly democratic political system, which increases inequality and decreases class mobility, which is mostly interested in keeping the disenfranchised where they are, requires a mindless, propagandistic (or “cryptofascist”) storytelling medium to distract its citizenry. We should be grateful for the reminder.

32 comments on “Hollywood goes cryptofascist

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  1. Miller’s account was based on Herodotus’s histories, something Brin conveniently forgot, and that was full of fantasmagoric element, ‘Under Siege’s villain, was a rogue navy spook, insane enough to try to scorch the Hawaiian islands, this is true
    of most of the villains in the die hard, including Olyphant’s Richard Clarke based tech guru. In the original Dark Knight Returns,
    a clique of savage killers called the mutants, are not unlike what the Joker unleashes. I guess Downey’s take of Hughesesque
    Tony Stark is also fascist,

  2. Well even in his more bohemian days, Miller always saw the Batman as true, and authority as compromised or corrupt, except for Commissioner Gordon,

  3. Category error, the kind that had Pauline Kael dub ‘Dirty Harry’ s fascist, but Ras al Ghul would certainly be a supporter of Occupy, today, so would the joker, Chaos is the m.o. The last? of the Dark Knight series, seems to follow this vision of a
    disentegrating society to it’s nadir.

  4. miguel cervantes: as al Ghul would certainly be a supporter of Occupy, today, so would the joker, Chaos is the m.o.

    What reason in the world have you ever given us not to assume that that’s just your own fascist/petit bourgeois tendencies resonating with Miller’s?

  5. I’m not surprised the writer of the ‘Ice Storm’ would first totally misunderstand the genre, in the same vein I guess one would put James Ellroy, the chronicler of Grand Guignol noir, as fascist,

  6. It’s an epic fail all around, whether it’s Palachiuk’s ‘fight club’, is Maximus, a loyal servant of the Empire, no he’s a wronged man, his wife killed, his position stripped, yet he wants to ‘restore the Republic’ that is such a quaint, seemingly unacheivable vision, on the other side, ‘Some people just want to see the whole world burn, Rorschach would agree on that score.

  7. The problem with Moody’s position, and what’s rather unsophisticated about it, is the assumption that it’s the office of art to favor one or another conventional political alternative. To put things simplistically, if we have been living through a fascistic or merely crypto-fascistic period, then we should expect the art of our period, and popular art in its own way, to reflect and express the fact. To take two pieces of popular art that he attacks, TRUE LIES (which I quite like as a movie, incidentally) didn’t make our world, and it’s hard for me to see how it materially contributed to what’s wrong with it. When I was coming out of my con slumber as a defender of AVATAR, I was taking the position that the movie, seen as art, must be understood independently, often counter to, the artist’s conscious intentions. That still counts from any other ideological perspective. So, it’s quite possible that Miller can write “good” comix, but be an idiot. All great artists, philosopher, scientists, and saints have said or supported revolting things. That’s also true of the merely good and the larger number of mediocre and worse artists and so on. I’m less interested in condemning IRON MAN or SPIDER-MAN or any of the other comic book movies, and even less in praising movies like THE ICE STORM, than in understanding how they function and what they say about us.

  8. Well ‘Jurassic Avatar’ as I’ve dubbed, Terra Nova, shows how Stephen Lang can be mishandled, I guess one could put another
    series, where he was a frequent player, the mid 80s prequel to Burn Notice, the Equalizer, although there are stylistic similarities to Person of Interest. Which I suppose would irritate Moody’s artistic sensibilities. Bourne would probably fall
    in that same category, despite his Chomskyite framework, his m.o. is action, not reflection.

    OT, Homeland has turned out a more complex thing, from what it was advertised as, from the clips I’ve seen of it.

  9. Moody succeeds in explaining something that I’ve been thinking about for several decades. He’s right that Miller is just voicing what Hollywooders like him have been connecting to if not thinking all along. It’s Birth of a Nation explained. Plus, Miller’s Batman was clearly a kind of cryptofascist manifesto. One of the worst movies ever made in my opinion. It was build as a Jungian exploration created by a Jungian artist. I could go on for days about how it failed on a Jungian “shadow” level. Artistically, he doesn’t relate to his shadow as an expression of wholeness. He doesn’t integrate his dark side. He just gives it an immature expression, like the other OWS haters who believe “that endless war against a ruthless enemy is good, and military service is good, that killing makes you a man, that capitalism must prevail, that if you would just get a job (preferably a corporate job, for all honest work is corporate) you would quit complaining. So Miller’s comments come as no surprise to me.

    • I see what you’re saying about Miller’s immaturity, though I don’t think Batman was as bad as all that. I also agree with you that there is something about the superhero genre, alongside other pulp genres, that lends itself to some of the same impulses and ideas that inform fascism. I’m just not sure that those impulses can or should be stamped out. “Cryptofascism” is potentially such a broad category that sooner or later it probably includes THE ICE STORM, too – as well as both of our blog comments…

      …and I also don’t entirely understand what you’re saying about Jung. If I did, maybe I would better understand what bugs you so much about the movie. I’ve always thought it was one of the better superhero flicks, maybe the best one up until WATCHMEN.

      • I like the Batman idea in general. From a Jungian perspective, his story has the most potential. I’m not sure how much you know about Jungian psychology so I’m not sure how to explain things. It’s mostly about “archetypes.” That’s why it’s relevant to the whole superhero story-telling deal. Batman is the most “shadow” oriented story from the old comics because it relates to how we suppress memories but then have to come to terms with them anyway. So it’s very Jungian for you to see that both our comments were cryptofascistic in themselves. Mine especially, being judgmental, suppresses a darkness that I will have to deal with ultimately when it sneaks out into my behavior, so if I’m willing to see the potential of that from the beginning, then I won’t be taken by surprise later and will have an easier time integrating the darkness into the behavior that has come to light. Does that help?

        • I know the general stuff on Jung, and have read various pieces by or on him over the years, though most of it was too long ago for it to matter much to me. His essay on UFOs was a favorite of mine long ago, plus I used to know a guy who was really into his essay on Job. Or maybe it was a Job who was really into his essay on guys.

          Fascism, at root, is, I think, natural justice as an end in itself – a comprehensive worldview defined by “will to power and nothing else besides”, as Nietzsche found himself saying just before his attempt to build a system collapsed into itself along with his sanity. What’s “cryptofascist” is whatever serves to erode or undermine possible “something elses besides.” The Superhero comic makes god-like beings out of vigilantes: The inability of the state to to save itself and protect the innocent against criminal parasites and evil madmen justifies the actions of the vigilante. Dirty Harry, Rambo, and other action heroes fit within the same pattern. The Zombie genre makes superhero-vigilantes out of normal people by lowering everyone else – envisioning the masses as inhuman. And it all may go back to ancient myths that directly embrace natural justice as a way of understanding the world.

          Eventually, this pagan worldview reduces justice to whatever the most powerful decide, and it’s for the rest of us – the less powerful, less willing or able to kill to enforce our will – to placate the powerful or avoid their wrath, which will often seem arbitrary to us, in part because being subject to someone else’s arbitrary and violent will is natural justice for slaves, defines slavery. The circle of the superhero is that sooner or later his action on behalf of the innocent against the powerful becomes equally a principle of power for its own sake. He’s constantly turned into new boss same as the old boss. It’s the source of much of the irony in the superhero stories, often to a comical effect.

          At some point it may be at the root of the narrative forms themselves, though interestingly the most important ancient model for this kind of narrative – Homer – already contains within it the principle of its own destruction. There was a book I reviewed here that persuasively argued for that understanding of Homer – that the epic was likely received in its own time as more a lament over and attack on human and divine injustice than as celebration of heroism or praise of the gods. The Batman stories want to undermine themselves, but fall just short taken on their own terms: Batman in Batman’s world is near-relentlessly misunderstood, but remains a superhero. This is also the adolescent appeal of Batman – that’s how teenagers typically want to see themselves. It’s almost healthy or anyway normal for teenagers to see themselves that way.

          What gives it all the lie is how utterly stupid and fantastical the whole thing is, and that’s also what makes it all so interesting for the movies in their current state, since they’re all about the technical capacity to make the impossible seem “realer than real.” Part of what makes the Nolan Batman movies and WATCHMEN so interesting to me is how they struggle to naturalize the ridiculously bizarre, make it just almost believable, or refuse to believe in a world that does not include the unbelievable. Did you ever see WATCHMEN? (And have you already seen or made plans to see the Cronenberg Jung movie – looks horrible to me from the trailers, and I say that as kind of Cronenberg fan with some love for Keira Knightley, too).

          • I want to see the Cronenberg movie, yes, but I think he botched it. The trailer I’ve heard of has a woman acting hysterical. The best Freud story about him in real-life has it that he fainted at the sight of what he and another doctor friend had done to a supposedly “hysterical” woman. She looked at the fainted Freud and said, “Ah, yes, the stronger sex.” Wouldn’t surprise me if C botched it badly this time, having made such a tame adaption of Naked Lunch.
            I really like this comment of yours that I’m commented on now. I think ZC should always have been about this kind of critique. You could have made ZC actually about Zombie critique. Not just about Zombies but about what you’ve written here in respect to N, and Batman, et al.

          • Unlike Batman Begins, Watchman, even with Malin Akerman, and Carla Gugino, gave one no one to root for, Dr. Manhattan’s circumstances are too ethereal, to relate to, In contrast, one could under Erik Magnus even though
            you know he was descending into the depths where we would find him,

            • Not sure that rooting interest is the most important thing, but, if you need someone to root for, why not root for the Ackerman and Gugino characters? Some hardcore types thought they were almost too “nice,” too easy to like and identify with – they’re fun-loving, respectful of their elders, have self-esteem problems that they get over, fight well, try to do the right thing, have a goofy love affair that turns passionate to the tune of “Hallelujah”? What more do they have to do earn your rooting interest? Attack Obama?

              Rorschach, though more complicated, was also someone fighting for what he thought – or was certain – was right. And Dr Manhattan was a great character. To root against him would be like rooting against God or Jesus.

  10. No, Scott, in fact, I imagine most of the OWSers look askance at blue collar work, the Gangs in the Dark Knight Returns 24 years ago, aren’t particularly of any pigment, but they are feral by nature, something the campy TV show couldn’t grasp.’ Look at ‘Martha Washington’ a strip he did not long after, and the same contempt for corrupt institutions emerge, I’m surprised your imagination can’t grasp that,

  11. miguel cervantes: I imagine most of the OWSers look askance at blue collar work,

    You “imagine”? Why? I imagine something different, but what difference would it make if I was wrong? Would their claims about the state of things be any less valid? Same goes for Frank Miller’s rant (or Michelle Malkin’s rants, or Ann Coulter’s, or the New York Post’s, or Newt Gingrich’s). If they are insufficiently tidy, or if their encampments are infiltrated by criminals or perverts or agitators, does that make radical inequality in power and wealth a good thing, or unimportant? Or is it more important to feel superior to them, whether for the feelings of pleasure in feeling superior, or to justify harsh measures, or to deny them rights or a voice?

  12. I’m sure when Time Square was cleaned up, in the mid 90s, Moody was riotiously indignant. Similarly, when LA went up like
    kindling, as Tottenham, did this summer. As with any actual or attempted terrorist act, the Guardian is always there, As this
    penny ante Narodniki affair, reaches it’s appropriate phase, you will find a way to excuse the latest outrage, As the Ortega and
    Loughner examples have shown before.

    • What a mess that comment is. If I assumed it was going to make sense overall, try to tie Loughner to the Guardian to terrorism to the LA riots to Times Square to Moody’s point about the movies, I’d have to assume you thought the real “Loughner outrage” wasn’t the shooting, but rather the suggestion that an atmosphere of politicized rage, with minors in gun and violence worship, contributed to the manner of his going off and his choice of target.

      But really I think you’re a frothing overheated stew of hatreds directed at those you like to think of as beneath you.

  13. Except it was anarchist truther who had been stalking Giffords for three years, and had been protected by local law enforcement, who was trapped in the Matrix, but the President chose it as an agitprop moment of ‘Two Minute Hate’

    • Speaking of realer than real, that seems to go for your vast collection of petty hatreds. You have zero evidence for Obama having indulged in anything remotely resembling a “two minute hate,” which makes your own accusation rather hateful, in my estimation.

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