Reel Power: Hollywood Cinema and American Supremacy
Posted by Roy Stafford on 15 October 2010
I was attracted to this book because I thought it might be useful in my study of global film. I started reading the preface and thought “this doesn’t feel like an academic film studies book”. There was nothing to tell me about Michael Parenti, the writer of the preface, so I looked him up. I now know that he is a highly-respected writer on American politics. So perhaps this is a politics book? When I look at the back cover I find an endorsement from Ken Loach urging me to read the book before seeing another Hollywood blockbuster. The other endorsements seem to be from political journalists, but Pluto’s cataloguing information suggests that this book should be filed under ‘Film/Media Studies’. The author Matthew Alford is described as a journalist and a broadcaster who has taught in the university sector. But it doesn’t tell us what he has taught. I Googled him and found out more, but let me just outline the book first.
Reel Power comprises three parts with a total of nine chapters. Part 1 offers a brief analysis of the structure of Hollywood as an industrial institution, including the role of product placement and how it has been acquiescent towards the US military, security agencies etc. There are discussions about the power of individual producers, directors and stars within the system and how the potential leftist tendencies of some individuals are squashed, marginalised, recuperated etc. Part 2 discusses major Hollywood films since 1990 classified according to genre and budget. The main focus is on films with production budgets over $30 million that deal with American foreign policy and overseas adventures. The genres considered are War, Comedy (i.e. military/political comedy), Action Adventure, Science Fiction and Political Drama plus a catch-all ‘low budget’ chapter. Part 3 comprises the conclusion.
I’d argue that the analysis here is primarily journalistic in terms of plot descriptions and attempts to relate these to US government and military policies. There is no discernible exploration of theoretical ideas that would be recognised by a scholar from film, media or cultural studies. The discussion is referenced in detail via endnotes for each chapter. However, these references are usually to online and print journals, mostly of a general rather than academic nature. There is no Bibliography – only a Filmography. Look in the index and there are no theorists mentioned – not even Noam Chomsky who is clearly an important figure in the development of Alford’s approach (see below). This isn’t really a book for academic film studies, so what is its purpose?
When I looked up Matthew Alford I discovered that he has a doctorate in ‘US Cinema and Politics’ and has been writing on this subject for several years in the New Statesman and various websites as well as presenting papers on ‘Hollywood and the Propaganda Model’. Many of these are online and I think it’s worth looking at a couple of these first if you want to decide whether Alford’s ideas are of interest. For instance, in this interview on the ‘New Left Project’ website, Alford offers a more succinct and effective explanation of his ideas than I think he does in the book. Also interesting is this recent conference on Post 9/11 Representations of Terrorism – where Alford’s paper sits alongside others with a more recognisable position. But to get to the academic basis of Alford’s work, you need read to his paper published by the University of Westminster in 2009 and available as a pdf for download. Here Alford explains his position as applying the Propaganda Model formulated by Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky to Hollywood – something Chomsky felt was difficult as he “didn’t know enough about movies” and possibly because movies aren’t susceptible to an approach which requires “easily verifiable, quantifiable empirical evidence”. Alford has less qualms and argues that the model can be used. The results confirm what most of us believe about Hollywood as generally supportive of American capitalism and American foreign policy. The political value of the argument is two-fold. First it should be a warning that what is already visible in news media via Fox News may become more evident in relation to studio feature film output. Second, it acts as a counterweight to the claims that recent Hollywood has shown a tendency towards ‘liberal attitudes’. The arguments are supported by academic references and Alford positions himself as part of the ‘Political Economy’ wing of media studies. Reel Power thus becomes Alford’s means of popularising his argument – and he has supported the book’s publication with an energetic promotional campaign that is most impressive.
I confess that I haven’t seen most of the films Alford discusses (I already know that most of them I’ll hate them for their politics and others for tedious action sequences). Of the ones that I do know, he seems to make cogent comments about them in terms of how they might be read in what used to be called a ‘vulgar Marxist’ way – simply reading off meanings from the plot, irrespective of how the narrative is presented. For instance, he recognises that Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers is actually a satire of fascism and that some of the knee-jerk American press reactions to the film were way off-beam. But he also links the film to Total Recall as another Verhoeven film – without mentioning either the writer of the original story, Phil K. Dick or the star, Arnold Schwarzenegger. These two creative voices are surely as important to (different) audiences as Verhoeven in this case? Dick became almost deranged because of his paranoid fear of surveillance by the American state and Arnie was at best a hugely ironic piece of casting for a Dickian leading man. It would be quite interesting to explore how Hollywood has trounced Dick’s anarchic populism in some terrible movies (Next?, Paycheck?), only to be trumped by smaller independents like A Scanner Darkly or Screamers.
In a way, this book is deeply dispiriting, if only because it renders much that film studies has tried to do over the last fifty years in exploring concepts of representation, genre and narrative, audience behaviour etc. as effectively wasted effort. On the other hand, as a piece of journalism about Hollywood, the institution, and American politics (which by extension involves us all) it offers a solid introduction. It might be helpful for students and teachers if they would like detailed knowledge of how celebrities have or have not protested about going to war in Iraq or of individual case studies of films that were not greenlit or which were censored. On the other hand, there is no consideration of audience readings of the films, no discussion of ideology, questions of identity etc. Bizarrely, there is no real discussion of Hollywood’s overseas markets which now provide more than 50% of the revenue for the studios. Alford does mention China at one point, but he doesn’t discuss the studios’ attempts to work with Chinese partners or the Chinese government’s policies for controlling the import of Hollywood product. Even more germane might be analysis of Indian investment in Hollywood. Indian producers are caught between the nationalism seemingly demanded by audiences at home and the embrace of American values by Indians in North America and the new middle-class at home. Once famously ‘non-aligned’, India is in danger of being seen as ‘pro-American’. How Hollywood responds to that issue promises to be interesting (imagine a Hollywood-backed film, made in India about the brief war with China in 1962 – but then we’ve already had Kundun (US 1997) and no, it isn’t mentioned in the book).