Please permit me in some indulgent, semi-autobiographic self-reflection for a moment.
I first began writing this column on February 2009, less than a month after the current President’s inauguration. My first post was titled “A New Wave of Cinematic Optimism,” and attempted to cull together several films released in late 2008 in connection to the optimistic rhetoric of then-candidate Obama’s historic campaign (it’s a bit prescriptive – not my best work). While I strive, week-by-week, to both critique and celebrate the art of cinema in various ways through this column, I’ve also thought of filmmaking for much of my adult life as a fundamentally political practice. The practice of making films, particularly studio films, is deeply invested within and respondent to the plural political landscape of a given moment.
Thus, my work on FSR for the past three and a half years has been thoroughly – sometimes overtly – contextualized by the political events that have occurred during the Obama administration. The death of Osama bin Laden, the residual effects of the 2008 financial crisis, Occupy Wall Street, LGBTQ rights, post-Arab Spring politics, the Tea Party, and Iron Marx have all served as direct or indirect subjects of this column. This has not been an effort to simply incorporate the latest hot-button political topic into a movie site. Instead (and against the fundamental logic by which the Internet works), I’ve attempted to use this space as a means of continually working through an evolving understanding of the contemporary intersection between politics, art, and the business of entertainment as played out through my favorite thing ever: the movies.
On Friday afternoon I voted at the polls for the very first time (I voted absentee during the previous two Presidential elections) and I realized the extent to which political ideologies aren’t available only in movies themselves. Democratic participation in our society is remarkably similar to the experience of moviegoing.
The historical and current relationship between movie theaters and movie studios has not been one that’s productive of an ideal free market (if such a thing exists). Even after the 1948 Supreme Court case that dissolved direct studio ownership of movie theaters, block-booking (the studio practice of selling multiple movie theaters as a unit; thus, if a theater owner wanted a forthcoming potential blockbuster from Paramount, they had to show a few “lesser” Paramount films as well) was still a regular practice thereafter.
Today, multiplexes and the era of the mammoth opening weekend have collaborated towards a theatrical filmgoing culture in which 16-plus-screen mini-malls are not adorned with a healthy variety of titles, but are instead occupied by the same few films several times over. Websites like BoxOfficeMojo track well over a hundred films competing for your dollar every weekend, but only a tiny percentage of these show up in your movie theater. For the theatrical filmgoer, it’s difficult to “vote with your dollar” if a film you’d like to spend your dollar on isn’t available to see in the first place. The extent of our filmgoing experiences is largely pre-determined and limited before we even reach the movie theater.
Yet I still go. There was once a time where I eschewed all mainstream cinema, preferring to spend my time only on art cinema, imports, and independents. I was an “ideologically pure” cinemagoer if you will. Contemporary mainstream moviegoing, however, presents an opportunity to see something that the rest of the nation (if not much of the world) is also witnessing. Because broadcast TV is all but dead, blockbuster-opening-weekend-type cinemagoing seems to be the only non-Internet-related media experience available in which a great number of people across a country can encounter the same thing in a short framework of time. Once I warmed back up to event movies (after all, I was raised on Star Wars well before I discovered the artful and challenging New Hollywood that Star Wars all but destroyed), I realized the value of attending.
I can’t be the only one who feels that mainstream moviegoing is something of an experience of continued negotiation. The cinephile is conditioned in the multiplex to look beyond the inevitable distractions – blatant efforts at bleeding viewers’ dollars dry through 3D “upgrades” or films adapted from fractions of a popular novel, the diverting sheen of special effects in place of character or narrative development, the filtering of creative risk in order to reach a global audience, the regressive politics in representing race, gender, and sexuality that Hollywood still practices – and see the worth of mainstream moviegoing not through the presence of a cinematic ideal, but through compromise. Because Hollywood, for all its problems, has a history of knowing what it’s doing in terms of creating entertainment as the institution that standardized cinematic entertainment. So when a whip-smart and incredibly entertaining film like Rise of the Planet of the Apes or Argo encounters an audience, that one transcendent moment makes all prior compromises and frustrations seem worth it and more.
Smart, made-for-entertainment cinema that actually entertains should be the Hollywood standard, but in the all-too-rare instances that such films do exist, the result can be exhilarating.
Personally speaking, I’m encountering a similar crisis of ideological purity in the months that I awaited going to the voting booth. Like the multiplex, presidential elections present an incredibly limited market of choices from which voters can decide. Our two-party system reigns almost blindingly over potential alternatives, and third-party options have, in the past, been interpreted as spoilers of everyone else’s good time rather than viewed as a legitimate alternative. To vote third party is to relegate oneself to the realm of symbolic democratic participation; the outcome is certain, so the vote provides the statement in and of itself. Though I’m not sure that major-party voting is any more significant for the general election. In our representative democracy, voting for the highest office in the land is a game we knowingly play. Even after 2000 revealed our democratic system as a farce, we still play the same game.
For some progressives like myself, a vote for Obama has been a maneuver of some negotiation and compromise. On the one hand, the President has been a notable activist for moving towards social justice in the realms of health care, economic justice, women’s rights, LGBT rights, and (only recently) immigrants’ rights against a party that seeks to promote a theocratic rule of law, discredit scientific authority, dismantle social programs, set the clock back on social progress, and remove economic safety nets so that they may continue to wipe the asses of the greedy fucks in the financial sector who nearly destroyed this country four years ago. On the other hand, President Obama is also responsible for a drone-strike-centric foreign combat policy that Dick Cheney could only dream of as well as an energy and environmental policy that (as articulated in the second debate) is situated to the right of Richard Nixon.
Third party voters from the left and the right have been known to make the assertion that voting for Obama or Romney is essentially a vote for the “same person,” but this argument often misses the truly significant differences between the ideologies of these two men that could portend markedly different near-futures effecting a variety of people in the United States and abroad. But at the same time, the Office of the American President has always been imperial to a certain degree, so our votes make us complicit in future actions that we might prefer not to know about. To what extend I voted “for” drone strikes on Friday I’m not quite certain; it is in this respect that the symbolic character of general election voting in the United States gives me some comfort (that and the fact that I see nothing of value in the other guy).
So I went to the voting booth both excited to participate in American democracy directly for the first time (not at all unimportant during an election with this much bureaucratic, potentially outcome-engineering red tape in swing states) and prepared to interpret my vote (at least in the top slot) as one of optimistic and necessary negotiation of my own cultivated hierarchy of principles and values. I am not ideologically pure, but I did seek the best possible outcome, and one that I see myself as satisfied with and relived by should the outcome resemble my preference (a vote should never be between the “lesser of two evils,” though this is assumed a given in a justifiably cynical democracy).
A plurality of candidates that represent the full spectrum of American political investment and are subject to a direct popular vote should be the standard of a democracy like our own, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less exhilarating when “your guy” wins.
However, we can, and should always, imagine other possibilities.
Perhaps mainstream moviegoing and American democracy are part of the same collective fantasy in which we like to imagine we’re participating one way when we’re actually complicit in promoting a system with a scarcely limited range in terms of expressing ideas and imagining alternatives. Regardless, both Hollywood and our democratic system need radical change (not necessarily in that order). But in the meantime, a serious engagement with the possibilities that do exist can sometimes yield auspicious results. I hope.
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