Friday, December 24, 2010

Militainment II: Hollywood, DoD and America's "Force for Good"

Everybody watches movies. We all like movies. Certainly, tastes differ, but I can bet that at least one of the top favorite movies of every person (wherever in the world) was made by Hollywood. The multibillion-dollar industry's power, however, is far greater than its financial might. It's in the business of images: it creates them, frames perceptions, and thus, effectively "manages" the cognition of thousands of millions (would it be an exaggeration if I even say billions?) of people.

So now, imagine the Pentagon actually "directing" and paying for this process.

Earlier this year, I had a post on the same subject, based on a Listening Post episode Al Jazeera had in June. That was, apparently, more of an intro, as Marwan Bishara actually dedicated his last 2010 episode of the Empire to exploring this relationship. It's about an hour long, but this discussion with Oliver Stone, Michael Moore, and Chris Hedges is definitely worth taking a look at:

In case you don't have the time (or desire) to go through it all, here is the opening analytical piece:

What are the issues involved? Well, basically, Hollywood is - more often than not - acting as the Pentagon's PR office both, domestically and (they hope) abroad. So much so, that the Department of Defense even has a special "Hollywood Liaison," or rather, a "Special Assistant for Entertainment Media" within its Public Affairs office (I did actually google "Phil Strub"). And this "assistance" goes well beyond Hollywood per se. In fact, there is a whole "sub-division" in the Pentagon structure, providing assistance in the production of "Motion Picture, Television Shows, and Music Videos" (and, as discussed in my older post, video games). Each branch of the military, in its turn, has its own separate sub-subdivision, with offices in Los Angeles. Obviously, they liaise well.

I stumbled upon a great documentary made in 2003 regarding this very issue: "Hollywood and The Pentagon: A Dangerous Liaison." I wonder why I'd never heard of it before... Here's the first part (the rest is available at the previous link, as well as on YouTube):

(Just an interesting side note: as I was watching this video, I recognized the Representative from the Navy's Motion Picture and Television Liaison: Joshua Rushing. It so happens that he's one of Al Jazeera's current stars, co-hosting "Fault Lines" - a very insightful program, but not one I'd call "US-propaganda-friendly". I actually looked into it, and here's the story, if you're interested. How ironic...!)

What is the purpose of such "public affairs"? Faith of the people. Support. Funding. Recruitment. Retention. Makes me think back to all these recruitment ads they keep putting out:

Don't all these scenes look painfully familiar from all the great movies we keep watching? (And since I'm a great soundtrack fan, I'd ask you to pay special attention to the music...)

Then, of course, there's benevolence and grandeur:

"Accelerate your life." And needless to say, "Support our troops." But well, at least in this specific commercial - since it's all so positive and fluffy - we see the other side: some of those on the "receiving" end.

Not the case in the following one:

"Power." That's the title of the ad. Fair enough. But "A Global Force for Good"?! Somehow doesn't really go so well with the title, does it? (I should say, I watched "Iron Man" for the first time a couple of days ago - not a great movie; nice graphics, though - and somehow, some of the frames from this commercial just seem to be too similar. What I'm more curious about is which one came first - the ideas for the movie or those for the commercial?)

This takes me to the next part of my post: the role of entertainment (and pop culture) in shaping actual public perceptions and the dangerous implications of such involvement by DoD.

At an age of information deluge, there is what many call "attention deficit": there is just too much information to sort through, attention spans have got much shorter, the public is becoming increasingly less interested in news and/or politics-related issues. It has become much more difficult to find and retain audiences (especially, if the end goal is to "influence" them in one way or another). Hence, there is increasing reliance on "alternative communication" methods, which, among others, include popular culture and entertainment.

This works especially well with movies, which not only provide extensive "narrative transportation" (being drawn into the plot) or "character identification" (actually experiencing the movie together with the characters), but have lots of room for increasingly sophisticated (and oh-so-impressive!) "special effects" and arousing music. Such great play on emotions! As to what goes on at the "subconscious" level... I'll leave it to your imagination.

Yet, as already noted before and as touched upon in the Empire discussion, the images we get from Hollywood either do not show the "other" altogether or, when they do, they often portray them as evil or inferior, in the best case. (Kudos to Said and Todorov...) I cannot not mention Jack Shaheen and "Reel Bad Arabs" here:

One might say that these are "just movies" and entertainment, but as discussed above, they create stereotypes and perceptions that tend to stick. To quote from a very useful book on "imagology":
"...national stereotypes are generally [not only] rationalised by the spector as based on a supposedly objective reality, but also because they tend to be omnipresent in comics, cinema, literature, computer games, public media, jokes and the like, and are constantly though not consciously invoked to confirm one’s auto-image, one’s national identity. Once established, they remain latent in the individual consciousness, or collective mentality, to be called upon when needed."

A greater danger, however, is the effect such "alternative" sources of information can have when the "real" ones either do not provide it, or are being ignored. I am currently reading James Zogby's "Arab Voices" and he has a passage that's very noteworthy here, too:
"... because Americans have so little exposure to the Arab World in school, the influence these pop-culture creations have can be outsized. [...] In fact, in Zogby International's recent survey of American attitudes we learned that the vehicles of popular culture are among the most important sources of information shaping Americans' attitudes about the Arab World."

If the DoD is playing a major role in creating such stereotypes of "the other" (Arab or not), then perhaps they can indeed create the grounds for justifying (indirectly or not) any military action. After all, if "the other" is "de-humanized" and vilified, and if these images become actual public perceptions of that "other," who seems to constantly threaten one's very existence, eliminating that threat can actually be seen as something positive or even desirable. In this case, "the other" does not necessarily need to be an actual, current "enemy" fighting America. As in the case of "300," for example, it can be an evil and "savage Oriental" crowd fighting against a small but brave group of "civilized Western" heroes. (Oh, and don't get me started on Hollywood's persisting images of the Russians...) Remember the subconscious level?

And lastly: there is a whole American public diplomacy aspect to the issue. This is what Empire had to say about it:

It's not a secret that given the might, the popularity, and the reach of Hollywood, in many ways it is the major image of itself that America puts out to the world (even though, supposedly, there is no government money involved; that is, if we don't consider the DoD as a part of it). It's also not a secret that in the current technologically advanced environment one cannot differentiate between domestic and foreign publics; thus, although the major market (and hence, supposed target audience) might be the domestic American one, there are also more than 5.5 billion non-Americans who can - potentially - see any movie at one point or another.

The very same point about images and perceptions discussed earlier should also be seen as applicable to foreign publics' "understanding" of America, too. No matter how hard VOA, RFE/RL or CNN try, "The Avatar" or "Iron Man" will certainly receive more interest and retain longer attention than any news report. In short, in a way, they might also have a lot of "soft power" potential. But while they might have an "awing" effect on most Americans, most of foreign audiences do view them from their own perspectives, bringing in their (direct or indirect) experiences that relate, in one way or another, to the narrative, the plot, or the general theme of the movie. And when it comes to war movies - particularly in the case of war movies - the associations and the selective interpretation will, more likely than not, produce unfavorable, if not negative, perception.

The domestic audience might like the show of power, they might feel reassured and safe (at some level), and they would, certainly, identify with the characters involved. However, one should remember that the foreign audience - particularly the (currently) critically important Arab/Muslim public, whose members also happen to be among the most frequently used "villains" by Hollywood - would inevitably identify with the "antagonist", just because they are "the other."

The receiving end...

And when - as in some cases - the benefits for the "receiver" are overblown and exaggerated (I'll bring the "Iron Man" example, again), it can be much easier for a foreign spectator to spot these exaggerations than for an American one. That is simply because the former has his or her actual reality and many direct experiences to relate to, while for most of the Americans (not all, but most) associations are based on stereotypes and other, similar, movies or pop culture references.

If the experiences the foreigners relate to are not all that positive (especially if they involve experiences with the military), such themes will not only not promote a positive perception of America and its forces, but they can actually backfire, presenting - in yet another way - an image of a belligerent, impatient, aggressive, and arrogant superpower with imperialistic ambitions.

Yes, Hollywood can as well portray Americans as hard-working, freedom-loving, and determined people. But when it comes to sensitive issues, especially those that deal with wars (of questionable justification for many around the world), involving the Pentagon and its agenda not only harms America's public diplomacy objectives abroad, but also puts under fire the very interests of the American people.

But well, since "good" movies are so fun to watch, perhaps they will keep getting away with it?


  1. Awesome... Great post...
    I liked it immensely. Read it twice and will come back to it again.
    At some point Infotainment spawned Militainment (at least, the latter was a spin-off). When did that happen?
    What puzzles me most when I watch some Hollywood movies (and, for sure, they are not necessarily among the best made in the world) is how they indeed can come away with vilifying people, etc. when political correctness is not only a norm but I would even say an obsession in the US.
    I think the part of the problem is that there are "designated villains". No one in Hollywood would even consider, much less produce, a movie that would show some ethnic groups, etc. in a bad light. I think everyone knows absolutely well the ONE such group. It is an absolute taboo (even in the country that praises itself on protection of free speech) to say a word against that group, much less to vilify it in the movie.
    As regards DoD status... I think we all know the answer.
    They, perhaps, would like to be seen as part of civil society...
    Why not? Everything is possible in this absurd world...

  2. Great post! The DoD-Hollywood relationship is real and dangerous, as your article makes very clear. But, at the same time, it should be remembered (and Al-Jazeera mentions) that Hollywood has also served as one of the strongest and most effective venues for anti-war propaganda. What are the most famous war movies? Very few people would say Pearl Harbor, much less Iron Man (thank God). Nope, they’d probably name films like Full Metal Jacket, Platoon, and The Deer Hunter, which introduced the Vietnam experience to an entire generation of Americans post-1975 who did not experience the conflict personally. And they defined the war in a very negative way, perhaps in some ways even more negatively than it deserves. Among more recent films, who could argue that Avatar portrayed the US military in a positive light? So, Hollywood can and does work both ways. Whether it is ultimately militaristic or anti-militaristic is, as one my professors once said, “an empirical question” – i.e., I don’t know. Perhaps one can take some solace in the fact that, even if the flashier and perhaps temporarily more popular productions receive support from the DoD, the independent, critical films seem to be the ones that endure.