March 04, 2018

No More Hoorays for Hollywood

There was a time long ago, when I worked in the theater in the 1970s, when I cared about the Oscars a lot. After I moved to Los Angeles in 1978, I worked in the movie industry for several years. So I still cared about the Oscars a lot. Over the last 30 years, my interest in the Oscars, and in Hollywood in general, has declined dramatically. Hollywood and its associated displays of self-congratulation primarily draw my attention in terms of why and how its product connects to broader cultural trends and issues. (My essays about The Americanization of Emily are perhaps the best examples of articles in this category. In the second half of this essay, I analyze the film with regard to certain issues raised by the Chelsea Manning case. I wrote the essay just before Ms. Manning made her comments about her sexual identity and told us of her name change. I've considered changing her name in my post, but finally decided to leave the post as I originally published it.)

In terms of its presentation in the post-Harvey Weinstein atmosphere, this year's Oscars might provide some intriguing moments. But I suspect those in charge of the Oscars, as well as many of those in the movie business, would strongly prefer that the Oscars imitate the bland gruel of comfort food rather than the stinging tanginess of exotic dishes. There is comparative safety in boredom, or at least so go the calculations in the oh-so-cautious mush brains of Hollywood types.

Yet I suppose some people might genuinely believe that, "Everything is different now!" I'm not entirely certain how a person could sincerely believe that and still have five or six functioning brain cells. I do know that to believe "everything is different now," you would have to be largely ignorant of the dynamics and speed of major cultural change, and of how deeply entrenched institutions manage to cling to accumulated power despite threats to their rule. On that point, Maureen Dowd agrees:
Time’s Up, after all, was born at C.A.A., the agency dominated by white men who, their despoiled clients charge, served as a conveyor belt to the Weinstein hotel suites.

This moment, with women feeling triumphant about finally shaking up the network of old, white men who run Hollywood in a sexist way, is a bit of an illusion, since the entertainment industry has been taken over by an even more impenetrable group of younger, white men from the tech universe, which has an even more virulent bro culture. It’s like gasping with relief as you climb up to the mountain peak, only to discover that it’s actually a much bigger mountain. ...

Yet many women here fear that the reckoning is merely a therapy session, or that “it’s just Kabuki,” as Min said. “When people talk about who will take over for Bob Iger when he eventually retires, no woman is ever in the mix. And so shouldn’t we be questioning why that is and how do you start grooming women for those jobs?” Even when a woman gets to be a studio chief, there’s a man above her helping make the final decisions for the biggest budgets. ...

“All the stuff that allowed these guys to be protected is so subtle and baked into the cake, it’s really hard to unravel it,” one top woman at a major studio told me. “Men are doing a head fake, saying, ‘Yeah, yeah, of course we want to fix it,’ while what they’re really thinking is, ‘How do we get out of this looking like we do something without doing anything?’ Men like to say, ‘We choose the best people,’ but the best people are always white men. The only place they think that they need women is as babes in films. As long as men have power over women, they’re going to try to have sex with them.”
Dowd's own conclusion in her final paragraph is odd, and confusing:
But I’m sanguine for this reason: Men only give up their grip on power when an institution is no longer as relevant, like when they finally let women anchor the network evening news. And Hollywood, as we knew it, is over.
So women will be permitted to take power in Hollywood, now that it's "no longer as relevant"? How many people care about the network evening news these days? Not very many. Now that Hollywood "as we knew it" is on life support, women can take over the unpleasant task of caring for it. This is good news? And as Dowd herself points out, the ascendant "even more impenetrable group of younger, white men from the tech universe, which has an even more virulent bro culture," may be worse. None of this would appear to be a cause for celebration.

But we can be certain that at the Oscars, Hollywood will celebrate itself and its inspiring courage in speaking truth to power. As concerns this ludicrously, dishonestly wrong-headed view, Jim Bovard offers a useful corrective: "Hollywood hoopla ignores media's history of servility." Bovard writes:
Spielberg’s movie [The Post] portrays Post editor Ben Bradlee denouncing dishonest government officials to publisher Katharine Graham: “The way they lied — those days have to be over." Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, who deluged the media with falsehoods about battlefront progress, did more than anyone else (except perhaps President Lyndon Johnson) to vastly increase the bloodbath for Americans and Vietnamese. McNamara’s disastrous deceits did not deter the Washington Post from appointing him to its Board of Directors. As author Norman Solomon recently observed, “The Washington Post was instrumental in avidly promoting the lies that made the Vietnam War possible in the first place.” ...

Most of the media had embedded themselves for the Iraq war long before that dinner [at which Bush "good-naturedly" made fun of his administration's search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq]. The Post buried pre-war articles questioning the Bush team’s shams on Iraq; their award-winning Pentagon correspondent Thomas Ricks complained, “There was an attitude among editors: ‘Look, we’re going to war, why do we even worry about all this contrary stuff?’” Instead, before the war started, the Post ran 27 editorials in favor of invasion and 140 front-page articles supporting the Bush administration’s case for attacking Saddam. ...

Despite the Iraq fiasco, the media happily resumed cheerleading when the Obama administration launched assaults in Libya and Syria. Even in the Trump era — when the press is openly clashing with a president — bombing still provides push button presidential redemption. Trump’s finest hour, according to much of the media, occurred last April when he attacked the Assad regime with 59 cruise missiles, raising hopes that the U.S. military would topple the Syrian government.

When Trump announced he was sending more U.S. troops to Afghanistan, the Washington Post editorial page hailed what Trump calls his “principled realism” — regardless of the futility of perpetuating that quagmire. At a time when Trump is saber-rattling against Iran and North Korea, the media should be vigorously challenging official claims before U.S. bombs begin falling. Instead, much of the coverage of rising tensions with foreign regimes could have been written by Pentagon flacks.
Well, the Oscars, a few more wars, untold and usually ignored suffering, destruction and death ... anything for a good show, right?

Everybody loves a good show.