December 5, 2005


Hollywood's New Axis of Evil: Why do businessmen wear the black hat? (Edward Jay Epstein, Dec. 5, 2005, Slate)

In the new Warner Bros. political thriller, Syriana, the villain is not al-Qaida, an enemy state, the Mafia, or even a psychotic serial killer. Rather, it's the big oil companies, which manipulate terrorism, wars, and social unrest to drive up oil prices (which have risen almost as much as movie ticket prices in the last 10 years). One doesn't need to look far to discover that the root-of-evil corporate villain is hardly atypical of post-Cold War Hollywood.

Consider, for example, Paramount's 2004 remake of the 1962 classic The Manchurian Candidate. In the original, directed by John Frankenheimer, the villain-behind-the-villain is the Soviet Union, whose nefarious agents, with the help of the Chinese Communists, abduct a U.S. soldier in Korea and turn him into a sleeper assassin. In the new version, the military abduction is transposed from Korea in 1950 to Kuwait in 1991, and the defunct Soviet Union is replaced as the resident evil. The new villain is—you guessed it—the Manchurian Global Corporation, an American company loosely modeled on the Halliburton Corporation. As the director, Jonathan Demme, explains in his DVD commentary, he avoided making the Iraqi forces of Saddam Hussein (whom the United States was battling in the time frame of the movie) the replacement villain, because he did not want to "negatively stereotype" Muslims. Not only were neither Saddam Hussein nor Iraq mentioned in a film about the Iraq-Kuwait war, but the Manchurian corporation's technicians rewire the brains of the abducted U.S. soldiers with false memories of al-Qaida-type jihadists so that they will lay the blame for their terrorist acts on an innocent Muslim jihadist.

Why don't the movies have plausible, real-world villains anymore? One reason is that a plethora of stereotype-sensitive advocacy groups, representing everyone from hyphenated ethnic minorities and the physically handicapped to Army and CIA veterans, now maintain liaisons in Hollywood to protect their images. The studios themselves often have "outreach programs" in which executives review scripts and characters with representatives from these groups, evaluate their complaints, and attempt to avoid potential brouhahas.

Have the businessmen who run Hollywood not noticed that the movies where they make themselves the villains are uninteresting and don't make money?

Posted by Orrin Judd at December 5, 2005 7:32 PM

They consider themselves artists first, the business part is only a sideline, as opposed those other business people who have no poetry or color in their souls and deserve the rough treatment they receive (though to be honest, Epstein's about 30 years late to the party on the idea of Hollywood deominizing businesses).

Posted by: John at December 5, 2005 9:34 PM

The trouble is that there is enough money in bad movies to maintain their limousines and cocktail parties.

Kill copyright (or at least dramatically shorten it, back to, say, 7 years) and you would bring back artistry.

(And spare me the normal rhetoric defending copyright -- how does Turner owning some 100 year old movie create new ones? -- or Disney owning Mickey Mouse create new cartoons? I don't know what should replace copyright, but what we have now is bad for art...)

Posted by: Randall Voth at December 6, 2005 5:05 AM

Copyright time was extended precisely to preserve the rent income of Disney and other movie companies make off of 50+ year old creations of people long dead. Of more importance to Disney is not preventing very old Mickey Mouse cartoons from entering public domain, but that Mickey Mouse himself will enter public domain. If they are not the sole owners of Mickey Mouse, they'll lose much merchandising revenue.

Posted by: Chris Durnell at December 6, 2005 11:00 AM