Why Hollywood hates politics

July 27, 2012

A South American director once observed to me that everything was political.

He was referring to entertainment in general, more specifically the films that Hollywood chooses to make, even when they seemingly have nothing to do with politics – because that, in itself, is a political choice.

That’s still true – even as we try to deny it as much as possible (and as Hollywood does its best to scrub all obvious political content from its output).

The confluence of several different things brought this to mind. One was the studios’ response to the shootings in Colorado last week. The other was a pair of documentaries – one opening today (7/27/12), the other opening a week from today (8/3/12).

Let’s start with Hollywood and its response to the Aurora massacre. The most obvious part of that was the report that Warner Bros. had pulled the film, “Gangster Squad,” from its fall schedule. A tale of 1940s-era battles between L.A. gangsters and the forces of law and order, it apparently included a scene in which there was a shoot-out in a movie theater.

(And never mind that specious New York Times piece about Warner Bros. and its history of violent movies. Yeesh. You can cherry-pick crap like that about any studio.)

So Warners freaked out, dumped the film’s Sept. 7 release and sent it back for reshoots to change that scene. The idea was to avoid rekindling memories of the actions of one armed lunatic at the first midnight screening of “The Dark Knight Rises” last week.

It calls to mind the flustered response by Twentieth Century-Fox last March when Trayvon Martin was shot by a member of a neighborhood watch. Suddenly, it was of vital importance to rename its comedy, “Neighborhood Watch,” as simply “The Watch,” lest anyone think they were making light of the killing.

It’s not unlike the panic 11 years ago after the terrorist attack of 9/11: What to do about those movies that included now-dated images of the World Trade Center before it toppled? What about movies (or TV shows, like the first episode of “24”) that dealt with terrorist attacks?

And yet this is the least of Hollywood’s worries, for my money. The major studios have a bigger problem – such as the fact that they so seldom make movies with serious themes or content. And they never address actual political issues if they can avoid it.

Otherwise, they might wind up on the wrong side of one half of the bitterly partisan divide that seems to characterize so much of our public discourse today.

Make a movie about a black character and white character (like the French film, “The Intouchables”) without mentioning race and you spike the ire of the politically correct on the liberal side.

Make a children’s movie about puppets trying to reclaim the studio that made them great and you’re accused of being anti-business by the right, as Fox News did with “The Muppets.” The freaking Muppets! No doubt the same theme will be sounded with “Step Up Revolution,” a teen-focused dance movie opening today, in which the villain is an avaricious developer. Obviously a stand-in for Mitt Romney.

It’s no wonder you don’t see feature films that actually address issues like gun control, the real issue in the Colorado case (instead of whether there should be better security at movie multiplexes). Or climate change. Or the results of income inequality. It’s hard to imagine one of the major studios sanctioning a film that even hinted at those issues, let alone addressed them directly.

That’s why the studios don’t deal in documentaries (well, that and the fact that audiences avoid them in the misguided belief that nonfiction films are the spinach of movie-going, a perception that is grossly inaccurate). The closest thing to a studio dealing with political film are the independents – such as the Weinstein Company with “Bully” or Sony Pictures Classics with Charles Ferguson’s Oscar-winning “Inside Job.”

Perhaps the studios stay away from docs out of shame at their own timidity, because so many docs reveal the courage of individuals in attempting to speak truth to power. Studios would rather speak stupid to the masses, which seem to listen with both ears.

Consider “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry,” which opens in limited release today. It’s a bracing look at the Chinese artist/activist Ai Weiwei, who was imprisoned last year for his willingness to point out his government’s oppressive, repressive policies in his artwork and his constant Twitter feed. Ai puts his life on the line just by holding the ideas he does and speaking them out loud.

Or look at next week’s “You’ve Been Trumped,” about the way the obnoxious, bullying Donald Trump bamboozled the Scottish government into surrendering one of its more environmentally sensitive regions for a golf course. The film points up the fearlessness of the locals in Aberdeenshire, who protested and fought Trump’s land grab, even as he casually put the local politicians and media into his pocket and despoiled a rare formation of sand dunes found nowhere else in Great Britain.

“Trumped,” in fact, could serve as an allegory for Mitt Romney’s presidential candidacy – the rich guy who makes all sorts of promises he has no intention of keeping, whose good intentions are supposed to be a given because, well, he’s rich. Except most wealthy tycoons didn’t achieve that status by being humanitarians or even socially conscious. There’s a reason why you never hear someone referred to as the Kitten of Wall Street – why businessmen prefer to be thought of as sharks rather than, say, salmon. It’s not about tenacity – it’s about blood in the water and a feeding frenzy.

It will be interesting to see how many critics actually make that connection – and how many will soft-pedal it in their reviews of “Trumped,” for fear of rousing the ire of readers or, more to the point, advertisers.

Everything is political. Including advertising dollars and reviews. Keep it in mind – and support the artists (like Ai Weiwei and others) who refuse to keep quiet about it.

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