Friday, July 22, 2011

"Gimme some luv"

You look at our movies, and you know what we value.

Most of the time.

We value love. Especially in summer movies. (In Christmas movies, we value family.) The message of our romantic movies is encouraging and clear:

“Love is out there for everyone.”

Including Shrek.

A green-skinned ogre with a Scottish accent.

The implication, of course, being,

“If it’s out there for that guy, it’s unquestionably out there for you.”

So we have a cultural value, cheer-leadered by our entertainments, our movies in harmonious sync with our most cherished national beliefs. (Not that other countries don’t believe in love, but for them, as reflected in their entertainments, it is frequently more complicated. There seems to be more suicide involved. I am generalizing here, of course.)

This in-syncness is even more apparent in another cherished national belief:


As capable and courageous as our recent women’s national soccer team was, I predict that no movies will be made about their improbable journey to the Finals. Why?

Because they lost.

As I’ve mentioned before, my favorite sports movies ultimately involve not winning, the first Rocky and the first Bad New Bears movies being the best of the breed. In both movies, the protagonists made enormous strides, only to come up agonizingly short. Still, they “won” on their own terms, those terms being, as Rocky asserts in his cherished hope before the final confrontation, “going the distance.”

In subsequent Rockys and Bad News Bears follow-ups (plus, virtually every other sports movie), winning remains the dominant motif, (and, as a result, the movies suffer from terminal predictability.)

We like love, and we like winning. So we repeatedly make movies about them, celebrating the positive outcomes. These stories are in harmony with our national mythology. They are pep rallies for hope.

There is one genre of movie, however, dealing with what is arguably our most cherished and believed-in cultural value, where it seems to me, the movies contradict our professed national belief. I am referring, of course, to movies about


In movies about business, business is always the bad guy. Not just the misbehavors in business – the “rotten apples”, as it were – but the generic entity of business itself. Think about it. When was the last movie you saw where business – the thing that provides us with jobs, fuels our economy, generating individual and collective prosperity – was offered as the hero?

Americans “do” business. And we do it commendably well. Innovation. New technology. Increased productivity. Profit’s not a bad thing; it’s a positive indicator. A successful business did something right, and they were justifiably enriched for their efforts.

So why, unlike love and winning, which we also revere, are movies constructed so that business, virtually without exception, is the enemy? I don’t get it. We value one activity above all others, and we make movies proclaiming that that activity is fundamentally corrupt, exploitive, self-serving and disgusting.

How come?

Well, first, a distinction. Movies that criticize business are not criticizing all business. They are criticizing big business. We’re not talking about a price-gouging haberdashery or a small-town pharmacy that sneaks nineteen pills into a prescription bottle rather than twenty. I don’t believe that happens that much anyway. I may be idealizing here, but my belief is, when it comes to the small business scenario, you are less likely to cheat people you know.

Faceless big business, however, as portrayed in our movies, will rip of their customers anyway they can. Network, Wall Street, those World War II movies where the Dads manufactured defective airplanes, and their pilot sons flew in them and crashed. In all cases, the enemy is always cruel, corrupt and cold-hearted business. Can you recall one movie about coal mining where they said, “This is actually quite a good job. Our clothes get sooty, but otherwise, I really can’t complain.”

For conservatives, the answer to the negative representation of business in movies is obvious. Communists write the movies. Lefty, pinko, un-American, business-hating anarchists who never did an honest day’s work in their lives, like children, railing against their unjust parents, are, in their negative portrayals, irrationally and immaturely biting the hand that feeds them.

Well, I don’t know about that. Yes, writers are quite often whiney and disaffected misfits, naturally drawn to the “politics of the outsider.” It would not be surprising if, more often than not, their ungrateful minds churned up stories raging against “the system”, and the dehumanizing corporate structure that demands unquestioning obedience to the bottom line. It’s not only their contrarian character that turns writers in that direction, however, it’s the inherent nature of storytelling. “Everything’s great” is simply not that compelling.

I just think there’s more too it than that. Movie writers may want to throw bombs and detonate the status quo, but movie bankrollers –who ultimately control which movies get made and which movies do not – have a more traditional agenda. Like other People of Commerce, studios and independent financiers are in business to make money. You do not maximize your golden chance at profitability by saying,

“Let’s just make movies for liberals.”

That’s simply not a businesslike idea. By biasing your storytelling, you are cutting out half your potential audience. What kind of businessman would do anything like that?

Movies like Network were huge box-office successes. I admit I did not poll the political leanings of the people who paid to see Network, but I suspect it was more than just liberals.

It’s a weird situation, especially now that movie studios are no longer independent, but are owned by the mega-corporations the movies they produce so consistently malign. Why do mega-corporations make movies where they themselves are the villains? That’s easy. It’s business.

“If movies where they hate us make money, we’ll make movies where they hate us.”

The question is why do they make money? Why, more than Muslim terrorists, more the the Mob, Russian or otherwise, more than malevolent, metallic extra-terrestrials, is business the foremost “Devil Figure” in movies? And I don’t just mean for liberals?

Ideologically, America is about “bigger is better.” There’s nothing bigger – and therefore arguably better – than a mega-corporation. Yet people, seemingly of all political persuasions, buy tickets to hiss at the irredeemable arch-evil that is the mega-corporation.

What exactly is going on?

Maybe you can help me with this. I am not being rhetorical.

I really don’t get it.


Mac said...

It reminds me of The Onion headline "Evil Corporation Makes Movie About Little Guy Who Triumphs Over Evil Corporation ."
I don't know the answer but that's never stopped me before, so here goes...
I think it's two things. Firstly, lots of people work for, if not an evil corporation, somewhere that ultimately treats them as an economic unit. Or have done at some time through necessity, on the way to doing what they want. So, lots of people can relate, if only vaguely, to the idea that big business doesn't care about them.
The other is the romantic notion of the recent past; the idea that we once worked in less de-humanizing environments where people were more important than profit. It's rubbish of course, but that's movie romance for you.
But no, I don't really know. I've never seen a film where a billionaire CEO donates a load of money to charity, but in real life it happens all the time.

Earl Pomerantz said...

The "Onion" is always ahead of me. Although, when I and an entity I respect are on the same wavelength, it feels like a compliment. I felt the same way when some writer stole on of my lines. I was flattering to have created something worth pilfering.

Bruce said...

I was going to respond earlier but if I do something other than work the evil corporation will fire me and ask for wages back. I don't know the answer either but I think its easy for everyone to relate to a corporation being an evil dehumanizing thing because so many of them are. I'm sure all the producer's that green lit the "evil corporation movies" never think they are one of them. Everyone believes they are thoughtful, respectful, and human, its all the other guys that are evil.

Mac said...

Absolutely. No shame in knocking them out at "Onion" level. If I think of a joke then see the same concept in The Onion, I think "man, my ideas are 'Onion' standard." Although it happens far too rarely for my liking.

Gordy Gecko said...

I believe Mac and Bruce have the answer. Not only have the majority of us been shat upon by the great, evil corp., but most of us have probably been expelled more than once. And in recent times, it was for me, as I suspect it was for you, the end of my career.

Max Clarke said...

It isn't that corporations are evil, per se, they are simply inhuman.

Corporations are legally established inhuman individuals, Earl. You and I could die tomorrow, but corporations can't be killed. They can go out of business or be acquired, but they have no expiration date. Ford and GM and IBM have outlived how many millions of Americans? That makes big business suspicious to many moviegoers, even if they don't think about it.

You can't ever make enough movies about "evil corporations," by the way. Not because they are really evil, but for two reasons.

First, corporations spend billions on their image. Movies and tv shows are the only chance most people have to see the other side of the public relations sales job.

Second, all major news is controlled by corporations, and they fall down when it comes to ratting on their corporate neighbors. MSNBC will almost never rat out the corporate sins of GE. Why? MSNBC is owned by GE.

Finally, Julia Roberts won an Oscar for her work in the movie Erin Brockovich.. Angel against the Devil. I've never seen an Oscar go to somebody who shows us how wonderful a big business is.

JED said...

You all remember that Michael Douglas won an Oscar for portraying Gordon Gekko in Wall Street but in this case, he was trying to convince us that, "Greed, for lack of a better word, is good." Does that count?

Jim Dodd

Michael Charters said...

Speaking of movies of almost winners, how about Mystery, Alaska.

Anonymous said...

I think it's just because no one can suspend disbelief when confronted with a corporation that isn't evil. Everyone has had a bad experience with the phone company and the bank and the human resources department at their company. No one was pleasantly surprised by their phone company, "Hey, we're cutting your rates. No need to ask; your next bill will be lower because our costs dropped." Even when they do cut their prices, you still have to call them, because, you know, maybe you like the higher rates.

Kaleberg said...

Jack the Giant Killer

It's the old myth of the little guy triumphing over the big guy.

Of course, nowadays it's more Jack the Dwarf Killer. Most Americans have incredible sympathy for large corporations.

Zaraya said...

Dear Mr. Pomerantz; big evil corporations make movies about big corporations being evil because they make money, and that's all a BEC wants to do. With apologies to Mr. Cameron, "That's what he does! That's ALL he does! You can't stop him!"