Ever walked out of a cinema wondering what just happened, both in the movie and to your brain cells? Daniel Safi explains what happened to film, and art and other things capitalism likes to devour.
We often hear about the role of (postmodern) capitalism in widening inequality, compromising elections and democracy, depressing wages and compensating for this with cheap goods, creating economic bubbles then popping them, fomenting wars, not to mention the positives. (The “postmodern” refers to the financialised capitalism, or “speculation” capitalism prevalent since the 80s; as opposed to the capitalism of industry and the classical business owner, which are as much a victim of postmodern capitalism as the least-skilled worker. It can also refer to the strange alliance between postmodern ideology, particularly its futile outlook on political and economic transformation, and capitalism and its continued thriving as system of relations and mode of thought).
Far less often do we speak of the role capitalism plays in homogenising, standardising, and sanitising the arts, an outcome which is both a product of and a driver of many of the essential features of capitalist society. That is to say, Hollywood is both a product of, and plays a central role in advancing capitalist consciousness – this is somewhat of a generalisation, for this is not all Hollywood does, and I will be the first to commend the great work that occasionally comes out of Hollywood.
Be that as it may, the endless trope of superhero movies exemplify capitalism’s approach to artistic endeavour, almost as completely and tragically as K Pop, Taylor Swift etc etc.
The first thing to recall is that under capitalism goods are produced not in order to meet human needs and desires, but for the sake of profit. This is not a criticism, it is but a fundamental tenet of capitalist production. That is to say, if someone can find a way of marketing and selling cigarette butts, power to them. It just so happens that human needs and desires are naturally often in accord with goods produced, but not necessarily so.
We can, for example be duped into thinking something is needed or desired – this is the role of marketing and brand power (think, flexible razor heads). Similarly, monopoly power can be used to market and sell increasingly poor quality and otherwise undesirable goods or services (think, Microsoft computers).
As the late cultural critic Mark Fisher remarked, “organisations are so fixated on making profits that they can’t actually sell you anything”. But certainly this is not an exaggeration in the case of some companies, think, Telstra in Australia. Indeed we can even observe how the profit motive can act against human desire and need: think, built-in obsolescence, and, dangerously, in medicine, how a contemporarily profitable drug or operation disincentivises research and/or use of better treatment options.
In short, the creators of film embedded in capitalist modes of production are not out to make “good movies” (however we want to define an artist’s motives), they are out to make profitable movies, which is something else altogether, and involves an entirely different creative process, much closer to the processes and strategies of marketing and advertising.
And like how market research is conducted to test responses to a new muesli bar, its packaging, its sales pitch and so on, the film industry now employs these same strategies, bringing in focus groups to view “research screenings” and answer questionnaires, and film-makers alter their work based on these results. (What is fascinating about this is that it’s likely most of the greatest films ever made would come out of this testing process with horrible results, for such is the nature of most good art, that it does not yield general appreciation instantaneously).
In George Orwell’s essay The Prevention of Literature, Orwell prophesies:
“In the future it is possible that a new kind of literature, not involving individual feeling or truthful observation, may arise… It would probably not be beyond human ingenuity to write books by machinery. But a sort of mechanizing process can already be seen at work in the film and radio, in publicity and propaganda, and in the lower reaches of journalism… It is probably in some such way that the literature of a totalitarian society would be produced.”
What then is the purpose of creating content in this manner? There can only be two reasons: economic – production, consumption and profit; or for political reasons.
In this space, imagination and experimentation, the unique expression of the artist, all those qualities that make art, art, are constricted to a safe median space of general tolerance, ultimately satisfying no-one and everyone at the same time. Avoiding risk is the modus operandi of the film-industry.
We all know how this looks on screen – characters with no character, scripts so bad words cannot describe, plots that are, somehow, overdone and half-baked at the same time. The creators know this, but they do not care, making good content was never their objective.
Most of us are fully cognisant of how underwhelming these films are (despite the great feedback Avengers is seeing online, I only heard groaning and mocking on exiting the cinema. This could be down to my city of residence, but it would be entirely consistent with what other businesses that rely on internet feedback are doing today if the production studios are now taking out contracts to flood the net with positive reviews).
But we go out and watch these films anyway, because they are carefully designed to haul us into the cinema, even while that feeling of frustration at yet another film that killed more brain cells than your last bender follows you out.
Okay, so who cares? Mainstream Hollywood films that do not follow the strict dictates of capitalism are still being made, and independent films will always exist, let the market do its thing, they’re just a bit of fun, and so on and on. Why does this matter so?
I would contend actually that very few people truly enjoy these films (children aside); and most of those that do are merely numb to bad films, and do not know any better for lack of exposure. But this also matters because art matters, and culture matters, and in the great commodification and thus destruction of art and culture that takes place in capitalist society, at the very least we have to be conscious of this. And perhaps when one is more conscious of the fact that the inspiration for most Hollywood films is, “there’s a sucker born every minute,” you will feel used and may just protest by watching more good films.
In Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism, he presents an image of capitalism that is truly frightening,
“Capitalism is what is left when beliefs have collapsed at the level of ritual or symbolic elaboration, and all that is left is the consumer-spectator, trudging through the ruins and the relics… [It] brings with it a massive desacralisation of culture. It is a system which is no longer governed by any transcendent Law… This makes capitalism very much like the Thing in John Carpenter’s film of the same name: a monstrous, infinitely plastic entity, capable of metabolizing and absorbing anything with which it comes into contact.”
This image of our society is a potentiality that has not been wholly fulfilled, I do not think. And although it is difficult to know whether pushing back against these forces is at all possible under a capitalist economy, we can start somewhere.
So next time it is movie night, go to a cinema showing independent films, or even the theatre, if the kind of small, casual theatre I’m thinking of even exists where you live. And you will be giving not just the creators, but culture and art itself a chance.
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