November 29, 2012

Protest Dreams

[Note: This is an updated version of an essay I posted last May, when "Killing Me Softly" premiered at the Cannes Film Festival.]

Brad Pitt's latest movie, which opens tomorrow, is being described as an attack on capitalism, at least as it's currently practiced in America.

When "Killing Them Softly" premiered at Cannes last spring, an article in the Los Angeles Times called it a "post-Occupy" film and "what the documentary 'Inside Job' might look like if it was a fictional feature."

"Inside Job," you may recall, is director Charles Ferguson's Oscar-winning examination of how Wall Street speculation and duplicity led to our current economic crisis. The action in "Killing Them Softly" takes place during the stock and housing market crashes that got the current crisis rolling; visible in the background are clips of presidential candidates Obama and McCain making promises (still unfulfilled) of economic reform. Director Andrew Dominik's underlying theme, according to the Times, "is that U.S. capitalism is deeply flawed, and that government, whether Democrat or Republican, has let down its people."

I mention this here because "Killing Them Softly" demonstrates a theme I've written about in this space: the symbiotic relationship between capitalism and technology. It also demonstrates the contradictions inherent in trying to use the tools of that symbiotic relationship to attack it.  

"Killing Them Softly" was financed by Megan Ellison, the daughter of Larry Ellison, the co-founder and chief executive officer of the software company, Oracle. The third richest man in America, Ellison is reportedly worth more than $35 billion, a fortune produced by that magically powerful combination of – you guessed it – technology and capitalism. Brad Pitt, of course, is one of the biggest movie stars in the world, an icon whose stature is a product of that same magical combination (in addition to good looks and acting talent).

As I noted in my earlier commentary, you can argue that capitalism is the driving force behind technology or you can argue that technology is the driving force behind capitalism. That's what I mean when I say the relationship between the two is symbiotic. Sometimes technology stimulates capitalism, other times capitalism stimulates technology. At their present state of development in advanced technological/capitalist societies, neither could exist without the other.

I'm an admirer of Brad Pitt, who, like George Clooney, has gone out of his way to use his Hollywood clout to make meaningful movies, both as works of cinematic art and as commentaries on important issues of the day. Not every film Pitt and Clooney make fits that category, but they're obviously trying. The problem, as I'm sure they know, is that those films owe their existence to a system that's responsible, in many ways, for the injustices they're trying to address. If the films are successful they also feed that system.

There's also a contradiction implicit in addressing real-life issues through a technological medium that sells dreams. "Killing Them Softly," says the Times, "is a hit-man movie, albeit an arthouse one, and contains many of the schemes and stylized violence you might expect from a film with that label." This is reminiscent of "The Godfather," surely one of the most profitable anti-capitalist films in Hollywood history. I'm not saying that art can't have an impact. I am saying that we don't strike a meaningful blow against the empire by spending ten dollars or more to watch a make-believe assassin pretend to kill people. 

My favorite example of this contradiction is the DreamWorks logo, a silhouette of a boy with a fishing pole, sitting, one imagines, by a peaceful lake on a summer's afternoon, lost in a reverie. This, of course, is exactly the sort of old-fashioned pastime that DreamWorks, with all the technological and marketing power at its disposal, is doing its best to make obsolete. Boys won't be spending their summer afternoons lolling peacefully by lakes if DreamWorks has anything to say about it. Rather, they'll be sitting inside multiplexes in shopping malls, hypnotized by reveries conjured for them by the latest extravaganzas of computer animation. 

©Doug Hill, 2012

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