A New Aesthetic

Meme Warfare in the Movies

Behind the magic of film lurks the dark power of corporate public relations.
Meme Warfare In The Movies

Baz Luhrmann’s epic film Australia has been criticized by many, and most vociferously by Germaine Greer, for sanitizing the country’s colonial history. At the same time it has served the purpose of making Australia look like a great place to go on holiday – its release was accompanied by reams of coverage in the travel sections of newspapers and a lavish advertising campaign by the Australian tourist board. This kind of marketing is hardly new; throughout cinematic history, films have served political and social ends. But in order to understand the influences at play in Hollywood today it is still worth asking in more detail: what prompted 20th Century Fox to produce this kind of material? The answer becomes clearer when we learn that the studio’s parent company is Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, which worked hand in hand throughout the film’s production with the Australian government. The arrangement works well for both parties: the government benefits from the increase in tourism and, in turn, Murdoch received tens of millions of dollars in tax rebates.

Australia
Baz Luhrmann’s Australia.

This is just one example of how the content of Hollywood movies is determined not only by the demands of the box office and the vision of studio “creatives,” but also by those higher up the economic food chain. Indeed, in its cinema power list the Hollywood Reporter placed Rupert Murdoch at number one. Steven Spielberg, at number three, was the only director in the top ten.

The economic structure of the film industry is built around the dominant Hollywood studios (“the majors”), each of which is a subsidiary of a much larger corporation. Each studio is therefore not a separate or independent business, but rather just one of a great many sources of revenue in its parent company’s wider financial empire. So, just as 20th Century Fox is owned by News Corp, Paramount is a subsidiary of the media conglomerate Viacom. Universal is owned by General Electric/Vivendi, Disney by the Walt Disney Corporation and so on. These parent companies are huge corporations and their economic interests are sometimes closely tied to politicized areas, such as the armaments industry. They also depend on governments, which have the power to regulate in their favor and grant them tax breaks.

"Munich is more easily interpreted as a corporate-backed endorsement of Israeli policy."
Alford & Graham

This is not to say that the content of a studio’s films is determined entirely by the political and economic interests of its parent company; studio CEOs typically have considerable leeway to make the pictures they want to make, without any direct interference. But it is important to understand how and why Hollywood studios are tied into these wider corporate interests. At best, such interests contribute to a culture of deradicalized filmmaking. At worst, it is certainly not unknown for parent companies to take a conscious and deliberate interest in certain films.

To take one example: the Walt Disney Company tried to withhold Miramax’s Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004), the Michael Moore blockbuster. Miramax insisted Disney had no right to block it from releasing the film since its budget was well below the level requiring Disney’s approval. Disney representatives responded that they could veto any Miramax film if it appeared that its distribution would be counterproductive to the interests of the company. Ari Emanuel, Moore’s agent, alleged that Disney’s boss Michael Eisner had told him he wanted to back out of the deal due to concerns about political fallout from conservative politicians, especially regarding tax breaks given to Disney properties, including Walt Disney World in Florida (Florida’s governor was the then-president’s brother, Jeb Bush). Disney denied any such high political ball game, explaining that they were worried about being “dragged into a highly charged partisan political battle” and alienating customers.

When Disney released Pearl Harbor – a simplistic mega-budget movie, which celebrated the American nationalist resurgence following that “day of infamy” – it received lamentable reviews. Nevertheless, Disney unexpectedly decided in August 2001 to extend the film’s nationwide release window from the standard two to four months to seven months, meaning that this “summer” blockbuster would be screening until December. In addition, Disney expanded the number of theaters in which the film was showing from 116 to 1,036.

While such fare finds an easy route into the world’s multiplexes, more politically challenging films are left to flounder for funding. Oliver Stone’s Salvador (1986) was a graphic exposé of the Salvadoran civil war; its narrative was broadly sympathetic toward the left wing peasant revolutionaries and explicitly critical of US foreign policy, condemning the United States’ support of Salvador’s right wing military and infamous death squads. Stone’s film was turned down by every major Hollywood studio, and was eventually financed by British and Mexican investors. More recently, controversial documentaries such as Loose Change, which argued that 9/11 was an “inside job,” and Zeitgeist, which presents a frightening picture of global economics, have been viewed by millions through the Internet when corporate media wouldn’t touch them.

United 93
GE/Universal’s United 93.

GE/Universal’s United 93 was billed as the “true account” of how heroic passengers on the plane “foiled the terrorist plot” by forcing it to crash prematurely in rural Pennsylvania. At the time, Bush’s official 9/11 story was being seriously questioned by America’s independent news media; according to the results of a 2004 Zogby poll, half of New Yorkers believed “US leaders had foreknowledge of impending 9/11 attacks and ‘consciously failed’ to act”; and just one month prior to the release of United 93, 83 percent of CNN viewers confirmed their belief “that the US government covered up the real events of the 9/11 attacks.” With the official narrative under attack, the US government welcomed the release of United 93 with open arms: the film was a faithful audiovisual translation of the 9/11 Commission Report, with “special thanks” to the Pentagon’s Hollywood liaison Phil Strub tucked away discreetly in the end credits. Soon after the film’s nationwide release date, in what might be interpreted as a cynical PR move and as a gesture of official approval, President Bush sat down with some of the victims’ family members for a private screening at the White House.

Munich, Steven Spielberg’s exploration of Israeli vengeance following the Palestinian terrorist attack at the 1972 Olympics, could also be understood to reflect the interests of General Electric. Israel is one of GE’s most loyal customers, buying Hellfire II laser missiles as well as propulsion systems for the F-16 Falcon fighter, the F-4 Phantom fighter, the AH-64 Apache attack helicopter and the UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter. Spielberg ends his film with a lingering shot of the World Trade Center, its twin towers standing as monolithic reminders of “why we fight,” and casting a shadow over the 167 minutes of running time. Meanwhile, the voice of the Palestinian cause is restricted to just two and a half minutes of dialogue. Far from being an “even-handed cry for peace,” as one critic claimed, Munich is more easily interpreted as a corporate-backed endorsement of Israeli policy.

To understand what might happen if big business interests were less prevalent in the film industry, consider the independent distributor Lions Gate Films. Lions Gate was formed in Canada by an investment banker, but is not beholden to a multi-billion dollar parent corporation with multifarious interests. The result has been some of the most daring and original popular political cinema of the past ten years: American Psycho, which criticized corporate capitalism; Hotel Rwanda, which highlighted the failings of US foreign policy and Lord of War, which focused on the arms trade.

As we peer up from our popcorn, it is worth remembering that behind the magic of the movies lurks the darker power of corporate public relations.

Matthew Alford is the author of the forthcoming Projecting Power: American Foreign Policy and the Hollywood Propaganda System.

Robbie Graham is an associate lecturer in film at Stafford College.

99 comments on the article “Meme Warfare in the Movies”

Displaying 41 - 50 of 99

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Danika

I'm not saying fuck the government. I'm saying use you're head. I don't believe that 9/11 was a conspiracy in it's entirity, but i do believe that the american government was aware of a pending attack, and failed to do something about it. There is history laid out in perfect sequence outlining a growing tention between North America, and the Middle East. Now wouldn't it make the american government look bad if they just decided to go to war with no grounds, but waait, if they knew about a pending attack, it could be a perfect excuse. Never mind 9/11, the government is made up of human beings, and guess what, human beings have basic human nature. They are driven like any other animal, to survive. As much as humans are capable of showing love and compassion, they are also capable of being taken by things like greed and selfishness. If you were put into a position where you had all the money, and all the power, wouldm't you do everything and anything you could to protect your ass. They want the people to put trust in their decisions, and they want you to keep paying your taxes, keep feeding the war. It's like an investigation in a police force, they reveal only what they want you to know during press conferences, and then you find out down the road that they actually didnt tell you everything. The big bad government isn't the problem, its the people that don't question what their doing that are the problem. If you didn't question if their doing their job, then you don't care about your own well being, or the well being of your country.

Danika

I'm not saying fuck the government. I'm saying use you're head. I don't believe that 9/11 was a conspiracy in it's entirity, but i do believe that the american government was aware of a pending attack, and failed to do something about it. There is history laid out in perfect sequence outlining a growing tention between North America, and the Middle East. Now wouldn't it make the american government look bad if they just decided to go to war with no grounds, but waait, if they knew about a pending attack, it could be a perfect excuse. Never mind 9/11, the government is made up of human beings, and guess what, human beings have basic human nature. They are driven like any other animal, to survive. As much as humans are capable of showing love and compassion, they are also capable of being taken by things like greed and selfishness. If you were put into a position where you had all the money, and all the power, wouldm't you do everything and anything you could to protect your ass. They want the people to put trust in their decisions, and they want you to keep paying your taxes, keep feeding the war. It's like an investigation in a police force, they reveal only what they want you to know during press conferences, and then you find out down the road that they actually didnt tell you everything. The big bad government isn't the problem, its the people that don't question what their doing that are the problem. If you didn't question if their doing their job, then you don't care about your own well being, or the well being of your country.

Nic

There is no evidence supporting that they knew exactly what was going to happen. All they had was general info on threats...which they had been getting for many years prior. Although I agree that this is much more plausible than any of this controlled demolition bullshit.

Nic

There is no evidence supporting that they knew exactly what was going to happen. All they had was general info on threats...which they had been getting for many years prior. Although I agree that this is much more plausible than any of this controlled demolition bullshit.

Anonymous

"There is no evidence supporting that they knew exactly what was going to happen." ROFLMAO Nicster there was only the presidential briefing in August 2001 stating that bin Laden was planning to fly aircraft into skyscrapers in NY. Probably not enough for you however - give your pal Condi Rice a call - she knows about it. you're a shill for the official story Nic. Forums around the world are full of them - they cruise sites looking for any mention of 9/11, and in particular, any hint that the official story (or as I call it, "the idiot's guide to 9/11") is not true. Then they move in and harass posters and derail the conversation. You probably get paid by DHS or do you get a personal cheque from Darth Cheney? Given the tiresome sturm and drang of their defense of the government yarn, you just gotta know that something stinks alot. The forums on one progressive site I visit are sometimes dominated by two posters who basically argue about 9/11 - the difference between the two are that the questioner of the official story is polite and reasonable, while the one who has swallowed the whole official enchilada is completely apoplectic and bug eyed all the time - shouting personal insults and swearing. So which one is sane I wonder?

Anonymous

"There is no evidence supporting that they knew exactly what was going to happen." ROFLMAO Nicster there was only the presidential briefing in August 2001 stating that bin Laden was planning to fly aircraft into skyscrapers in NY. Probably not enough for you however - give your pal Condi Rice a call - she knows about it. you're a shill for the official story Nic. Forums around the world are full of them - they cruise sites looking for any mention of 9/11, and in particular, any hint that the official story (or as I call it, "the idiot's guide to 9/11") is not true. Then they move in and harass posters and derail the conversation. You probably get paid by DHS or do you get a personal cheque from Darth Cheney? Given the tiresome sturm and drang of their defense of the government yarn, you just gotta know that something stinks alot. The forums on one progressive site I visit are sometimes dominated by two posters who basically argue about 9/11 - the difference between the two are that the questioner of the official story is polite and reasonable, while the one who has swallowed the whole official enchilada is completely apoplectic and bug eyed all the time - shouting personal insults and swearing. So which one is sane I wonder?

Nic

"there was only the presidential briefing in August 2001 stating that bin Laden was planning to fly aircraft into skyscrapers in NY" I believe this is the briefing you are referring to. There is nothing in it that suggests specifics such as date, methods, members and targets. So this isn’t really evidence of an inside job at all. http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB116/pdb8-6-2001.pdf "cruise sites looking for any mention of 9/11, and in particular, any hint that the official story (or as I call it, “the idiot’s guide to 9/11”) is not true. Then they move in and harass posters and derail the conversation." I care about the truth, which is why I do it. Why is it that when I argue my point I must be a shill, but when you argue your point, it is because you have the best of intentions? It is pure hypocrisy, and a mentality that must stop if you are to give the official story a fair shot. Until then you have an incredibly slanted approach. "You probably get paid by DHS or do you get a personal cheque from Darth Cheney? Given the tiresome sturm and drang of their defense of the government yarn, you just gotta know that something stinks alot." See ...what the hell is this? You are accusing me of being on a government payroll, just because I agree with the official version of 9/11? Do you not see how ridiculous this is? How about you stop slandering your opposition, and focus on the evidence instead? "the difference between the two are that the questioner of the official story is polite and reasonable, while the one who has swallowed the whole official enchilada is completely apoplectic and bug eyed all the time - shouting personal insults and swearing. So which one is sane I wonder?" I can say the exact opposite. But I won’t make that case, because I have seen it all. I have seen people on both sides be incredibly rude or incredibly patient. Views on 9/11 do not correlate with attitude. You are making a generalization, and a silly one at that.

Nic

"there was only the presidential briefing in August 2001 stating that bin Laden was planning to fly aircraft into skyscrapers in NY" I believe this is the briefing you are referring to. There is nothing in it that suggests specifics such as date, methods, members and targets. So this isn’t really evidence of an inside job at all. http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB116/pdb8-6-2001.pdf "cruise sites looking for any mention of 9/11, and in particular, any hint that the official story (or as I call it, “the idiot’s guide to 9/11”) is not true. Then they move in and harass posters and derail the conversation." I care about the truth, which is why I do it. Why is it that when I argue my point I must be a shill, but when you argue your point, it is because you have the best of intentions? It is pure hypocrisy, and a mentality that must stop if you are to give the official story a fair shot. Until then you have an incredibly slanted approach. "You probably get paid by DHS or do you get a personal cheque from Darth Cheney? Given the tiresome sturm and drang of their defense of the government yarn, you just gotta know that something stinks alot." See ...what the hell is this? You are accusing me of being on a government payroll, just because I agree with the official version of 9/11? Do you not see how ridiculous this is? How about you stop slandering your opposition, and focus on the evidence instead? "the difference between the two are that the questioner of the official story is polite and reasonable, while the one who has swallowed the whole official enchilada is completely apoplectic and bug eyed all the time - shouting personal insults and swearing. So which one is sane I wonder?" I can say the exact opposite. But I won’t make that case, because I have seen it all. I have seen people on both sides be incredibly rude or incredibly patient. Views on 9/11 do not correlate with attitude. You are making a generalization, and a silly one at that.

A Human Being

sorry, mate, if you are a genuinely misguided soul who takes a government word for granted (NIST,FBI reports are designed to conceal the evidence we need an independent source). But I have found this collocation "corporate shill" I guess we have to leave it here since it is impossible to convince an atheist of the existence of "mortal sin" and it is equally impossible to persuade a zealot to abandon organised religion of choice. The whole debate is moot. And the situation is crystal clear to both of us. And coming back to the article in question. Yes, we are surrounded from day one by corporate controlled media. If one has a chance to be born into a least common denominator unwitting and "law-abiding" family, it is difficult to escape the grasp of indoctrination until one is around 18-20 and starts to look for independence or, indeed, never. If it is possible at all to render the profoundly sick society more humane is another question. I wold like just to offer a personal recipe to deal with mind control. Marshal McLuhan advised to pay attention to the media be it corporate controlled or of any other denomination with an attitude and investigative curiosity of an artist/scientist (in Buckminster-Fuller or Leonardo sense). It is a waste of energy to either "hate/despise" or "applaud/endorse" any given message. It is in our power to research the visual language. And when the attention is concentrated this way it is much more fun to engage with the imperfect societal reality. Fitzgerald proposed to "suspend moral judgement". We can stop bickering over trivia and concentrate on the beauty and enigma of having consciousness in the first place.

A Human Being

sorry, mate, if you are a genuinely misguided soul who takes a government word for granted (NIST,FBI reports are designed to conceal the evidence we need an independent source). But I have found this collocation "corporate shill" I guess we have to leave it here since it is impossible to convince an atheist of the existence of "mortal sin" and it is equally impossible to persuade a zealot to abandon organised religion of choice. The whole debate is moot. And the situation is crystal clear to both of us. And coming back to the article in question. Yes, we are surrounded from day one by corporate controlled media. If one has a chance to be born into a least common denominator unwitting and "law-abiding" family, it is difficult to escape the grasp of indoctrination until one is around 18-20 and starts to look for independence or, indeed, never. If it is possible at all to render the profoundly sick society more humane is another question. I wold like just to offer a personal recipe to deal with mind control. Marshal McLuhan advised to pay attention to the media be it corporate controlled or of any other denomination with an attitude and investigative curiosity of an artist/scientist (in Buckminster-Fuller or Leonardo sense). It is a waste of energy to either "hate/despise" or "applaud/endorse" any given message. It is in our power to research the visual language. And when the attention is concentrated this way it is much more fun to engage with the imperfect societal reality. Fitzgerald proposed to "suspend moral judgement". We can stop bickering over trivia and concentrate on the beauty and enigma of having consciousness in the first place.

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