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Yesterday I posted a comment about the new Batman movie, The Dark Knight, and was surprised by the response.  My comment suggested that perhaps Hollywood ought to pay as much attention to the messages of their films as they do to their fundraisers.  The Dark Knight, as I read it, went a little too soft on the torture and domestic spying points.  The upshot seemed to be that it was okay to do both -- as long as you only do it once, and it works.

But there's a larger concern than just this one movie.  Sometimes, well-meaning directors can become the mouthpiece for pretty horrific propaganda from the right.  The Steven Spielberg film Jurassic Park is a great example.

The first problem is that the Steven Spielberg film Jurassic Park started out as the Michael Crichton novel Jurassic Park.  Since then Crichton has been outed as a wingnut -- indeed, as probably one of the most influential wingnuts there are.  He uses the novel form to make conservative propaganda palatable and even entertaining.  The scary part is that you can watch the films made from his books and not even realize it's happening.  

But how is Jurassic Park propaganda?  That gets just slightly complicated.

About forty years ago biologists began to wonder about the die-off of megafauna at the end of the Pleistocene -- virtually all of the large mammals of North America vanished.  Even though it was just about at this time that man arrived on the continent, climate has usually been held up as the culprit.  (I recently wrote an article about all this -- and about Pleistocene Rewilding, a proposed solution to the problem.)  Sound familiar?  Just as with the global warming debate, scientists about four decades ago began to wonder whether man wasn't really responsible for the die-offs -- and whether something couldn't be done about it.  In academic circles, the debate over the "overkill" hypothesis has raged, and a few brave, progressive scientists proposed action -- returning animals to the wild.  They have found successes with wolves in Yellowstone, muskoxen in Alaska, birds on island chains, and so on.

To be sure, there are dangers to this -- but the world's already in danger with a major extinction crisis underway.  So, even bolder plans have been proposed, with equivalent surrogate species taking the place of animals that are extinct.  The idea is that overall biodiversity and evolution can be invigorated with aggressive action.

This basic plan is what Crichton was sending up in Jurassic Park.  Crichton is famous for trolling scientific journals for plots, and this one must have looked as big as a grapefruit as it came toward the plate.  Dave Foreman's Earth First! proposed a slogan of "Bring Back the Pleistocene!" and Crichton exercised his hyperbole muscle and moved the clock further back.  Now, the proponents of a progressive plan based in solid science have to deal with the stigma generated by the film's message: dinosaurs are great, but dammit you just can't mess with nature.  The message of the film is so pervasive that people often aren't aware that it amounts to a political position.

And what's becoming clear is that if we don't begin messing with nature we won't have a nature at all. Ask Al Gore about that one.

My fear is that a director like Spielberg is too shrewd to not hear the message in his own film.  Jeff Goldblum, too -- a wonderful lefty -- plays the role of conservative mouthpiece with his "chaos theorist."  Crichton, butchering chaos theory badly, uses the "science" of it to suggest that all well-intentioned plans must inevitably go wrong -- because that's nature: chaos.  If that was the case, it would have been a bad idea to reintroduce wolves to Yellowstone, and in fact that well-intentioned plan has worked out swimmingly for everyone: wolves, moose, beavers, and a ton of other species, including those of us who think wolves are peachy.

One wonders what happened to Goldblum's liberal radar when he was considering this part.  Or Spielberg's.  It seems to me that Hollywood in general considers profits before politics -- they create amazing entertainments that damage progressive movements, and they don't even seem to be aware that it's happening.  Or maybe they are.  That would be tragic.

It's all over a film like Jurassic Park.  And it's in The Dark Knight, too.  I was surprised that folks here seemed deaf to the message.  Batman may be ambivalent about himself -- but he's still the hero.  If the film is crafted in such a way that the left can read it in one way, and the right another, and everyone's happy, then I don't think it's playing the role that a powerful shaper of opinions like the movie business ought to play.  To my mind, it's inherently conservative to hide behind an "art imitates life" argument -- because sometimes there's backwash and life begins to imitate the art.  Maybe the error can be forgiven in a lesser director's career, but when you can basically pick your projects, when your career can survive a box office failure, I think you have a different responsibility.  To whom much is given, and so on...

All art contains politics.  All torture is wrong -- even when it's Batman, or Jack Bauer, or a character from Law and Order (take your pick).  A quick comparison of, say, The Dark Knight and the last of the Bourne Trilogy reveals the way in which the former panders to Western duality, while the latter retains all the requisites of the action film, yet leaves the viewer uncomfortable, susceptible to introspection. Which is what films should do.

Perhaps hungry for Hollywood dollars, we on the left have not been quick enough to exert influence in that realm.  A scary thought is that a blind eye is what those dollars have been purchasing all along.

Here's a few links for people curious about Pleistocene Rewilding:

Search Magazine
New York Times
Orion Magazine
Nature Magazine
And the hard core science of it: American Naturalist

Originally posted to JCHallman on Mon Jul 21, 2008 at 05:43 AM PDT.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Partially snarky comment ahead. (0+ / 0-)

    One wonders what happened to Goldblum's liberal radar when he was considering this part.

    Maybe he was just happy to be working?

    Do we maybe give too much credit to actors that they're looking into their roles to be sure their political views are properly represented in whatever they're working on? Do we maybe expect too much from politically active directors? I think we do, and it's not always a good thing to assume. Not everyone is Sean Penn. Not every role Susan Sarandon or Tim Robbins ever played was a politically charged masterpiece, either. (White Castle, anyone?) Sometimes entertainment is just entertainment. While I appreciate the explanation of the science, I have to say that I really don't go to movies based on the director's views. I don't go to a summer movie hoping to get a message - in fact, most of the time, the message gets lost or badly misinterpreted. And I try not to read too much into a movie, unless of course the message slaps me in the face.

    But that's just me.

    "Pictures are better than words, cause some words are big, and hard to understand." Peter Griffin.

    by Leigh3352 on Mon Jul 21, 2008 at 06:03:05 AM PDT

    •  Yes, I know what you mean... (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      khereva, Leigh3352

      ...but in this case (Jurassic Park) the message winds up making a difference, a bad difference, and we're not necessarily aware of it.  That's propaganda at its most successful -- it's not always easy to spot.

      As to Goldblum, yes, possibly.  But doesn't he hang out with all those lefty actors?  Part of his schtick, or so I thought.  Anyway, if Matthew Modine can turn down the lead in Top Gun because he realizes that a career is not worth the message -- well, that's something we should celebrate.

      •  I agree (0+ / 0-)

        I love it as a movie buff when an actor whom I know is politically active chooses to turn down roles that they think are inherently wrong for them morally, politically, and personally. And I honestly would never have known all of what you mentioned in your post was real science - in all honesty, I was so blown away by the CG in that movie that any message Spielberg was getting at fell by the wayside. (In my initial viewing of it, that is.)
        I think that's becoming a problem too. Too many good directors are going down the CG road and not paying enough attention to story. I miss the good old days of stories that drew you in, of not needing massive amounts of CG to get people in theatres. Manchurain Candidate springs to mind here, or 12 Angry Men, or Grapes of Wrath. And the days when the message was clear in a movie, whether you agreed with it or not, are slowly going away. It's a shame - well known directors have a huge open field to work with, and an automatic audience, but they go for "wow" instead of "hmmm".

        "Pictures are better than words, cause some words are big, and hard to understand." Peter Griffin.

        by Leigh3352 on Mon Jul 21, 2008 at 06:17:30 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  Yes... (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          Leigh3352

          I remember when I first saw Jurassic Park, and the feeling in the theatre was like that old response one hears of to the early footage someone took of a gunslinger pulling a gun on the camera -- people in audience got up and shot back!

          This is the power of movies -- and when they seem to create, or recreate, reality so perfectly, well, that's precisely when we're most susceptible to whatever is happening in what Conrad called "the depths."  

  •  Interesting point (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    JCHallman, Leigh3352

    And I'll tip you for the effort here.  Could you provide a link to your comment, so we can see what the Dark Knight hubbub was about?

    Your comments on Michael Crichton are spot on.  I did read Jurassic Park before the film and recognized it as at least partially RW propaganda. I also started his book Sphere and recoiled at the not-so-subtle racism in it. As for whether Hollywood does this consciously or unconsciously, I think without knowing what's in producers' and directors' minds, it's speculation.  I guess I would fall into the suspicious-of-their-motives-at-least-sometimes category.

    We do know that after 9/11 major studios held meetings with Pentagon folks (I wish I had kept some of those links).  And the military gets to request script changes or withhold the use of fancy-schmancy eye-candy equipment for filming as well.  I don't think you need a tin foil hat to believe at that superhigh level where powerful cultural shaping and big, big dollars meet, choices are made that probably are meant to nudge viewers' responses one way or the other.  It surely depends on which producers are involved.  Some Hollywood products reinforce conservative frames, and some liberal frames.

    I haven't seen The Dark Knight yet because it's not out in Holland yet (yes, it is I, bud).  Needless to say, I can't wait and will examine it even more closely for such messages after reading your thoughts on it (please put up that link to your comment if you would).  I also wonder what you made of Iron Man...

    To realize originality one has to have the courage to be an amateur. -- Marianne Moore

    by Xochi on Mon Jul 21, 2008 at 06:10:11 AM PDT

    •  O Mighty Mushroom...I bow before thee... (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Leigh3352

      Here's the comment, but it's not a gargantuan debate, and most of it wound up in the diary.

      To your commentary I would add that I believe collusion between Hollywood and the government during WWII was pretty common -- and viewing those films now makes the propaganda plain.  It always seems to rise up and become apparent over time.

      As to Iron Man, I did have similar thoughts.  Can you really make a violent action film whose ultimate message is nonviolence?  It seems to me to be the difference from a film in which the violence is truly meant to disturb the viewer (Clockwork Orange, say), and violence which is intended to tickle the viewer.  Nor can you say, I think, that Iron Man did what Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon did -- turn the violence itself into dance.  There IS a way to do more with violence in films, even if they are to remain entertainments, but it does probably mean you lose the viewer who is looking to have a simplistic good vs. evil view of the world reinforced with everything they watch -- a la Lord of the Rings.

  •  My view: Joker was luring Batman to torture (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Leigh3352

    I thought it became pretty clear in the movie that the Joker was trying to push authorities and Batman into cruel and murderous methods -- it was his goal to defeat their character.

    I thought it was a clever way of dealing with the macho Batman approach to vigilantism -- to show that, yes, this is indeed what your enemies want you to become.

    Michael Crichton is a prick.

    •  Yes, perhaps... (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      el cid, Leigh3352

      But I think that's only one possible "read" in a film that, by design, has more than one possible "read."  It seems to me built into the Batman mythology that, in order to do good, you might have to become a little bad.  (Serial killer films all have this, too.)  So, a guy like Dick Cheney will watch Dark Knight and conclude not that his character has been compromised, but that he has duly stooped, has duly failed to turn the other cheek, has become a little bad, yes, but hey, there's biblical support for that, and it's all in the service of good -- so it's okay.

      What worries me is that there's not enough in the film to make it clear that this is not the read you're supposed to come away with -- and there should be, as with the Bourne films.

      •  Yeah, but these are the people who hear... (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Leigh3352

        ...the story of "the Boy Who Cried Wolf" and think the lesson is that the boy was right in that eventually there was a wolf, when the moral of the story is that the boy screwed himself and his flock by acting like a jerk.

        •  well, yes... (0+ / 0-)

          ...and to some extent it is the text's responsibility to make sure that as few people fall off the correct interpretative "path" as possible.  Some, actually, want to jump, as you suggest...but the films we're talking about seem to say, go ahead and jump, it's fine by me.

      •  Dick Cheney looks at Roman History (0+ / 0-)

        And agrees that the Empire was better.

        Dude, some people are twisted.  Not most of the right wing voting public, but some people are twisted.

        Same on the left as well, except that our fringe isn't in charge.

  •  I found the thread (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    JCHallman, Leigh3352

    Here it is.  Boy, they really jumped on you.  Is it so hard to believe that amid those hundreds of millions of bucks Hollywood makes compromises with less than optimal people and/or ideas?  I know the CW is that Hollywood's "liberal," but the fact that if you look at most movies they end up reinforcing the status quo is a very large subject that doesn't get much attention. As a small example, if a girl gets pregnant in a Hollywood movie, you know with 100% certainty that she is NOT getting an abortion. I remember my Mom coming home from "Fatal Attraction" and saying, "Well!  That movie probably did more for marital fidelity than anything I could ever think of!"  And I remember automatically thinking, well, yeah, surely that was the point since that was the message we're left with.

    To realize originality one has to have the courage to be an amateur. -- Marianne Moore

    by Xochi on Mon Jul 21, 2008 at 06:27:01 AM PDT

    •  Yeah, exactly... (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Leigh3352

      The Independents would never do that, but the producer's hand (the guys who put stupid voiceovers on films like Bladerunner) is always going to be there to make sure they go for that sweet spot between audiences.  Hollywood understood that the culture was split down the middle long before politics did.

      •  At any rate, art should steer clear of politics (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Leigh3352

        as much as possible, in my opinion, or it turns into propaganda.  The story should come from the characters, and the characters should go wherever their motivations lead them.  The writer has to be honest and hands-off in this regard.  If the end product is not what the writer would have intended, then it's probably closer to the truth, not farther.  Who was it who said, "I give all my best lines to the characters I disagree with"?

        To realize originality one has to have the courage to be an amateur. -- Marianne Moore

        by Xochi on Mon Jul 21, 2008 at 06:53:33 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  Well, I think we look back... (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          Leigh3352

          ...at a story like "Going to Meet the Man," and recognize it as political and in the right.  Certainly making your point by demonstrating empathy with your enemy is a strong way to be universally persuasive, but I don't think we should tell Baldwin that he shouldn't have gotten all political on us.  To some extent, it boils down to an ethic of truth in art.

          •  True, but... (1+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            seancdaug

            That story is from the point of view of the racist white sheriff.  Baldwin allowed himself to go into a mind consumed by such hate and get comfortable enough to go where that mind led him.  He didn't make that sheriff do what he wanted, or I think we would have felt that reading the story.  You can smell propaganda a mile away, right or left-wing (look at the flops Hollywood made of its Iraq War films).  Flannery O'Connor, too, would wade right into the thick of racism and come out smelling like a rose, because she had an unwavering instinct for the heart-breaking failures people commit over and over in their lives.  The result raises up the reader to be above any political statement, however much we agree or disagree with it.  Art is more important than politics, in a way -- it slides in before it (or should), it should be pre-political, it should address human realities that no slogan or program or policy or even tyranny can ever touch.  Orwell tapped into that, although a piece like Animal Farm you;d have to say was almost pure propaganda, and therefore a failure as art.

            I think I'm not saying it right, and I doubt I ever will  It's fine for an artist to tackle political subject matter.  But it needs to be kept close to the characters, and characters are supposed to be people, and people are sloppy, contradictory, confused, and they are clumsy amateurs at their own emotions.  That's why we love them because they are like us.  Art has ambiguity, but propaganda doesn't.  

            To realize originality one has to have the courage to be an amateur. -- Marianne Moore

            by Xochi on Mon Jul 21, 2008 at 07:24:26 AM PDT

            [ Parent ]

  •  The message isn't that torture works... (0+ / 0-)

    ...it really doesn't.  In the course of the movie, it all basically goes according to Joker's plan, even the interrogation scene.  

    For all the good intentions wrapped up in Batman's methods, the end leaves him, in many ways, much worse off than he was.

    So, no, it doesn't glorify it.  It brings it into question.

    As for Crichton?  It's always "Science is scary".  Rather than take a rational appreciation of science, he continues to think of it in terms of constant supply of Frankenstein stories.  Whether that's genetic engineering or nanotechnology, brain implants or whatever.

    The trouble with this line of thought is essentially that it's complaining about the weather, but not doing much about it.  It's one thing to seay that technology will get out of control.  It's another thing entirely to face up to our responsibility and figure out what kind of safeguards we can develop.

    As far as it goes with Global Warming, Crichton's basically the pot calling the kettle black.  He fails to grasp that climate change is part and parcel of the chaos effects he built his number one bestseller on, the true face of it: small stimulus can have effects out of proportion to it's size.  The response of a system to a forcing like CO2 is nonlinear, and subject to a bunch of other forcings and feedbacks.  To take the view that it's just a scare tactic is disingenuous, since he's offered much the same view in his own right, and without a whole bunch of supporting evidence separating him from fiction.

    •  Your take on torture... (0+ / 0-)

      ...may be consistent with the text.  But so are less intelligent and thoughtful reads, and it's the ambiguity that worries me.

      As to not doing anything about it, the Pleistocene Rewilding plan that I discuss and link to in the diary is a desperate attempt by able scientists to do something.  The damage done to their cause by Jurassic Park is evidence of what's going on in the movie business.

      •  Message control? (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Same As It Ever Was

        I take offense at the idea that we have to somehow "protect" film so that "less intelligent and thoughtful" viewers interpret it in the way we want. As far as I'm concerned, that's the path to art-less propaganda.

        Leaving room for ambiguity and a diversity of readings is something that we should be encouraging in our culture, not trying to stamp out. Message homogeneity and control is a tool of the far right, and it's absolutely not something I feel we should co-opt from them.

        I share your issues with Jurassic Park (and, honestly, with most of Crichton's work), but I still think you're making a fundamental error by reading it as a purely political work. With The Dark Knight, I think you're making an even greater mistake by reading the film in a way that can't be supported by the text, and justifying it by appealing to the idea that the audience is too stupid or uneducated to realize it. At best, that sort of knee-jerk sensitivity is only going to alienate people. At worst, it's validating the sort of cultural warfare the Republicans have been waging for a generation.

        Iraq -- "the wrong war, in the wrong place, against the wrong people"

        by seancdaug on Mon Jul 21, 2008 at 07:28:56 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  I'm all about ambiguity... (0+ / 0-)

          ...but it can't be ambiguity that permits basically opposite conclusions.

          The Lord of the Rings is a good example.  Some see it as a celebration of a kind of pre-Christian paganish ideal work (I was actually writing about neo-pagans when it came out--and they loved it), while others see it as full of Christian imagery, and a defense of the theory of just wars.

          That kind of ambiguity is no good -- it means the art has only appealed to what everyone wants to hear.  It reinforces what's already in place, without proposing anything new.  Art's ability to generate dialogue, rather than simply reflect it, is what I'm getting at here.

          •  I'm trying to think of a hero quest (0+ / 0-)

            that would pass your muster.  What about Star Wars?

            Tolkien was updating ancient and medieval material.  He said he wrote it because he found that Europe "did not have its own mythology."  Mythology isn't exactly art, I agree.  But just because someone say Christian themes in LOTR doesn't mean I didn't sympathize intensely with Frodo throughout those whole glorious books.  Of course, I was 12...

            To realize originality one has to have the courage to be an amateur. -- Marianne Moore

            by Xochi on Mon Jul 21, 2008 at 07:45:19 AM PDT

            [ Parent ]

            •  Ahh... (0+ / 0-)

              and you're an expert on this!  (Inside joke.)

              A question about LOTR: why is it possible to be entertained by heads flying into the white city when actual beheadings are happening in the real world and it's pitched as almost taboo to watch them?  Is it possible that LOTR is glorifying violence, just a smidge?  And I won't even go into the orcs from the "east" (read: Golden Horde) and the suspiciously arabian uniforms of the men with their elephants (which are also not from Europe).

              I think the Bourne trilogy walks the right line.  He's even, arguably, an anti-hero who lashes back at that anti-ness in himself.  It's an action film about introspection.

              People have been relying on a "this is just fantasy" argument to defend these films...but I don't think anyone would go see them if it was really just fantasy.  All art finds an audience -- popular movies in particular -- because they have some kind of correspondence with reality, that they give us something we can take away and apply.  

              •  Overpoliticization (0+ / 0-)

                A question about LOTR: why is it possible to be entertained by heads flying into the white city when actual beheadings are happening in the real world and it's pitched as almost taboo to watch them?  Is it possible that LOTR is glorifying violence, just a smidge?

                Probably. One of the central aspects of Tolkien's tale is a war story, to be sure. And it's a deliberate attempt to evoke mythology, which has seldom been a stranger to acts of violence and warfare.

                On the other hand, whoever suggested otherwise? If you want Lord of the Rings to be an example of allegorical pacifist propaganda, you're going to be out of luck. And you can be sufficiently repulsed by the fact that it isn't to dislike the entire work. But it's either ignorance or dishonesty to reduce Lord of the Rings to a single ideological message, and to strip that message from the context of the larger work. And if you're going to insist that it must be amenable to a certain viewpoint, you're preaching propaganda, not art.

                People have been relying on a "this is just fantasy" argument to defend these films...but I don't think anyone would go see them if it was really just fantasy.  All art finds an audience -- popular movies in particular -- because they have some kind of correspondence with reality, that they give us something we can take away and apply.

                Of course. But coming from a background in film history, this seems to me to be about as revolutionary a statement as "water is wet." A work of art, if nothing else, cannot help but reflect the unconscious prejudices of its creators. That doesn't justify reading every work as though it were a piece of social or political propaganda, though. Many times, the primary (or even only conscious) goal of a work is to entertain. Being aware of issues with a work is good. But to suggest that the work automatically needs to be "defended" is ridiculous: not only is it not true, but it's going to alienate everyone but the people who already agree with you, and therefore accomplish nothing.

                Iraq -- "the wrong war, in the wrong place, against the wrong people"

                by seancdaug on Mon Jul 21, 2008 at 09:00:53 AM PDT

                [ Parent ]

                •  I don't disagree with anything you say here... (0+ / 0-)

                  ...however, it should be noted that it's possible to make a war film that does not contribute to a war sentiment.  Full Metal Jacket.  Apocalypse Now.  The Thin Red Line.  The last is particularly telling.  It's a far better film than Saving Private Ryan, precisely because it's upshot forces you to engage war in the abstract, and intellectually.  Saving Private Ryan dissolves into sentimentality -- and silly perceptions of heroism.

                  I don't think it's going out on much of a limb to say that the goal of war movies ought to be to depict the horrors of war in such a way as to make them less likely.  I don't think that makes them pacifist propaganda -- it just allows that film, and all art, needs to have a moral conscience beyond box office receipts.

                  As to your comment about works being "defended," I'm not sure who you are quoting.  Not me.  It's not what I said, and it's not what I meant.

                  •  True (0+ / 0-)

                    ...however, it should be noted that it's possible to make a war film that does not contribute to a war sentiment.  Full Metal Jacket.  Apocalypse Now.  The Thin Red Line.  The last is particularly telling.  It's a far better film than Saving Private Ryan, precisely because it's upshot forces you to engage war in the abstract, and intellectually.  Saving Private Ryan dissolves into sentimentality -- and silly perceptions of heroism.

                    Oh, absolutely. Sorry if I suggested otherwise. To be fair, those, most of these are deconstructions of the war films, so they're not entirely representative of the genre. But to broaden it out a little, it's entirely possible to present war on film in a way that does nothing to glorify it.

                    I don't think it's going out on much of a limb to say that the goal of war movies ought to be to depict the horrors of war in such a way as to make them less likely.  I don't think that makes them pacifist propaganda -- it just allows that film, and all art, needs to have a moral conscience beyond box office receipts.

                    I'm not sure I entirely agree. I don't quite describe myself as a pacifist, but I'm closer than most, and even I'm not convinced that war movies, as a genre, should have an overarching "goal." If one director wants to make a film with a positive, or at least accepting, attitude towards war, I'll take it with an open mind. Chances are I'll disagree with the argument presented, but I may still have learned something from the experience.

                    Besides which, I don't think it's true that art needs to have an overt moral conscience. I think art's primary purpose is to provoke some sort of emotional or intellectual reaction within the viewer. A film can be completely amoral (or even, in extremely rare cases, immoral) and still be entertaining, and be successful as art on those grounds. I don't see the point of seeing everything through a purely political lens.

                    As to your comment about works being "defended," I'm not sure who you are quoting.  Not me.  It's not what I said, and it's not what I meant.

                    In saying that "people have been defending" movies on the grounds that they're "just fantasy" is the implicit acceptance that they need to be defended. I disagree. I don't see any problem with accepting a film on its own terms, even as one recognizes any number of flaws or biases within it. I enjoy Spielberg's Jurassic Park, even as I acknowledge that I find much of the ideology behind it abhorrent.

                    Iraq -- "the wrong war, in the wrong place, against the wrong people"

                    by seancdaug on Mon Jul 21, 2008 at 12:51:31 PM PDT

                    [ Parent ]

                    •  I think we have... (0+ / 0-)

                      ...some fairly honest disagreements here.  And really my position is more nuanced than I've represented it...I certainly wouldn't want to tell Orwell that he shouldn't acknowledge, as he does, that "there's something glorious about war after all."  Yet I do think film is different -- not films which are intended as art, but film that is clearly trying to make money.  You give Batman more agency than I'd allow.  You may know more about this than I do -- but directors are famously forever in a battle over the extent to which they control the message, right?  I'm much more interested in hearing what Nolan has to say than I am in hearing what Nolan has to say, along with a few bones thrown from the producer to whatever audience they don't want to alienate.  Particularly with blockbusters, meaning is adulterated by this, and for someone like Spielberg it just seems to become habit.  That's what distinguishes him from a Kubrick, right?  Shouldn't they all be striving a little harder for that auteur title?

          •  "That kind of ambiguity is no good"?!? (0+ / 0-)

            ...but it can't be ambiguity that permits basically opposite conclusions.

            First of all, why on earth not? Your Lord of the Rings example doesn't even pass your own criteria for a failure: the extreme difference in interpretations doesn't prevent dialogue, it fuels it. That two people could observe the same work and come to different conclusions is about as obvious an invitation as one could ask for to debate the rationale and support for one's reading.

            Secondly, the more fundamental problem is that while all art will allow room for ambiguity and multiple readings, not all readings are created equal. An interpretation is only as valid to the extent it can be supported by the the text itself. And you've all but admitted to misreading The Dark Knight by acknowledging that your real concern is not the film itself, but how the unwashed masses will interpret it. And I shiver at the idea that we should exercise message control over the media to the extent that we need to anticipate all undesirable reactions. That can only lead to one of two outcomes: pure propaganda, or empty entertainment with no greater social value. Neither has much by way of artistic value, especially if it becomes the entirety of our cultural output.

            Finally, it's not the solitary job of art to "propose something new." The goal of art is to provoke thought and explore ideas. The conflicts in The Dark Knight do exactly that: the law-abiding idealism of Harvey Dent, the tortured vigilantism of Batman, even the nihilistic anarchy of the Joker are thrown together, and the film urges its audience to consider each viewpoint. It purposely avoids validating any one of them, though, showing the flaws inherent in each. That the result of this is unsettling and disturbing is not unintentional: it's the point, and a person's reaction to it says as much about that person's own views as it does about the movie itself.

            Iraq -- "the wrong war, in the wrong place, against the wrong people"

            by seancdaug on Mon Jul 21, 2008 at 08:44:09 AM PDT

            [ Parent ]

            •  I disagree that... (0+ / 0-)

              ...a work of art should be amenable to opposite meanings.  An artist has something to say.  Someone who comes away from the work hearing the opposite of what he/she intended indicates a failure of either the art itself, or the interpreter.

              If you're right, though, then it's not a question of whether someone has misread The Dark Knight.  You seem to want to allow that even their misreading is a valid reading.  Or at least, the system you propose would allow that.

              The problem with films like this one, I think, is that it intends many meanings -- one for you, and an entirely separate meaning, just as embedded in the text, for someone else.  As a viewer, you pick which side of the pitched roof to slide down.  That's not good, in general.  It means the work divides people.  It allows them to use the art to reinforce a position they already hold, rather than be confronted by the art with something they didn't already know.

              •  "Misreading" != "Multiple readings" (0+ / 0-)

                ...a work of art should be amenable to opposite meanings.

                I don't think it necessarily needs to be, but I don't think it's necessarily a problem if it is.

                An artist has something to say.  Someone who comes away from the work hearing the opposite of what he/she intended indicates a failure of either the art itself, or the interpreter.

                That depends very much on what it was that the artist was trying to say. In many cases, the ambiguity itself is the message. The artist may or may not have an explicitly defined position on a subject, but the point of the work may not be to argue that position. In the case of Christopher Nolan and The Dark Knight, I would strongly argue that the point was not that Batman, the Joker, Harvey Dent, Jim Gordon, or anyone else was right, but that they all had deeply held, incompatible views which could each be supported to a reasonable extent. The artist wants you to come away from the work with a critical understanding, first and foremost. This is most definitely a message, it's just not the over-simplified, purely policy-oriented message you're looking for. Ultimately, it's a deeper and more compelling message because of it.

                If you're right, though, then it's not a question of whether someone has misread The Dark Knight.  You seem to want to allow that even their misreading is a valid reading.  Or at least, the system you propose would allow that.

                Not in the slightest. I want to defend the idea that The Dark Knight, like most worthwhile art, is a multilayered work that operates on multiple levels. It need not present a monolithic stance and force it upon its viewers.

                At the same time, there are self-evidently limitations on the freedom an audience has when interpreting a film. I could argue that The Dark Knight was really an allegorical story about how the Roman Empire fell to ruin because of the lead used in its aqueducts. The problem here is that I would be wholly unable to support this reading to anyone's satisfaction by returning to the text.

                Saying that The Dark Knight withholds judgment on Batman, the Joker, and Harvey Dent is one thing. To point out portions of the film that, for instance, support torture is entirely valid. At the same time, though, the response to that is to point out other sections of the film that show it to be a useless and damaging tactic. The point isn't that the movie supports or doesn't support torture, it's that there's an ambiguity in the text that is, in all likelihood, intentional. You can take selected excerpts from the The Dark Knight and use it to support a pro-torture policy. You cannot be intellectually honest and make the claim that The Dark Knight supports torture.

                If you can adequately support a reading with reference to the text, you've got a valid reading, even if it seems completely opposed to another valid reading. If your reading falls flat when explored further, then it's not a valid reading.

                The problem with films like this one, I think, is that it intends many meanings -- one for you, and an entirely separate meaning, just as embedded in the text, for someone else.  As a viewer, you pick which side of the pitched roof to slide down.  That's not good, in general.  It means the work divides people.  It allows them to use the art to reinforce a position they already hold, rather than be confronted by the art with something they didn't already know.

                Why shouldn't art divide people? The alternative is preaching to the choir: most progressives admire the work of Michael Moore. Conservatives don't even give it the time of day. The opposite can be said for, I dunno, Expelled. Or The Passion of the Christ. This films may have something important to say, facts to share, or whatever (then again, they may not), but their strict, almost dogmatic, adherence to a specific presentation and reading limits their ability to reach out to a new audience.

                Once again, it's fine if you take an ambiguous work of art and interpret in the way that you've been predisposed. The only way to truly prevent this is to produce nothing but strictly supervised propaganda. Where I take serious issue with you is that this "divides people." I'd argue it does exactly the opposite: because people can find very different messages in the work, it forces them to evaluate why they read it in the way that they do when confronted with alternate readings. In doing so, it promotes a dialogue within the audience that is far more likely to sway opinions than all the political propaganda in the world. You don't converse with film in the same way you converse with people, and it's easier to write off a film as biased, inaccurate, or propagandistic than it is to write off another human being who has challenged your reading of a film.

                Iraq -- "the wrong war, in the wrong place, against the wrong people"

                by seancdaug on Mon Jul 21, 2008 at 12:12:22 PM PDT

                [ Parent ]

  •  Dude, you've got some serious issues (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Same As It Ever Was

    If you sat through the entire Batman film, and thought the message was one of ambivalence ... your limbic system isn't working.

    Were you paying attention to the Harvey Dent arc?  It wasn't the accident that screwed him up, not entirely.  He was about to shoot a paranoid schizophrenic in the head (never mind that the coin had two heads) before Batman pointed out that the Joker was using some withdrawn Arkham patients as patsies at his crime sites.  The point was also lost on the Gotham PD, who threw all of the prisoners from the Joker gang into the same cell, whether or not they had records ... and then the patsy blew up.

    Lucius telling Batman he had gone too far ... people questioning his motives ... hell, the Joker pointing out how flimsy our adherence to morality is ... it didn't matter if his conclusion was wrong ("to hell with your morality") ... we are hypocrites, and we can do better.

    Yes, Batman is not arrested at the end, but he takes the fall for Dent.  Could you ever see ANY of these clowns in the cabinet taking the fall for Bush or Cheney?  Admitting they were the author of the war crimes?  Intimating that in the end, he will have to go to prison?

    The only way out of the madness is through the law.

    Oh, and when that message is contained in the Bourne Ultimatum or in the Attack of the Clones/Revenge of the Sith ... some people get it.  But the people who don't get it, don't get it.  In fact, MOST people whine about "Why are there all these scenes in the Senate ... boo hoo hoo."

    It's why Episodes I-III are the better trilogy, but hardly anyone sees that, because they likee the stuff blow up.

    Dark Knight was deeply disturbing.  If you weren't deeply disturbed, you need to seek help.

    As for Jurassic Park ... the message was, you can't mess with nature to make a profit with it.  Cloning a Velociraptor is not reintroducing the Grey Wolf.  It's freaking genetic engineering.  Remember, they didn't bring back some Plesiosaur they found in Loch Ness, and reintroduce it to the Atlantic.  They combined reptile, frog, and dino DNA to make hodge-podges.  That's a left-leaning warning.

    And "nature does find a way" to reintroduce itself through chaotic and random pathways, because we're messing with nature through our industries ... and slowly but surely, the environment is responding in such a way to kill us off.  We're the authors of our own destruction, but the randomness of the process is so subtle that it's only now being accepted by those who are looking carefully.  Just because Crichton can't see it himself, doesn't make it not true.

  •  Please post "Spoiler" in comments - (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    dconrad

    Not all of us have seen this yet, and if you're going to give away plot points, I don't want to read your post. Thanks!

    "Pictures are better than words, cause some words are big, and hard to understand." Peter Griffin.

    by Leigh3352 on Mon Jul 21, 2008 at 06:57:39 AM PDT

  •  Batman's not a hero, he's an antihero (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Same As It Ever Was

    I think that's the whole point of "The Dark Knight", but I can't really comment on it because I haven't seen it yet.

    I think you're completely off base about Jurassic Park, seeing themes that aren't there. In particular, even though the Ian Malcolm character gives a dime store pop science version of chaos theory, I didn't think the overall message was that all plans go wrong; a major theme was "life always finds a way".

    The message of Jurassic Park is, "If you resurrect dinosaurs, they might try to eat you, but the SFX will be really cool." I can't imagine anyone's opinion of wolves is actually influenced by Jurassic Park, much less introducing birds to island chains.

    We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.

    by dconrad on Mon Jul 21, 2008 at 07:41:04 AM PDT

    •  As someone... (0+ / 0-)

      ...who wrote about "Pleistocene Rewilding," I can attest to the fact that whenever I introduced the idea to friends, the first thing they invariably said was, "Sounds like Jurassic Park."  But all I can off is that anecdotal evidence.

      Yes, Batman is an anti-hero...but anti-heroes should be less sympathetic than he is here.  When Bret Easton Ellis names his American Psycho "Patrick Bateman" and endlessly refers to wandering around the city with his clothes flying cape-like behind him, he's making the point that Batman should not be sympathetic.  There's an effort at the end of the current film to suggest that Batman becomes a "criminal," but it's another burden that the character has decided to take on himself -- not something that's in his nature.  So it's sacrifice.  And you can probably tell where that's heading...

      As to the "life always finds a way" message in Jurassic Park -- yes, I agree.  And I think it's precisely that which the far right can and does use as an argument to justify not taking action on climate control or the extinction crisis.  Don't worry.  It's not so bad.  No matter how much we destroy, life will find a way.

  •  As someone... (0+ / 0-)

    ...who wrote about "Pleistocene Rewilding," I can attest to the fact that whenever I introduced the idea to friends, the first thing they invariably said was, "Sounds like Jurassic Park."  But all I can off is that anecdotal evidence.

    Yes, Batman is an anti-hero...but anti-heroes should be less sympathetic than he is here.  When Bret Easton Ellis names his American Psycho "Patrick Bateman" and endlessly refers to wandering around the city with his clothes flying cape-like behind him, he's making the point that Batman should not be sympathetic.  There's an effort at the end of the current film to suggest that Batman becomes a "criminal," but it's another burden that the character has decided to take on himself -- not something that's in his nature.  So it's sacrifice.  And you can probably tell where that's heading...

    As to the "life always finds a way" message in Jurassic Park -- yes, I agree.  And I think it's precisely that which the far right can and does use as an argument to justify not taking action on climate control or the extinction crisis.  Don't worry.  It's not so bad.  No matter how much we destroy, life will find a way.

  •  you should reread Jurassic Park (0+ / 1-)
    Recommended by:
    Hidden by:
    JCHallman

    or even see the movie again.

    Your analogy to wolves is completely off the mark; wolves were never extinct and we understood that they were a needed link in the food chain.

    Bringing back dinosaurs after you've messed with thier dna was just a dumb idea.

    If anything Jurassic Park is a cautionary tell about what happens when you put greed and desire first without thinking the consequences though.

    And Crighton's a wing nut? Are you sure you're not confusing the author with the representative from OK?

    As for Batman, frankly your 'plan' seems a bit fascist and that scares me. Who elected you to tell others what to think?

    •  Not necessarily a wingnut, but... (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      drache

      I'm not sure what Michael Crichton's overall political leanings are, but he's a well-documented environmental skeptic. He wrote a novel (State of Fear) all about how those eeevvvilll environmentalists are lying to us about climate change and eating babies. Or something like that. He was invited by James Inhofe to testify before Congress in 2005 about global warming, which should set off red flags right away.

      If you ask me (and here I'm just interpolating from his work, which is fairly unreliable), he's got an occasionally nasty reactionary streak that shows up fairly frequently in his work. Rising Sun features some pretty blatant racism / xenophobia, for instance. Disclosure has a somewhat problematic approach to sexism and sexual harassment, as well. And any legitimate point about scientific debate he may have been trying to make in State of Fear is sabotaged by his ultimate insistence on making the environmentalists totally unsympathetic monsters.

      As for Jurassic Park, I'm of two minds on the subject. I think it's really easy to read a strong element of Luddite sensibility into the book, or at least the idea that there are some areas of science we shouldn't explore because it's morally or ethically wrong for us to do so. I became even more aware of this particular reading once everyone starting freaking out about the prospect of human cloning a few years back. I find it difficult to see the story outside of this context, these days.

      That said, it's also possible I'm reading too much into the story, and it may not have been intended to read on that level. And Spielberg's film adaptation definitely sands the edges off of the worst of this, by playing down the book's emphasis on chaos theory and by making Hammond a much less odious figure.

      Iraq -- "the wrong war, in the wrong place, against the wrong people"

      by seancdaug on Tue Jul 22, 2008 at 11:51:25 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  as an on and off Crighton reader (0+ / 0-)

        I'll agree that science gone wrong is the big (if only) thing in his books.

        That said I don't take his books as political or social commentary. Maybe I should but as they are works of fiction (science fiction to be precise) that to me is a big disclaimer of 'hey don't take this seriously but what if......'

        Personally I think you're reading too much into things; he's a writer his job is to entertain us and as a scienctist I enjoy the fact that his books are grounded mostly in fact and then he subtly branches off and moves into science fiction.

        About Chaos Theory, I would say this, that no one really knows what it is unless they've studied it and that 'chaos theory' has been subverted by pop culture into something completely unrecognizable. But I don't think Crighton started that, I think he just used it.

        •  To my mind... (0+ / 0-)

          ...you're dramatically underestmating the ability of novels, or films, to shape opinions.  Most people who write books (I'm one of them) certainly don't do so just because they want to entertain.  Some do, sure, but not a guy like Crichton.  You might be immune to the message he's trying to get across, but others are not.  The reason I wrote this diary to begin with was because I had personal experience with a group of scientists, just like yourself, who discovered that the effect of a novel, amplified by a film, could have a dramatic impact on the real, scientific work they were trying to do.  That alone demonstrates the power of media (in all forms) to exert influence.

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