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: