Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Disney's anti-consumerist message?

I visit Cinematical almost daily. When it comes to film news and updates, it's one of the more accessible and informative sites. It is not, however, the place I go to be enriched. That's not a knock of the site, but more an observation on the kind of site that it is. Every now and then I've read a few interesting features / articles on a certain film, director, or trend. But when it comes to dialogues and polls, I usually go elsewhere. Having said that, I was surprised to see that a recent "Fan Rant" (written by Eugene Novikov, author of Film Blather, one of the best web sites for intelligent, well-written reviews) dealt with some real ethical and economical heft, regarding Disney's new film, Wall-E, still unseen by me. Eugene looked past the environmental politics of the film and went directly to its depiction of the future of the human race -- as a fat, lazy people who blindly adhere to a singular corporate superstructure. That the movie depicts such things raises a number of issues regarding the potential hypocrisy of Disney, one of the most profitable and influential corporate organizations in the world.

I vividly recall a conversation I had about a year ago over sociocultural affairs (which is not as complex as the term perhaps suggests), in which I was asked why Philip Morris once ran an anti-smoking campaign. In a linear business model, it doesn't seem to make a lot of sense to form a campaign against your major source of revenue. The answer, of course, is complicated. I'm no expert on matters of commerce and economy, but I would guess it's for the same reason that Wal-Mart plugs its affordable prices when the company does more to deny millions of people the most basic things. This anomaly is constitutive of contemporary western culture, if there is such a thing. Consumerist organizations can say one thing and do another, keeping consumers focused on the content of their message rather than the processes by which that message is produced.

Rarely is this phenomenon forefronted in critical commentaries on movies; only in the cases of overt trends. For example, environmental politics have entered mainstream filmmaking, with documentaries like An Inconvenient Truth (2006), and fiction films posing eco-apocalyptic scenarios such as The Day After Tomorrow (2004) and The Happening (2008). Conservative pundits have used these films as examples to "prove" that Hollywood is a liberal base that routinely forces left-wing propaganda onto the masses. The conversation almost never extends beyond this message-driven discourse. However, when we consider the larger terrain on which these messages are constructed and consumed, it's not so easy to construct these convenient associations. If we're going to look at this issue from the standpoint of political economy, it is on the ground of capitalism that all global, ecological, and cultural politics are decided, and what's better than the commercial institution of movies to examine these sociocultural and economic trends?

Novikov's piece poses some relevant questions about the economic and the political, as they relate to the artistic. For most commentators, the artistic (narrative) is interchangeable with the economic (commerce), so when a film is selling a certain message, the distributor (Disney) endorses that message. For decades, Hollywood has reigned supreme as a symbol of commerce, vanity, and commodification, perhaps less so when studios were owned by families than in the last 40 years, when corporate powers bought out Hollywood. If we're to use this model, than Hollywood has essentially swindled everyone by selling a message of individualism and anti-corporate affairs, all the while stripping viewers of that individuality. Although corporate control is something that's rarely dealt with so outwardly, especially by Disney, it's misleading to think that it's absent from Hollywood filmmaking. Social relations of power have been the focus of a great many novels and works of literature, so of course it has bled into the classically-inspired narratives of Hollywood. Any story prizing uniqueness, standing up to The Man, or bureaucracy, or what have you, is in some way addressing the struggle of power and social control. Considering these are central tenants of most all of Disney's narratives, one could surmise that Disney is and always has been a institution of hypocrisy. Therefore, it's hard not to wonder how earnest the company is in its messages, not just in films overtly depicting corporate control, but all of its films. While we're leveling Disney, we may as well be consistent and extend this scrutiny to all major studio films. Only then will we realize that these methods of inquiry only reproduce the values and assumptions that get us into these conflicts at all.

The real question here is not whether Disney is being hypocritical. Asking this assumes an interchangeable relationship between the narrative and the commercial interests lead to that narrative being constructed and consumed. Mediated discourse is not simply a matter of sender - message - receiver. The issue here has to do with the processes of consumption and the production of representation. In a political economy model, the question of art is almost irrelevant, since art is just another part of the economy. Capitalism absorbs everything, even the anti-capitalistic. In this sense, everything is commodity.

Denying the importance of political economy would be foolish, but having said that I don't embrace political economy as the be-all-end-all when it comes to the relationship of art and capital. Thinking only in its terms will have us running in circles. Whether Disney is luring us into complacency on messages of individuality and autonomy while drilling consumer conformity into its viewers, or it really is trying to bring about change in consumer culture is probably not the point. Worth looking at here is the ideological associations we make regarding art, capital, economy, and politics; and, moreover, the relationship between them.

For some, there is a distinct divide between art and commerce. For these individuals, film can never really be a form of art. But the distinction may be the problem; for art cannot function as such unless it is situated within a consumer economy. That may not have been the case at a certain time, but is now especially so. The question of whether it's a hypocrisy seems to hinge on one's own involvement in --or perspective of-- the spectrum of political economy, which would then influence how one conceives of artistic worth. These are ideologically loaded problems, but examining them in a reflexive manner would go a long way toward understanding various perceptions of these broad terms such as art, economy, and politics, and their interrelations.

I definitely don't have the answers to these questions. I would only stress that film commentators, critics, and lovers ask these questions of art and commerce, however broad or vague these terms may be. We need to clarify these concepts, give weight to what we mean when we employ them, and articulate them more explicitly as we think about their significance in the artistic, political, and economic realm that is movies. Certainly, movies cannot be reduced to or contained by broad concepts such as "art" or "commerce" or any other term meant to quantify them within a cultural sphere of representation and signification. Movies are both commercial and artistic. They are also social, political, and cultural. As a larger practice of production and consumption, movies are an "industrial art," to quote Gilles Deleuze. For that very reason they are relevant, interesting, and significant as a form of cultural practice in an age of mechanical and digital production and reproduction. We may not be able to conceptualize movies beyond the i.e. social, political, artistic, economic properties and relations that constitute their practice. But maybe we can sharpen our understanding of (and engagement in) movies within those very relations. We need only articulate them.

1 comment:

Chuck said...

Capitalism is known for its willingness to sell anything, including the most withering critiques of capitalism imaginable (recall that lame Mastercard commercial a few years ago set in a Communist book store).

For that reason, I found the conservative backlash against WALL-E to be just about the funniest thing I've seen all week. And I've seen a lot of stuff this week.