FEATURE: The Perils of Pop Culture Politics

Hollywood cinema has long occupied a space along the fault lines of America’s political divide; producing films that occasionally challenge, but more commonly reinforce various dominant ideological beliefs. It is, after all, the town that practically invented the ‘happy ending’, an industry founded on an unwavering belief that no matter how bad things get, good will triumph over evil, justice will prevail, and we’ll all live happily ever after. With that in mind, it was always going to be interesting to see how Hollywood would respond to the turmoil of the post-9/11 political landscape, an era in which a ‘happy ending’ seems more and more improbable.

Last year Hollywood cinema finally turned its attention to recreating the events of September 11th, 2001 with mixed results. Oliver Stone’s jingoistic World Trade Centre traced the open wound of America’s recent past by refiguring it as a tale of heroic action, while Paul Greengrass’ United 93 offered a compelling, albeit less than complex depiction of the terrorist attacks. This month sees the release of two more Hollywood films that resonate with both the ongoing implications of 9/11 and the ‘war on terror’; Neil Jordan’s The Brave One, and Peter Berg’s The Kingdom.

What is fascinating about these two films, and perhaps what stands them apart from the earlier representations, is their attempt to engage in a critical dialogue about America’s response to 9/11. On another level, these films also demonstrate the conflicted relationship that Hollywood cinema has to mainstream politics. In both cases, the narratives seem caught between a desire for cultural critique, and a willingness to engage a mainstream audience’s desire for escapist entertainment. Such ambivalence is, I would argue, a profound reflection on the perils of pop-culture politics.

Near the beginning of The Brave One, Erica, a poet/Disc Jockey (Jodie Foster) and her fiancé are brutally beaten in an unprovoked attack in Central Park, resulting in his death. Following her recovery, during which she discovers that the culprits have gone unpunished, Erica begins unleashing her anger upon the streets through the meting out of vigilante justice. Set in present day New York, the film establishes its character’s response to violence as an allegory of America’s reaction to the 9/11 attacks. In one sequence Jodie Foster’s characters confesses that, ‘I always thought fear belonged to other people, that it would never touch me. Then it did. I now realise it’s been there all along’.

This revelation that her violence emerges from a desire not for justice, but bloody retribution motivated by fear, initially appears to offer a pointed cultural critique of America’s recent foreign interventions. And yet regrettably, the film’s ending is marked by one of the most extreme ideological reversals. The exhilaration with which Erica’s vengeance is filmed, her ‘redeeming’ violence celebrated not pathologised, completely undermines the critical tone of the rest of the film. One can’t help thinking that the filmmakers have deliberately sought to have their critical cake, and then eat it too.

Similar contradictions emerge throughout The Kingdom. In this film, a group of FBI agents ‘assign themselves’ to investigate a bombing that has occurred within an American compound inside Saudi Arabia. From the get-go the film is marked by competing political aspirations, depicting the Americans as arrogant, culturally insensitive and baying for blood. At the same time, the narrative treads a very fine line in an attempt to distinguish ‘good’ Arabs from those ‘terrorist’ ones, while the investigation threatens to further destabilise cultural relations.

Once again, it is the representation of violence that ultimately gestures to the film’s overriding ideological position. Just as The Brave One ultimately fails to land a conclusive critical blow, the ending of The Kingdom is equally ambivalent. Despite the overt bloodiness of its final shoot-out, the film, try as it might, just doesn’t quite capture the senselessness of the FBI’s violent intervention. Instead, the film ultimately seems more interested in offering up American cowboy-styled heroics, validating its character’s desire for vengeance.

While such contradictory representations no doubt testify to the financial imperatives of Hollywood cinema – lets face it, heroism sells better than criticism – they also indicate a culture that is attempting to reconcile its cinematic imagery with the growing scepticism towards American politics. That audiences may find the endings of both films entirely unconvincing, especially given their preceding narratives, suggests to me that perhaps this is one conflict that’s far from over.

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