Ed Driscoll

The Completion Backwards Principle

Comic book writer Alan Moore (known for Watchmen, V for Vendetta, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Batman: The Killing Joke, according to his Wikipedia bio) notes how pop culture isn’t exactly progressing forward:

I would say, that if you’re talking about a line of progress, if it can be called progress, that runs from Berthold Brecht’s Threepenny Opera, to Donald Cammell’s Performance, to Harry Potter, I don’t think you can really see that as anything but a decline. I will also point out that if you’ve got, I believe twenty percent of young people polled said that they would be embarrassed if their mates caught them reading. That would seem to me to be a decline, and also I would say that if you’ve got the Avengers movie as one of the most eagerly attended recent movies, and if most of those attendees were adults, which I believe they were, then if you’ve got a huge number of contemporary adults going to watch a film containing characters and storylines that were meant for the entertainment of eleven year old boys fifty years ago, then I’ve got to say, there’s something badly wrong there, isn’t there? This is not actually cultural progress.

When 21st century Hollywood isn’t producing sci-fi and superhero movies, they’re producing what Ace of Spades yesterday dubbed “progsploitation” films, movies that frequently bomb at the box office, but allow Hollywood to feel good about itself and assuage its socialist guilt over raking in billions on films starring men in plastic masks, rubber muscle suits, and/or wielding glowing plastic swords and ray guns. Ace explores “Why Do Progressive Movies Like ‘Miss Sloane’ Keep Cratering?”

Really cratering in Miss Sloane’s case; two weeks after its American debut, and despite an extremely well-funded advertising budget, the film, starring Jessica Chastain, “has made only $3.2 million. During its second weekend, it averaged just $102 per movie theater per day. With a ticket price of $10.30 per adult, that comes to an average of only 9.9 people a day seeing the movie in any given theater. At least people had no problem finding a good seat,” John Lott deadpans at National Review. As Ace responds:

It’s not that there aren’t progressives who don’t want progsploitation factutainment — it’s that this market is so damn well served by TV (is there anything else even on TV?) that no one’s going to buy a ticket to see the cow when TV will show them all the milk they could ever want to see.

This type of movie is doomed. It can’t give you anything you haven’t seen already. Law & Order was, it claimed, “ripped from the headlines.” Movies like Miss Sloane are ripped from Law & Order, season 8.

Ace notes how responding to the threat of television, Hollywood created the widescreen, vivid-Technicolor, stereo-sound blockbuster, giving audiences an impact they could never get on even the best black and white 16-inch Dumont back in the mid-‘50s. These were frequently western and biblical movies, as Ace writes. But that was far from the only product Hollywood was churning out back then.

While the moguls who controlled Hollywood in the ‘50s were often culturally conservative, many of their best writers weren’t (to put it mildly). Neither were many of the novelists whose work they were adapting. Despite America having successfully toppled National Socialism and Imperial Japan only a few years prior, and despite being locked in an existential struggle to win the Cold War against the communist Soviet Union, Hollywood produced a string of movies in the 1950s and early ’60s insisting upon the futility of war, and questioning the morality of the military’s officer corps, both pre- and post-WWII. Just off the top of my head, films of this nature included The Caine Mutiny, From Here to Eternity, The Bridge on the River Kwai, Paths of Glory, Seven Days in May, The Manchurian Candidate, and Dr. Strangelove.

Here’s what separates that list from today’s progsploitation: All of the above listed films are awesome movies. In some cases, the authors buried their true themes in their subtexts; in most cases, their producers sensibly realized that if we’re paying Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas, William Holden or Frank Sinatra all that money to star in our film, perhaps we shouldn’t smash the audience upside the head with our message if we want them to turn out in droves to recoup our budget.

The vast majority of young Hollywood writers, who now look to TV, old movies, and comic books for their inspiration rather than the novel simply aren’t capable of writing films such as those today. Nor would today’s Hollywood CEO, eager to cash in on the global market with effects-laden comic book or sci-fi movies likely green-light them. (American Sniper only got made because Clint Eastwood can essentially produce whatever he wants for Warner Brothers.) To return to Alan Moore’s line near the beginning of this post, “This is not actually cultural progress.” But then, as Ace notes, Hollywood isn’t making modern-day progsploitation for audience appeal, but to assuage its own guilt.