Sunday, February 13, 2005

Playing The Reality Card

Leslie Parrish

The political values of today’s Hollywood often surface in its selection of stereotypes for movie heroes and villains. Such choices are particularly clear in remakes of past movies that substitutes new villains for outdated ones. Consider, for example, Paramount’s recent remake of the 1962 classic, The Manchurian Candidate. The original movie, directed by John Frankenheimer and based on a novel by Richard Condon (an ex-Hollywood publicity man), is both a thriller about a hypnotized assassin and a satire of political paranoia. The evil protagonist is the Soviet Union, whose nefarious agents, with the help of the Chinese Communists, abduct an American soldier in Korea and turn him into a sleeper assassin. When Paramount decided in 2004 to remake the movie as a straight psychological thriller, with the military abduction transposed from Korea in 1950 to Kuwait in 1991, it obviously needed a new resident evil to replace the defunct Soviet Union. Even though the U.S. was battling the Iraqi forces of Saddam Hussein in Kuwait at that time, Demme chose not to make the Iraqis or Islamists the villain of his movie because, as he explains in his DVD commentary, he did not want to "negatively stereotype" either Arabs or Muslims. Neither Saddam Hussein nor Iraq is even mentioned in the film.

Whom, then, did Demme enlist to play the heavy in his remake? What evildoer can be safely "negatively stereotyped" as an enemy of America in today’s Hollywood? Answer: hedge-fund managers. These lily-white, impeccably dressed corporate executives man the helm of the Manchurian Global Corporation, a multibillion-dollar equity fund that is planning a "regime change" in America so it can secure more government contracts. Not only do the fund’s technicians rewire the brains of abducted soldiers, but they implant them with false memories of al-Qaeda-type terrorists so that, if caught, they will blame Muslim extremists rather than the fund managers for their crimes.

The challenge for Paramount was in building a "reality envelope" that gave the movie’s demonization of corporate executives a more convincing connection to actual events. Warner Brothers had previously met this challenge by making an arrangement with CNN (which its corporate parent owns) that resulted in the cable network’s news program, such as Moneyline, showing the scene from Oliver Stone’s movie Wall Street in which the immaculately dressed financier Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas) intones "Greed is good" to illustrate news reports of corporate corruption.

Paramount-- which does not own CNN-- found a more imaginative way to breach the fluid boundary between movies and television news for its resurrected Manchurian Candidate. It created a counterfeit web site for the Manchurian Global Corporation. Since it nowhere identified the site as fabricated (and went so far as to provide a fictional address and phone number to hide its own role in the site’s design), any person who found the site via Google or another search engine would have reason to believe that the Manchurian Global Corporation was a real equity fund with huge biotech investments in such projects as the genetic decoding of Alzheimer's disease.

Although Paramount’s ingenious deception may violate ICANN rules against using false information when registering a domain– a Paramount executive defended the fraud by pointing out that even if it involved "pushing the reality envelope," it is an integral part of show business.
There is indeed a hoary tradition in the movie business of such reality enhancement, as I explain in my book The Big Picture: The New Logic of Money and Power In Hollywood. Throughout the era of the studio system, studios made it a practice to invent off-screen lives– including fictional romances with co-stars –– for the stars they had under contract. They then relied on the fan magazines, newsreels, and gossip columnists they controlled to disseminate these newly burnished images. Even though today's studios no longer own the stars, they enjoy an even greater dominion over the entertainment media. Their corporate parents own all six television broadcast networks, as well as almost all the major cable networks-- a cozy arrangement that further fuses the interests of Hollywood and television.

The new Hollywood’s real-life relationship with the media thus proceeds from a serious commonality of interests. And as Tad Friend insightfully reported in the New Yorker, one of the interests all the players have is in not revealing that commonality. "It is in everyone's interest (except, perhaps, the reader's) to pretend that P.R. consultants are not involved in stories," Friend writes. "It behooves the journalist, because it suggests that he has penetrated a rarefied realm; it behooves the star, because he looks fearless and unattended by handlers; and it behooves the publicist, because it always behooves the publicist if the star is behooved."

Behind this cloak of media invisibility, Hollywood’s armies of publicists are free to plant items that continue to blur the rapidly-eroding line between fact and fiction. One top producer of a national late night talk show observed that "ninety percent of talk show anecdotes are either completely manufactured or improved so significantly that they are basically untrue." Creating fraudulent websites for nonexisting corporations is simply one further stretch of an already-larger-than-life reality envelope.

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