This blog is part of the courses on film, art, literature, and media
given by Dr.
Hudson Moura, Toronto, Canada.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Ian Scott’s Spectacle Vs. Narrative: Action Political Movies in the New Millennium: Gives Generic Films Too Much Credit For What They Stand For

Review of chapter 23: "Spectacle vs. Narrative Action political movies in the new millennium," Ian Scott. Routledge Companion to Cinema and Politics, ed. by Yannis Tzioumakis and Claire Molloy.

by Abel Woldemichael

Ian Scott’s “Spectacle Vs. Narrative: Action Political Movies in the New Millennium” is an interesting analysis of the political action spectacle in the fake news, post truth era. He takes two generic action films from the first decade of the new millennium, White House Down and Olympus Has Fallen, and uses them as outlier examples of summer blockbusters existing outside of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. These are two films about the White House under siege from foreign terrorists, they came out in the same summer, and both delivered return on their investment. The major criticism against them: they failed to ‘re-create reality’ and lacked any sort of authenticity. Both were also panned by critics, an assessment I agree with; both films were incredibly generic and clunky in execution. Scott challenges the viewer to re-interpret their success. He asserts that the inauthentic preposterousness is in fact, a selling point and reason for their commercial success. In an era of political mistrust, the films, according to Scott, “operate figuratively, in a more deeply embedded psychological arena where politics now resides in the inauthentic space between culture, meaning and discourse” (Scott, 2016, p. 295).

He goes on to define spectacle and narrative as concepts subject to ‘translation and re-formulation’ (Scott, 2016, p. 295). Scott believes “politics and movies inform each other” and there is an unidentified impact of spectacle political movies (Scott, 2016, p. 296). In other words, the viewing arena competes for eyeballs and those eyeballs that choose a certain film are subject to the film’s political and social agenda. Scott pairs successful political action films with their respective era and notes how their subject matter and tone plays on the political fears of the time. He extends this to the post-911 era and his two examples,
So Olympus and WHD are no different in that respect in picking up on the scent of terrorist cabals, prominent monuments and buildings subject to attack, and government undermined, all part of the decade-long fear of collusion and infiltration brought on by the ‘war on terror.’ (Scott, 2016, p. 298)
He’s suggesting the conceit taps into relevant almost primal fears and that the blockbuster visuals are an “aesthetic treatment” (Scott, 2016, p. 299).

I like Scott’s angle until this point but his argument loses traction with me when he begins to give the films too much credit,
And if the relative success of Olympus Has Fallen and White House Down has any meaning to it, might we suggest that these films subliminally and discursively set an agenda for political discourse that is now more freely and actively reflective of wider opinion? (Scott, 2016, p. 299)

 Olympus Has Fallen and White House Down were as Scott describes ‘relative’ successes; these films are not discursively setting an agenda for political discourse. These two movies, in my opinion, were relative successes because the summer blockbuster landscape is barren and banal. Scott seems satisfied inflating the significance of its moderate success and it shows when he uses modern television to prop up his argument.

Scott errs when he uses 21st century television to bolster his own argument. He acknowledges their popularity but he’s ham-fisted in his attempt to de-legitimize their authenticity.
Well, as the viewing figures testify to, Scandal, Homeland and the rest are successful and compulsive because, not in spite of, being over-the-top, wholly unreconstructed, removed-from-reality, inauthenticized texts. It also helps that multiple episodes and several seasons allow time for characters to develop, plots ‑ however ludicrous ‑ to unfold and tension to ripen. (Scott, 2016, p. 298)
He over-emphasizes how over-the-top, wholly unreconstructed, removed-from-reality, and inauthentic they are. What they get right, and why they are much more woven into the pop culture fabric then meagre films like Scott’s examples is that pound for pound, scene for scene, the acting, tri-dimensional characters, insight, and researched milieu are a product of superior craft. The reason shows like House of Cards, The Good Wife, and Homeland are intoxicating is because they are psychologically incisive. Olympus Has Fallen and White House Down may have a relevant premise but their execution is so out of step with the level of insight on television that his overall conclusion is ameliorated.

 If anything is transcending its medium, its television, like House of Cards and The Good Wife, that employ ‘re-creative realism’. Scott gives them their do, again with the caveat that they are illogical,
The continued prevalence of the award-winning The West Wing (1999‑2006) in the early 2000s, and more recently the popularity of series like The Good Wife (2009‑) and House of Cards (2013‑) give pause for thought about the way the iconic and ideological work in tandem with the authentic. But even these shows knowingly add humour, bathos and outlandish Machiavellian plotting to their substantive political milieus. They thus demand a “purposive reading” of their story lines that condition audiences to the practice and discourse of political elites working at the margins of any institutional accountability, let alone logic (p. 298).
Humor is a part of life. I argue that the ineptitude and absurdism of political screwballs like Dr. Strangelove are more apt to a 2017 political climate that includes characters like Kellyanne Conway, Sean Spicer, and the Tweeter-and-chief, Donald Trump. The nihilism that Scott feels reflect the mood of US politics has elements of black comedy. Using humor does not takeaway from the authenticity if it is well timed. These shows do a better job weaving a tapestry of tonal shifts and character complexity than self-serious spectacles like Scott’s two examples. If movies like OHF and WHD used ‘re-creative realism’ to execute their conceit, they would have tripled their gross and cultural impact.

Scott supports the claim that meta-textual dimensions are embedded within the aesthetic rights of spectacles like WHD and OHF. Scott supports this argument by talking about the trappings of the spectacle invoking an emotional response:
Olympus and WHD deal in is the political mandate to survive: as a nation, as a superpower and perhaps as the world’s policeman. The survival of the American democratic experiment therefore resides in these two pictures; an ideological precept that crosses political, social and ideological boundaries regardless of the debate as to whether Asher and Sawyer are Republicans or Democrats, and which readily connects with Elsaesser’s emotional and intellectual compact. (p. 300)
Even though I think he gives too much credit to these flawed films, I really like his final insight that the film’s premise is the last stand of America. In a time where divisive politics dominate the headlines, the way Scott charts the devolution of American political ideology in political action works as a historical criticism, and less as a redeeming quality of two poorly executed films. The problem is that Scott is too focused on proving that the inauthentic preposterous is the reason for the films’ success. What about authentic preposterousness?  As I’ve suggested, politics in America are authentically preposterous. Just because they are disenchanted with ideology, does that mean the trappings must be inauthentic? Wouldn’t a David Fincher-Social Network re-creative realism with a substantive milieu work for a movie about terrorists attacking the White House? If that movie was released at the same time as the other two, the two under discussion wouldn’t be relevant.  Scott is conceding that the lowest common denominator reflect the political zeitgeist, but when presented with a better alternative, the standard changes. Christopher Nolan’s war epic Dunkirk is sure to be the highest grossing film this summer; it will be authentic and realistic.

In conclusion, I felt Scott’s research was thorough, his analysis a bit slanted, and his conclusion intriguing. He takes a tricky stance: the inauthentic preposterousness of two White House under siege blockbusters is the exact appeal that reflects the disillusioned mood of post-right wing, left wing jostling. He charts the progression of paired political action successes with the mood of the times. He earns his take but I think his inclusion of television to support his argument has the opposite effect. In my opinion, Olympus Has Fallen and White House Down were forgotten as soon as they arrived while the ‘re-creative realism’ of political action like Homeland and House of Cards has lasting value. If a filmmaker took the nihilistic conceit of America’s realization of its worst nightmare and applied elements of ‘re-creative realism’, the hypothetical film’s authenticity would have the same emotional impact, and a much greater impact.

Scott, I. (2016). Spectacle vs. narrative: Action political movies in the new millennium.        In Y. Tzioumakis & C. Molloy (Eds.), The Routledge companion to cinema and politics. Basingstoke: Taylor & Francis.

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