Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Epstein on Corporate Villains

In the October 10, 2011, edition of The Wall Street Journal, Edward Jay Epstein (The Hollywood Economist) discusses why corporations have become Hollywood's go-to villains. Excerpts:
Why don't the movies have plausible, real-world villains anymore? One reason is that stereotype-sensitive advocacy groups, representing everyone from hyphenated ethnic minorities and physically handicapped people to Army and CIA veterans, now maintain a liaison in Hollywood to protect their image. The studios themselves often have an "outreach program" in which executives are assigned to review scripts and characters with representatives from these groups, evaluate their complaints, and attempt to avoid potential brouhahas.

Finding evil villains is not as easy as it was in the days when a director could choose among Nazis, communists, the KGB and Mafiosi, though they have served in a pinch. The 2002 apocalyptic thriller, "Sum of All Fears," was based on the Tom Clancy novel in which Muslim extremists explode a nuclear bomb in Baltimore. But Paramount decided to change the villains to Nazi businessmen residing in South Africa to avoid offending Arab-American and Islamic groups. "The list of non-offensive villains narrows quickly once you get past the tired clich├ęs of Nazis," a top talent agency executive pointed out to me in an email. "You'd be surprised at how short the list is." And even Nazis have now aged out of contemporary-movie contention.
Read the whole thing (and if the Journal's Web site wants you to subscribe, remember that Google is your friend). What I find ironic about Epstein's analysis is that, by making corporate types into baddies, Hollywood appears to be vivisecting its own golden goose. After all, what sort of entity better embodies the faceless corporation better than a pulp-churning, artistically tone deaf Tinseltown studio? Not that the studios necessarily mean to cut their own throats. Epstein notes how Hollywood's aversion to offending certain demographics arises out of a desire to safeguard revenue and that "CEOs and financiers have no connection with the studios' outreach programs." Yet as my undergrad literature professor Leland Ryken noted in one of his books, characters in stories "undertake an experiment in living ... [and] its final success or failure is a comment on the adequacy or inadequacy of the morality or world view on which the experiment was based." By portraying its own model of business as a failed existence, Hollywood undermines the very ground on which it stands.

(Picture: CC 2005 by Shavar Ross)

7 comments:

Chestertonian Rambler said...

"What I find ironic about Epstein's analysis is that, by making corporate types into baddies, Hollywood appears to be vivisecting its own golden goose." Ah, but the prime motive for cororations is quarterly, not the long-term, earnings.

The thing about corporate villains is that they are, with good reason, popular:

http://www.facebook.com/l.php?u=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.businessinsider.com%2Fwhat-wall-street-protesters-are-so-angry-about-2011-10%3Fop%3D1&h=mAQDuum1VAQBa0um7KmEKIcne2PRFnLzqtaNAWYnd7RxcpQ

But there's also been another aspect. As Americans, we have a long tradition of villains who are greedy. Think back to Die Hard, where the prime villain was out for money. Or think about Superman's nemesis, Lex Luthor. It's easy to hate someone who seems to be merely out to gain more money. It's harder to hate an ideologically motivated terrorist, who legitimately believes he is fighting for his beliefs. And in our action movies, we want villains who we can hate.

Loren Eaton said...

Sorry I'm a bit late with my reply, CR. I've had family in town this week.

It's easy to hate someone who seems to be merely out to gain more money. It's harder to hate an ideologically motivated terrorist, who legitimately believes he is fighting for his beliefs.

Interestingly, I would hold exactly the opposite opinion. Although I'm no fan of big business whatsoever, I have much more sympathy for someone trying to turn a buck than for an individual willing to murder civilians over an intellectaul proposition. The first situation is sometimes ugly, the latter always despicable. People are more important than ideas (although I will admit that that's an idea in and of itself).

Chestertonian Rambler said...

Huh. That's weird.

I hope I would be willing to die for many things--for God, for the idea of America, for the idea of Justice, for people I love--but money ain't one of them.

I think that's why I sorta like Death of a Salesman, because for all its banality, it makes the strong point that money is a crap ideal to die for. The whole tragedy is that the salesman thinks his identity as a money-provider is the main thing he has to offer his family, whereas the ideals he sacrificed along the way (faithfulness, love, understanding) turn out to be much more beautiful.

I am a practical, though far from philosophical, pacifist. (That is, I have a comfortable enough life, and am sentimental enough, that I find it hard to even contemplating killing people. This is why I would never buy a gun for self defense.) That said, though--if I were to kill someone, I would hope it would be because I think that person is evil, or that the person's death would make the world a better place, or anything but the profit I have for myself.

I suppose this may be the influence of Chesterton, who hated mercantile imperialism but loved the idea of a "great war of ideas." Which isn't to say that I support any form of crusades--especially in the context of people who claim to follow Christ, who gained victory by giving up power--but I do sympathize with people willing to fight for freedom, or justice, or their God, or their nation. Even as I may fear them, disagree with them, and think them to be utterly misguided.

But I'm sure I've misread your comment. Perhaps you were talking about corporate villains who *don't* murder people, and comparing them to ideological villains who *do.* In that case, though, the question is "do they kill people" not "which is the sympathetic motivation?"

Chestertonian Rambler said...

For me, to use two non-corporate examples, it is the difference between Lenin and Stalin. Stalin was a sociopath who sought power, and was willing to kill more people than Hitler ever did in order to keep it. Lenin, his predecessor, was a true believer and idealist. He really believed that if he could only kill enough people, if he could only do the necessary evils to bring in his soviet utopia, he would have made the world a better place and he would save the lives and souls of countless workers who would otherwise have starved. His writings show that he knew that he was making himself a monster, but he thought that such a sacrifice could really usher in a better world order.

History has proved Lenin's ideas to be disastrously wrong. Because of his absolute belief in the wrong ideas, he is a creepy, terrifying figure to think about. But he's creepy precisely because he's sympathetic. He is like the villain in Serenity, who does horrible things for the right reasons. If you have a movie where such a character is defeated, you may feel a great sense of relief--but (to me at least) there isn't the same level of bloodlust and triumph as when Hans Gruber, who was willing to murder hundreds of people for millions of dollars with nary a regret, plunges 40 stories to his death.

American audiences don't want mixed emotions, so we like villains who do evil for personal gain, not because they believe they are making the world a better place.

Loren Eaton said...

Perhaps I should clarify ...

I hope I would be willing to die for many things--for God, for the idea of America, for the idea of Justice, for people I love--but money ain't one of them.

Agreed! I was responding to the idea of the "ideologically motivated terrorist." Both of us would be willing to die for our convictions, and that's a good thing. But I doubt either of us would be willing to murder for ideas. That's a very different concept.

The irony -- or at least one of them -- is that virtually no corporation (at least that I can think of) is homicidal. Criminally greedy? Perhaps. Coming at you with guns blazing a la Hans Gruber? Never. So when Hollywood (itself controlled by corporate interests) presents corporate type as being murderous, they really have become a house divided against themselves.

The whole Lenin/Stalin discussion I think is a bit beyond this post. Interesting subject, though, particularly because it reveals a person's view of justice. Myself, I don't really buy into the idea that centralized bureaucratic redistribution passes the "do not steal" test.

Chestertonian Rambler said...

Here's the thing: I wouldn't be willing to murder for my beliefs, but I might be willing to kill. And most ideologically motivated terrorists don't see themselves as murderers so much as soldiers. They may not fight in traditional armies--but neither did those fighting in the French Resistance, or the American Revolution, or many other causes.

It doesn't make the results of their causes any better, and it doesn't make them right--but it is, I think, a point worth making.

This is, btw, the reason I don't think the discussion of Lenin is beyond the scope of this discussion. I can see Lenin as profoundly unjust, and still sympathize with his belief in his cause. He is captivating to me not because he is right, but because (in my opinion) he *thought* he was right, and was trying his best to do what he believed was right. That makes him a most sympathetic type of killer--but also a profoundly disturbing character.

Loren Eaton said...

That makes him a most sympathetic type of killer--but also a profoundly disturbing character.

Ah, I see where you're coming from now. That makes more sense to me, I guess, the idea that ideologically motivated evil is a bit more sympathetic than evil motivated by base desire.

Still, I'd rather not bump into either type of the street ...