Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Self-pity: never classy in a super-power

Anybody remember Red Dawn, the early 1980s propaganda flick in which some white-toothed American teenagers repelled a successful invasion? As well as being astonishingly dumb, it was casually, disdainfully racist. Rather than picking just one enemy (the predictable Russians), it threw in the Mexicans and Cubans too, on the basis that Hispanics are congenitally hostile to America (perhaps this is the origin of Mitt Romney's weltanschauung).

We all know that nations are 'imagined communities' in Anderson's phrase. It's not the buildings or the constitutions or the borders: it's the shared beliefs and values of its citizens - beliefs and values which are constantly shifting. Popular culture is where we go for a direct line into the state of a nation. If 10 million people see a film, they're responding to it in significant ways. This has always been true of American war movies. They never, ever, deal with politics because that's divisive and often boring. Instead, they serve up a constant diet of definitions of what it is to be and feel American. How many Vietnamese people get a speaking role in The Deerhunter or Apocalypse Now? Even the films deemed 'anti-war' are always about the effect of the war on Americans: not on the other side, or the country invaded.

Red Dawn is one of the worst films ever made, but it's interesting because it promotes the concept of America as always under existential threat from external forces. At the time it was made, both the US and Russia maintained internal political hegemony by ramping up this fear: it's long been known that the US military and intelligence knew that the USSR didn't have the equipment or fuel for a World War - but too much was at stake to allow mere facts to get in the way of a convenient political discourse. But invasion was never on the cards: instead, we'd have had a mutually destructive rain of nukes - but that's not as heroic as evoking Washington, Paul Revere et al to rally the American public.

Which is why the remake of Red Dawn is so fascinating. Leaving aside the question of whether there's any film Hollywood won't make (Howard the Duck II, anyone?), it's a significant cultural step. Is America under threat of invasion? No, of course not. Are there any examples of bands of determined patriots fighting off foreign invaders in recent history? Well, you could point to Afghanistan or Iraq and posit that Red Dawn is a subversive apologia for the Taliban disguised as hyper-patriotic American victim-hood. If you were that way inclined.

Or you could look at the slanting eyes of the unspecified invaders and conclude that a large section of Hollywood and its fans are deep-dyed racists using tired old tropes to justify further invasions and a bloated military in pursuit of imperialist designs. But that would be cynical.

Few things are less classy than an unchallenged, globally hegemonic superpower professing to be the victim. But what's the alternative? The British, Portuguese, Romans and various others were proud of being empires. OK, the British tried to claim they had some sort of civilising mission in the later years, but most empires haven't bothered with that sort of self-serving hypocrisy: they were more honestly acquisitive than that. What makes the US different is that its founding myth - once the slavery and native slaughter are overlooked - is anti-imperialism. So the one thing that mainstream American culture (political and artistic) can't address is American Hegemony. It's a culture in denial, hence the repeated presence of myths of American persecution: we're still the victims, it says, despite all the evidence to the contrary. Red Dawn 2012 is another attempt to refresh the wells of victimhood.

Update: to avoid losing money in the Chinese market, the film's been CGI'd at the last minute to make the enemy North Korea. Which is ironic on so many levels. In particular, I can't tell whether it means capitalism has capitulated to communism, or Chinese communism has capitulated to American capitalism, or to Chinese capitalism.

It's still racist though. Hollywood still got an enemy with 'funny eyes'. Just not the ones who might withhold a ticket-buying dollar. So that's OK then.

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