An article about the new film 300 and its neo-conservative pretensions (Battling evil with abs of steel, March 23) in Asia Times Online distracted me from usual pursuits and, indeed, the article I was writing at the time. While I have nothing to add to Eli Clifton’s article, nor do I intend to partake the pleasure of watching the film in question, the current brouhaha does remind us of the rational economic thinking that underpins Hollywood as an industry. For all its liberal persuasions, the Hollywood film model is firmly rooted in the “if you are not with us, you are against us” line of neo-conservative thinking.

Cinema is a two-dimensional art form, lending itself more to simplistic caricatures than either literature or its poor cousin theater ever could. While initial audiences were impressed with screen size and vistas of unvisited destinations, the advent of television upped the stakes. Needing to provide a compelling excuse for people to be weaned away from the idiot box, films simply became more grandiose and, in so doing, changed the economics of the business forever.

While productions of yore revolved around the big studios, the need for grandiosity ushered in the age of the film star. Thus movies became about the actor, rather than “merely” a compelling view of an oft-told story. This marked cinema’s departure from its parents, namely literature and theater.

This departure is too often glossed over by the news media when reviewing cinema as an art form. In particular, the advent of close-ups in film accentuated facial features, exaggerating the impact on the audience. That change had the less-than-subtle impact of forcing the audience to identify with or against the screen personalities.

In other words, whether you like the face on the screen becomes the dominant consideration. The option of having an equivocal opinion on characters bathed in shades of gray that is afforded in both literature and to a lesser extent theater is mostly unavailable in cinema unless the filmmaker chooses not to engage a mainstream audience.

Forcing art to conform to the audience’s empathy produces horrible results all too often, a recent example of which would be Hollywood’s homicide of Homer’s Iliadin the film Troy, which not only sees the Trojans as the heroic figures but also portrays the Greeks as marauding hooligans. The mistake would be to evaluate the film as a rendition of the Iliad, rather than as a political commentary on the current US government, an intentional rebuke of America’s war on Iraq.

Narrowing the choice of villain

The logical follow-through from that process of identifying with the protagonist is to have villains one cannot simply abide. Thus the sneering stereotypes of Italian gangsters and drunken Irishmen represented the wholesale rejection of Roman Catholic values by Protestant Americans. As these peoples were more directly integrated into the mainstream, the search for the next set of villains focused on black Americans and then on to other ethnic groups. Common to all these peoples was their economic backwardness, a cold calculation of Hollywood forsaking nonexistent revenues from the poor while chasing box-office success.

However, the United States itself was changing during this period, with rapid economic growth helping to broaden the possession of wealth. Meanwhile, the broader social movement toward politically correct art forms robbed Hollywood of its main stereotypes. Thus while an “American” policeman could chase a “black” gangster, the new rules dictated that he would himself have a “black” supervisor.

Filmmakers who wished to rebel against the strictures had no option but to focus on the science-fiction or fantasy genre, where garish special effects and makeup helped to mask (all too often literally) the specific ethnicity of the villainous caricatures. The Star Wars series, for example, indulged in an open celebration of Nazi-era military societies, cultivating in turn a plethora of imitations.

In any event, the rest of Hollywood wishing to document the more tenable human condition had to confront the perverse effects of the politically correct portrayal of villainy. Simply put, they were left with no option but to exaggerate the villainy of certain groups of people. The most obvious victims of this sublime Hollywood trend are Muslims, who have come to represent all that is against the American way of life. Other, less obvious victims of this trend include Europeans, whose increased demonization is simply a reflection of their declining economic prowess.

In a contrasting vein to my above observation about the film Troy, the notion of casting the Muslim hero Saladin as a noble conqueror in The Kingdom of Heaven failed because mainstream America could not adjust to the idea of a Muslim superhero, much less the morally ambiguous Christians populating the film.

The path less traveled has too many potholes from an economic perspective for the big movie studios, thus sticking to well-worn stereotypes of villains is essential. Thus it is that a big studio backs 300, safe in its assumption that Americans will revel at the sight of the barbaric Persians.

Meanwhile, modern-day Iranians are taking entirely the wrong approach by protesting this movie, as the portrayal of a homosexual army marching under an androgynous Xerxes is presumably far enough removed from the elite Iranian Republican Guard as to warrant a reiteration of the principles of the Islamic Society. President Mahmud Ahmadinejad could conceivably say, “See, if you are homosexual or pagan, you lose to the West – that’s why being heterosexual and Muslim guarantees your victory.”

With financial risks rising and, more important, concentrated in the fragile facial muscles of fickle film stars, the celebrity culture was firmly embedded as a way for studios to gauge the relative appeal of leading men. The constant coverage of such “celebrities” generates its own economics, one that newspapers around the world are now slaves to.

The most bizarre example of this came in February 2001, when news of an earthquake in Afghanistan that had left thousands dead was pushed to the fourth or fifth pages of mainline US newspapers, as the front page was devoted to “news” of Tom Cruise divorcing Nicole Kidman. The crude message thus delivered was that millions of Afghans and Pakistanis had less economic clout than Hollywood’s star couple.

This rubric is observable in the choice of villains and heroes as I noted above – Hollywood does not dare insult or ignore any culture that could provide it significant future revenues. Hence its grudging respect for China’s communist government, even with all the liberal pretensions that actors and directors cling to.

No studio can afford not to show its films in China when the market opens. Thus the idea of placating the powers that be remains firmly entrenched across these companies. Chinese people are now portrayed as hardworking if a little boring in Hollywood movies, a marked contrast to their portrayal during the previous 50 years as poor and desperate immigrants. In much the same way, the portrayal of other ethnic groups has undergone serial upgrades, commensurate with emerging economic realities.

The bottom line to Muslims upset with their portrayal in Hollywood is thus quite simple – the greater the economic clout they gain, the less likely movie moguls are to airbrush their proud history.