Saturday, July 24, 2004


With the release of a newer, louder version of The Manchurian Candidate, many people are noting that the original dark joke -- that the Communists are using an anti-Communist politician as their tool -- has been replaced with a more conventional villain: a multinational corporation that wants to install the first completely corporate-owned, corporate-controlled President. Paul Krugman, though apparently not totally familiar with the original movie, wonders why the remake didn't instead feature "Islamic fanatics, who install as their puppet president a demagogue who poses as the nation's defender against terrorist evildoers." I've seen that suggestion elsewhere, and it seems to me that that would be the most logical equivalent of Richard Condon's original joke, that those who speak the loudest against America's enemies are in fact unwitting puppets of America's enemies.

The reason they wouldn't do it this way, of course, is that Islamic terrorists really aren't acceptable villains in Hollywood movies now; more than that, there are hardly any acceptable villains any more, because Hollywood doesn't want to offend anybody. So the real reason the villain in the new Manchurian Candidate is a big corporation is that that's the only kind of villain that Hollywood isn't afraid to use. And the reason for that, I think, is that Hollywood movies are made by multinational corporations. They don't really care if they're portrayed as villains (and since, as the movie The Corporation reminds us in tiresome detail, a corporation is a separate entity from the people who work for it, the people within a corporation may in fact agree with the portrayal). What they care about is not offending anybody, and that includes anybody in the world, because they want to market their products all over the world. So a corporation's preferred villain is an entity that nobody likes and whose negative portrayal will offend nobody: the corporation itself.

It isn't new that movies would shy away from controversial choices of villain. The James Bond movies dropped Ian Fleming's SMERSH (a top-secret Russian spy organization that was even more evil than the KGB) preferring to use Fleming's generic evil organization, SPECTRE, so as not to get accused of playing Cold War politics. And when Tex Avery was making an anti-Hitler propaganda cartoon, "Blitz Wolf," his producer, Fred Quimby, asked him not to go so hard on Hitler: "After all, Tex, we don't know who's going to win the war." Movies have almost always been corporate products to some extent and the selection of villains is usually made to avoid giving offense to any demographic that the movie might appeal to.

But it does seem that recently, the use of the corporation as the stock villain has become more and more of a cliche. Not that I think big corporations are warm and cuddly, but there are other potential villains out there. I'm not talking about political "balance" here -- I don't think there's any need for that -- but just about variety; who wants to see the same evil-corporation plot 10,000 times? The corporate-centric ways are particularly problematic in movies with a political bent, because it reduces politics to the most simplistic view possible, namely that all political problems are the result of machinations by evil corporations. If you look at the politics of the original Manchurian Candidate, you see that the movie acknowledges all kinds of problems and all kinds of villains: Communism, anti-Communist demagoguery, the American political system. The new Manchurian Candidate will tell us that all the problems come from "rich people funding bad science." Because that's the only villain that's acceptable to rich people funding bad movies.

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