by seamus enright | october 27th, 2000
Jerry Bruckheimer and the 'New Economy'
|In a Film Script Ive Just written (Its called Inverted Coma: It may or may not get made, it may or may not get released if it does, but keep an eye out for it) the two main protagonists have an argument about the merits of Jerry Bruckheimers movies. One argues that they are archetypal Hollywood eye candy, the other that they represent the transition from a labour-based to a knowledge-based economy. While I was writing this part of the script, I just thought of it as a serious flip-side to the goofy movie discussions in Tarantino or Kevin Smiths movies, or a throwback to the earnest film lucubrations of Godard, or the Bertolucci of Before the Revolution. When I tried to explain this scene to a friend by saying that Bruckheimers movies could be understood this way if viewed through a certain type of epistemological prism, he accused me of being pretentious, and it was difficult to argue, as least as passionately as the two guys do in my screenplay. Paradoxically enough, in the movie, its the character that I base on myself that rejects this idea. So: do I believe it myself? Thats basically the question I want to resolve in the course of this article. |
A bit of context: I used to be a major cultural elitist. For a couple of years in my early twenties I only listened to classical music, only read "Great" books, and as far as possible only watched subtitled or "serious" movies. Then when I was around 23 and studying for a masters degree I started to learn about postmodernism and how philosophers like Derrida, Lyotard et al argued that these cultural stratifications were essentially arbitrary. I had a damascene conversion, or what Jung would call enantiodromia. I started to embrace the Hollywood movies I had previously regarded as a divertissement, and started listening to Rock and Jazz again. I even ended up doing my masters thesis from a cultural relativist viewpoint.
What led me to this was basically a socialist impulse. Id always considered myself left-wing and found it hard to reconcile this with an elitist viewpoint, even if I was working on a building site and coming home to a shitty apartment to read War and Peace or listen to Die Zauberflaute. I was no longer able to believe that Star Wars, for example was just entertainment fro the hoi-polloi and convinced myself that if such a great number of people went to see it, it must say something fundamental about the culture in which it was produced. But lately Ive become more sceptical about the concept of Cultural relativism. Ive come to believe that its largely a Clintonite/Blairite "third way" consolation prize for the proletariat. Videlicet, they may have been robbed of their job security, their trade unions may have been emasculated, their welfare state stripped bare, but hey, what they watch on TV and the cinema is studied in university, so things cant be all bad. Paradoxically, the concept originates in France, in many ways the most socialist country in the world, but it has been widely embraced in the Anglo-Saxon countries.
Hmmm. Thats actually a lot of context. But I think the last bit does elucidate the essence of my argument. As Peter Biskind points out in the excellent Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, the new generation of Hollywood blockbusters originated at much the same time as the post-war modus vivendi between governments and labour unions was coming to a painful end, and protectionism was being replaced by "Free Trade" which resulted in masses of American and Western European manufacturing jobs migrating to Asia and Latin America. It was into this fraught world that Jaws and Star Wars were born. Both were essentially tales of masculine heroism, of men finding their metier and struggling against dark forces in the universe. But more importantly they were both extremely kinetic films, films which based themselves primarily around action. This was a major reaction against Hollywood cinema of the early 70s, a period thought of as Hollywoods second golden age, with its thoughtful, cerebral movies, but it was the same studio, Paramount that led the charge into the paradoxically named world of "High Concept" cinema. In the early eighties, two producers with an unfailing sense of the zeitgeist started to work for this studio. The partnership of Jerry Bruckheimer and Don Simpson was to end just over a decade later with Simpsons timely death, but the contrast between the films made before and after this death foretold is a fascinating one. While the pair certainly made action movies together, like Top Gun, Days of Thunder and the Beverley Hills Cop movies, theres a soft-centeredness that sits more comfortably on works like their debut Flashdance and the later Dangerous Minds pervading these movies that seems absent from Bruckheimers solo work. It seems ironic that Simpson, the whoring, iron-pumping drug addict was the one who moderated Bruckheimers desire to produce the sort of High-Octane testosterone-filled films that have characterised his solo efforts.
Right here it may seem as if Im discussing Bruckheimer as if he were an Auteur in the European tradition. The debate about who has the most influence on the way movies turn out will continue to rage in Film Schools and probably never be resolved. It seems like common sense, when each Bruckheimer film is preceded with a conspicuous logo bearing the words "Jerry Bruckheimer Films" to regard him as the dominant influence on the cinema he produces. At the risk of sounding like the film geek played by Quentin Tarantino in Sleep with Me, who discusses the Gay subtext to Top Gun, Im going to outline what I think his four films as solo producer signify.
The Rock was released in the summer of 1996, a kind of annus mireablis for Hollywood blockbusters, with Mission Impossible, Twister, Eraser, and, most importantly, Independence Day crowding out most of the competition in multiplexes. It was also the year of Bill Clintons re-election, in which the fruits of the economic recovery that had begun in the early 90s were beginning to be enjoyed. This recovery was not based on traditional heavy industries, but on new "knowledge-based" industries like electronics and "information Technology" and "service-based" industries like catering and marketing. It was also based on what is called in one of the horrible euphemisms that seem to characterise the Clinton era, labour market "flexibility", which basically means workers being denied any form of job security, and being forced constantly to acquire new skills to survive in an increasingly hostile labour market. Its this constant need for reinvention that seems at the heart of Bruckheimers films.
When The Rock was first released, critics found it implausible. How, it was asked, could the convict played by Sean Connery, who had be in solitary confinement for so long, suddenly become so au fait with the most sophisticated modern technology? This, it seems is a question that could be asked of entire sections of the workforce in many Western countries. For example, Ireland in the course of the 90s went from being a country where over 30% of the population worked in agriculture to the worlds second leading producer of computer software. In the same period, Wales went from being dominated by mining to becoming one of Europes largest producers of TV and Video components. In England, many old cotton mills have been converted into call centres, on of the mainstays of the "new", "Information-based" economy. In the U.S., Seattle and Silicon valley absorbed millions of workers who had been effectively abandoned by traditional industries. However, while the So-called "new economy" may not have had the physical hardships of the old economy, if offered new sorts of threats. Lack of job security, irregular hours, and anti-union policies have replaced the back-breaking labour that characterised the role of labour in the old economy. Thats why its so fascinating to me that Sean Connery breaks into a prison in The Rock. It could easily be interpreted as a symbol for the new economy in which people are forced to learn new skills to survive in an economy as cruel and unjust as the one that preceded it. While the plot of The Rock deals with the dangers posed by large-scale movement of chemical weapons, its the free movement of Capital (never an interesting subject for movies) that have led to this new insecurity.
Bruckheimers follow-up, Con Air finds a serial killer played by Steve Buscemi wondering whether he or someone working in the old, non-flexible economy is insane. It doesnt seem much of a problem for the character played by Nic Cage, whose temperament and circumstances leave him unable to find any sort of security. Like his Nemesis in The Rock, he needs to voluntarily enter a prison, or in this case, a plane carrying prisoners, to find anything resembling freedom and security. The plot deals with prisoners with names like Swamp Thing and Johnny-23, who, while in prison acquire the skills to take over a prison jet, which they intend to smuggle to Columbia. The Drug Trade, which is obviously implicit here, seems like a paradigm for the new economy, in which products and services acquire additional value through numerous transactions, and the consumers are alienated from the means of production to the highest possible degree. For Nicholas Cage, an attempt to re-invent himself in the army a la Gary Cooper in Sergeant York proves a failure, while prison has a cathartic effect. If, in the Simpson-Bruckheimer Dangerous Minds school is a prison, here its the opposite way around. Like The Rock, its an extremely violent film in which cars, planes, and huge neon models of electric guitars get smashed without anyone batting an eyelid. While this is hardly unique, it offers an interesting paradigm for the globalised economy where we buy products without the slightest regard for the suffering it may have taken people on the other side of the world to produce them.
Armageddon was regarded when it was first released as a contribution to the pre-millennial frenzy that included Deep Impact, End of Days, Stigmata, and maybe The Blair Witch Project and South Park: The Movie as well. With Bruckheimers instinct for identifying the zeitgeist its hard to argue with this, but its worth noting a few other things as well. When economists talk about the service and information based economy, they often wonder if the economy can just "float", that is, exist without being tied to heavy industries like mining, auto assembly, etc. In Bruckheimers third film as solo producer a group of oil drillers, stalwarts of the old economy are asked to save the world, instead of continuing to destroy its ozone layer. This quest takes them to outer space, where an asteroid is hurtling towards the Earth. Does this suggest that the so-called "new economy" cannot survive without the old, or that everyone will eventually have to float away from industries that force them to dig into the bowels of the Earth? I dont know. One thing I do know is that the increasing number of indie actors in Bruckheimers films: Steve Buscemi, Ben Affleck, Billy Bob Thornton and Liv Tyler all appear in Armageddon; indicates a similar transfer of resources within Hollywood.
Gone in 60 Seconds takes it one step further, with Vinny Jones, an English soccer player who used to play for Wales and earned the highest number of dismissals in the history of the game, playing an ostensibly dumb car thief. The Film finds Bruckheimer making a Shatneresque journey from outer space to Southern California. It also find Bruckheimer stalwart Nic Cage exiled from Long Beach to Oregon and changing his profession from Car Thief to kids go-cart coach. Its a fascinating postmodernist variant on the old Magnificent Seven theme of old-timers coming back for one last adventure. For example, the Angelina Jolie character, Sway, tells us that she has to work two jobs to maintain the standard of living she once had as a thief. Also, when Cages brother, played by Giovanni Ribissi brings together his own rag-tag sub-band of misfits, one of them is described as a pizza-ordering expert. Its a witty play on the new economic fallacy that working in the "service industry" is as rewarding or as dignified as doing real work and more fulfilling morally and spiritually than being on welfare. Its noticeable too that the auto-theft section, though allocated a small proportion of the overall budget has huge resources for which it needs Cage and his ilk for its maintenance. I could write another essay on Mystery Men as an allegory of Western policy on drugs, where the narcotics industry is used as a raison detre for huge expenditure on policing, but Im not going to for a while, as theres a film festival coming up where I live.
The problem with this line of argument is that once you start looking at films through this rubric, almost everything can be made to fit, so that Christopher Ecclestone in Gone in 60 seconds isnt just another Euro-Villain but a European entrepreneur seeking a more flexible labour force in Americas deregulated markets. On the other hand, I think it would be a major coincidence if I could find all this evidence for a theory that was ultimately specious. The labour force in the US and elsewhere have undergone enormous changes in the past 20 years and it would be bizarre if these changes were never represented in mainstream cinema. Perhaps, strange as it may seem, its the profligate entertainer Jerry Bruckheimer who fills what would otherwise be a gaping intellectual void.
© Seamus Enright