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Beat the System

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This is an interesting article by Professor Larry Ribstein about art and money and why Hollywood tends to bash business.

This article seeks to provide a plausible explanation of films’ bias against capital. It is not business itself that filmmakers do not like, but the capitalists who control it. This may sound like Communism, but it is not the classic view of the struggle between capital and labor. Filmmakers display little concern with the problems of the workingman, and they do not usually blame firms’ social irresponsibility on the fact that capital rather than labor is in control. Rather, the filmmakers’ main problem with capital being in control seems to be that the fimmakers are not. The “workers” that are oppressed are often creative types, and middle managers who stand in for them, who are being denied adequate opportunity to display their creativity. The ponit of displaying the evil that firms do seems to not to stop it, but to show how much we need the artists and seekers among us to do the finding.

Professor Ribstein conducts one of the more thorough surveys of business-related films that I’ve seen in a long time. His general perspective is that films normally portray some sort of bias against corporations, or against those in power. His concern is that “through the power of film, the fimmakers’ skewed vision moves from fantasy to political reality.” The result is “ineffecient legislation” that may hurt business without helping society.

I recognize that there are often situations in which it seems that well-intended legislation fails to acheive the desired result. I read recently how the Fish and Wildlife Service supposedly spends most of its budget on court cases brought by those suing to require that something be placed on the endangered species list, rather than on efforts to determine whether something actually is endangered. And I can recall with no small measure of amusement some of the products liability cases I studied as a law student where the issue was a supposed “defect” in the product or a “failure to warn” consumers of the dangers of some obscure misuse of the product. Those cases clearly led to an overall increase in costs but were often simply the result of a lack of common sense on the part of the victim (or were part of a search for a “deep pocket”).

That said, it must be remembered that Americans have long distrusted power. This is not a new thing. In a letter to her husband John, Abigail Adams wrote in 1775 that “I am more and more convinced that man is a dangerous creature; and that power, whether vested in many or a few, is ever grasping, and like the grave, cries “Give, give!” Even more importantly, Americans have always been wary of ceding power to corporate interests. In his fairwell address, Andrew Jackson said that

the mischief springs from the power which the moneyed interest derives from a paper currency which they are able to control, from the multitude of corporations with exclusive privileges which they have succeeded in obtaining . . . and unless you become more watchful in your States and check this spirit of monopoly and thirst for exclusive privileges you will in the end find that the most important powers of Government have been given or bartered away, and the control of your dearest interests have been passed into the hands of these corporations.

Similarly, the first constitution of the Knights of Labor, written in 1869, states that “the alarming development and agressiveness of great capitalists and corporations, unless checked, will inevitably lead to the pauperization and hopeless degradation of the working masses.” As a result, this perspective of corporations – and the capitalists who run them – cannot be limited to Hollywood, nor does it have as its point of origin any particular event in the 20th century. It is instead a rather natural reaction to the accumulation of power, and has been reflected in the perspectives and policies of many people in America for over two hundred years. Corporations are capable of pursuing their own agendas (whatever they may be) with resources that dwarf those of many nations, not to mention virtually any single individual. And yet at the same time, they are ubiqituous, appearing at virtually every point of American life. As such, I find Professor Ribstein’s deconstruction of Hollywood’s business-related films fascinating. However, I am less certain that it is Hollywood shaping “fantasy into reality” than it is Hollywood simply reflecting the basic perspectives that most Americans seemingly share (perhaps it’s something in the water).

Finally, I would also note that films are a visual medium of storytelling. A “story” is, bascially, character in conflict. What that means is that to have a story there must be some sort of struggle, and filmmakers are always looking for ways to make that struggle larger, more elemental, more universal. As such, I think that in the business context it is relatively natural to focus on the individual struggling against the overwhelming faceless opponent that is the corporate behemoth. As Professor Ribstein points out, there are actually a variety of such tales, including ones in which the individual (and putative protagonist) is actually a tragic hero or an anti-hero, and the “good” is represented by some other force, perhaps even inside the corporate hierarchy.

Professor Ribstein also mentions, if only in passing, that these films don’t necessarily reflect that “business” is bad, as if to say that this is immediately indicative of the fact that Hollywood is opposed to the ruling capitalists rather than business itself. Again, if one views film as a storytelling medium (rather than a form of propaganda), I think the message isn’t really even that capitalists are bad. Rather, the filmmakers are attempting to find a vehicle to tell a story, and to tell a story you need some sort of opposing force. Who hasn’t at least once felt at the mercy of superiors who are seemingly blind to logical solutions? From this universal experience comes many of these tales of corporate struggle – and of course, if the corporate firm is not itself engaged in wrongdoing, there probably needs to be someone who is. Again, without that conflict, there really isn’t a story.

What that means – at least in my mind – is that while I do believe film, like literature, can be reflective of a particular worldview, I also think that certain aspects of storytelling are a natural by-product of the search for conflict. Yes, filmmakers, like authors, look to develop a conflict that coincides with their own perspective of the world. However, I remain of the opinion that the notion that Hollywood is “biased” against business probably reflects more the reservations many Americans have held regarding big business than it does a perspective that is unique to Hollywood. All of that said, I think Professor Ribstein’s article makes for very interesting reading.

Note: The author wastes a fair amount of time blogging on a variety of subjects over at Walloworld, where this post originally appeared.

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About Bill Wallo