Monday, April 20, 2009

The Play of Form and Content: Scattered Remarks on Popular Culture

This weekend I happened to see the film State of Play: It was a compromise.

Occasionally, when watching a film, I feel as if I can imagine the moments of its articulation: the pitch meeting or writing session. Sometimes this is because the selling point of the movie is so obvious (“It is like Alien, but at sea” or “Like Rocky but with a female boxer”), but sometimes, as in the case of State of Play, it is because one can see the joints, the points where different ideas are hobbled together. (I should mention now that I have not seen the BBC original from which the film has been adapted, an omission that might throw my entire argument off kilter—oh yeah, and SPOILER ALERT).

In this case it is the way in which the film combines two different conspiracy theories, both of which are “ripped from today’s headlines.” The first, which could be broadly characterized as liberal or even left, has to do with the influence of a private security company (basically Blackwater) on the government. The second theory, which could be broadly characterized as conservative, has to do with Senator’s use of his power to carry on an affair with a young intern. Two different ideas of conspiracy, two different visions of corruption: one economic and the other moral. One can imagine these two plots as a way to please two different constituencies. Through most of the film these two different conspiracies are offered as two different explanation for the events of the film: a young, attractive senator’s aid appears to have committed suicide the very morning that the senator is to begin important hearings on the influence of the private security company. Much of the film is spent exploring the first conspiracy, which gives the film the feel of the great conspiracy thrillers of the 1970s, in which each new piece of evidence only extends the conspiracy to the highest corridors of power. In the films final twist, however, the story of infidelity, sex, and the abuse of personal power becomes the central story, in some sense effacing the other conspiracy.

This shift of narrative structure, content if I am going to justify my title, takes place against a much more overt struggle borrowed from the form. The central drama of the film, also ripped from today’s headlines, concerns the newspaper reporters that cover this story. The first reporter, played by Russell Crowe, is an old school print journalist, interested in following the story no matter where it leads. (In case you are wondering about his politics, it is possible to see a bumper-sticker for “Democracy Now” on his fridge, in what has to be one of the oddest bits of product placement committed to film.) The second, played by Rachel McAdams, writes for the paper’s blog, and is concerned primarily with gossip. The film borrows much of its narrative form from the “buddy film”: the two initially hate each other, but eventually learn to respect one another and in doing so emerge as victorious.. This is supposed to be situated within the crisis of print media: the paper has just been bought by new corporation, convinced that it can still get a profit from a dying medium.

The film is supposed to be a simple matter of good guys triumphing over these corporate forces, telling the true story despite market constraints. However, at this point the narrative compromises of the film contradict the story that it is trying to tell. At the exact moment that the film’s protagonists are victorious against market forces, stopping the presses to get the true story out, the film tells a different story. What the film reveals is that sex scandal will always outsell politics. That the real conflict is not so much between blogs and print, between young upstart bloggers and grizzled reporters, but between different ways of mapping and comprehending social space: one sees social forces and the abstractions of capital and the other sees only individuals and morality. There are different names for each in contemporary theory, science and ideology or axioms and recodings, but in our current conjuncture the latter seems to always win.

As Fredric Jameson famously remarked, the conspiracy film is an attempt to imagine the totality, capital. It is a kind of a degree zero of ideology critique: it imagines ideology within ideology itself. Impersonal social forces, capital and the state, are presented as the machinations of “evil individuals.” What makes State of Play frustrating is that it retreats from even this level of critique, ultimately returning the critique of institutions to the idea of corrupt individuals, individuals whose corruption is only ever a personal failing.

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