Friday, June 21, 2013

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Hollywood

In a piece of abject film “criticism”, Connor Kilpatrick, managing editor of Jacobin, has declared “I Love Man of Steel and I’m Not Sorry.” The fact that the review starts with a defense of Zizek’s defense of 300, probably the most fascist Hollywood film since the introduction of color (not to mention strong evidence of Zizek’s unreconstructed not-so-leftist authoritarianism), should give us a good idea of where this is going.

Kilpatrick tries to cover his ass right out the gate: the first sentence of the essay is “There’s a special place in hell for people who say nice things about Zack Snyder films”—as though there’s some sort of dogmatic conspiracy of opposition to Snyder rather than, say, intelligent people who have watched his movies and understood them to be terrible (Kilpatrick is right, however, that Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead remake was pretty kick ass). By associating himself with Zizek at his most openly totalitarian and then placing himself as the victim of an imaginary and impossibly biased film-critical establishment, we already see the defensive projection of guilt and self-recrimination—and we’re only through the first paragraph.

But this paranoiac anti-Snyder left is only the first straw man Kilpatrick creates—he attacks critics of Man of Steel with the wise realism of the liberal who says “of course Obama kills brown babies with flying death robots—he’s a president, what did you want, utopia?”:
In the lefty blogosphere, I’ve seen a few complaints about Man of Steel’s tie-in campaign with the National Guard. The movie is certainly far from critical about US militarism…Here, like in the Silver Age Superman, Kal-El enters into an alliance (albeit an uneasy one) with the US military…But I’d have to ask: what do you expect? This is Hollywood. This is bourgeois art…to be honest, this kind of thing has never bothered me. I just expect it.
In other words: critique this on the level of its material production or its ideological deployment all you want like some sort of, I dunno, Marxist? But you’re wasting your time, because you should have already known, like Kilpatrick did, that it was ‘bourgeois art’.

Ok fine, but he will have no cake that goes uneaten. Earlier on, Kilpatrick pointed to a materialist critique of cinema production, but only to defend the film from its critics.
I saw another critic say that Snyder’s “no auteur.” Though, really, what the fuck does that even mean in the age of $225 million movies?...Great cinema as the result of a single, uncompromised genius is just as much a bourgeois illusion as the idea of a billionaire having “earned” his wealth.
A proposition with which I totally agree. The only problem is that this entire fucking review is in an auteurist mode, from the opening sentence on. One paragraph later:
Snyder goes out of his way to keep every single punch, jump and crash interesting…Somehow, Snyder makes the physics of the film feel real — one of the few decent skills Hollywood’s picked up from video games
Uh, yeah, that has absolutely nothing to do with Snyder, and everything to do with the 100s (1000s?) of underpaid special effects employees working on the film. Special effects workers picketed outside this year’s Oscars to bring attention to both the centrality of their work and the exploitation that they face, exploitation which is reified when you give the director credit for their work.

Though film production is one of the last private industries which is still heavily unionized, the increasing reliance on non-union effects workers, the dramatic increase in international outsourcing of film labor and contract work given to small pre- and post-production firms, not to mention the totally non-unionized distribution networks through multiplexes and Best Buys, mean that cinema production these days is, like the production of all commodities, incredibly and increasingly exploitative.

If Kilpatrick was against Hollywood auteurism as a matter of principle or even just theory, if he actually had a critique of cinematic production, he never would have written the way he does about special effects, but he's only muddying the waters. This inconsistency not only doesn’t matter to his argument, it elucidates what's really going on here. This piece isn’t about (this) film('s) production or the production of meaning through (this) film, but rather, how can Kilpatrick's enjoyment of Man of Steel reconcile with his politics? This piece, along with the abominable “Friends is Full Communism” Washington Post op-ed from Bhaskar Sunkara and Peter Queck, reveals the worst tendency in 'leftist' thinking on culture. I don’t mean to pick on Jacobin exclusively—they are by no means the only people who produce this form of “critique”, although they seem to produce a lot of it—but these two articles are the most recent and blatant examples of this trend that comes to mind.

What is this tendency? This tendency is what actual “identity politics” looks like in all of its pejorative infamy. Criticisms in this mode begin from a political identification on the part of the writer: “I am a leftist”; and then a feeling: “I like this piece of culture”; and then an absurd conclusion about that feeling based on the totalizing force of that identification: “and since I am a leftist, in order to like this piece of culture it must also be leftist.” It's easy to write when you know what you're going to say: justify the conclusion you've always already arrived at through lazy psuedo-deconstruction, drop some block quotes from Marxists, and giddily swat at some critics without actually engaging their arguments. Maybe it’s Zizek’s fault for so repeatedly admonishing us that all you need to know about revolutionary subjectivity can be found in Kung Fu Panda, maybe it’s ideological self-definition through the affective pleasures of consumption, or maybe it’s just boring left-ish guilt.

For Kilpatrick, in any case, apologism is right there in the title: “I Love Man of Steel, and I’m Not Sorry.” (To do a Zizekian reading of the subtext: “I hate that I loved Man of Steel, I know I should be sorry, and I’m using this analysis to publicly display and dissipate my guilt”). Kilpatrick has to prove that the film has a left position, or else the fact that he liked it so much might mean he’s no longer a leftist. Therefore, the villain has to be a leftist bete-noir:
Zod reminded me of an ultra-right Likudnik. The big, loud climax of the movie comes when Zod sends two gigantic robo-drills to terraform Earth into a New Krypton, which would of course end with the total extinction of the human race….He all but says “can’t make Space-Zion without breaking a few eggs.”…For a character dreamed up by two Jewish boys in Cleveland as a kind of Moses-cum-Christ figure, it’s bizarre that no one’s made this connection yet. Which goes to show you just how off-the-radar the plight of the Palestinians is for both mainstream America as well as our circle of liberal film critics.
None of that strikes me, even framed as he does it, as totally self-evident, although it’s certainly an interesting and valid reading of the film. But it’s more important that he makes fun of critics for failing to notice the “krypto-zionism” (a pretty funny joke, gotta give credit where it’s due), while completely failing to mention the overwhelming presence of 9/11 imagery. People say it’s unfair to attack a writer for what’s not in their writing, and though I think that’s often a sophistry meant to elide engagement, it would hold more weight if Kilpatrick didn’t scold other reviewers for missing a much more subtle political undercurrent in the film.

You could just as easily read Zod, via the 9/11 imagery, as the extreme-rightist bogeyman of total terrorism which seeks the destruction of everything American unless something (like, maybe a Christ-like uber-mensch teamed up with the US military) stands in its way. I’m not arguing for that reading, necessarily, just saying it's also there. But even if Kilpatrick were to dismiss the 9/11 imagery as a posturing and empty evocation of pathos, an argument you could certainly make in good faith, he should at least, in reviewing the political content of this film, take it into account.

But all that’s beside the point, because Kilpatrick isn’t interested in reading this film so much as he is in justifying his enjoyment of it. And furthermore, since the movie has been widely panned, he wants to connect the contrarian nature of his personal taste to the contrarian nature of his political brand. As we’ve seen, throughout the piece he distances himself from other (legitimate) leftist attacks on the film, while aligning himself, tongue-firmly-in-cheek, with uber-conservative Armond White (another tactic of Zizek’s—attack the left while agreeing with the right’s premises, but pretend that because you’re aware of it and it’s funny and ‘you’re a leftist’ that you’re not in fact adopting a right position, but some sort of pure and true populist-leftism).

Here’s the thing: if you enjoy a movie, great! In this barren and miserable world of capital’s dominance, good-on-you for every happiness you find. But don’t come at me like it’s a goddamn leftist triumph. There are enough film critics in the world whose entire lives are spent convincing people to keep going to the movies. Perhaps the minimum commitment we should ask of film critique is not to deploy leftist concepts to write paeans to Hollywood.


  1. The hardest thing about writing this piece was forcing myself to do a close reading of his. It took so long: I would read a couple paragraphs and then my eyes would just involuntarily skim.

    Re the film, I mean it about the total wasteland of non-pleasure we live in. The flip side of having to define everything you like as leftist is refusing to like things that aren't. For me it always feels fairly arbitrary as to what movies I can't enjoy for their being reactionary and what movies I can.

  2. Oh yeah, I was being tongue in cheek with the defensiveness. For whatever reason my lizard brain has bought into the Nolan DC stuff, so I kind of liked Man of Steel before I even saw it. The last hour is a total failure, though, just no imagination or perspective. Too bad.

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