Does Hollywood sell harmless Californication, or something much more sinister?

Bryan MacDonald
Bryan MacDonald is an Irish journalist based in Russia.
Does Hollywood sell harmless Californication, or something much more sinister?
People, especially the young around the world largely view America through the prism of Hollywood movies and TV serials, but is Tinseltown a propaganda tool for the US government?

“It’s understood that Hollywood sells Californication,” - Red Hot Chilli Peppers.

You know the script by now. Some horrible danger befalls the earth - aliens, evil megalomaniacs or disease are the most popular - and America rides to the rescue. It’s the stuff of countless Hollywood flicks. The President is always a good guy, the hero has the essential pearly white teeth and God blesses America.

No film perfected the genre as much as the 1996 smash-hit Independence Day, which went a step further by actually having the President as one of the action heroes. Aliens arrive to earth, of course America is their main focus, and a down-on-his-luck “everyman” sacrifices himself, with the help of POTUS, to defeat the threat. The US is all that matters. Never mind that China is the world’s most populous country, that Russia has the most advanced space program or Europe the science equivalent, Aliens just know that America is top dog. So, of course, should we, or at least that’s the general idea.

Hollywood, a suburb of Los Angeles, is synonymous with the US movie and TV machine, but many productions take place elsewhere. Indeed, Berlin’s Babelsberg studio is a major player now and Vancouver has long been fashionable. Nevertheless, the seat of power remains L.A. and the word ‘Hollywood’ is a metonym for the entire industry.

Almost every country uses its TV industry as a sort of propaganda tool but no nation has been as successful as the US in extending its influence globally. Nothing has been as useful in forming a positive image of America around the world as Hollywood. It has created the perception that its homeland is a place where food is plentiful, everyone has a nice house and it’s unusual to be unhappy. Of course, the truth is rather different.

The CBS drama Californication, which is hugely entertaining, is a suitable case in point. Its hero, a hedonistic writer, has a lifestyle beyond comparison: endless money, flash cars, beautiful homes and a, seemingly unlimited, supply of beautiful women. The message is "L.A. is the place where this can happen." It's the Beach Boys on even stronger acid than they actually dropped.

Spencer Platt / Getty Images / AFP

However, Los Angeles itself is not a hugely successful city. It has a homicide rate of 7.8 (down from a 1980 high of 34.2) and 40 percent of families either make poverty wages or are unemployed, according to its own city commission. By comparison, Berlin’s (Europe's main cinema city) homicide figure is 1.1 and its poverty rate is 15%. Due to historical factors, such as having a big wall in the middle of it for decades, Berlin is poor by German standards, in Munich it’s only 3.9%. However, in Hollywood movies Germans are too often the bad guys, kept down by an American boot, ignoring the fact that Germany is a far more desirable society than the US - in fact, the same is true of most of Western Europe.

The public education system in Los Angeles is a complete shambles; it’s so farcical that its standards wouldn’t be accepted even in the poorest corners of Eastern Europe. Less than two thirds of primary (under 12) students will eventually graduate high school and fewer than half of the graduates are proficient in the English language. However, 28 people have a net worth of $81.6 billion in Los Angeles, or approaching 15% of the city’s GDP.

Los Angeles' population jumped by a million residents between 1980 and 2010; yet, during that time, the city shed 165,000 jobs. Thirty years ago, there were 12 Fortune 500 companies with headquarters in the city, it's now a mere 4. To say L.A. is in decline would be generous, in truth, it's in free fall.

Of course Hollywood never exposes such realities, and even when it does touch on them it’s in low budget flicks, intended for a domestic audience rather than export. Tinseltown prefers to distribute abroad such ‘works’ as Deterrence, a late 90’s production that shows a nuclear attack on Iraq. If the message of Deterrence was that atomic weapons are a horrid thing, that’d be fine but, no, the movie instead suggests that the US has a right to initiate a nuclear war against any enemy.

Then there’s morally unsettling films like Zero Dark Thirty, which reduces Osama Bin Laden to a cardboard figure without ever touching on his motivations. Or United 93, which presents a sanitized, heroic account of a plane incident which has serious question marks. It’s widely held that the unfortunate airliner may, actually, have been shot down. The movie never even suggests such a possibility, despite the fact that the 9/11 Commission report left such a scenario open. For what it’s worth, I am not peddling a conspiracy theory here; there is a wealth of material suggesting the true story might not have been as clear-cut as presented.

BBC’s World Tonight show recently visited Los Angeles to ask whether Hollywood was a soft-power tool for Washington. They included an, extremely enlightening, interview with Variety Magazine’s Ted Johnson.

He replied: “Not a week goes by when you don’t see some organization coming to Hollywood and saying ‘I want to meet with filmmakers for the hopes of getting our message into American movies.”

“There’s a sixty year history of the military being involved.. the problem though is the military often want to see the script and that will have a big influence,” he responded when pressed on the military’s relationship with the industry.

It’s known that the Armed Forces objected to 13 Days, which was about the 1962 Cuban Missile crisis, and withheld cooperation. They were incensed by the depiction of the late General Curtis LeMay, who clashed with President John F. Kennedy and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, feeling they were too “soft.” LeMay later described the incident, which Kennedy’s deft handling of probably prevented the deaths of millions, as “the greatest defeat in our history.”

Reuters/Mike Blake

Also, in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks on New York, Karl Rove, President George W Bush’s chief advisor, called on Hollywood. He summoned a group of studio chiefs, directors and writers to suggest what the industry could do to promote the US world view as war beckoned. If this is not government interference, I don’t know what is.

In Hollywood, the baddies are, invariably, Russian, Asian, Arab, or German and the heroes’ American. It’s hard to calculate the damage this image does to nations in those categories and how much the demonization aids US propaganda - it’s sure to be significant.

Often, Tinseltown distorts history to project its standard message of American goodness and superiority. A classic example is U-571, an extremely successful blockbuster which portrayed brave US submariners capturing an enigma cipher machine from Germans during the war. Except they didn’t, the British did, before the US had even bothered to enter the conflict. Even then Prime Minister Tony Blair (a strong ally of Washington) was upset, calling the plot an “affront” to British sailors.

Hollywood packages an idealized presentation of America. It’s culture, lifestyle and military intentions (and methods) but, in reality, much of it is blatant propaganda. It offers a perspective so removed from the American reality that it suggests a country which is near to perfect, when the truth is rather different.

Cinema is a wonderful art form, which has enriched humanity, but Hollywood’s - hugely successful - version of it exists not only to entertain, but to alter perception of what America really is. Bear that in mind next time an all American hero saves the day. While chowing on the popcorn, as the advert says, question more.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.