Peter Hoskin: Why is Hollywood turning right?
This is the first entry in a new ConservativeHome column focusing on culture. It will be edited by Peter Hoskin, and generally appear on Fridays.
As they say, January is a time for looking back as well as forwards — so I hope you’ll forgive a bit of accountancy that’s hanging over from 2012. It’s this list of last year’s highest grossing films:
- The Avengers --- $1,511,757,910
- The Dark Knight Rises --- $1,081,041,287
- Skyfall --- $1,023,949,764
- Ice Age: Continental Drift --- $875,236,450
- The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey --- $830,691,777
- The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn, Part 2 --- $821,909,597
- The Amazing Spider-Man --- $752,216,557
- Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted --- $742,110,251
- The Hunger Games --- $686,533,290
- Men in Black 3 --- $624,026,776
Spot anything, other than the abiding popularity of superhero movies? How about the upwards impetus of films that, while not explicitly political, are broadly conservative in outlook? To my eyes, three of the top five films belong in that category.
“Though much is taken, much abides; and though/We are not now that strength which in old days / Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are; / One equal temper of heroic hearts, / Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will / To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”
And then there’s The Hobbit, which is certainly the least political of all the three films, but which counts as conservative by dint of its source material. While J.R.R. Tolkien was no polemicist, you could almost say his books are about the same thing as Skyfall: the continuing relevance of the old ways in a world that is restlessly, sometimes dangerously, new. Except here, instead of a killer in a tuxedo, we have the verdant smallholdings of the Shire. Instead of M reciting Tennyson, we have kings and heirs and lords and birth-rights. And, true to the books, all of this makes it into Peter Jackson’s film.
This isn’t to say anything about the politics of the filmmakers behind The Dark Knight Rises, Skyfall and The Hobbit; just about how their films come across. And they come across even more forcefully thanks to the comparative absence of any left-wing films. Of the films listed above, only The Hunger Games stands out as particularly left-wing — and even that’s up for debate.
Naturally, this doesn’t mean that there is no left-wing cinema. Directors such as Ken Loach and Jean Luc-Godard, with works such as The Angels’ Share and Film socialisme, continue to profess the faith. Robert Guediguian’s The Snows of Kilimanjaro and Allan Sekula and Noël Burch’s The Forgotten Space were among the finest films I saw last year, and Gus Van Sant’s Promised Land is among those I’m most eager to see this year. But so little of that is filtering up into the multiplexes. Despite Hollywood’s alleged political biases, and despite the Occupy-style discontent that followed on from the recession, left-wing values are currently struggling for box office takings. There have been plenty of documentaries critical of the banks, but the most financially successful of the past few years — in fact, the second biggest political documentary of all time — is one that is critical of Barack Obama.
As for what all this means, firm conclusions are hard to come by. Who, after all, is to say whether a film is attracting audiences because of its implicit politics, as well as because of its lead actor? Who can be sure whether people are connecting with Batman’s power agenda, rather than just his awesome car? But, as so many social historians have done with the cinema of the Great Depression, it’s still worth trying to divine some answers. Very few trends happen entirely by accident.
The first and easiest port-of-call in these situations is the one marked “Escapism”. Cinemagoers want to be delivered from their everyday concerns, the argument goes, and so they seek out films which go against the grim certitudes of their time. Thus, in the 1930s, there was the cycle of gangster films which suggested that even the most downtrodden Joe could rise to seize the world, even if he was gunned down soon afterwards. In rationed, post-War Britain, there were the Ealing comedies and the fantasies of Powell and Pressburger. And now — who knows? — perhaps folk want films which depict stability, security, green fields and confident nationhood.
A more prosaic explanation may be the demographic one. Although there are fluctuations, cinema attendance has generally been in decline — and it has declined faster among young people, who are more likely to just download a movie off the Web instead, or else play a video game. Indeed, a recent report from Goldman Sachs, of all places, found that cinema attendance among 12-24 year-olds has fallen by 40 per cent over the past decade. The remaining audience may be becoming more conservative just by virtue of being older.
But I suppose the real question is whether there’s anything deeper going on with political attitudes. And the answer? That it’s possible, although it’s difficult to pin down. One particularly comprehensive study, for instance — by Paola Giuliano and Antonio Spilimbergo for the Institute for the Study of Labor — has it that,“…individuals growing up during recessions tend to believe that success in life depends more on luck than on effort, support more government redistribution, but are less confident in public institutions.” On that account, people turn both left (“ support more government redistribution”) and right (“less confident in public institutions”) during times of hardship.
Perhaps the strongest evidence for a rightwards shift during this last downturn is contained in recent editions of the British Social Attitudes survey. The proportion of people wanting an increase in public spending continued to fall between 2007 and 2010, reaching a twenty-year low of 31 per cent, although it did rise slightly in 2011. The number believing that benefits are “too high and discourage work” has climbed to a new peak, and so on. The latest edition sums it up with the words, “Neither redistribution in general nor welfare benefits in particular are as popular as they once were,” although it stresses that these trends predated the recession, and could turn.
So where does that leave Hollywood? Well, you can bet that it will keep on giving the people what they want — and, for now, that means Batman, James Bond and Bilbo Baggins. If only politicians could match up.