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Echoes of Reaganism in Hollywood Blockbuster Movies from the 1980s to the 2010s

by Ilias Ben Mna (Author)
Thesis 378 Pages
Open Access
Series: American Culture, Volume 15

Table Of Content

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Introduction
  • Blockbusters and Reaganism
  • The Long Shadow of the 1980s
  • How to Trace Ideology in Blockbusters?
  • Focal Points for Analysis
  • Why Does Reaganism in Blockbusters Matter?
  • Chapter 1 Tracing Echoes in Film
  • Chapter Overview
  • The Case for the Continued Reaganization of Hollywood Blockbusters
  • The Media Spectacle According to Douglas Kellner
  • The Hollywood “Hard Body” According to Susan Jeffords
  • George Lakoff’s “Strict Father Model” as a Political Framing Device
  • Roland Barthes’ Concept of Mythologies as a Tool for Deconstructing Capitalist Imagery
  • Defining Hollywood Blockbusters as a Formula
  • Key Ideological and Methodological Terms
  • Neoliberalism
  • Neoconservatism
  • Messianic Americanism
  • Metatexts/Subtexts
  • Potentials and Limitations
  • Chapter 2 Key Myths and Metaphors in Reagan’s Rhetoric
  • Chapter Overview
  • The “Small-Government” Metaphor
  • The “Star Wars” Program as a Pop Culture Invocation for Cold War Rearmament
  • Counter-Terrorism as “War” against the Other
  • The White Male Entrepreneur as Mythical Hero for the Nation
  • Chapter 3 E.T.—The Extra-Terrestrial as a Reaganite “Small-Government Fable”
  • Introduction and Chapter Overview
  • Hollywood Studios at Heaven’s Gate: The Production Background of E.T.
  • Film Analysis
  • The Dystopian Nature of Government and Bureaucracy in E.T.
  • The Restoration of the Father through White, Male, Middle-Class Individualism
  • The Pop Cultural Legacy of E.T.—The Extra-Terrestrial
  • Chapter 4 The Recycling of Reagan’s Cold War Rhetoric in Independence Day
  • Introduction and Chapter Overview
  • When Disaster Strikes at the Box Office: The Production Background of Independence Day
  • Film Analysis
  • Technological Superiority in Outer Space as an Expression of US-American Hegemony
  • The Role of “Messianic Americanism” in Defeating the Other
  • The Pop Cultural Legacy of Independence Day
  • Chapter 5 The Dark Knight as an Echo Chamber for Reaganite Counter-Terrorism Rhetoric
  • Introduction and Chapter Overview
  • A New Class of Criminals: The Production Background of The Dark Knight
  • Film Analysis
  • “War on Terror” and “Terror War” in The Dark Knight
  • “Terror” Is What Others Do: Racial Otherness in The Dark Knight and in Neoconservative Rhetoric
  • The Pop Cultural Legacy of The Dark Knight
  • Chapter 6 Hard-Bodied Entrepreneurialism in The Avengers
  • Introduction and Chapter Overview
  • The Superhero (Formula) Keeps Coming Back: The Production Background of The Avengers
  • Film Analysis
  • Entrepreneurialism and National Defense in The Avengers
  • Gendered “Hard Bodies” in Times of War
  • The Pop Cultural Legacy of The Avengers
  • Conclusions and Outlook
  • Main Conclusions and their Relevance for Contemporary Discussions
  • Implications for Blockbuster Movies as a Formula
  • From Ronald to Donald: When Blockbuster Logic Meets Political Spectacles
  • List of Figures
  • Bibliography
  • Series Index

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Acknowledgements

With special thanks to these wonderful individuals for
their amazing assistance:
Patrick Bradshaw, Claire J. Davis, Helen Gibson, Spencer Kohan,
John Nordstrom, and Tyler Olson.

This book was originally conceived and written as a doctoral thesis during the author’s candidacy for the degree of Doctor Philosophiae at Humboldt University of Berlin.

The author submitted the original manuscript on 6 February 2019 to the Department of English and American Studies, Humboldt University of Berlin, Unter den Linden 6, 10099 Berlin, Germany.

←12 | 13→

Introduction

Yes, the 1980s are our very own Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon
game: Everything defining today’s politics seems connected
to that decade. And even though many of these political
narratives were around before the Reagan era […] they
were vastly amplified by the new technologies, corporate
reorganizations and federal policy changes of the time.

— David Sirota, “From Charlie Sheen to Reagan Nostalgia, The ’80s Just Won’t Go Away,”
The Washington Post, March 11, 2011

Blockbusters and Reaganism

Blockbuster movies wield considerable mass cultural influence on a global scale and represent one of the most profitable sources of revenue for Hollywood studios.1 Despite the massive commercial success and far-reaching socio-cultural repercussions of this style of filmmaking, its ideological genealogy and historical development over the decades have received only limited scholarly attention.

Thus, this book will discuss specific “echoes” of Ronald Reagan’s rhetoric and ideology in Hollywood blockbuster movies since the 1980s. These echoes are understood as conceptual, narrative, and stylistic parallels between cinematic story lines and key tenets of Reaganism. In the context of the emergence of the contemporary blockbuster formula in the late 1970s, the Reagan presidency and its associated brand of cinema in the 1980s provide a unique semiotic anchoring point for an investigation of the cultural metatexts that have shaped two seemingly different cultural practices: postmodern presidential rhetoric and postmodern Hollywood filmmaking. Notably, both practices are informed by the reproduction of cultural knowledge through myths and the affirmation of mainstream self-certainties (Rogin, Independence Day 43), since both practices aim for an easily marketable mass appeal. Therefore, I approach both practices as textual formats, which are strongly intertwined with the underlying discourses that shape the creation, production, distribution, and dissemination of images. These practices have gained considerable ←13 | 14→currency as conveyors—and mediators—of societal discussions on race, gender, class, space, and body politics, as well as national and individual identity politics. Analyzing the interrelationship between the two can yield valuable insights into the workings and manifestations of a “national sub-conscious” since the 1980s (Britton 102–103; Wood 156–160; Rogin, Ronald Reagan, The Movie). The dramatization of struggles inherent in capitalist, gendered, and racist power structures arguably exerts its most far-reaching influence in the cultural productions of two institutions, which can easily leverage national and global attention: multinational Hollywood media conglomerates and the White House.

I will, therefore, begin by dissecting Reagan’s presidential rhetoric and then I will closely examine four blockbuster movies from the period between 1982 and 2012: E.T.—The Extra-Terrestrial (1982), Independence Day (1996), The Dark Knight (2008), and The Avengers (2012). In separate close readings, these films will be explored in terms of their resonance with or resistance to two key trajectories: Reaganite neoliberalism and Reaganite neoconservatism.2 These two foci are further undergirded by a reactionary form of backlash politics in opposition to socially progressive movements of the 1960s and 1970s (Soles 2). Therefore, a set of political metaphors used by Reagan in his rhetoric will facilitate access to these two trajectories, while also serving as a “Reaganite lens” through which each film can be read.3 These ideological tenets will be followed over a period that extends beyond the Reagan presidency (1981–1989). This adds a diachronic4 dimension to the overall analysis.

The simultaneity of the rise of the blockbuster and the ascent of Reaganism (Jordan 29–50) puts Reagan’s brand of conservatism in a privileged position for a thorough historical analysis. Therefore, the perspective detailed in this book is unique, as it examines Reaganite echoes in Hollywood cinema beyond the 1980s and into the 2010s. Unlike previous, synchronic analyses of Reaganite cinema, which largely focused on the 1980s (Davies and Wells; Prince, American Cinema of the 1980s; Rossi; Hackett), I dive headfirst into the question of how far the cinematic Reagan era extends beyond the 1980s. Thus, ←14 | 15→this study contributes to a more precise delineation of the historical reach of the cinematic Reagan era and can, thereby, illuminate the pop cultural and ideological legacies of the 1980s in mass media.

The Long Shadow of the 1980s

The discussions in this book revolve around dramatized socio-cultural struggles and their cinematic resolution, from the early 1980s all the way to contemporary Hollywood. My argument is central to the following three claims:

Hollywood blockbuster movies continue to recycle ideological tropes and metaphors that were prominent in both Reagan’s rhetoric and Reagan-era cinema.

Hollywood blockbuster movies incorporate both socially progressive and conservative visions in their negotiations of societal conflicts, which are presented as a “populist backlash” against forces that threaten white, middle-class masculinity.

Hollywood blockbuster movies reflect their increasingly global and diverse viewership through the incorporation of a “multicultural neoliberalism,” which cements the blockbuster’s status as a “commodity spectacle.” This points toward a reformulation of cultural struggles within a continued late capitalist and neoconservative framework.

Central to these claims is the observation that several technological and financial metastructures—which have governed the political economy of Hollywood since the late 1970s—are still intact or have gradually strengthened over the last four decades. These economic co-ordinates structure the output of major film studios in the United States against the backdrop of three continuing cultural, social, and political paradigms, which affect both supply and demand in the film business: neoliberalism, neoconservatism, and the so-called “culture wars” (Hunter). As Reaganism provided an early, right-wing articulation of all three of these discourses, there is reason to assume that subsequent reiterations of conservative discourses in Hollywood film still relate to this continuously dominant form of US conservatism.

The overarching theoretical framework for this analysis is based on Douglas Kellner’s concepts of “technocapitalism” and the “media spectacle” (Film, Politics, and Ideology; Media Culture; Media Spectacle) as a basic epistemology for the reverberance of new mass media technologies in the cultural, political, and social realities of post-industrial societies. In this context, I will also ←15 | 16→trace the continued repercussions of the corporatization of Hollywood studios, which started in the late 1970s (Jordan 40–41).

This becomes especially relevant given the fact that high-concept5 blockbusters, despite having been conceived 40 years ago, are nowadays more financially successful than ever. According to the box-office revenue-tracking website Box Office Mojo, 19 of the 20 highest-grossing films worldwide were produced in the period between 2009 and 2018.6 From a film historical perspective, the impact, resonance, and—most prominently—profitability of the blockbuster concept are increasing significantly (Prince, A New Pot of Gold). Therefore, I endeavor to offer a more holistic analysis characterized by a focus on the correspondences between a larger ideological consensus and the demand-driven, profit-oriented dynamics of Hollywood filmmaking (Jeffords, Hard Bodies). This approach allows for a clearer delineation of the radical shifts that US society has experienced since the neoliberal departure from New Deal welfare capitalism and the intervention of progressive social movements in the 1960s and 1970s (Cannon; Troy, The Reagan Revolution 45–48). The Reagan presidency, therefore, emerges as a pivotal watershed moment for the ascendancy of a social/economic conservatism after the 1970s. This watershed moment is marked by the beginning of the culture wars, the end of the Cold War, and the institutionalization of a neoliberal consensus that has taken form not only as a political and economic, but also as a cultural regime.

In this context, the political rhetoric of subsequent presidents, from Reagan to Trump, is relevant as it sheds light on discernible commonalities, continuations, adaptions, and differences. Given the ongoing discussions about the legacy of 1980s neoliberalism during the 2008 financial crash, the emergence of the Tea Party movement in the United States, the echoes of Reagan’s counter-terrorism rhetoric in George W. Bush’s “War on Terror,” and the emphasis on an optimistic “American exceptionalism” in Barack Obama’s and Bill Clinton’s speeches (Freie 21), there are grounds for examining an overarching mode of political communication that has endured since the Reagan era (Sirota, Back to Our Future; Bunch).

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How to Trace Ideology in Blockbusters?

As previously noted, Douglas Kellner’s concepts of “technocapitalism” and the “media spectacle” (Media Culture; Media Spectacle) provide the primary starting point for my analysis. Susan Jeffords’ notion of the “Hollywood hard body” (Hard Bodies), George Lakoff’s dissection of the “strict father” model as a political framing device (Elephant; Thinking Points), and Roland Barthes’ observations on the structure and usage of mythologies in late capitalist storytelling (Mythologies) will be utilized to build on this foundation. These different but interconnected prisms allow for a multi-perspectival analysis whereby blockbusters can be dissected as media spectacles within and beyond the filmic text.

Kellner’s concept of the media spectacle provides an avenue for interrogating the political economy of Hollywood and its effects on filmic content. This facilitates the mapping-out of social and cultural transformations from different critical perspectives (Kellner, Media Culture 26), thereby allowing for the analysis of blockbusters as cultural phenomena rather than mere stand-alone texts. Top-grossing media spectacles are suited to such an inquiry as their commercial success and diffusion through merchandise and branding represent a broad collective experience of post-industrial consumerism (Kellner, Media Culture 37).7 This, in turn, has far-reaching implications for the continuation of neoliberal and neoconservative projects that started to take shape in the Reagan era.

Susan Jeffords’ concept of the “hard body” offers a viable means of illuminating filmic narratives in terms of the portrayal of gender, as well as a reasserted national identity. In view of the post-Vietnam, post-stagflation, and post-Watergate climate during which the modern blockbuster formula was conceived, it is vital to interrogate how representations of the body reflect cultural fantasies of a conservative “pushback” against perceived threatening forces—either in the form of a racialized Other, shifts in gender relations, or technological progress. Jeffords argues that the re-centering of a muscle-laden and indestructible white masculinity is an expression of escalating fears of ←17 | 18→imperial decline and the onset of globalization (Hard Bodies 3, 193). Thus, it is worth examining the depiction of bodies across decades and genres in order to explore the shifting contours of such pushback fantasies.

The conservative restoration of hierarchies is also central to Lakoff’s “strict father” model. Lakoff’s notion, which derives from his research in cognitive linguistics, allows depictions of the family and the use of tendentious metaphors and terminology to be pried apart. The narrative shape of what Lakoff describes as a “political frame” activates thought processes that link ideological mappings of society and its constituent binaries, for example, “the restoration of the family.” The focus on simplified and heroic story lines in blockbuster movies presents fertile ground for exploring the construction of hierarchies and notions of the “nation as a family.” The family metaphor continues to be a common feature of discourses that arise in the context of the culture wars (Hunter), especially since Reagan and the self-declared “Moral Majority” injected a reactionary and allegedly “values-oriented” family discourse into the conservative cultural lexicon. For these reasons, Lakoff’s approach can generate detailed insights into the historic reconstruction and reformulation of “family” in the mainstream cinematic imagination.

Given the nature of films as audiovisual texts, both speech and visual language are critical to the construction of meanings. Therefore, Barthes’ explorations of myths and mythologies facilitate the deconstruction of the interplay between image and speech in movies. Furthermore, Barthes offers methodological strategies to expose semiotic layers in connection with their ideological functioning. This allows for a thorough disassembling of national foundation myths, for example, or the essentialization of the Other in blockbuster movies. And since the Reagan era was infused with images of both capitalist and racist mythologies, Barthes’ approach serves as a solid means of investigating potential commonalities between Reaganism and Hollywood tales.

These different approaches provide a comprehensive basis for investigating both the content and context of blockbuster movies. The intersections between cultural, political, and economic paradigm shifts, which are mirrored in major Hollywood productions, require a broad analysis that draws from multiple levels of inquiry. Thus, the “resonant images” of dramatized conflicts portrayed in film need to be examined in order to shed light on why these visual narratives are so popular and to determine the degree to which they reproduce or challenge domination in a societal context (Media Culture 107). In accordance with Kellner’s understanding of media culture as “contested terrain” (Media Culture 101–102), movies are viewed in this book as multiple textual layers with often competing, resonant images. In this sense, the proposed analysis is ←18 | 19→fundamentally geared toward uncovering implicit and explicit power dynamics that reflect prevalent societal conflicts.

Considering the nature of movies as “contested terrain” (Kellner & Ryan), this thesis does not seek to explore any direct and/or mono-causal relationships between Reaganism and Hollywood productions. As a multi-faceted phenomenon, cinematic spectacles are involved in a variety of contextual relationships that even a multi-perspectival approach cannot fully cover. In addition, the approaches selected for consideration in this book do not allow for a thorough disassembly of technical and cinematographic aspects. However, the analysis will offer dissections of filmic dialogues, cinematography, mise-en-scène, and the narration of selected scenes in order to decode the cinematic communication of implicit meanings.

These theoretical concepts are also unsuitable for the delimitation of blockbusters as a genre. While I will outline a working definition of the term “blockbuster movie,” a more targeted and comprehensive genre theory would be required to fully define this mode of filmmaking as a coherent entity. Yet, the analysis is conducive to discerning commonalities over the period in question and across subject genres and can thereby contribute to further scholarship on questions related to blockbusters as genre.

It should also be noted that these theoretical frameworks do not provide the tools for an exhaustive ideological analysis of either Reaganite rhetoric or all of the potential political symbolism of a given movie. Rather, the discussions in the ensuing chapters aim to illuminate critical watershed moments that affected both the history of Hollywood and US society at large. Thus, the development and trajectories of specific ideological inflections resulting from the corporatization of Hollywood in the 1970s can be delineated. This contributes to a more comprehensive understanding of media culture as a phenomenon that resides at the intersections of technology, capital, and dominant cultural discourses (Media Culture 102–103).8

Focal Points for Analysis

This book includes a theoretical discussion and the textual analyses of two phenomena: Reaganite rhetoric and its echoes in blockbuster movies.

←19 | 20→

In Chapter 1, I will discuss the purpose, contours, and parameters of the selected theoretical approaches. Douglas Kellner’s concepts of technocapitalism and media spectacle will serve as the starting point of my analysis, which will be further supported by Susan Jeffords’ concept of the “hard body,” George Lakoff’s “strict father” model, and Roland Barthes’ discussion of mythologies. I will also provide basic delineations of key terms, such as “neoliberalism” and “neoconservatism,” as well as outlining a working definition of the term “blockbuster movie.”

In Chapter 2, I will dissect Reagan’s presidential and campaign rhetoric. This will include a textual analysis of the semiotic and ideological underpinnings of Reagan’s public addresses. Thus, a set of parameters will be worked out, allowing for the proper positioning of these discourses in their cultural and political context. This analysis will incorporate Barthes’ concepts of myth (Mythologies 106–164) and Lakoff’s criteria for political framing and metaphors (Thinking Points 35–66; Elephant 3–34), as well as certain specifics of US-American political ideologies as outlined by Daniel P. Franklin (104–117). Kellner’s observations on the facets of late capitalist media spectacles will provide additional context.

The ideology of Reaganism, which forms the basis for Reagan’s rhetoric, is understood to be at the confluence of neoliberalism and neoconservatism and characterized by a reactionary stance in relation to cultural issues (i.e. the culture wars). In order to specify these ideological themes and translate them into narratives that can be juxtaposed with cinematic story lines, a set of key themes will be examined:

The invocation of a mythical “limited/small government” during Reagan’s 1980 presidential campaign and subsequent first term in office.

The conception of the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) or “Star Wars” program as a Cold War strategy for technological superiority in outer space.

The framing of “terrorism” as “war” and the related discourse on individual heroism as a metaphor for national unity.

The conception of rugged, self-styled entrepreneurialism as a discursive pushback strategy against economic anxieties and external competition.

Summary

This book examines the reverberations of key components of Ronald Reagan’s ideology in selected Hollywood blockbuster movies. The aim of this analysis is to provide a clearer understanding of the intertwinement of cinematic spectacles with neoliberalism and neoconservatism. The analysis comprises a dissection of Reagan’s presidential rhetoric and the examination of four seminal Hollywood blockbuster movies. The time range for analysis stretches from the 1980s until the 2010s. Among the key foci are filmic content as well as production and distribution contexts. It is concluded that Reagan’s political metaphors and the corporatization of film studios in the 1970s and 1980s continue to shape much of Hollywood blockbuster filmmaking.

Details

Pages
378
ISBN (PDF)
9783631843499
ISBN (ePUB)
9783631843505
ISBN (MOBI)
9783631843512
ISBN (Book)
Open Access
CC-BY
Language
English
Publication date
2021 (February)
Tags
cinema presidential rhetoric US politics film history Film
Published
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2021. 378 pp., 16 fig. col.

Biographical notes

Ilias Ben Mna (Author)

Ilias Ben Mna earned a PhD in American studies from Humboldt University of Berlin as well as a master’s degree in business administration and English/American studies from the University of Mannheim. He currently teaches film history and analysis at the Department of American Studies, Humboldt University of Berlin. His research interests include US popular culture, media theory, US presidential rhetoric, and political discourse analysis.

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Title: Echoes of Reaganism in Hollywood Blockbuster Movies from the 1980s to the 2010s