“When you’re blue,” my uncle told me, “see a happy movie. If you feel good, find a depressing film.” I reflect on his advice. Escape at the movies. That’s what the industry does, after all, sell products at the box office like the pharmacy sells them over the counter or by prescription, to take you up or bring you down.
In Spanish “diversion” means entertainment, so why I feel unsatisfied when commercial films designed to draw mass audiences for corporate profit don’t fulfill my serious critical expectations? Indeed, producers design products to “divert” viewing publics from their actual problems and guide them instead to fantasy land where they elude life’s issues.
The film industry, like the auto industry, sells a shiny commodity, on the outside. But, like cars, they break down when subjected to the test of time — serious scrutiny.
Given the limits imposed by commercial film grammar, how do socially conscious script writers insert social content? The unwritten rule forces writers to adopt acceptable Hollywood grammar; then they can insert “messages.” So, to deal with major issues, films lure audiences with sympathetic actors. In Salvador, Oliver Stone treats US repression and Salvadorian revolution through the antics of pot-smoking reporter James Woods. While investigating a story, he “discovers” murderous US-backed evil and to add balance — dubious revolutionary zeal. In Under Fire, Nick Nolte plays the photo-journalist who records the horrors of the US-backed Somoza regime.
The Constant Gardener, an adaptation of John Le Carre’s most recent novel, also follows in the celluloid footsteps of environmental adventures like Erin Brockovich (2000) and The China Syndrome (1979).
In order to expose the pharmaceutical conglomerates and their intimate relations with the British government in the era of globalization, the producers find sympathetic actors and use their stories tragedies to reveal the ugly truth. Ralph Fiennes and Rachel Weisz do for The Constant Gardner what the sexy and magnetic Julia Roberts did for the muckraking film about the evil energy corporation.
Erin discovered that PG&E has polluted, covered up and lied. She succeeds, of course, after enduring the outrageous slings and arrows aimed at the crusaders who dare tackle big business and big government usually combined.
Similarly, Jane Fonda took on the nuclear gang in The China Syndrome. Both films depict the perfidy of the corporate-business partnership that makes profits by screwing the public.
At the end of such movies, audiences leave the theaters saying “thank God for people like Jane Fonda or Kimberly Something.” Or, “lucky we have people like Julia Roberts or Erin Whatsername.” More realistic than comic book heroes, these Hollywood characters guide the spectator into vicarious and visceral identity with the hero, not the issue. The stomach takes over the emotions and the critical brain cells doze.
Look at Erin Brockovich’s poster showing sexy Julia Roberts! “She brought a small town to its feet and a huge company to its knees.” The emphasis falls on “she,” not “brought a small town to its feet,” which is a crude metaphor at best.
More convincing than a cartoon superhero, Erin has earthly issues, like three kids and no income. She gets a biker dude to fall in love with her the compulsory sex scene — and then converts him into Mr. Mom who watches her kids. She possesses the contradictory qualities that make her believable. She’s smart and compassionate, willful and resourceful. As Erin, Julia Roberts got to wear tight blouses that showed cleavage that helped her acquire a lawyer boss (Albert Finney) who had sufficient age and belly to form a sympathetic screen character. Like others who got close to her, he falls prey to Erin’s force and inner and outer beauty as well as her manipulative skills. Millions identified briefly — with this Julia or Erin as she fought and beat the big corporation.
The real Erin did organize a community and a law suit against California’s PG&E and a jury found the utility giant guilty of poisoning ground water in Hinkley, CA. They had to pay more than $300 million to more than seventy residents of the area. The film did show that people could fight back and win some measure of justice, if they had as a leader someone of unusual will and courage.
Similarly, The China Syndrome provided cinematic reality to latent fears of citizens about the downside of nuclear energy. In case the safety officer in a nuclear plant, even someone slightly more competent than Homer Simpson, suffers a sudden lapse of attention, an American Chernobyl could result.
Like Erin, The China Syndrome featured a courageous woman. Jane Fonda as Kimberly Wells plays an ambitious but small time TV reporter, an opportunist with career aspirations. Kimberly on a routine assignment at the local nuclear plant hears the plant’s PR man refer to “a routine turbine trip.” Having a reporter’s nose, she learns that this kind of “routine” could lead to a “meltdown””called The China Syndrome, a series of events that could lethally radiate Southern California.
Because of cost-cutting on safety so as to increase the bottom line, the corporate grubbing nuclear gang allowed a similar occurrence three months after the film’s release, at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant. This gave the film a sense of immediacy.
The Constant Gardner deviates from the other films that expose the murder and larceny built into corporate globalization. John Le Carre, a former British spook, gets angrier as he grows older. Beginning with his portrayal of England’s national security apparatus in Spy Who Came In From The Cold, he has revealed the insight of cynicism that lay behind the West’s crusade against communism. When Blair partnered with Bush in invading Iraq, Le Carre went ballistic and rightly so. In Absolute Friends, a story of two old spooks and their friendship, Le Carre shows the stupidity of continuing such “national security” nonsense and ends up with one of the most convincing denunciations written of the invasion of Iraq.
Once a servant of empire, Le Carre has become a world class outraged anti-imperialist. Constant Gardner captures this rage without violating the book, as most commercial films do to the literature that spawned them. Although it follows traditional grammar — boy meets girl, gets girl and loses girl love story — it takes people beyond the personal and into the story of the immense sin against the people of Africa committed by the imperialists over centuries.
In Kenya, Ralph Fiennes (Schindler’s List, The English Patient and End of the Affair) plays Justin Quayle, an obedient and gently British diplomat, who marries a younger and much more radical Tessa, (Rachel Weisz, from Constantine, The Shape of Things). Justin doesn’t catch Rachel’s political commitment as he putters in his garden. He loves her so much he seems oblivious to the facts of her daily life with Kenya’s urban poor. Then, the police found the murdered corpses of Rachel and her black African activist partner as they returned from a trip to another part of Kenya.
Thus, commercial grammar and social content merge. Although mysterious messages allude to Rachel’s infidelity, Justin embarks on a mission: find his wife’s killers. In so doing, he confronts corporate pharmaceutical monsters whom Tessa had fingered as using Africans as guinea pigs in drug experimentation. The drug companies who insisted that Africans pay retail price for anti-AIDS medications also forced natives to take experimental drugs in order to obtain their AIDS treatments. Worse, Justin’s colleagues inside the Foreign Service emerge as collaborators in murder and its cover-up.
The Africa of CG takes on qualities missing indeed the opposite of from Black Hawk Down, where gangs and thugs seem to rule the streets. Director Fernando Meirelles used shots of Nairobi’ squalid slums as he did in City of God to convey both the reality of poverty in modern Africa and the transcendent humanity of the slum dwellers.
The Constant Gardner places blame where it belongs for the exploitation of Africans: on the globalized corporate executives and their government servants. The film also casts its shadow over the cooperative lackeys who run the police and government in Kenya. The key villains, from the United States and Great Britain, mouth the usual platitudes about the inevitability of everything and the “you can’t fight progress” crap.
After the two hour vicarious experience aided by a strong musical score and vivid cutting, my brain still worked. I reflected on the absence of a well organized global movement to take on this monstrous conspiracy that operates under banners of “free trade” and other such benign euphemisms. Such a movement actually began when people from all over the world gathered in Seattle in 1999 to oppose the unelected elite who make global decisions about how the world economy. This coalition has grown more powerful and hopefully, films and books like CG will get them more recruits. That will test the strength of its social message.
SAUL LANDAU is a fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies.