Filmism.net Dispatch September 2, 2023

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In this Filmism.net Dispatch I want to talk about another movie motif they always think will pull the rug out from under us every time, somehow forgetting we see it in every other film and expect it from the get go. Yes, it's the 'corruption goes right to the top' plot device.

Think back to all the (American) movies you've seen where the hero is part of some larger hierarchical system or institution, and it ends at the same place.

Wherever there's a big company or some institution based on a leadership or chain of command structure there'll be a scene in the third act where the hero has waded through the street-level scum to get the mission done and finds himself in the gilded offices of his corporate, government or secret society overlords, throwing evidence down onto the desk with a crushed expression.

Whether it's a government, an underground society of vampires or a vast conglomerate in control of a technology that helps facilitate the story, there'll be a pivotal scene where the hero learns the ultimate damming truth; that the evil he's (it's seldom a she, incidentally) been trying to root out goes right to the top of the very organisation he belongs to.

We've seen it in movies depicting the United Federation of Planets (Star Trek Into Darkness), Tyrrell Corp (Blade Runner), the CIA (Three Days of the Condor), Weyland Yutani (Alien), the Crusades (Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves), Oscorp (Spider-Man), The Parallax Corporation (Parallax View), SHIELD (Captain America: The Winter Soldier), the tobacco industry (The Insider), Soylent Corporation (Soylent Green), Kerr-McGee (Silkwood), the Rebel Alliance (Rogue One: A Star Wars Story), Ventana (The China Syndrome), British Petroleum (Deepwater Horizon), the Volturi (Twilight), UNorth (Michael Clayton), OCP ( Robocop ), Cyberdyne Systems (Terminator 2: Judgement Day), the Nixon White House (All the President's Men) Ingen (Jurassic Park), Pacific Gas & Electric (Erin Brockovich), the Catholic Church (The Post) and dozens of others.

Screenwriters and producers love it because they figure the audience will be as shocked as the hero. But if you've ever seen and taken notice of a movie depicting a large, multi-level organisation you'll know that the buck will always stop with the bigwig.

That's not a big surprise to you if you watch a lot of movies. But for a long time I've been subconsciously wondering why so many movies have it, and I decided to use this Filmism.net Dispatch to try and unpack it.

There are two social themes you find in a lot of Hollywood movies because they're cornerstones in the formation myth of the American republic; rebellion and a mistrust of authority.

In many ways the two are inextricably linked. The USA itself was established to formally reject the European traditions of royalty by birthright, a leadership caste or the class system altogether.

When the British (which considered themselves the owners and overlords of the American colonies) tried to assert their political will, the colonies banded together and fought the War of Independence. Rebellion against the established order became hardwired into the DNA of the country.

You might wonder how such mythological narratives about rejecting authority trickle down to the lives and attitudes of everyday Americans, but examples are very common.

Just look at the cultural touchstone (yes, even in movies) about how much Americans hate paying taxes, or the way so many people came out in droves to join Black Lives matter protests... while a deadly transmissible disease was sweeping the country.

Early on when COVID took hold, the US had the same infection rate as South Korea. A few years later there've been a little over 35,000 COVID deaths in South Korea and over a million in America, with a death rate three times higher.

It's hard not to attribute the difference to a sensibility of communal responsibility and a general trust in the expertise of authority figures in Eastern/Asian cultures.

Americans, by contrast, won't be told what to do by anybody, especially the government, which is how they ended up with the most respected immunologist in the country spending half his time defending himself against Fox News crackpots and a president telling people to drink bleach.

But all that aside, what's the best way to reject authority in your screen story? By making your authority figure/institution the source of the antagonism your hero is struggling against.

A rebel needs something to rebel against, after all, and James Dean's immortal line ('Whaddaya got') when asked what he was rebelling against could have been anything from aliens or terrorists to the patriarchy or tax laws.

And who better to do that than a mythical heroic figure, whether it's the ronin-style Man With No Name, the tough, outdoorsy Marlboro Man or any number of other hero archetypes from centuries of literature and entertainment?

The idea of someone smashing or taking down the system who has no claims to nobility or station in life looms large in the American popular consciousness, and cinema (or TV) is a medium tailor made for expressions and manifestations of it.

Just look at one of the most popular storylines that combines the hero figure with the corruption-at-the-top trope; the one where he has to go rogue to save the day or clear his name.

It's a narrative construct that conveniently contains both the rebellious nature we all wish we had with the anti-authoritarianism particular to American entertainment.

In at least three Bond films I can think of and at least the last three or four Mission: Impossible films, both Bond and Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) have had to go rogue to clear their names, clean house at their former employer, etc. With no more bad guys, scripts give them a turn at rebelling against the good guys by making them just more bad guys.

In fact when the institution the heroes work for gets too much like a government (ie bloated, bumbling, dithering and ineffective), the easiest plot development in the world is making it a new target for the hero to rebel against.

One of the most revealing aspects of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story was just prior to the climactic attack on the Imperial data facility on Scarif when Jyn Erso, Cassian Andor and their gang can't quite convince the rebel alliance to try to steal the Death Star plans, so they go it alone. It literally turns into a story about rebels rebelling against a rebellion.

Because the rebel has to go it alone by definition. He must be unsupported by anything but his wits or fists or he isn't a rebel, he's just a bureaucrat doing his job supported by a military/industrial/corporate infrastructure.

Disdain for hierarchies and structures, not waiting for permission to get the job done, kicking arse and taking names to do so and pissing everybody in authority that he answers to off are in the job description.

From where else do we get the old chestnut of the terminally angry and profane (also usually black, for some reason) police chief, chewing the hero out because he's getting raked over the coals in turn by the mayor for all the destruction the hero has caused?

It's been a cliche for so long it was parodied as long ago as the 90s in movies like The Last Action Hero right here. and National Lampoon's Loaded Weapon 1 right here.

It's all tied up in American exceptionalism and American individualism, the same sociology that gives us (especially in stories where the hero is a group or ensemble) figures who are visually and personally as distinct from each other as possible but who have one thing in common. They're all, like all true antiauthoritarian rebels, impossible to control.

How ironic is it that one of the pillars upon which such American exceptionalism and political hegemony rests (the military) is all about authority, chains of command, hierarchies and the extinguishing of individualism, making one trench grunt as disposable as the next, the complete antithesis of the way heroism and fighting to right wrongs is portrayed on screen?

One of the reasons I so liked Denis Villeneuve's version of Dune was because (no doubt because it was there in Frank Herbert's novel) it broke the mould by not including the corruption goes right to the top motif.

Paul (Timotheee Chalamet, and Kyle MacLachlan in David Lynch's much maligned version) is surrounded by loving and supportive senior figures who guide his political and military career, and so far (we haven't seen the second film yet and I've never actually read the novel) not one of them has revealed himself to be pulling the strings of the real bad guys from on high, just waiting for Paul to storm into his gilded office and snarl 'how could you? your own people!'

So there you have it from where I sit. The sociopolitical act of rebellion, deposing established power structures run by people older than you, is youthful and sexy; two qualities that form Hollywood's entire USP. The problem with it? When writers spring it on us as audiences, they forget all the other writers who've already done it so much it's become boring, stuffy and itself part of the establishment.

Maybe it's time for a rebellion against rebels.

On screens now, I was more impressed than I thought I'd be about Monstrous, a sasquatch fable that's actually a lesbian murder mystery (or might be the other way around). It's not perfect, but it effectively blends two narrative tracks more successfully than you think a film this low key will.

From the slasher era, I also caught up with Slumber Party Massacre, a pretty shlocky drive in-style horror flick from the early 80s that's actually well done considering the more-than-slightly-ridiculous conceit.

A big shout-out too goes to The Thing From Another World, the progenitor to John Carpenter's immortal The Thing . Not being as big a Thing completist as many horror fans I've never seen the film that inspired it, and it's a much better movie than you're used to seeing from the era (the 50s).

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