If history has a strange way of repeating itself, the past couple of months have been an echo chamber across the decades. Earlier this year, Warner Brothers made the decision to release the 10th Anniversary Edition DVD of David O. Russell’s Three Kings, with an excellent new print of the film to be released in a few theaters. The timing couldn’t have been better. The film, a subversive action comedy set during the Gulf War, is one of the best films of the 1990’s and is a smart and entertaining critique of the American mission in the Middle East. The film is as resonant to American policies in the current Iraq War as it was to the original Gulf War. Currently, small movie theaters and PBS stations are full of investigations of the American identity abroad, and the decision to include a re-release of Three Kings seemed to be as smart a marketing idea as it was a savvy recognition of things coming back to where they once began.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the art house. Russell and his colleagues, the filmmakers Tricia Regan and Juan Carlos Zaldivar, spent a portion of the past year in Iraq, filming documentary footage and interviews with American soldiers for a film called Soldiers Pay. As a part of the 10th Anniversary celebration, Russell proposed that Warner Brothers include Soldiers Pay with the Three Kings screenings and as special bonus footage on the DVD. Warner Brothers blanched, citing the opinions of their legal team who determined that by including the film on the DVD, Warner Brothers would be in violation of campaign finance law. By releasing the film within three months of the Presidential election, they worried that Warner Brothers could be accused of making a partisan political statement.
The film, which airs on Monday, November 1st on The Independent Film Channel (whose programming staff was apparently unconcerned with Warner’s ludicrous rationale), makes no endorsement of any political candidate. Instead, it outlines the growing disillusionment of our soldiers and gives them an opportunity to discuss their feelings about their work in Iraq. If a documentary about active American soldiers that endorses no candidate can be argued as a violation of American campaign finance law, I wonder how CBS’s revolutionary news coverage of the Viet Nam war in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s would fare against that standard, let alone the soon to be re-released Hearts and Minds.
Regardless, Soldiers Pay is an excellent companion to Three Kings, proof of the original film’s exceptional insight into the difference between American intentions and Iraqi reality. Instead of allowing Soldiers Pay its rightful place beside Three Kings on the DVD, Warner Brothers claimed the film was too political and dropped the project, allowing the filmmakers to sell the movie to Cinema Libre, a smaller distributor. The sale didn’t help Three Kings, though. Warner Brothers pulled the theatrical re-release of Three Kings entirely and cancelled the 10th anniversary DVD for good.
You know that something is wrong in America when Hollywood studios begin self-censoring bonus footage on a re-released DVD. What the hell is going on here? Of course, this same “too political” rationale sounds pretty familiar to those who remember the recent debacle over the release of Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 911. Disney, in a power struggle with its subsidiary Miramax, called the film “too political” for an election year and lost out on the over $250 million the film generated at the box office. I’m sure that went over like gangbusters at the shareholders meeting. Of course, one man’s loss is another man’s gain, and while the box office prospects for a small film like Soldiers Pay don’t figure to be nearly as strong as the juggernaut of Fahrenheit 911, the creation of powerful, alternative stories about our political life has flourished this year.
Interestingly, the classic rationale for corporate behavior, that shareholder interests and profit are the primary (if not sole) motivation for business decisions, seems to be subverted by this unprecedented rise in political conscience in corporations like Disney and Warner Brothers. Perhaps this bodes well for American consumers and the development of a broader corporate consciousness because, if multinational conglomerates like Disney can make political decisions that undermine their bottom line in the service of their vision of the greater good, maybe other companies can find the courage to subvert their own profits in order to serve the best interests of the people. Free healthcare anyone? Oh well, a boy can dream.
The reality is that the precedent being set in both of these companies is a chilling one, but hardly surprising. The consolidation of media power has not eliminated the freedom of expression, instead it has de-legitimized expression that doesn’t earn profits at the box office by making it culturally irrelevant. Consumers have responded by becoming far more selective in their media sources and choices, and outlets for film and information have become specialized, turning the pursuit of profit into brand-specific production and distribution. This has created a situation for artists in American society that can only be described in style of that great orator, Donald Rumsfeld; There are things that we know are created, things that we know aren’t created, but what about the things that we don’t know that aren’t created? That is to say, while established artists seeking a broader audience for their well-financed films wage battles over access to the marketplace, new and emerging artists struggle to find a way to create ‘legitimate’ films, films that earn their credibility in the culture solely by the profits they turn for the companies that release them.
The message being sent by the market is loud and clear; The freedom of speech is indeed a right, but so is the right to be irrelevant, and those that control access to the market determine which voices get to roll the dice of legitimacy. The ‘free market’ has always worked this way, and the cliché in Hollywood that great work finds the market is both true and ridiculously simple (how many bad films fill screens today?). Certainly, freedom is a double-edged sword in a competitive environment. One need only look to the internet to see how the democratization of filmmaking can create a vibrant, complicated, offensive, and somewhat democratic space for the presentation of films and ideas. But that democratic spaces generates its own controversy. The availability of bootlegged films online has created such a stir that Hollywood studios sought a ban on the videotapes they sent out to their own Oscar voters. Clearly, the distribution of ideas is not the issue, the bottom line is. So, while a company like Warner Brothers can write off the relatively small profits that may have been generated by a re-release of Three Kings and Disney can kiss a quarter of a billion dollars goodbye because it is ‘too political,’ the question remains; What interests transcend the traditional profit motive and encourage these companies to choose the path of least resistance?
The reality in America is one of homogeneity across the marketplace. The work of art that challenges the status quo, which questions the range of choices and ideas available in the larger majority hasn’t lost its ability to generate revenue. One need look no further than Fahrenheit 911 for proof of that. The fact is, we have become a nation afraid to speak up, a nation frightened by its politicians, angry at its foreign allies, and responsible for waging a divisive war overseas. A quick scan of the cultural landscape highlights the point. God Bless America has replaced Take Me Out To The Ballgame during the seventh inning stretch. The nation’s leading news and information channel is a raging scream-fest that belittles thoughtful discourse while presenting a self-interested, corporate viewpoint at the expense of traditional newsgathering. Military jets fly over football games for some unknown reason. Our credit cards are full, our school systems seek the inclusion of Bible stories in science classes, and judging from the polls, we don’t like each other very much. Our nation is divided in a very painful way, but for the first time, that division is relatively silent in the marketplace. There is a new ‘patriotic correctness’ that has shaped the national dialogue, and at the risk of violating its central rule of towing the nationalist line, I will state for the record that I, for one, am alienated by it all. But I am not alone. The next time you feel shaken by all of the jingoistic white noise, do what I do. Take a walk past your friendly neighborhood multiplex or video store and think about what might have been. Recognize which stories are absent. And then, get to work.