Wednesday, 6 February 2019

Print the Legend: Media Manipulation in American Films

The Sound of Fury (French poster)
A revised (i.e. "censored) version of Jonathan Rosenbaum's original draft which, for comparison purposes, can be accessed here. You won't be surprised to see which parts were eliminated. This was for a programme Jonathan and I curated in Ankara, Turkey. -- EK

Print the Legend: Media Manipulation in American Films
Jonathan Rosenbaum & Ehsan Khoshbakht

Living in the age of "post-truth", "fake news" is a term one can hardly avoid. In American films of the 1950s, this meant a way of manipulating the masses by distorting facts, turning social events of grave importance into a sideshow, even mobilising mobs, from whom those manipulating the dominant narrative would benefit. Today, however, somewhat paradoxically, it can also mean something else: a denial of the lies or acts of corruption exposed by trustworthy media sources, evoking the Newspeak described in George Orwell’s dystopic novel Nineteen Eight-Four, with its famous slogans, "War is Peace" and "Ignorance is Strength".

"Fake news" persists and has seen a new disturbing twist: those in power are just as likely to appropriate the term, as it describes their own practices, and reverse its meaning, so that perceived opponents – among whom the people who put together this film programme about "fake news" might be included – can no longer use it without speaking on behalf of the powerful. This is surely manipulation with a vengeance, where control over both language and presence becomes another form of class inequality.

Feeding public fears with worst-case scenarios is the principal form of press manipulation found in Try and Get Me! (1950), Ace in the Hole (1951), and Sweet Smell of Success (1957), all three based on disturbing true-life events; all three commercial flops on first release, undoubtedly because of their negativity, but revered today. In Try and Get Me!, originally and more aptly titled The Sound of Fury, a corrupt press plays a secondary role during the film’s first hour, figuring as just another part of a predatory world ruled by bullies and the privileged. But eventually, by actually helping to create a lynch mob, it becomes an even more abusive institution, beyond exploiting a personal accident in a cave in New Mexico to boost a reporter’s career (as in Ace in the Hole, subsequently retitled The Big Carnival) or catering to the whims of a tyrannical gossip-columnist, within a claustrophobic, paranoid and power-driven world of Manhattan nightclubs (Sweet Smell of Success).

Ace in the Hole (Iranian poster)

It’s worth noting that victims of the Hollywood blacklist, present and future, were central to two of these films. Cy Endfield, director and uncredited co-writer (with Jo Pagano) of The Sound of Fury/Try and Get Me! and a former Communist, had to emigrate to England soon afterwards, and even there had to live in hiding under pseudonyms for many years, due to threats by the U.S. projectionists’ union to boycott English films on which blacklisted Americans had worked. None of the people who worked on Sweet Smell of Success were blacklisted, but the film, which came out when the blacklist was already starting to fall apart, exposes various aspects of its machinations and consequences with rare lucidity. One of its independent producers, Harold Hecht, as well as one of its screenwriters, Clifford Odets, managed to escape the blacklist only by giving names. Billy Wilder, director and co-writer of Ace in the Hole, managed to remain at Paramount during this period, but significantly he shared with Ernest Lehman, co-writer of Sweet Smell of Success, the credential of having worked as a less-than-respectable gossip journalist himself before he entered the film business, and his jaundiced view of what "success" means and entails in both worlds is part of what gives both Ace in the Hole and its immediate predecessor, Sunset Boulevard, their grimy authenticity.

Sweet Smell of Success (British poster)

Now the world of politics and culture has become a battleground fraught with new dangers, due to an abundance of politically motivated hackers, "deep fake" manufacturers, bots, and hi-tech forgers. The three films in this programme are notable early examples of American films attempting to fight back against the pervasive manipulation of the media in the interest of power, manipulation of the kind that, in eye-opening modern forms, continues to threaten democracy.

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