In Carlo Collodi’s 1883 story The Adventures of Pinocchio, the eponymous puppet who hopes to become a real boy is led from the path of prudence into the “Land of the Toys”, a juvenile Promised Land of Eternal Playtime. Here, little boys revel all day long without the tiresome interference of boring grown-ups.
In the 1940 animated adaptation Disney visualised this marvellous, shimmering carnival of hedonism as a theme park called Pleasure Island, which was the setting for some of the most nightmarish scenes ever witnessed by children in cinemas: the boys, oblivious in their merriment, are slowly and irreversibly morphed into donkeys, who in turn power the same fairground which led them to their own accursed fate. Suddenly, the reason the asinine creatures wear little shoes and caps comes horrifyingly into focus. Shudder.
In an act of perverse irony, Disney later gave the same name – Pleasure Island – to a shopping and entertainment district at their Walt Disney Land Resort in Florida, which housed such attractions as Planet Hollywood and a restaurant called the Fireworks Factory (which closed down after the owner’s cigar set off an explosion). The mental image of Monty Burns, standing over a boardroom table, fingertips pressed together, laughing maniacally at such a cynical in-joke, is hard to suppress.
As cartoonishly sinister as this may sound, the relationship between the American entertainment industry and the more shadowy forces of Western society is hardly just lunatic conspiracy. Oh, don’t be such a killjoy, you say. Put down the Dan Brown. It’s just a bit of fun. Well, that’s pretty much what Pinocchio thought – until he began to hee-haw.
Take for example billionaire Arnon Milchan, owner of New Regency films and producer of over 130 major Hollywood productions, including titles like Fight Club, The Revenant and Big Momma’s House.
He made the money he now puts into films trading arms for the Israeli government and is frequently spotted sharing photo-ops with Netanyahu. He speaks openly about having negotiated with the apartheid government to secure uranium for Israel’s nukes in exchange for assistance with South Africa’s international PR during times of sanctions. (He also married South African tennis star Amanda Coetzer.)
Nancy Snow, author and expert in public diplomacy, writes that, “Propaganda begins where critical thinking ends,” and that “In an open society, such as the United States, the hidden and integrated nature of the propaganda best convinces people they are not being manipulated.”
This is not new. In the fifties, an entity called the Congress for Cultural Freedom was founded to service the arts across the world. Later, it emerged that the entire project was essentially a CIA front in the cultural Cold War. Its work included placing “respectable” black actors in Hollywood films to polish up the outward appearance of US race relations. It funded literary journals that published left-leaning moderates, including the Ugandan publication Transition, whose contributors included Chinua Achebe and Paul Theroux. It also bankrolled the American abstract expressionist movement as a means of discrediting Soviet social realism.
The eighties saw the dawn of the “Military-Entertainment Complex”, thanks to the convergence of expanding mass media, new thinking about information warfare, and the emergence of children as a market. Growing ties between the military and media saw the creation of an Entertainment Liaison Office in the Pentagon, which manages the use of army equipment and personnel in exchange for advisory input on scripts to ensure portrayal in a satisfactory light.
The big success story of this relationship was the film Top Gun. Having relied heavily on the Navy for apparatus during production, the film ran adverts for enlistment before the film, and recruitment desks were set up outside cinemas. As a direct result, sign-ups increased by 500 percent. Hee-haw.
Snow explains that “White House strategists and Pentagon propagandists use information and imagery as strategic weapons, and they are well aware that the most valuable of those weapons is cheery childhood nostalgia”.
Top Gun may be a favourite of the white male millennial, but if there were ever a film that represented the wish of young Pinocchio-boys to remain in the Elysian Plain of eternal boyhood while inadvertently finding themselves on a slow train to becoming, well, asses, it’s Ghostbusters.
You might think that think that this campy bit of pop culture is just a harmless apolitical romp that gave us a good tune for uncles to goofy-dance to at weddings. But if it really were so innocuous, it wouldn’t have resulted in a targeted Twitter attack on black female actor Leslie Jones so vicious and vitriolic that she felt like she was “in a personal hell”, simply because she dared to trespass on the film’s hallowed ground.
Since the announcement of the 2016 reboot’s all-female cast, the film has been the subject of intense controversy; that is, if you can count the whinging subreddits of mouth-breathing fanboys on the implausibility of female ghostbusters as “controversy”. Because Ghostbusters is, you know, based on a true story.
The thing, though, is that the politics of Ghostbusters is a lot more complicated than issues of race and gender alone. The film is nostalgic not only for a childhood in which Bill Murray reigned supreme as the king of the white beta males, but for the entire cultural assemblage that was its context.
It was released in 1984, on the eve of President Reagan’s second term re-election, and when viewed retrospectively the film reveals itself to be a straightforward, instructive parable of the deregulatory Reaganomics of the time. This is not reaching; when it was awarded the prestige of being the 10th Best Conservative Film of the previous 25 years, director Ivan Reitman commented, “I’ve always been something of a conservative-slash-libertarian. The first movie deals with going into business for yourself, and it’s anti-EPA – too much government regulation.”
Indeed, the plot hinges on the success of a business venture – funded by a third mortgage on the house of Dan Aykroyd’s character, Ray. (At a 19% interest rate, no less.) But of course this is fine because, “Everyone has three mortgages!”. The greatest obstacle to their enterprise comes in the form of a fumbling official named Peck, who persistently makes a nuisance of himself by demanding to know that they aren’t up to anything that could result in environmental disaster. In a prescient fourth wall break, Venkman (Murray) reminds audiences of what’s at stake: “The franchise rights alone will make us rich beyond our wildest dreams!”
Flash forward to 2016. It’s US election time again, and the Ghostbusters are back, only this time they have vaginas, and in a landmark moment for the democratisation of toilet humour, the film wastes no time in making a correlative “queef” joke. (Urban Dictionary will be your friend here.) This time, though, the jump-suited quartet are not out to make a quick dollar; their goal is something a little less tangible.
What they are after is legitimacy for their covert security operation. The success of their story depends on proving the veracity of a mysterious threat to NYC that keeps tapping into subterranean power sources and leaving suspicious devices in the subway. The primary impediments to their work are the bungling politicians who want to play down danger to public safety in order to avoid “mass hysteria”. Abbie (Melissa McCarthy) makes a great suggestion for the wording of their leaflets (“If you see something, say something!”), but they scrap it when they realise it’s been cribbed from a Homeland Security campaign. Oops!
But this is where things get a bit weird. One of the major set pieces of the film involves a secret operation to neutralise strange activity in the backstage labyrinths of a theatre filled with young people enjoying a heavy metal concert. The tension builds as the heavy drumbeat takes on the timbre of gunfire, but finally the Ghostbusters emerge victorious, the threat contained before anyone even knew it was there. It reads as uncomfortable revisionism of the Bataclan massacre in Paris last year. Only, these scenes were shot well before those attacks happened.
Without venturing into full-frontal tin-foil hat conspiracy theory, we can only assume that the writers uncannily intuited vulnerabilities in the Western zeitgeist. Monster movies have always exploited cultural anxieties, like the explosion of mutant creatures in the 1950s, which was in direct response to fears of nuclear fallout.
But such fears are always expressed in conjunction with solutions that suit the ideology of the moment, and in this case the solution seems to be an underground rogue security unit with free reign to use dangerous, experimental weapons technology to shut down a ghostly onslaught. (Do I need to remind you that ghosts aren’t real?)
While the nostalgic jackasses of yester-Busters harken back to the heyday of the free market, hoping to Make America Great Again, these updated ecto-warriors are mascots for a new conservative generation. Their ethos is aligned with the theme of this year’s Republican National Convention, where Donald Trump was announced as nominee and potential future president: Make America Safe Again.
Rather than an exclamation of entrepreneurial foolhardiness, “I ain’t afraid of no ghosts!” has become a triumphalist war cry. Funny though they may be (and they really are), the new Ghostbusters are not feminist heroes. At best, they have managed to proton-blast to smithereens the “No Girls Allowed” sign that once hung over the entrance to Pleasure Island, where there is always room for more donkeys.