Tales from the Lunatic Lantern: Gaming and China Edition
Those of us with a fondness for retro gaming and summer blockbusters were all a twitter (both figuratively and literally) when it was announced that Columbia were going to release a film about giant, 80s style alien monsters intent upon taking over the world. The resulting flick – “Pixels” – involves actual “Space Invaders” in full 8 bit graphic glory taking out cities, a thousand gamer “in” jokes, and enough pseudo-nostalgia to potentially make an awesome nerd taco of pop culture references. Unfortunately, it also stars Adam Sandler, thereby stripping away the hope that it would be anything other than abysmal – and so it proved to be.
Casting issues aside, what makes this movie of interest to the geopol crowd is not what is in the film but what is not in it, or to be more precise, what was taken out. Over on Gizmodo, Madie Stone has penned an interesting article about the influence of the Chinese state censors on US film production, and in particular the delicate sensibilities of the CCP when it comes to foreign portrayals of just about ANYTHING to do with China. Detailing information leaked during the Sony hacks of recent memory, Stone shows how much effort US movie studios are willing to make to “sanitize” scripts in order to ensure access to the world’s 2nd largest film market.
I find this topic increasingly significant for a couple of reasons. First, because this story demonstrates the intersection of disparate geopol with popular geopol, as hackers dump reams of data onto the net, thereby making such stories possible to research and analyze, and secondly because I wrote about this exact phenomenon a couple of years ago. At the time, the issue was with two major blockbusters; The Avengers and World War Z. I penned the following article because I was interested in looking at the geopolitics inherent in film production, rather than with the endless discursive analysis of film that was all the rage at the time – and still is, for that matter. I am reposting my previous piece below as it is clear that this is a topic that is only going to become more engaging as time goes by. Clearly, more and more people are beginning to look at not only the nature of popular geopolitical narratives embodied within film, but also the applied geopolitics at work within the film industry. Enjoy!
During the collective insanity that gripped the United States in the late 1940s and 50s, political agitators and right wing demagogues alike created the specter of a sinister, lurking boogeyman poised to overthrow civilization as we knew it. The “Red Scare” of insidious communism – literally posited as “reds under the bed” – swept throughout the political narrative of the post war landscape, as well as Cold War international relations. The poster child, and some would say architect, of this paranoia was Senator Joseph McCarthy (R-Wisconsin) who managed through sheer strength of personality and calculated populism to bring this specter to the forefront of the national dialog. The term “McCarthyism” has since come to encapsulate the notion of ideological determination, combined with a blinkered perspective, ad hominem attacks, and a willingness to ignore reality when it does not fit into your chosen narrative. At the time, however, the hysteria whipped up was all too real, and had numerous real world effects – particularly here in Los Angeles, in regards to the film industry.
By the time that McCarthyism was in full swing in the early 50s, Hollywood had become a center of attention in an effort to root out what Walt Disney described as “subtle communist touches” in the film industry. Many people know about the famous “Hollywood Ten” blacklist of suspected communists, but by 1950, the “Red Channels” list included 151 major industry players, including Orson Wells, Arthur Miller, and even Gypsy Rose Lee (presumably because her duel roles as a “communist sympathizer” and a burlesque dancer posed a double threat to the morals of the nation). In essence, the fear being exploited by McCarthy was the notion that popular media (as represented by Hollywood) had a strong influence on the development of public opinion, and that the “commies” were poised to exploit this to their advantage – a kind of subliminal fifth column for the “Fourth International.”
Flash forward 60 years, and the situation in Hollywood is very different. The movie industry is a powerhouse of the globalized world, and often posited as a prime example of American “Cultural Imperialism.” Combined, the six major US studios captured 64% of global ticket sales in 2012, bringing in a total of $ 22 billion in income. Literally hundreds of millions of people went to the cinema and consumed their own little slice of Americana, all over the world. By that measure, McCarthy was on to something – he just had the flow of influence backwards.
The difference between Hollywood then and Hollywood now is that McCarthy suspected outside influence where there was none, while today the industry openly acknowledges that foreign entities influence the production and content of the movies produced. The number one film in both the US and China currently is Iron Man 3, starring Robert Downy Jr. as Tony Stark— metal clad super-hero and quintessential Neo-Liberal American entrepreneur. However, the version you see in Los Angeles is different from the one you see in Beijing. In an effort to appease Chinese authorities, Foreign Policy’s Suzanne Nossel points out that the Beijing version has additional modified footage (including a special Chinese scene for domestic consumers), product placements for Chinese goods, and the villain of the piece has been renamed from “the Mandarin” (offensive to Chinese sensibilities) to “Man Daren” or “Big Man” in Chinese. These changes could be viewed as attempts to selectively market to a distinct target audience (China overtook Japan as the single largest foreign market for US films in 2012), if it were not for the fact that they demonstrate what Nossel describes as the “meddling hand of the Chinese censor.” As such, you could view the censor’s heavy hand as a sort of homegrown Chinese McCarthyism.
There are more direct influences on US productions though. Originally scheduled for release last December, the upcoming Brad Pitt blockbuster World War Z has been delayed for 6 months in order to re-shoot a number of scenes. This arose because of objections from the Chinese government over significant plot elements in the storyline, including the idea that the zombie outbreak (on which the film is based) originated in China. This is not the first major film to treat the Chinese hinterland as a source of worldwide pandemic – 2011’s Contagion starring Jude Law and Kate Winslet also used rural China as the birthplace of a plague. It is not hard to see why China is unimpressed with that sort of publicity, especially after the negative worldwide attention that revolved around the Asian Bird Flu and H1N1 outbreaks of recent memory. However, the difference between Iron Man 3 and World War Z is that in the latter case there will only be one version of the finished product available for your viewing pleasure– the Chinese censor-approved version.
To be clear, this kind of influence is not the insidious creeping boogeyman of McCarthy’s paranoid delusions. Los Angeles’s homegrown industry is quite open about the effects of market forces, the need to sell and succeed in major markets such as China, and the desire to collaborate with national entities. In another Iron Man-related movie, this year’s Avengers superhero spectacular also had some interesting international relations related issues, but of a distinctly domestic nature. Specifically, the US military withdrew their technical assistance from the production due to the unspecified nature of SHIELD — the shadowy international power hierarchy that controls the actions of a quasi UN-like military force. Apparently, the implication that US troops might somehow fall under the command of a non-US military command structure —even in a comic book adaptation —was simply not acceptable. This was a pity really, as the other major movie that came out at the same time, Battleship, had full US military cooperation but still turned out to be a terrible film. Political considerations do not appear to be very good at backing a winner, alas.
As we look forward over the next few years it is clear that China as a consumer market will exert ever-greater influence over film production. Hollywood will continue to do what it does best—namely, make expensive blockbusters that reel in billions of dollars from across the globe. How much the impositions of foreign censorship will affect the freedom of expression we take for granted is unknown, but it is worth taking note of. The Chinese Communist Party structure and its efficient, dedicated, and ever-present censors have established that they have a role to play in what we consider to be a distinctly US industry. But instead of imaginary “reds under the bed,” in this case, the pressure being excerpted is quite openly done while sitting at the writer’s table.
All facts/figures taken from Foreign Policy, The Guardian, BBC, and ScreenRant.com.