Business is bad in Hollywood, and I'm not talking about the box office receipts. Businesspeople have been portrayed as bad guys in movies for the past several decades. When an audience member asked about this trend during the "Liberty in Film" panel at the Anthem Libertarian Film Festival last month, Hollywood biographer and insider Marc Eliot dismissed it with a wave of his hand. "It's just a shortcut," he explained. "When you see a businessman on the screen, you know it's the villain. It just streamlines the story."
As moderator of the panel, I agreed with him that these shortcuts are probably not intentionally sinister; in fact, the technique goes all the way back to Aesop, who used them in his fables. "If a character was a dog, you knew he would be loyal," I acknowledged. "A fox would be cunning. A crow would steal. In the old days," I went on, "a black hat meant 'bad guy' and a white hat meant 'good guy.' But shortcuts are dangerous and unfair when we're talking about whole groups of people." I specifically referenced the "shortcuts" of earlier generations of filmmakers: blacks were clowns; Indians were ferocious; women were weak. I suggested the danger of having a new generation automatically think "villain" when it sees a businessperson. The problem is that these characters often mirror and perpetuate basic prejudices within a culture. Onscreen stereotypes lead to real-life prejudices.
Panelist Gary Alexander added this biting criticism: "Using shortcuts is just plain lazy." It's true that filmmakers have always used stock characters as shortcuts to storytelling, and they probably always will. But that doesn't mean we have to accept them.
The silver lining to this clouded silver screen is that these shortcuts can be changed. The challenge for filmmakers is to break away from them and create independent characters who can surprise and satisfy. Just as filmmakers of the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s deliberately challenged black and female stereotypes by casting against type and writing untraditional storylines, so libertarian filmmakers today need to write screenplays that challenge and overturn the stock business villain. These characters need to be portrayed in the rich, three-dimensional diversity that exists in the real world, where some business people are admittedly bad but others are surprisingly (to filmgoers) good.
What a reversal of stereotypical shortcuts! A businesswoman who expresses the proper role of business, and a burglar who reveals her petty jealousies.
This actually happens in The Dark Knight Rises, the latest entry in the Batman franchise. It's subtle, but it's clear: although there are some bad businesspeople in the film, there are just as many good ones, smashing the stereotype and insisting that viewers look past their stock expectations. For example, when Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) discovers that his homes for at-risk and orphaned boys have not been funded for two years, he confronts his trusted friend and protector, Alfred. "The homes were funded by profits from Wayne Industries," Alfred sadly explains. "There have to be some." That’s a reminder to Bruce, who has been in a deep funk since his girlfriend died, that his neglect of his company has had wide-ranging effects. Bruce — and the audience — are thus informed that "excess profits" are a good thing. They can be used for doing good works, if that is the business owner's goal.
Similarly, in another brief interchange the audience is told that everyone is affected by the stock market, whether they own stocks or not. I don't think I'm giving away too much to tell you that, early in the film, the bad guys break into the stock exchange. The chief of police is unconcerned about the consequences of a financial meltdown, arguing that the average person saves his money under a mattress and doesn't care about what happens to the stock market. The head of the exchange tells him, "If this money disappears, your mattress will be worth a lot less." A simple truth, simply stated.
Later, Bruce Wayne teams up with Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard), the head of another corporation, and she voices similar truths about the free market. "You have to invest to restore balance to the world," she tells him, acknowledging the importance of capital investment and private enterprise. And when he looks around at a lavish business party she is hosting, she tells him, "The proceeds will go wherever I want, because I paid for the spread myself." Even Ayn Rand would likely approve this self-interested heroine who understands the value of business.
Meanwhile, Catwoman (Anne Hathaway), one of Batman's archenemies, looks around at Bruce Wayne's huge estate and growls jealously, "You're going to wonder how you could live so large and leave so little for the rest of us." What a reversal of stereotypical shortcuts! A businesswoman who expresses the proper role of business, and a burglar who reveals her petty jealousies. Bravo, Christopher Nolan!
Cinematically The Dark Knight Rises delivers all that was promised in the weeks and months building up to its release. Christian Bale's troubled Bruce Wayne lifts the character far above the comic book hero created by Bob Kane and trivialized by the Adam West TV series in the ’60s. Gone, too, is the sardonic humor injected by George Clooney's portrayal in the ’80s. This Batman is a reluctant savior of a world that has largely misunderstood and rejected him. While he has a few ardent supporters, most consider him a traitor and want him destroyed. He is briefly tempted away from his mission by the love of a woman. He suffers indescribable agony in a dark prison at the hands of a monstrous villain named Bane (Tom Hardy) — the "bane" who wants to destroy the world. Despite his reluctance, Bruce accepts his arduous task. In short, he is a classic Christ figure, adding gravitas to the modern myth of Batman. He even says at one point, "My father's work is done."
I had to display the contents of my purse to a uniformed employee before entering the theater. I hope that a TSA-style Movie Safety Authority does not take over our malls and movie theaters.
But while the characters are rich and well acted, the story is interesting, Hans Zimmer's musical score is powerfully compelling, and the final hour is particularly thrilling, it was difficult to watch this film. Action movies have always provided an opportunity to enter another world, suspend one's disbelief, enjoy vicarious experience, then step back into the real world where "things like that" don't really happen. But in light of what did happen in Aurora, Colorado on opening night, I found it almost impossible to separate myself from the barrage of onscreen shooting in the first half hour of the film. It seemed devastatingly real because I knew it was during this scene of heartless shooting in a very public location that the actual shooting began. I was almost ashamed to be there, seeking a few hours' entertainment from a film that was the unwitting stage for such terror.
I also found myself looking around the aisles and corners of the theater, watching for suspicious characters and devising an escape plan. This was partly because I had to display the contents of my purse to a uniformed employee before entering the theater. I hope that fears like this dissipate for everyone. And I hope that a TSA-style MSA (Movie Safety Authority) does not take over our malls and movie theaters.
Spoiler alert — read the next paragraph only if you have already seen this movie, or if you have no intention of ever seeing it:
The film ends with an "aha" moment that is so thrillingly unexpected that, when I saw it, the entire audience gasped in disbelief. But I should have known from the beginning. Marc Eliot explained it to us in the “Liberty in Film” panel, and he was right: Hollywood uses shortcuts to tell us who the bad guy is. Even when a writer-director is planning the most delicious of twists for the end, he is helpless against his own Hollywood instincts. Nolan telegraphed it from the start: In modern movies, the business owner is always the bad guy. Even when you least expect it.