Saturday, May 7, 2016

Annals of Derp: Jonah's MacGuffin Theory

Via Amy Sterling, who's a little worried about Jonah's diet: "heart attack waiting to happen". Seriously, you need to ease up on the brandy and beef suet—and Froot Loops too— and pay some attention to the vegetables.
The derpetology practice here at Rectification Central too often focuses on rebarbative matters like statistics or money or earth science with which your correspondent himself is, to tell the truth, not all that in love or even very familiar. If it's just David Brooks misreading a chart, that's one thing, but frequently we are obliged to deal with the work of real scientists—or economists, which is even worse, imaginary scientists or scientists of the imaginary—and I really have to wonder why I'm working so hard. Can't some qualified person take over?

So it's pretty refreshing when we get Jonah Goldberg turning to film theory, riffing off a 2013 piece by the so-called Ace of Spades, "The MacGuffinization of American Politics".

The Ace's original complaint was the not very original thought that American politics has been turned into entertainment, which he believed had suddenly happened with the election of Barack Obama as president:
Watching Chris Matthews interview Obama, I was struck by just how uninterested in policy questions Matthews (and his panel) were, and how almost every question seemed to be, at heart, about Obama's emotional response to difficulties-- not about policy itself, but about Obama's Hero's Journey in navigating the plot of President Barack Obama: The Movie.
He was wrong, of course, in the sense that 
  1. Politics in the US became entertainment in the first quarter of the 19th century, from Parson Weems's "biography" of George Washington through the emergence of General Andrew Jackson, the hero of the Battle of New Orleans, as the nation's most important politician (on the experience basis of ten months in the House of Representatives in 1796-97 and about half a term total in the Senate, seven months in 1797-98 and two and a half years mostly spent campaigning for the presidency in 1823-25);
  2. Obama is not, contrary to Mr. Of Spades's hints, a collaborator in the process, which is why the press regards him as such a cold fish and running the "most closed, most control freak administration" David Sanger has ever covered (the one other administration he's covered being that of George W. Bush, who was delighted to help the reporters make it all about his journey, since he didn't know how to talk about policy, which is the only thing Obama wants to talk about, but alas the only mass-market journalists willing to talk with him about it are Tom Friedman and Jeffrey Goldberg).
If Jonah ever grows up he's going to look like Sydney Greenstreet.
Anyway, the trope he chose was that of Alfred Hitchcock's concept of the MacGuffin—the object that represents the dramatic stakes in a thriller, like Mr. Memory with the secret warplane design in his head in The Thirty-Nine Steps. For Hitchcock, it didn't really matter what this object was, as long as the audience was willing to accept its importance to the protagonist, to the point where he wanted to see if he could reduce it to a void, just as a pure aesthetic challenge; as he told François Truffaut in the famous 1962 interview,
The main thing I’ve learned over the years is that the MacGuffin is nothing. I’m convinced of this, but I find it very difficult to prove it to others. My best MacGuffin, and by that I mean the emptiest, the most nonexistent, and the most absurd, is the one we used in North by Northwest. The picture is about espionage, and the only question that’s raised in the story is to find out what the spies are after. Well, during the scene at the Chicago airport, the Central Intelligence man explains the whole situation to Cary Grant, and Grant, referring to the James Mason character, asks, “What does he do?”  The counterintelligence man replies, “Let’s just say that he’s an importer and exporter.” “But what does he sell?” “Oh, just government secrets!” is the answer. Here, you see, the MacGuffin has been boiled down to its purest expression: nothing at all! (via Open Culture)
So, Goldberg writes,
The Maltese Falcon in The Maltese Falcon, the Ark in Raiders of the Lost Ark, the daughter in Taken: These are all classic MacGuffins. Alfred Hitchcock apparently [my bold; it's enchanting how he doesn't seem to realize he could find out whether Hitchcock did it or not] argued that it doesn’t really matter what the MacGuffin is, so long as the hero wants or needs it and it sounds important enough to justify the hero’s efforts. In Mission: Impossible III, we don’t even find out what the MacGuffin is, beyond being something very dangerous called “the Rabbit’s Foot.”
Ace’s insight was that the mainstream media covers Barack Obama as if he were the hero in a movie (with Republicans as the villains, of course). Whatever Obama wants — Obamacare, unconstitutional immigrant amnesty, the stimulus, a deal with Iran — isn’t important to a worshipful press corps. Whether policies are good or bad, lawful or unlawful, is kind of irrelevant. What matters is that the hero wants something.
Which is not the case, I think, and not just because, as Yves Lavandier has apparently argued on persuasive evidence, the MacGuffin is less something the hero wants than something with a secret value that motivates the villains (the Cary Grant character has no interest in the MacGuffin of North by Northwest, for instance). You can see where he's going wrong with that third example in the first sentence: the Liam Neeson character's daughter in Taken (2009) isn't a MacGuffin, she's the man's daughter. And she's Maggie Grace, you know. She's an intrinsic part of the drama, she's a star.

Taken is the opposite of a MacGuffin movie, in fact; it's a movie about sex trafficking, and the makers don't trust their audience to take it seriously, so they raise the stakes: Well what if it was a white girl? What if it was your own daughter? What if it was your own daughter, and you weren't connecting with her very well because her bitchy resentful mother had custody, and her mother's new husband had a lot more money than you do, and the one thing you could do for her that her stepfather couldn't do was to help her get a start in the music business and you were being all awkward and uncool about it at the very moment when she was about to get kidnaped by Albanians? A-and there's a ticking-clock scenario where you have to find her in 96 hours? Would you care about sex trafficking then?

Because thrillers aren't human dramas with a pretext any more; they're pretext dramas that the filmmakers work to humanize, as a way of manipulating the audience into giving a shit. Instead of MacGuffins, they've got those damn clocks, which are as unlike MacGuffins as they could well be.*

Wow, ain't I the old curmudgeon?

But the whole Hollywoodization-of-politics issue has a lot in common with this revolting development: the producers and writers at Fox and CNN and MSNBC don't trust their audiences to care about the subjects of the news, so they build in human drama into the discussion, and the ticking bomb is election night. Want to talk about Obamacare as policy? It's what the alleged humorist P.J. O'Rourke used to refer to as MEGO (My Eyes Glaze Over). So they'll talk instead about whether it "helps" or "hurts" the president in his approval numbers, based on what the public knows about it, which is basically whether CNN thinks they like it or not. "Just saw Wolf Blitzer telling me I don't like Obamacare, so I guess I don't like it! I mean, he knows better than me, right? What's for lunch?"

To Jonah, on the other hand, the news is a kind of conspiracy, not to make Obama's policy achievements look unimportant, but rather to give them a significance that is entirely derived not from what they do for America but rather from how they play in Obama's personal story. In other words the subject matter in this movie really is the policy, and the Obama drama is the irrelevant MacGuffin used to heighten its power.

Which he slips into saying quite explicitly when he gets to applying the theory to Donald Trump:
Trump bulldozed his way through the primaries in part because the nomination was his MacGuffin and people wanted to see the movie play out. Many voters, and nearly the entire press corps, got caught up in the story of Trump — much the same way the press became obsessed with the “mythic” story of Obama in 2008. People just wanted to see what happened next.
The funny thing being that the Trump campaign really is a semi-scripted drama—growing with Trump the celebrity out of roots in reality TV and professional wrestling—equipped with classic MacGuffins, in particular that Wall that's going to Make America Great Again, a concept that can't bear any more critical scrutiny than John Huston's silly-looking falcon statuette. Jonah can't see it because he himself has turned it upside down; hidden it under the cup in his own three-card monte game.

Because—that's the other thing—what he's trying to accuse somebody or other of, the "entire press corps" I guess, meaning those parts of the mass media not owned by Rupert Murdoch, is fairly precisely what the conservative press has been doing for the last 40 years or so, Jonah among the most notable recent exponents. The subject matter really is policy, and the way they can't talk about it to the masses, whether because the masses aren't smart enough (their view) or because their policy ideas are incoherent gobbledegook and undisguisable greed (my view), in a series of increasingly outrageous MacGuffins from the T-bone–chomping young bucks on welfare of the 1970s to the birth-control–abusing sluts and transvestite Peeping Toms of the present, pretending to be "issues" about which something has to be done.

Can't explain why you want to have a war in Mesopotamia? Personalize it with Saddam Hussein and his eruption into George W. Bush's family life ("He tried to kill my dad!"). Can't explain why the economy collapsed under your watch? Must be those black people thinking they have a right to live in houses. Unable to justify your opposition to the inheritance tax? Call it the "death tax" and mumble about imaginary family farms getting broken up to satisfy the rapacious authorities. Unable to say why you're against universal health insurance? It's because you don't want that non-Christian and possibly altogether foreign president to score a point in his own drama—we'll come up with an American way of doing it, just as soon as you voters get rid of him. Unable to clarify what it is you oppose in a lousy $2-billion program (less than half the cost of one single unflyable F-35!) to retrain people for an alternative to the factory jobs lost to globalization and the end of coal as an economically viable business and so on? Tell them coal was unjustly murdered by Colonel Mustard, in the office, with a ball-point pen, and all those white people started getting divorced and abusing opiates so that what they need isn't money but a community reweaving.

And so on. What the mass media in general do may be pretty disgusting, but it isn't the "MacGuffinization" of US politics; that's a conservative operation, pure and simple, and if they've trained their audience to take those MacGuffins seriously so well that it's ended in Donald Trump, and the end of the Republican party as a policy organ, they've got nobody to blame but themselves.

Really? And what exactly is Maltese about it? $99 from eBay.
*Hitchcock knew all about bombs and clocks, too, as you'd assume, and discussed them in the Truffaut interviews in analyzing the nature of suspense:
The bomb is underneath the table and the public knows it, probably because they have seen the anarchist place it there. The public is aware that the bomb is going to explode at one o’clock, and there is a clock in the decor. The public can see that it is a quarter to one. In these conditions this innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene.
But when he uses a time bomb in a film, as in Sabotage (1936), it's for itself, not for superfluous tension; rather than saving it to be defused at the last minute of act 3 to make the hero look more heroic in the dénouement, he blows it up in act 2 to kill one of the characters. (And the lovely MacGuffin is the birdcage used by a posse of terrorists whose origins and aims are never even really hinted at; they're just some nameless kind of malicious foreigners.)

No comments:

Post a Comment