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Hollywood’s intellectual void behind its critical façade

Ideas@TheCentre – The CIS newsletter (Sydney), 20 November 2009

Don’t say people weren’t able to learn from history. As British writer Salman Rushdie is celebrating the 20th anniversary of the publication of ‘The Satanic Verses’ in hiding, others have drawn their own conclusions from his unfortunate clash with radical Islam.

In his new disaster movie ‘2012’, Hollywood director Roland Emmerich is having a jolly good time at destroying the planet once more. After practicing in his previous films ‘Independence Day’, ‘Godzilla’ and the Al Gore inspired ‘The Day after Tomorrow’, Emmerich now goes for complete Armageddon and brings the whole world to an end.

The whole world? Well, not quite. Emmerich and his team may have had much fun with computer generated earthquakes in L.A., letting super volcanoes erupt in Yellowstone Nation Park and destroying the Vatican including St Peter’s Basilica. But viewers will wait for similar scenes from Arab countries or Muslim sites of worship in vain.

As Roland Emmerich clarified, this was by no means a coincidence. In an interview he revealed that he thought about a scene in which the Ka’aba in Mecca was blown up. “But my co-writer Harald said, ‘I will not have a fatwa on my head because of a movie.’”, Emmerich explained. “And he was right.”

Well, was he? Or was he just a bit cowardly?

In any case, it is quite telling to see which enemies Hollywood likes to attack. It is perfectly safe to destroy the White House. Western politicians are usually depicted as corrupt and criminal. From Charlie Chaplin’s ‘Modern Times’ to Julia Roberts’ ‘Erin Brockovich’, capitalism and big business have always been shown as evil. More recently, the idea of environmentalism has become firmly entrenched in fictitious movies such as ‘Syriana’ or ‘An Incovenient Truth’.

Moviemakers love to be praised for their courage when they take on the alleged failings of capitalism, democracy and Western lifestyle. In fact, directors like Michael Moore made a living out of this genre.

But the way that Hollywood deals, or rather fails to deal, with the threat of radical Islam shows that there is not much actual courage involved in the production of movies these days. Directors like Emmerich are not actually in the business of provoking thought. Instead, they are just entertaining the masses by telling them things they like to hear.

Some would call this entertainment. And maybe that’s all that movies can claim to be about.

That’s also the other difference to Salman Rushdie’s books.

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