The Loneliest Jukebox

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Monday, February 27, 2012

Another Fiennes Mess...

Academics in cultural studies have long resisted seeing cultural products, or ‘texts’, as mere epiphenomena of the process by which the economic surplus is transferred from the producers to their exploiters – class war. Sometimes the Cultural Studies 'field' has searched popular culture for signs of ‘resistance’ while in a parallel development, often expressing a problematic relationship between Cultural Studies and earlier forms of ‘ideology critique’, critics of the culture industries have long presented institutions like the Hollywood movie or the paperback thriller as vehicles for promoting and reinforcing reactionary beliefs and capitalist hegemony.

Sometimes a popular narrative will intersect with underlying economic realities and generate a moment of clarity as to the state of politics. Killer Elite (Gary McKendry, 2011) is an action movie adapted from The Feather Men (Fiennes, 1991). Set in 1980, it shows mercenaries hired to and coerced into assassinating current or former members of the Special Air Service (SAS). Danny Bryce (Jason Statham) and his comrades target individuals who are selected because of their work as 'military advisors' in 1970s Oman, particularly the Battle of Mirbat. Throughout the film – an unexceptional genre flick if not for the presence of thespian heavyweight Robert de Niro – a shadowy cabal plots to protect the lifelong interests of the entire Regiment and prolong its benefits spun off from 1970s counterinsurgency in the Arabian Gulf.

As a snapshot of significant attitudes accompanying three decades of class war, the various incarnations of The Feather Men can act as a set of map references for changing reputations. In its ‘factional’ 1980 setting, the story coincides with a period of British patriotism, stretching from 1945 into the Cold War. 1980 was also a year when the SAS enjoyed enormous prestige, following its intervention in the siege of the Iranian embassy in London; within two years Margaret Thatcher’s conservative government was injecting militarism into domestic politics and industrial relations – the so-called Falklands Factor. By 1991, when Bloomsbury published the ‘true adventure’ in hardback, SAS-based merchandising was a lucrative commercial activity, eventually prompting the publication of Who Cares Who Wins (1996), an illustrated spoof of such authors as Chris Ryan and Andy McNab. Fiennes prompted controversy by representing real people as caught up in events of questionable veracity. ‘Many events Fiennes describes simply never took place. Frankly, it's just another example of the Special Forces' reputation being exploited for commercial gain,’ a Ministry of Defence source told the Daily Telegraph.

If 1991 saw tensions between patriotism and commerce, rising it was also a time when UK-PLC was seeking closer integration with what was then the European Community. Elsewhere, the reputation of nationalism per se was increasingly tarnished, identified more closely with desperate territorial conflicts in the east than with once-prestigious national liberation struggles in Africa and South-East Asia (of the sort Special Forces were frequently deployed in). The Feather Men was published against the backdrop of Cold War certainties coming apart.

Cut to 2011, and a version of The Feather Men is on general release as Killer Elite. This reworking of the source material - whose long-ish timeframe is compressed into a single year - also indicates key changes in the ideological landscape. The feature film turns the SAS from protagonists into targeted victims; it strips the assassins of their geopolitical motives by recasting them as Anglophone mercenaries. Tellingly, it portrays British intelligence agents as oil-grabbing snobs supporting the vengeful Sheikh and retired SAS men forming an almost untouchable shadow government. In keeping with a contemporary cliché, the unacceptable face of capitalism is the shadowy backroom conspiracy. Cultural representations of the capitalist class hinge on it plotting by committee while finding time to betray ordinary Joes like Spike Logan (Clive Owen), invalided out of the Regiment and acting as an enforcer for the Feather Men.

No more heroes...

PS. One additional change from book to film is that the primary antagonist is no longer a Dubai Sheikh – perhaps for reasons I will be considering in the future.

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Friday, February 17, 2012


Over at the WalkerFox Blog, I share some thoughts on the Smart House, fuelled by Davin Heckman's book A Small World. Let's build!

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