Washington and Hollywood have always enjoyed a symbiotic relationship, with politicians looking westward for borrowed glamour and contributions, and the movie industry coming here for reflected gravitas and policy bona fides. But these days, the two cities share something else. Both are fear-based cultures whose once-invincible leaders are facing radical changes and imminent extinction.
And they’re coping with those threats, to use Gloria Steinem’s famous phrase, with massive cases of self-induced testosterone poisoning.
Facing diminishing domestic movie attendance, sliding DVD revenue and expanding international markets, Hollywood — never a courageous place — has become more risk-averse than ever. Few scripts are approved these days without big, fat valentines to a fanatic (the term of art is “pre-sold”) audience, like comic-book fans or video gamers. With foreign markets now accounting for up to two-thirds of a film’s revenue, dialogue is likely to consist of one or two catchphrases, with the bulk of communication occurring through gunplay, fireballs and car stunts that are understandable in any language. This summer has featured particularly bombastic examples of that formula.
Even with recent hits like “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” and “Bridesmaids” — proving that grown-ups and women of all ages still go to movies — studio executives still cater to 14-year-old boys in their summer programming. But that strategy has proved wobbly, as bro-dacious spectacles like “White House Down,” “The Lone Ranger” and “The Hangover Part III” have gone limp at the box office. (The industry was reportedly gobsmacked when “The Heat,” a raunchy action comedy starring Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy, turned out to be a sleeper hit.)
For their part, politicians these days are also threatened, either by demographic shifts, primary challenges or their own self-destructive tendencies. Their rhetorical arms race, whether born of strategy or egomania, keeps escalating. But who’s buying their lines? “Quit isn’t the way we roll in New York City,” the chronically clueless — and thoroughly unconvincing — Weiner said in his new campaign videoTuesday. “We fight through tough things. We’re a tough city.”
Stig Stigman, meet Carlos Danger.
Whether it’s Wahlberg winking and blasting his way through “2 Guns” or Weiner arrogantly identifying himself with the city he seeks to lead (and that will surely reject him), both share an air of impunity that, to a far more troubling extent, suffuses the chilling documentary “The Act of Killing,” currently playing at the E Street Cinema. In the film, Joshua Oppenheimer interviews an Indonesian death squad leader named Anwar Congo, who reenacts the murders he committed in the 1960s as scenes from the pulp movies he idolized. Congo is so immersed in his own narcissistic myth that he’s incapable of seeing the moral implications of his actions, which included torture, garroting and mass murders.
It’s not difficult to imagine Congo watching “2 Guns” and eagerly imitating Wahlberg and Washington’s bravado, just as he’d almost certainly approve of — and maybe recognize himself in — Weiner’s perverse, self-justifying defiance.
To chalk up all this shootin’ and shoutin’ and brawlin’ and braggin’ simply to male ego would be glibly reductive, of course: Let it be noted, women buy plenty of tickets to these movies, too. But it’s hard to believe that our current outbreak of testosterone poisoning — cinematic and political — isn’t compensating for deeper insecurities.
While studio executives desperately try to stay relevant by reverting to stereotypical male iconography, their counterparts on the political stage affect comical airs of cocky self-assurance and quien-es-mas-macho theatrics.
What the drama kings from both professions fail to realize is that their efforts are less studly than sad. They’re trying so hard to impersonate real men. But the more they strut and fret, the more they look like the scared little boys of summer.