Thursday, January 3, 2013

Let's Assume "Promised Land" Is As Terrible As I Think It Is

Yeah, I haven't seen it, but I feel pretty comfortable making a preliminary judgment right now, based on this trailer, and on its Rotten Tomatoes rating, and on the fact that John Krasinski's character's name is - I swear this is true - "Dustin Noble." I'm going to assume he plays a good guy, and he does that Zach-Braff-without-the-soundtrack thing he always does. I'm going to assume Matt Damon will be ruggedly anguished. I'm going to assume he will learn a lesson by the end, and it will be something about the evil of fracking and the importance of community. So will we all. Even if it kills us.

But I believe this movie sucks in an important way. Follow me here.

Why is it annoying when movie people lecture us, on talk shows and in speeches, and in deadly dull (ALLEGEDLY!) message-heavy films? Because we don't take movie people seriously. I don't expect Matt Damon to tell me about the environment. I expect him to beat people up to show the hurt he's feeling. We just want actors to provide an hour or two of entertainment for a small fee.

That is a ridiculously simple economic deal, right? I commit money and an evening. And the filmmakers get rewarded or punished depending on whether I'm satisfied, because I'm going to tell people afterwards (And I haven't seen it - I want to emphasize that. But if you can watch that trailer and continue thinking it won't be bad, you simply don't have a functioning nervous system).

We don't really respect the people involved, because the transaction is free of heavy consequences. But when conservatives talk about the capitalist system, this kind of Candyland world is exactly what they're describing. Two economic actors trading money for goods and services freely and willingly. The market rewards success. Satisfaction matters.  It is not from the benevolence of the producers that we expect a car chase and side boob, but from their regard to their own interest. In Hollywood, maybe. In the real world things are different.

In the real world, Matt Damon could help make a movie so cruddy it might kill you or give you a crippling illness. It might give your kid birth defects.

In the real world, Matt Damon might decide to star in something so awful it nearly destroys the entire industry. Matt Damon's mistake could cause an economic meltdown that affects businesses who had nothing to do with him. These folks certainly didn't want to greenlight something where he didn't kill people using his bare hands and wicked-looking martial arts, because that would be stupid.

In the real world a production like Promised Land could actually ruin the ecosystem of an entire region of the country. It could have long-term environmental impacts that might even threaten our civilization. Even Gigli didn't do that, although I am a skeptic about some of the data.

My point is that conservatives want us to look at transactions throughout our economic system in exactly the same kind of simplistic way we look at ordering up a festival of shame on Netflix. But we know that isn't the way it really happens. We know that there are many, many industries which can do damage to all kinds of people far beyond the ability of the free market to punish or disincentivize this behavior. Some of those people - many of them - didn't even know they were in the blast radius. And that's why regulation is not the enemy. That's why regulation is necessary. Conservatives are going to spend the next year or two or ten arguing that government should "just get out of the way," and "let markets do what they do best."

Don't believe it. It is pure popcorn fantasy.
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