Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Reading through the Buzz

When I first saw the headline for Michael Cieply's story in today's New York Times, "‘The Kingdom’ Gambles That Entertainment Can Trump Politics," I was pretty sure that the article was not going to have anything to do with Lars von Trier or, for that matter, Stephen King's effort to migrate von Trier's loopy tale of old ghosts in a new hospital building from Denmark to Maine. (I was hopelessly addicted to both of these exercises. I particularly liked the way King could pick up on von Trier's ludic antics while always keeping them subtle, as in his self-and-other-referential naming of one of his nurses "Carrie von Trier!") For better or worse, however, the closest that the Kingdom in Mr. Cieply's article gets to these predecessors is that director Peter Berg played Dr. Billy Kronk in Chicago Hope. This particular "kingdom" is Saudi Arabia; and, as Mr. Cieply describes it, the film is "about the F.B.I.’s pursuit of Islamic bad guys in a not particularly hospitable Saudi Arabia."

Mr. Cieply's article is as much about test screenings and focus groups as it is about the film itself. What most interested me was the extent to which his story became one about accuracy (or perhaps I should say "the appearance of accuracy") in content. Even though they are buried in the center of a rather extended piece of writing, for me, at least, these were the paragraphs that cut to the heart of the matter:

Initially several Saudis were retained to provide cultural advice, though one, Mr. Berg said, was distanced from the project after he developed a crush on Ms. Garner. Rich Klein of the Kissinger McLarty Associates consulting firm was a key political adviser.

“It became an exercise in honesty,” said Mr. Klein, a former State Department official who patrolled matters as small as the styling of the characters’ thobes — long-sleeved Saudi robes — or the likely back-story of an American diplomat played by Jeremy Piven.

The Saudi embassy’s press office in Washington did not respond to queries about the film.

The first sentence is just pure irony, the sort of thing you would find in just about any attempt to parody Hollywood-as-business. However, Rich Klein is the "hero" of the mini-narrative embedded in these paragraphs. The idea of a member of Henry Kissinger's consulting firm talking to the press about "an exercise in honesty" is, for me at least, right up there with those representatives of the tobacco industry delivering their straight-faced declarations that cigarettes have nothing to do with cancer. One can hardly be surprised that the Saudi's are trying to distance themselves from this project as much as Mr. Berg distanced himself from his own star-struck Saudi!

Will all this amount to anything? Will The Kingdom really turn out to demonstrate, as the Times headline is suggesting, "that entertainment can trump politics?" Ultimately it will all boil down to how entertaining the movie turns out to be, once the marketing folks are done with their focus groups, test screenings, and other "instruments." After all, politics, itself, has always been a source of entertainment; but it is beginning to look like the people who matter most (who, as anyone familiar with Hollywood-as-business knows, are the people who determine the box office numbers on the weekend when the film is released) are beginning to tire of politics-as-entertainment. Who can blame them? An overcrowded field of Tweedledees and Tweedledums scrambling for the White House with the support of an equally overcrowded field of "Sabbath-day gasbags" (thank you, again, Calvin Trillin) have pretty much sucked the life out of the entertainment factor. On that weekend of release, I doubt that very many ticket-buyers will be thinking about Saudi Arabia. They just want to know if they are going to see a good cop movie; and they have enough unhappy experience to know enough not to rely on any "surge" of buzz aimed at which ticket they choose to buy.

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