Saturday, November 15, 2008
CIA Aesthetics posted by Richard SeymourIt isn't all Jackson Pollock and Encounter, you know:
Not until 1996 did the CIA announce, with little fanfare, that it had established an Entertainment Liaison Office, which would collaborate in a strictly advisory capacity with film-makers. Heading up the office was Chase Brandon, who had served for 25 years in the agency's elite clandestine services division, as an undercover operations officer. A PR man he isn't, though he does have Hollywood connections: he's a cousin of Tommy Lee Jones.
But the past 12 years of semi-acknowledged collaboration were preceded by decades in which the CIA maintained a deep-rooted but invisible influence of Hollywood. How could it be otherwise? As the former CIA man Bob Baer - whose books on his time with the agency were the basis for Syriana - told us: "All these people that run studios - they go to Washington, they hang around with senators, they hang around with CIA directors, and everybody's on board."
There is documentary evidence for his claims. Luigi Luraschi was the head of foreign and domestic censorship for Paramount in the early 1950s. And, it was recently discovered, he was also working for the CIA, sending in reports about how film censorship was being employed to boost the image of the US in movies that would be seen abroad. Luraschi's reports also revealed that he had persuaded several film-makers to plant "negroes" who were "well-dressed" in their movies, to counter Soviet propaganda about poor race relations in the States. The Soviet version was rather nearer the truth.
Luraschi's activities were merely the tip of the iceberg. Graham Greene, for example, disowned the 1958 adapatation of his Vietnam-set novel The Quiet American, describing it as a "propaganda film for America". In the title role, Audie Murphy played not Greene's dangerously ambiguous figure - whose belief in the justice of American foreign policy allows him to ignore the appalling consequences of his actions - but a simple hero. The cynical British journalist, played by Michael Redgrave, is instead the man whose moral compass has gone awry. Greene's American had been based in part on the legendary CIA operative in Vietnam, Colonel Edward Lansdale. How apt, then, that it should have been Lansdale who persuaded director Joseph Mankewiecz to change the script to suit his own ends.
The CIA didn't just offer guidance to film-makers, however. It even offered money. In 1950, the agency bought the rights to George Orwell's Animal Farm, and then funded the 1954 British animated version of the film. Its involvement had long been rumoured, but only in the past decade have those rumours been substantiated, and the tale of the CIA's role told in Daniel Leab's book Orwell Subverted.
The most common way for the CIA to exert influence in Hollywood nowadays is not through anything as direct as funding, or rewriting scripts, but offering to help with matters of verisimilitude. That is done by having serving or former CIA agents acting as advisers on the film, though some might wonder whether there is ever really such a thing a "former agent". As ex-CIA agent Lindsay Moran, the author of Blowing My Cover, has noted, the CIA often calls on former officers to perform tasks for their old employer.