Book Talk: “Magical Thinking, Fantastic Film, and the Illusions of Neoliberalism” by Michael J. Blouin

blouinIt’s a little unsettling for me to come across other books that are eerily close to my own work. Having written a PhD dissertation and subsequent monograph on superhero movies and neoliberalism, and more recently completed a book on fantastic fiction and global capitalism, I felt both excited and a little freaked out when I first heard about Michael Blouin’s new book-length publication, titled Magical Thinking, Fantastic Film, and the Illusions of Neoliberalism. According to the back cover blurb, this book “analyzes how contemporary popular films with fantastic themes, including CandymanFrozenThe Cabin in the Woods, and The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, cultivate neoliberal subjectivities” – which not only sounds very similar to some of the things I’ve written myself, but which also uses case studies I’m very invested in. Therefore, while I do feel compelled to reflect on it a bit via this recently-revived blog of mine, I should also point out that the following response will mostly be a list of fairly minor quibbles about a truly terrific book that deals with subject matter (and theoretical frameworks) that I simply feel too close to in too many ways. 

Blouin’s argument throughout the book is straightforward, and overall difficult to disagree with: his examples all illustrate the central point that mainstream Hollywood films offer powerful and attractive illusions of empowerment that simultaneously carry an ugly payload made up of neoliberalism’s basic cultural logic. Thus, even though these films appear to engage progressively and/or critically with topics like gender, climate change, and racism, they tend to do so in ways that systematically privilege subjectivities and social relations that are thoroughly immersed in neoliberalism’s core values.

The book’s own definition of neoliberalism is grounded in the familiar array of radical theorists in the field (Deleuze and Guattari, Slavoj Žižek, Dardot and Laval, Hardt and Negri, Maurizio Lazzarato), and the thematic approach to Blouin’s playful and eclectic selection of case studies works well – especially the less obvious ones, like Frozen as a reflection of neoliberal discourses about climate change. But there’s also something arbitrary about the book’s selection of movies, especially in relation to the title’s emphasis on fantastic film.

Perhaps it’s mostly a matter of a misleading title. But the first chapter makes for a somewhat shaky start, as it not only deals primarily with two novels (Shelley’s The Last Man and McCarthy’s The Road), but it also confusingly collapses the difference between liberalism and neoliberalism by constantly falling back on the term “(neo)liberalism” in order to talk about these two texts that are separated by over a century of history. Since both texts are (sort of) science-fictional, I suppose one might also describe them as being “fantastic” – though it doesn’t seem to me the most obvious moniker for either of them. But more importantly, both are discussed primarily as literary texts, which makes for a slightly awkward beginning for a book that’s otherwise wholly dedicated to film.

My other main quibble emerged while reading the chapter on Candyman and neoliberal racism. At first I thought I was being triggered by the author’s highly critical in-depth analysis of a horror film I’ve always admired for a variety of reasons. But at a certain point I realized that it wasn’t so much the book’s critique, as it was what felt like the chapter’s attempt to make everything in the film fit a particular definition of neoliberal thinking. It’s the kind of ideology critique that constantly promises to reveal the “real” meaning below the surface of the text – a familiar and well-established Marxist tradition that has long been my own bread and butter, and that certainly defined my own book on neoliberal superhero movies.

But in the case of a remarkably slippery film like Candyman, I had some difficulty going along with this kind of analysis – mostly because this argument seemed to be forcing a straightforward and ultimately reductive meaning on a film that seems to me to be so full of productive and uncanny contradictions. Therefore, even though I certainly enjoyed Blouin’s articulate, carefully structured, and thoroughly researched dissection of this fascinating film, I was also left feeling like he ended up pushing too hard in one particular interpretive direction.

In this sense at least, Blouin’s book sometimes feels a little too gung-ho in its determination to reveal neoliberal ghouls lurking beneath the surface of any given mainstream fantasy. So although I certainly don’t want to fault the book for being “too critical,” the ardent Raymond Williams fan in me kept insisting that surely there must be more complexity, more contradictions, and a more thoroughly felt tension between residual elements and the emergent culture of neoliberalism (and its under-theorized relationship to the longer history of capitalism). For my taste at least, Magical Thinking sometimes even veered dangerously close to Jonathan Beller’s rather bonkers (and frankly unreadable) The Cinematic Mode of Production, a book that blithely tosses out the baby with the bathwater by seeing commercial cinema as nothing but an extension of capitalist subjectivity.

But again: these are quibbles from someone who’s clearly unable to read a book like this without constantly obsessing over everything I would have done differently. Magical Thinking, Fantastic Film and the Illusions of Neoliberalism is an elegantly structured, compulsively readable, and impeccably researched work of film scholarship and critical theory, and it contributes substantially to current debates about popular culture and ideology in the age of global capitalism. It’s a real shame that publisher Palgrave Macmillan has only made it available for now in an expensive library edition, as it deserves a much wider readership – so I truly hope that they will follow up this first hardcover edition with a more reader-friendly paperback version. So for now, please make sure in any case that your library gets ahold of it.

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