Tax Incentives and the Human Imagination

[Image: Der Wanderer über dem Nebelmeer by Caspar David Friedrich (c. 1818).]

It would be interesting to look at locations of the American popular imagination, as seen in movies and TV, mapped against regional tax breaks for the film industry.

There was a brief span of time, for example, when rural Pennsylvania stood in for authentic Americana, a kind of Rust Belt imaginary, all pick-up trucks and hard-drinking younger brothers, stories framed against the hulking ruins of industrial landscapes—I’m thinking of Out Of The Furnace or Prisoners, both released in 2013, or even 2010’s Unstoppable. Whereas, today, Georgia seems to have stepped into that niche, between The Outsider and, say, Mindhunter (season two), let alone Atlanta, no doubt precisely because Georgia has well-known tax incentives in place for filming.

My point is that an entire generation of people—not just Americans, but film viewers and coronavirus quarantine streamers and TV binge-watchers around the world—might have their imaginative landscapes shaped not by immaterial forces, by symbolic archetypes or universal rules bubbling up from the high-pressure depths of human psychology, but instead by tax breaks offered in particular U.S. states at particular moments in American history.

You grow up thinking about Gothic pine forests, or you fall asleep at night with visions of rain-soaked Georgia parking lots crowding your head, but it’s not just because of the aesthetic or atmospheric appeal of those landscapes; it’s because those landscapes are, in effect, receiving imaginative subsidies from local business bureaus. You’re dreaming of them for a reason.

Your mind is not immaterial, in other words, some angelic force waltzing across the surface of the world, stopping now and again to dwell on universal imagery, but something deeply mundane, something sculpted by ridiculous things, like whether or not camera crews in a given state get hotel room discounts for productions lasting more than two weeks.

Of course, you could extend a similar kind of analysis way back into art history and look at, say, the opening of particular landscapes in western Europe, after decades of war, suddenly made safe for cultured travelers such as Caspar David Friedrich, whose paintings later came to define an entire era of European and European-descended male imaginations. That wanderer over a sea of fog, in other words, was wandering through a very specific landscape during a very particular window of European political accessibility. Had things been different, had history taken a slightly different path, Friedrich might have been stuck in his parents’ house, painting still-lives and weed-choked alleyways, and who knows what images today’s solo hikers might be daydreaming about instead.

[Image: From The Outsider, courtesy HBO; I should mention that The Outsider was set and filmed primarily in Georgia, a departure from Stephen King’s novel, which was primarily set in Oklahoma.]

In any case, the humid forests of rural America, the looming water towers and abandoned industrial facilities, the kudzu-covered strip malls and furloughed police stations—picture the Louisianan expanses of True Detective (season one)—have come to represent the dark narrative potential of the contemporary world. But what if, say, North Dakota or Manitoba (where, for example, The Grudge was recently filmed) had offered better tax breaks?

My own childhood imagination was a world of sunlit suburbs, detached single-family homes, and long-shadowed neighborhood secrets, but, as to my larger point here, I also grew up watching movies like E.T., Poltergeist, Fright Night, and Blue Velvet—so, in a sense, of course I would think that’s what the world looked like.

[Image: From David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986), specifically via the site Velvet Eyes.]

So, again, it would be interesting to explore how one’s vision of the world—your most fundamental imagination of the cosmos—is being shaped for you by tax breaks, film incentives, and other, utterly trivial local concerns, like whether or not out-of-state catering companies can get refunds on expenditures over a certain amount or where actors can write off per diems as gifts, not income, affecting whether crime films or horror stories will be shot there, and thus where an entire generation’s future nightmares might be set.

Or, for that matter, you could look at when particular colors, paints, and pigments became affordable for artists of a certain era, resulting in all those dark and moody images you love to stare at in the local museum—e.g. the old joke that, at some point, Rembrandt simply bought too much purple. It wasn’t promethean inspiration; it was material surplus.

We see things for a reason, yet, over and over again, mistake our dreams for signs of the cosmic. Or, to put this another way, we are not surrounded by mythology; we are surrounded by economics. The latter is a superb and confusing mimic.

8 thoughts on “Tax Incentives and the Human Imagination”

  1. This is genuinely one of the most insightful pieces I’ve read on the roots of human imagination (and on the entertainment industry in particular).

    It also loops back and ties into an old post of yours about the gigantic warehouses of unwanted books in rural Britain, where you wrote (I quote from memory, which means I’m almost certainly paraphrasing) that that was an instance were “laws create architecture”–

    I think what you’re talking about in both pieces is the same pattern: the effects of one specific bureaucracy on architecture and environment in one, and, in the other (meta) level, its effects on our ability to imagine both environment and architecture.

    In this sense it’s also interesting to look at the recent Tales from the Loop, a (mostly static) nostalgic ride around mid-70s Americana, which looks like a Scandinavian version of rural Ohio, because itself adapted from Stålenhag’s americanization of rural Sweden. How many layers are there? And how much of it is based on what American movies Stålenhag grew up with?

    1. found it!

      the passage I was trying to remember was this:

      “In other words, a relatively random piece of 100-year old legislation – dealing with copyright law, of all things – has begun to exhibit architectural effects.

      These architectural effects include the production of huge warehouses in the damp commuter belts of outer London. These aren’t libraries, of course; they’re stockpiles. Text bunkers.”

      2007… wow.

      1. Thanks for remembering that old post.

        I love your description of Tales From The Loop, in your first comment, as looking “like a Scandinavian version of rural Ohio, because itself adapted from Stålenhag’s americanization of rural Sweden.” I’m often reminded—despite the man’s obvious political shortcomings—of Heidegger’s comment that “Americanism,” with all its gigantism and speed, was just a “concentrated rebound” of modern Europe, a kind of distorting mirror, or perhaps a shadow lengthened at sunset.

    2. Interesting that you mention Tales From The Loop – a production based on Swedish paintings, set in Ohio, and filmed in Manitoba precisely because of the film tax credit. I work as a location scout, and I’m almost always looking for an imagined and embellished version of a place, rather than a realistic version. So while tax credits are playing a huge part in dictating the imagination, I think that our collective expectation as an audience of what a place is supposed to look like is having a huge influence as well (a bit of a catch-22 as this expectation is driven by films the audience has already seen).

      1. Geoff will obviously answer himself, but I wanted to say something because this has to do with my comment as well.

        First, and very simply: I’d been wondering for a while where the series was shot. I couldn’t find production details about Tales From The Loop. So thank you for that.

        As for the larger issue, I think what you’re saying – the kind of places you look for as a location scout, the catch-22 pattern of it all – has a parallel in the old story of consumer preference for specific film stocks, back in the day.

        It goes like this: Fuji was (still is) the one with the more realistic colors, similar in wavelength to the way the human eye perceives colors; Kodak, on the other hand, is the one with the most “artificial” look, more distant from what and how we actually see.

        Yet, generations of people have preferred the Kodak look, because it was “more realistic.” This basically means that we’re drawn to representations of reality that are already idealized, hyperreal, and only then we can recognize reality as we think it is—or should be.

        Hyperrealism – or photorealism – in painting has a similar effect: we marvel at the “photographic” details, that we would otherwise ignore in an actual photograph.

        Similar thing in (some) design: it’s as if, in a way, we need to go through a skeuomorphic hypertexture before we’re able to understand what texture even means. To touch it with our eyes before we can feel it with out fingertips.

        But I think it started much, much earlier than photography and cinema. The landscape, as an esthetic category that we now take for granted, was invented by painters. So this feedback loop of artificial versions of reality has a long history in our way of looking at things.

        Back to your job, it’s a if the locations and the look you search for in your work are interesting precisely because they have that remove from actual reality. They add a layer to it, something that’s not real but we recognize reality through.

        In a sense it’s also similar to what Tony Zhou says in the video that Ed pasted below. Still in Canada, in that case British Columbia. Places that look nothing like the ones they’re meant to depict, yet people learn to recognize the actual places more through their “vacouverization” than if they were shot on location.

        1. Perhaps relevant to both your and Phoebe’s points is the relatively ubiquitous everyday surrealism of life in greater Los Angeles, where it can often happen that you look around in the middle of dinner out with a friend and realize you have seen this place before, only it was a “restaurant in Chicago,” or a “bar in Hawaii,” used as a backdrop in some TV show you watched two years ago.

          Los Angeles is a kind of constant, low-grade spatial dementia (a condition, this post suggests, that is now creeping elsewhere due to film & TV tax incentives).

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