Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Where are the voices of anger?

We are living in turbulent times my friends.  Most of us live under a cloud of uncertainty - an omnipresent gloom that permeates every waking moment.  How will I pay my rent?  Keep my house? Find a job?  What happens if I get sick?  What kind of a world will my kids live in?  How will our country move forward into these uncertain times without fracturing into a million splinter groups of special interests, each with voices raised in hyperbole and hysteria.

And throughout all this upheaval, what has the medium of cinema had to say about all this?

I'm waiting...

In the 60's and 70's, the turmoil of society was reflected in its cinema.
Movies like Easy Rider, Woodstock, Bonnie & Clyde, The Graduate, Dr Strangelove, Straw Dogs, Taxi Driver, Midnight Cowboy, and Night of the Living Dead represented their times with bold, revolutionary statements, new directions, and a cold hard look at societies' issues.

Vietnam had fractured the country, but starting with MASH in 1970, filmmakers were already attempting to deal with the horrors of war and its effects on our country. 
Then came Coppola's brilliant love letter to chaos and darkness, Apocalypse Now, and eventually, more mainstream efforts like The Deer Hunter, Coming Home, Platoon and Born Under the Fourth of July.

In 1976, Paddy Chayefsky and Sidney Lumet seemed to speak for a whole nation with their brilliant satire, Network:
"I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore!" 

In the 80's and 90's a new wave if independent cinema burst in the scene.
Movies like Sex, Lies & Videotape, Do The Right Thing, Slackers, Clerks, Drugstore Cowboy, Stranger Than Paradise all reflected the new attitudes of their era.

In 1999 two films, American Beauty and Fight Club presented very different, but uniquely bold, amazing and heartfelt visions of modern-day existential malaise.
They challenged their viewers to take a closer look at their materialistic priorities.

And then, it all seemed to stop.

Since Sept 11, 2001 this country has gone through multiple ongoing traumas, yet through it all, the filmmakers of today have been incredibly absent from engaging in an intelligent discourse with society that should be helping us all process an unprecedented amount of conflict, upheaval and crisis:

- coping in a post 9/11 world: terrorism; 2 wars waging for a decade; the loss of basic rights under the Patriot Act.

- economic collapse: massive unemployment; foreclosures.

- environmental calamity: global climate change; industrial pollution and devastating oil spills.

- major shifts in the workplace: outsourcing; longer hours; lower wages; increased productivity at the cost of leisure time; 24/7 intrusion of work into our private lives.

- runaway development of advancing technology that outpaces our ability to understand its effects.

- non-stop consumption of images, data and trivial information, with little to no time to actually process any of it.

- a completely dysfunctional government.

- inequal wealth distribution and a vanishing middle class.

- corruption by wall street and corporate interests.

- a major national shift away from being the world's superpower to just another player.

- a nation of repeated violence and tragedy - mass killings - rampage killings, murder/suicides.

- a mass media that fans the flames of ignorance and hatred.

- an oppressive, permeating undercurrent of paranoia that a nightmare apocalypse is just around the corner - 2012, Doomsday, The End of Times.

What have our current filmmakers had to say about these unprecedented turbulent times?  Art can be a crucially important vehicle by which society processes confusing, disruptive and complex new ideas and situations.

While there have been many very good documentaries that have addressed some of these complex issues, I believe that narrative films can do even more to help a society work through its traumas, as cinema works at the subconscious level of myth and archetype. 

I can honestly think of only a couple narrative movies that have attempted to deal with any of these issues: the academy award winning The Hurt Locker and the excellent Up in the Air.
There may be more, but even with these two fine films, neither was really a rallying cry for a generation - neither became a national speaking point, or a prism by which society could direct and clarify its arguments.

I'm still waiting...

I don't necessarily expect Hollywood to be making these kinds of films.  It's just not in their nature (or economic interests) to do so.  But where the hell are the indie voices of indignation, frustration and revolution?

Television seems to have done somewhat better in this regard.  There have been a number of excellent series that have dealt with many of today's pressing issues.
Shows like Rescue Me, Boardwalk Empire, Treme, The Wire, Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead, Louie and Generation Kill represent the times we are living in and the turmoil we all face.
yes, I know Boardwalk Empire is set in the 20's - it is clearly an allegory for today's corrupt political system and economic disparity

But Cinema, that great medium of dream and drama, where are you when we need you the most?  Please prove me wrong - please present me with challenging, revolutionary ideas and visions that reflect our troubled times.  Please shock me with outrageous dramatic representations of war, political corruption, economic upheaval and personal tragedy.

And then please give me stories of hope, compassion and humanities' capacity to do good.

Please tell me it's going to be okay.

So I can sleep at night.


  1. Excellent piece, with which I couldn't agree more.

    Question: Do you think the unequal wealth distribution has anything to do with it? Granted, just about anyone can make a movie these days and put it on the interwebs, but to make a good film, and get it seen, takes quite a bit of cash.

    Also, I did appreciate Stop-Loss. It's about some very specific, personal aspects of the war issue. It was angry, but not in the same way and about the same things a lot of these About the War films have.

  2. "- environmental calamity: global climate change; industrial pollution and devastating oil spills."

    Climate Change has been reflected in tons of movies for decades now. Obviously there's "The Day After Tomorrow" (and I think "2012" was to appease the deniers by saying 'of course my films aren't political). But if you go back far enough there's "Water World" and even "Split Second".

    "- runaway development of advancing technology that outpaces our ability to understand its effects."

    If I started listing films which tackle this I'd be here all day.

    "- a completely dysfunctional government."

    The movie 'Dave'?

    "- corruption by wall street and corporate interests."

    'Wall Street 2'? (I haven't seen it)
    'Michael Clayton' seemed to (pretend to) have a go...

    "- a mass media that fans the flames of ignorance and hatred."

    Funnily enough, the closest thing to this seems to have been "Good Night And Good Luck". Few in the audience failed to see the parrallels in media manipulation today.

    "Up In The Air" doesn't deserve any credit for this at all. Sure it features people who are unemployed, but they don't end up having much relevance to the actual story. In the end it becomes a cheesy romantic comedy telling the audience that love is what's important. It ends up playing straight the big gag in "Intolerable Cruelty" and expecting us to take it seriously.

    Oh and "- a major national shift away from being the world's superpower to just another player."

    You're kidding right?

  3. I think you should go back and watch Syriana.

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