by Barry Edelson


What Can the Movies Tell Us About Ourselves? Not Much


At the movies last weekend, there were four trailers for coming attractions, each one more bizarre than the next:

• An aspiring politician (Matt Damon) discovers that his life, and presumably everyone else's, is part of a vast plan managed by a group of shadowy characters. He has a random romantic encounter that was not supposed to happen, and if it isn't undone, it will apparently have dire, though unspecified, effects on humankind.

• A man (Liam Neeson) wakes up from a coma to discover that someone else has taken his identity. Even his wife doesn't appear to recognize him. Apparently, his predicament is part of a plot to wreak havoc upon human civilization, and only he can stop it.

• An American city (Los Angeles) is attacked by a large number of extraterrestrial objects that look like meteors. A great deal of death and destruction follow.

• The Norse god Thor is cast out of the realm of the immortals and is forced to live amongst humans, though with special effects. This high-tech adventure resembles the mythology on which it is based in much the same way that a Maserati resembles a horse-drawn cart.

If we accept a basic truism of modern times, the preoccupations of Hollywood tend to reflect the way people are feeling about the world at any given moment. Given that most American films spring from the minds of a lot of hyperactive, overgrown adolescents who work in one of the nation's most competitive and ruthless industries, this has always been a highly suspect theory. Moreover, most movies are typically the end result of many years of tinkering and manipulation by hosts of writers, producers and directors, so that a movie's point of view is often difficult to attribute to any particular individual. However, since all four of these soon-to-be-released movies bear striking resemblances to any number of previously released Hollywood offerings, perhaps there are in fact some trends that can be discerned from their presence in our cultural dimension.

The most obvious common denominator among the four is violence. This is nothing new, but one does get the impression that the movie world's obsession with mayhem has gotten progressively worse. In just about any random series of trailers shown in big movie houses these days, there are enough explosions, collisions, shootings, beatings and other unpleasant encounters to satisfy the bloodlust of any self-respecting warlord. There's a lot of violence in American society, to be sure. The murder rate, though down quite a bit from that of recent decades, is still shamefully high for a civilized nation. Still, most of us manage to go about our daily business without being witnesses to mass murder. We may not be as boringly tranquil as Canada or Switzerland, but compared to, say, Iraq (thanks, in part, to us), this is a very peaceful country. Indeed, one would have to wonder why people who were living under siege and the constant threat of imminent death would want to pay money to watch more of it at the movies.

Conspiracy theories are also big on the hit parade. People who feel that they do not have control over their lives, and/or that they do not have a meaningful voice in their societies, tend to be more inclined to believe in conspiracy theories. Being paranoid helps, too. In the wonderful world of the Internet, there is certainly a brisk trade in highly questionable narratives on any imaginable topic. At a time of widespread economic stress and perceived government remoteness, this is somewhat understandable. However, it is difficult to reconcile with the famed religiosity of the American public. It's one thing to believe that God has a plan for us, quite another to suppose that a cadre of nefarious individuals is calling the shots.

Which leads to another evident feature of these movies: the struggle between good and evil. Once again, the religious view is that genuine evil resides amongst us, and that the devil can take many forms. But men in black hats and trench coats? Large rock-like objects hurling projectiles at the West Coast? Bulked-up enemies of pre-Christian, Nordic heroes? If the devil's creative department is producing anything like this, hell must be severely over budget.

When the violence, conspiracies and evil are rolled into one, we move into end-of-the-world territory. In our post-9/11 universe, apocalyptic visions are not in short supply. Still, the something-is-about-to-destroy-our-planet-and-we're-helpless-do-anything-about-it genre has been around for decades. Once upon a time we might have attributed this to an underlying fear of nuclear annihilation, though this would not have explained H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds, which was published back in the stone age (1898), nor Orson Welles' radio adaptation of the same book in the still relatively innocent, pre-nuclear 1930s. Perhaps our individual mortality simply translates easily into concerns about being snuffed out as a civilization, fears of which are effectively magnified by modern movie-making techniques. But are we really afraid that the world is going to end at any moment? Are there that many people who believe that the rapture is imminent? The polls don't support it, but just as religious fervor is impervious to rational discourse, Hollywood's business is in scaring people to death (i.e., selling tickets) not in facilitating thoughtful discussion.

Producers of these kinds of films are not fear-mongers so much as fear-profiteers. If their interests happen to coincide with those of nihilists, anarchists and millenarians, it is more opportunism than fellow-feeling. It is important to point out that film studios still churn out a good many dumb romantic comedies and sophomoric farces for teenagers and immature adults. Does this mean the country as a whole is dumb, sophomoric and immature? Well, maybe. But there are still quite a few "serious" movies about historical figures and important social issues. The trailers at the "art" houses would lead you to believe that you were living in an entirely different society from the one depicted in the multiplex at the mall.

Obviously, people find this stuff entertaining and are willing to cough up a few dollars for the pleasure of being scared silly. These movies may not say anything at all of significance about the nature of our society or where it is headed. Remember that Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers did most of their glittery dancing during the depths of the Great Depression, and film noir emerged after World War II in one of the supposedly sunniest periods of American greatness. An inchoate sense that things are going wrong, and there's not much that we can do about it, is endemic to the species. Apart from a handful of hysterics, like the ones who supposedly thought that Martians were really invading the Earth when they heard it on the radio (if there really were any such people), it is far more likely that most people don't believe any of it. Perhaps people go to see these movies precisely to convince themselves that their fears of aliens and conspiracies and implausible acts of destruction aren't to be taken very seriously.

We're a big country, and there's room for a lot of pointless spectacle. In all likelihood, we ain't seen nothing yet.

February 15, 2011


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