Friday, February 24, 2012

Motifs in 2011 Cinema: Disillusionment.

Perhaps because it’s one of the youngest artistic forms, cinema is often assessed in much different manner that literature, or the visual arts. We discuss it in terms of genre, not in terms of thematic offering. Comparing, for example, Corpse Bride and Up because they’re both animated leads to some dubious discussion especially when – like any art form – thematic elements examined in cinema and the way different filmmaker address them make for some stimulating discussion. Motifs in Cinema is a discourse, across nine film blogs, assessing the way in which various thematic elements have been used in the 2011 cinematic landscape. How does a common theme vary in use from a comedy to a drama? Are filmmakers working from a similar canvas when they assess the issue of the artist or the family dynamic? Like everything else, a film begins with an idea - Motifs in Cinema assesses how the use of a single idea changes when utilised by varying artists.

- Andrew K.

One of my favorite songs says "disillusion takes what illusion gives" and this couldn't ring truer than it does while looking back at the cinema of 2011. The last decade was characterized because its up and downs were more extreme than anything else in the past. When things got bad, it meant war, terrorist attacks, pandemics, severe economic crises, social revolts, harsh weather changes and natural disasters etc. When things got good - if they ever did - it seemed like the world was closer to unity. Not so surprisingly, most of the good came in direct response to the bad, with entire countries uniting to help out a smaller nation in need, technological and scientific breakthroughs and perhaps naively in the promises made by a series of politicians who for a split second seemed like they would be able to change the world.
The movies of 2011, more than before, focused on how all of the good eventually let us down, how racism, intolerance, war and corruption just might've won the battle.

In Meek's Cutoff - perhaps the most aggressive political commentary of 2011 - Kelly Reichardt questions the Obama administration's lack of direction. Her story of wandering pioneers might not seem like a straightforward "movie" in the sense that it never worries about being entertaining and has no regard for plot. However embedded in its desolated landscapes lies the greatest story never told: how people abandon everything precious to them for an ideal that might never materialize. Realizing these people are lost isn't as heartbreaking as the delusional nature of the man leading them (played with astonishing charisma by Bruce Greenwood) who is more keen on preserving his public image than on acknowledging his flaws and how he let his people down. Meek's Cutoff cleverly uses history to make a point out of the cyclical nature of our universe.

This cyclical nature is repeated in Drive a film that takes place in a Los Angeles that seems to have never moved past the Reagan era. A labyrinth of decay surrounded by neon lights, Nicolas Winding Refn's tale questions what happens when society has lost all signs of latent humanity. L.A. here becomes the ultimate symbol of disillusionment, a city where people once came to dream (there is nary a sign of Hollywood glamour, we only see the menial tasks performed by stuntmen and strippers) but now are in deep search of a hero.
That the hero they get is a morally ambiguous macho figure speaks more about how the icons of valor are thought of as primitive creatures that predate the times we live in.

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo then gives us a hero(ine) that fits more in our times. Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara) might not be Homer's idea of a savior, but in these times when corporations deal with our private information, she gets the Julian Assange badge of honor for "criminal heroism". When and how exactly did telling the truth and trying to make things right by way of immorality became a sign of courage might be a task more adequate for sociologists, but we'll take our salvation in any way it comes, right?

Although salvation makes no sense when thinking that a single epidemic might invalidate all of our moral codes. In Contagion we saw how an illness not only destroyed lives but shook survivors as well. What is the point in trying to preserve any signs of humanity when we commit the greatest acts of inhumanity against ourselves?
Steven Soderbergh's masterpiece was a chilling reminder that globalization is making us stronger only by giving us a false sense of unity, when in fact countries seem to wish they could erect walls to contain their own troubles without ever recurring to "friendly neighbor" behavior. That we see so many people in the movie trying so hard to contain the pandemic and have them fail so miserably is both horrifying and somehow relieving. Does it make sense that the end of times is then becoming the hedonistic poison of choice to so many people?

The Tree of Life wasn't without loss of illusion, in fact the entire premise circles around having a son realizing he'll never satisfy his father. On a larger scale, the film is also an essay through which Terrence Malick tries to satisfy a supreme power (the ultimate father figure) by trying to find the very essence that created him. It would be facile to blame daddy issues for all that's wrong in the world (despite what Freud would prefer) but The Tree of Life pulled off the ultimate hat trick by offering us a second chance, perhaps those who have faith will find solace in an afterlife. The rest of us are stuck down here mesmerized by the way in which our hopes reach for the sky only to crash with irreverent violence.


Candice Frederick said...

dang, i really love this post. you really brought up points i never even thought about

Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

Well, ummm, thanks for depressing us all. But, I guess being depressed is the state which we reach when we become disillusioned? That paragraph on Contagion in particular is a beaut. So scary, and yet so...ultimately...accurate.

Nick Prigge said...

I freaking loved Meek's Cutoff but now I don't know that I'll be able to look at it quite the same way. I took it much more for face value, but your points are right on. In this year of an American Presidential election Stephen Meek really does kind of speak for us. "We're not lost. We're just finding our way." Are we?! Yikes.