In 2001, I wrote in Prospect that cinema was the ultimate right-wing art form. Five years on, at least part of the movie world seems to have become less escapistby Mark Cousins / June 25, 2006 / Leave a comment
Five years ago, I argued in Prospect that despite Democrat-inclined movie stars and liberal directors like Spielberg and Scorsese, movies have always been essentially right-wing. This applied even to “new Hollywood” movies like Taxi Driver.
No writs arrived. No rebuttals. Maybe that’s because my piece was largely about cinema’s past, about the way mainstream cinema has been about escape. As the standard-bearer of permissive capitalism, Hollywood has always whispered in our ears that we must lie back and enjoy the ride. And so we do. We buy a ticket for Gladiator or Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon to play truant in imagined lands, places that leave our own lives unchallenged and unchanged.
But things have changed since my piece in April 2001. The real world has given us Enron, Sharon, 9/11, the war in Iraq, Sars, the Madrid bombing, the tsunami, 7/7, Ahmadinejad, and Hurricane Katrina. A lot of reality in five years.
In contrast, the popular movie world has fled into the deep space of CGI (computer-generated imagery)-inspired fantasy films. Its headline trends were the emergence of international children’s trilogies (The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter), the revival of animation (Finding Nemo, the Shrek films, The Incredibles, Ice Age) and horror (Saw, Dawn of the Dead). It has ransacked comic books (Superman, Hulk, Sin City) and recycled television shows (Charlie’s Angels, Scooby-Doo, Bewitched, Starsky and Hutch).
Just as in the second world war, when Betty Grable musicals and Bob Hope comedies served up escapist respite to embattled nations, so in our own tough times movies turned their backs on politics and did what they do best: distract, dazzle, elude. In the last five years, movies and reality seem to have moved apart. Films have rejected the opportunity to engage with political realities. Yet look a little deeper and it becomes clear that this isn’t true. A complex convergence has occurred, with the result that in some ways films are less right-wing than they were.
To understand why, it’s first worth noting the significance of this five-year time frame. It is exactly how long it took for the first major 9/11 fiction film, Paul Greengrass’s United 93, to be considered, commissioned, made and released. If the movie world has a cycle—a block of time in which it digests a world event and presents it as memory and myth—five years now seems to be it. It was 11 years before the first big Vietnam movie (The Green Berets, very right-wing) appeared; the first major Aids movie (Longtime Companion, pretty bland) came nine years after the first diagnoses; and Hotel Rwanda ten years after the massacres. This might explain the reports of Los Angeles audiences yelling “too soon” when the United 93 trailers were screened. But as there has been an acceleration in every other aspect of cinema—cutting the time between cinema and VHS/DVD releases, for example—it might be expected that movies would also start catching up with reality, as it were.
And it has been hard not to notice that in the last five years, despite the blockbusters, cinema has been bucking its escapist tendencies. The most obvious trend is that for the first time, documentary has become a major player in the world of cinema. Films like Etre et Avoir, Touching the Void, Spellbound, Capturing the Friedmans, March of the Penguins, Fahrenheit 9/11, and Grizzly Man have been seen, discussed and have performed as if they were fiction films. The noun “movie,” as commonly used, has stopped meaning fiction.
And a rash of recent political movies from America provide further proof of a new engagement with reality: Syriana, Crash, Silver City, Good Night, And Good Luck and Munich. George Clooney, it is said, is a 21st-century Robert Redford, using his power as a movie star to make socially concerned films like Syriana and Good Night, And Good Luck, just as Redford fronted the Watergate movie All the President’s Men.
But we should not get carried away. First, only Steven Spielberg’s Munich, the most conventional of these films, is “Hollywood.” The others were made with new, liberal, private equity unconnected to the studio oligarchy. Syriana and Good Night, And Good Luck, for example, were part funded by eBay’s Jeff Skoll, through his company Participant Productions. Its website’s strapline says: “Our films raise awareness about important social issues, educating audiences and inspiring them to take action,” a creed so un-Hollywood that it sounds like a send-up.
Second, there is a major difference between Hollywood in the 1970s and now. Back then, some of the studio bosses—Robert Evans at Paramount, for example—were on the side of the arty liberal directors. They were cine-radicals too, and changed the tone and language of Hollywood from the inside. Nowadays, bean-counters run the oligarchy.
Instead, what the Clooney films and others point to is a re-engagement of the American indie scene. Galvanised by the Patriot Act, a supine media and war on terror sophistry, American indie filmmakers have dumped their kooky, slacker self-regard for something more oppositional. In interviews and films alike, Clooney has tried to wrest the cornerstone idea of patriotism from under the feet of Republicans and neocons.
The remarkable success of Brokeback Mountain showed that leftfield American filmmaking can do well at the box office and begin to form its own liberal mainstream. Brokeback missed out on the best picture Oscar, but has won more than 100 prizes. It cost about $14m to make, but recouped that and more in Britain alone. Its $90m and counting at the US box office is therefore pure profit. Its production company, Focus, is owned by Universal, so, ironically, much of this is likely to pile up for those studio bean-counters, but the point remains that Brokeback Mountain is a new high-water mark of success in political cinema.
In fact, the more closely you look at the spectrum of world filmmaking in the last five years, the more signs of re-engagement you find. As I have said before in Prospect, western cinema’s historic blindness to eastern cinema has come to an end. As Chinese cinema broke through in the Anglo-Saxon world, as arty Japanese horror taught western directors how to portray anguish more truthfully, so English-language cinema grew up a bit. The films we see and make in the west need to internationalise further, but we are moving in the right direction. DVD has helped. DVD distributors’ ransacking of cinema’s past has also brought a revival of interest in radical films which have, historically, been hard to keep in distribution. Emile de Antonio is back in the repertoire. His anti-McCarthy film Point of Order (1964) and Vietnam-themed In the Year of the Pig (1968) have been long talked about by cinephiles but little seen, by my generation at least.
There have been quite a few films about the middle east over the years, but in the last five, the number by filmmakers from that part of the world has grown rapidly. Two festivals of Palestinian cinema have taken place in Britain this year. Palestinian auteurs, such as Elia Sulieman and Hany Abu-Assad, have emerged. Abu-Assad’s film about suicide bombers, Paradise Now, was the first Palestinian film to be nominated for an Oscar. And through the documentaries of directors such as Avi Mograbi and Amos Gitai, Israel has become a centre of excellence for non-fiction filmmaking.
Just as the faultline of the cold war—and, therefore, the setting of cold war cinema—ran along the iron curtain, after 9/11 the armistice line in Israel-Palestine became the world’s hottest border. A new bogeyman, Osama bin Laden, emerged. Arab characters and themes became issues in western dramaturgy. In reaction, indigenous Arab filmmaking flourished. Arab and Arab-looking actors were in demand.
Before 9/11 you could count on the fingers of one hand significant British films that dealt with Islamic themes. Afterwards, in rapid succession, came, among others, Michael Winterbottom’s In This World (2002), Kenny Glenaan’s Yasmin (2004), Antonia Bird’s The Hamburg Cell (2004), and Winterbottom’s The Road to Guantánamo (2006). Paul Greengrass, director of United 93, is also British, so Britain has more than played its part in putting Islam on screen.
Mention of Michael Winterbottom brings up another, unrelated area in which recent cinema has become, in a sense, more real. Despite showing genital close-ups, erections and ejaculation, his film 9 Songs was passed for an 18 certificate in Britain. When Patrice Chéreau’s British film Intimacy, which also featured explicit sex, was given a similar rating, it felt as if the new millennium had ushered in a more tolerant attitude to explicit consensual sexual activity on screen, and so it had. Encouraged by French films like Baise-Moi and Anatomy of Hell, both made by women, the taboo on showing erections in mainstream cinema just seemed to fade away.
The list could go on, but the point is surely made that in many small ways film has taken a step closer to reality in the last five years. What happens when you turn this proposition on its head, however? What if we ask not if movies have moved closer to life, but the converse? Life did feel like a disaster movie in the days after 9/11, prompting Belgian ultra-realist directors Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardennes, who have won the Cannes Palme d’Or twice, to observe: “Today’s paradox is that the aestheticisation of reality requires the de-aestheticisation of art.” And it is not only realist directors who feel this. Michael Haneke, who had a recent art-house hit with Hidden, explains the intensity of his work by saying that reality is losing its realness.
If they are right, then the very thing that the earliest filmmakers fell in love with—a camera’s ability to hoover up reality and re-project it in motion and detail on a big screen—is not quite as valuable as it once was. The best European filmmakers today—Haneke, Lars Von Trier, Bruno Dumont, Claire—are equally sceptical about film as a medium of social realism.
So where does this leave us? With a less definitive answer than five years ago. Then it was possible to say that there was a “right-wing quality” at the heart of western cinema, derived from the mythology of the frontier, the loner and the vigilante, which has interested some of the best western filmmakers—Scorsese, Coppola, Eastwood, David Lynch, Howard Hawks, John Ford. For them, although we sit with others in the cinema, we are basically on our own, looking up at a screen. In those conditions, the best thing to put on that screen is another person on their own, in a big landscape or dazzling cityscape—John Wayne in westerns, Robert De Niro as Travis Bickle or Jake La Motta, Martin Sheen in Apocalypse Now, Kyle MacLachlan in Blue Velvet, Clint Eastwood as Dirty Harry. The great, disconnected, anti-social, right-wing men in modern American cinema.
The solitary condition of watching movies hasn’t changed—if anything, DVD probably means that we are more often literally on our own when we watch films—but the movie world has lost some of its love for loners. Even CGI fantasies like the Toy Story films and the Lord of the Rings cycle are about teamwork. So if it is going too far to say that movies are more liberal than they were, they are at any rate less socially empty. Reality, it seems, no longer “pops you out of the story,” as they say in Hollywood. We don’t mind seeing it now and again on the big screen, especially if our daily lives don’t always feel that real.
But to put this in perspective, it is worth looking back to the 2001 Oscars to see what was nominated in the year before 9/11. One of the biggies was Traffic, a film about duplicity in the US war on drugs, that won four Oscars for Steven Gaghan as screenwriter (Gaghan later co-directed Syriana with Clooney). Another was Erin Brockovich, about a single mother who takes on and beats a corporation, for which Julia Roberts won her Oscar. The political strain in cinema was there then—it always has been. The question is whether it will only ever be a strain.