Truth & Banality in Cinema
It is the sun which never sets over the empire of modern passivity. It covers the entire surface of the world and bathes endlessly in its own glory.
– Guy Debord
Movies are one way a culture speaks to itself. This cultural conversation traverses the human experience from our fears and worries, to our dreams and desires; what we value, what we despise, what we wish to be, what we wish we weren’t. Investigating movies can provide an insight into what a culture thinks and how it sees itself.
Consider this cursory glance of cinema over the decades.
The internet, micro-chip processor, and proliferation of other forms of digital technology had a profound impact on how people saw the world and themselves as actors in the world. The wave of digital technology, claimed by many as a second industrial revolution – whether to be glorified or feared – was said to fundamentally change human life. For all those who were frothing at the mouth, anxious to bask in the sunlight of a digital world, there were those fearful of artificial intelligence, abuse of data, augmented realities, and surveillance states. These fears were articulated in technologically dystopian films such as the Terminator franchise, The Matrix, A.I, and I.Robot.
These fears were not borne out in reality. As the years continued and the robots did not come alive and destroy us, the fears receded. However, they were soon replaced with new fears which corresponded to new things happening in life. Then the fears became biological. Climate change, genetic manipulation, biological warfare, cancers, viruses, and the toxication of life were the fears dominating the culture. Movies such as I Am Legend, World War Z, Resident Evil, Dawn of the Dead, the 28 Day Later franchise, and games such as Bio-shock and Call of Duty: Zombies spoke to a cultural transformation: biological fears have superseded by technological fears.
Of course, cinema does not trade exclusively in fear. However, that fear functions as the predominant cultural mode is certainly, of itself, quite telling.
I understand the counter argument that I am merely cherry picking movies which substantiate my claim. Of the hundreds of movies made, of course, there will be a few which can be bundled together. But this is no objection at all. The very fact that they can be bundled together means there is a recurring idea being expressed. The fact that other ideas are also being expressed does not disprove my point but rather, merely supports how cultures have numerous conversations about numerous topics all the time. I have merely selected technology and biology because they are simple and novel examples.
We are yet again coming upon a new cultural horizon in cinema.
Okja: A multi-national corporation takes an animal and importantly, a companion of young Mija. Okja is transported to New York to become the commodity of a self-obsessed and self-promoting CEO.
Wolf of Wall Street: Those who work in financial institutions are morally depraved, hedonistic, self-interested assholes.
The Big Short: Unabashed self-interest governs those who work in finance. Three men take profit off the misery of miserable Americans.
Black Panther: A civilisation hides itself because it understands the lust for power and profit that governs the world.
BlacKKKlansman: A group of detectives work to uncover the racism and violence that runs through American society and corrupt power structures.
Sorry to Bother You: Deep in recession and struggling to live, people are working for a company called Worry Free, which trades in slave labour and lifelong employment. Worry free, to make even more money, attempts to engineer a race of horse people to work for them: dumb, obedient, strong and hard-working. People become productive units, devoid of humanity and this find expression in the literal transformation of people into beasts of burden.
Vice: People in positions of authority use their power for self-aggrandisement and the narrow pursuit of self-interest.
Peppermint: Having lost her family to a gang drive-by, Riley North cannot find help from the police. Some are embroiled in the dark world of the gangs, while others do not see value in trying to bring the gang’s to justice. The institutions of law and order are shown to be corrupt and ineffective, therefore, Riley must take the law into her own hands.
There are a myriad of other movies that also play on the themes of the corruption of power. The Ides of March (2011), Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (2011), Branded (2012), Broken City (2013), Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014), The Nice Guys (2016), Zootopia (2018) Widows (2018), Robin Hood (2018), Ready, Player, One (2018), Goldstone (2018), and The Mule (2019) to list just a few.
Added to this should be mini-series such as: The West Wing (1999-2006), The Wire (2002-2008), and House of Cards (2013-2018); and documentaries such as, Food Inc. (2008), Capitalism: A Love Story (2009), Inside Job (2010), Money For Nothing (2013), Dirty Wars (2013), and Get Me Roger Stone (2017).
Each of these movies trades in familiar and overlapping themes: the corruption of the institutions of law and order, the destruction wrought by the myopic pursuit of self-aggrandisement and power, and the degradation visited upon people by those in positions of power.
It should be added that this is a very cursory glance over movies in the past couple years. Institutional corruption, the corruption of power, and the plight of the powerless in the face of structural power. Only where these themes are obvious are those movies included. Surely, the list could be far longer.
A conversation is occurring and it is not occurring in a void. The institutional resentment, distrust, and disdain for those in positions in power is a product of the world. The 2008 financial crisis revealed the hollowness of our economic system. In response, those in power did not change the system but supported its continued functioning, and have actively encouraged the very processes and principles that led to the crash in the first place. Brexit was the result of festering anger and resentment from years of neglect and dismissal. The election of Trump, whether one supports him because of his promise to ‘drain the swamp’ and purge powerful institutions of corruption, or whether one rejects him because he is a symbol of the very myopic self-interest and corruption that people want to be rid of, one thing is clear: his presidency signifies the moral hollowness and powerful moneyed interests at the heart of American politics. Closer to home, numerous articles articulate the Australian people see democracy as a failed system. We believe politicians are insolently and unapologetically corrupt; and do not believe they have our best interests at heart. Voters are increasingly moving to extreme parties on both the left and right, not solely because people believe in these parties, but as protest against the institutional parties that are seen as having forgotten or worse, ignored the people.
Movies are, as such reflecting back to us a very clear message: we see the systems of power as corrupt and rather than working for people, working against them.
Susan Sontag wrote of science fiction that it functioned as “a popular mythology for the contemporary negative imagination”, with obvious parallels for movies in our times.
In recent years, institutions are portrayed banefully. One might think of The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. The corporate aliens are dull, regimented and are effectively amoral. Gigantic grey cubed ships resemble skyscrapers. The corporate aliens, with their penchant for black suits, rubber stamps, and destroying planets; all done with the enthusiasm and energy of zombies, are a testament to modern bureaucracy; T.S Elliot’s ‘Hollow Men’.
Not all characterisations of the powerful are as aesthetically insulting as being portrayed as aliens. However, the visible disgust is meant to speak to a deeper disgust. When the powerful are just regular humans, they are shown to possess all that is foul in humanity: avarice, egotism, hubris and a lust for power. Often, as it is with the predictability in movies, there is the Edward Snowden character, the person who comes to see the error of his or her ways. This person is the lone hero, the individual. If not a sole human within the structures, it is a common person from without that sets things right. The message is: the good is not to be found in the structures of power but in one’s resilience and rebelling against them. Those outside of power are good, they are the real humans.
A crystal clear contrast is established. There are two worlds. There is the world of the powerful: cold, hateful, impersonal, and concerned only with the pursuit of power. Then, there is the world outside: filled with the multi-dimensional complexity of human experience. There is hate, but also love; power but also altruism; self-interest but also cooperation. The symbolism of men in suits vs. people in plain clothing; the rigid lexicon of power vs. the colloquialisms and slang of the people; the gait and body language, and even the lighting all serve to reinforce the motif of those in power as fundamentally different from the rest of us.
Indeed, this has its purpose. But there is the inescapable truth we must acknowledge: these films are totally devoid of any social criticism. How we got to where we are, the possibility that structures corrupt people rather than the other way around, the seemingly ever-lasting human phenomenon of corruption, or the interweaving of institutional and social politics; these are questions that remain unasked and therefore, unanswered.
Movies are an exercise in aesthetics, not logic. They are concerned with the pleasure and movement of the image, not its content. This can be explained by what Christine Nystrom calls the “invisible metaphysics” of a technology. Typography, by virtue of the medium, promotes context, sequence, logic and reasoned arguments. Televisual media, on the other hand, promotes sensory stimulation, passivity and speed; while disdaining explanation and complex argument. Movies, by virtue of their form, are not in the business of understanding and explaining phenomena, but of marketing and selling it.
The life presented in movies is at once hypnotic and myopic. The plot structures deceive us into believing that the actions of a single human can change everything, that if we believe it will be alright, that we can change a system by removing a man, and that there is always a happy ending; the struggle is quick and often painless. The narrowness of movies, their focus on people rather than structures, on singularities rather than events, retards the audience’s view of how life works. “Where the real world changes into simple images, the simple images become real beings and effective motivations of hypnotic behaviour”[i]. It does not promote a critical capacity in the world but rather, diminishes it by selling illusions masquerading as reality.
Movies treat life as a simple, novel, and easily digestible commodity. Any complexity in plot structure is negated by the simplicity of its terms. After all, killing the bad guy, whether it involves 150 steps, or 5, is still a simplistic proposition which solves problems in movies but rarely in real life.
Movies present to us a world of corrupt power structures and self-interested institutions. That these concepts are covered in such a shrunken intellectual dimension says as much about the medium of the image as it does of the writers and directors who script these movies.
Movies are an outlet. The rage, fear, reprisal, joy, and expectations of a culture find expression through them. But they represent the feelings, beliefs, attitudes and opinions in a certain way, precariously balancing between two opposing extremes: inspiring truth and paralysing banality.
Movies, by relaying a culture’s mood, can move and inspire people, but they can also render the subject matter meaningless and hollow. Henry Giroux remarks on this difference in his article Racism and the Aesthetic of hyper‐real violence. He writes,
The violence portrayed in films as different as Schindler’s List (1993) and Lethal Weapon 2 (1989) register disparate interests and assumptions. In the former, violence attempts to inscribe in public memory the tragic event of the Holocaust, an historical event that should be neither forgotten nor repeated. Whereas the violence in spectacle films such as Lethal Weapon 2 is kitsch serving as cheap entertainment. This particular form of violence celebrates the sensational and the gruesome. It has no redeeming value except to parade its endless stream of blood and gore at the expense of dramatic structure, emotional depth, and social relevance[ii].
Giroux is commenting on the diametrically different capacities of cinema: to either inform or entertain. Movies will either inspire truth or be banal.
To constantly be exposed to numbing displays of violence, and for this violence to be seen as entertainment, renders the audience unable to understand its moral implications. Similarly, constant exposure to the corruption and abuse of power that so characterises Western institutions, when mediated in the context of entertainment, tends towards banality.
Movies today, are not merely complicit in the corruption of institutional life, they neutralise it. They reduce it an object of entertainment and distraction. The cinematic rendering of life as something simple with the promise of a saviour and happy ending, leaves us intellectually and emotionally disabled to deal with the problems that face us in real life: corrupt politicians, the abuse of power, and the influence of money.
Movies vent the dismay and rage our cultures feels towards the structures of power. But, by selling it to us as a simplified, stimulating, even fun and entertaining experience, cinemas fail to inspire action in life. Instead, cinema renders everything as banal, and neutralises the critical imagination which would be required for action.
[i] The Situationist International Text Library. 2019. The Society of the Spectacle. [ONLINE] Available at: http://library.nothingness.org/articles/SI/en/display/16. Theses 18.
[ii] Giroux, H.G, 1995. Racism and the Aesthetic of Hyper-real Violence: Pulp Fiction and Other Visual Tragedies. Social Identites, [Online]. Vol. 1, Iss. 2, 333-354. Available at: http://erginguney.com/web/coursematerial/Racism_and_the_Aesthetic_of_Hyper.pdf. 336.