December 29, 2005

2005: The Year of Political Film-making

Crash. Syriana. Munich. Good Night and Good Luck. Paradise Now. The Constant Gardener. The Corporation.

Add in Brokeback Mountain, Jarhead, and A History of Violence and you have not only a half-way decent top ten list, but you also have a slew of films that rely on political tensions, current events, or contemporary sociological paradoxes and problems for their impact. Compared to the "best" films of last year (Sideways, The Aviator, Before Sunset, Eternal Sunshine, Closer, Bad Education, Kill Bill, House of Flying Daggers/Hero, Ray), this year has seen a much greater focus on engagement with contemporary social issues, and not in a very covert way.

True, last year had Million Dollar Piece of Shit Baby, Maria Full of Grace, Moolaade, and Vera Drake, all of which fit in with this sociopolitically-engaged zeitgeist, but this year is still pretty notable for the number of films that try to have a political message or valence.

I find this interesting because it is conventional wisdom that people prefer escapist fantasies when the news is all too real and all too intrusive. I mean, think of all the spectacularly dégagé films made during the Great Depression and WWII—It Happened One Night, The Thin Man, His Girl Friday, The Adventures of Robin Hood, The Wizard of Oz, Gone With the Wind, The Maltese Falcon, all the MGM musicals—they are at least what the era is remembered for—the glamour and glitz. This year's films, and last year's as well for the most part, trade grit for glitz almost as a convention.

Is this the overheated but half-baked work of liberal activist filmmakers, then? But why are the critics praising these politicized products from such puerile pundits? And it's not like Crash didn't do well commercially, and all the others that have gotten wide release have done respectably. Is it simply because so many of the big-budget films of the past few years have been so bad that we have convinced ourselves that if a film has a politically relevant message, it's more worth our time?

I think it's also interesting that so many seemingly innocuous films get politicized or latched onto by an interest group so quickly today—March of the Penguins or Chronicles of Narnia, for instance. What's going on with our society when we see penguins as an argument against same-sex marriage and for "family values"?

I guess I should be happy somehow that our society is so conscious of these issues. I mean, "consciousness-raising" is essentially the blogger's mission, and one I heartily subscribe to. And the issues brought out in this year's movies definitely deserve our attention and our movie screens. But something about this all makes me a little uneasy.

Maybe it's my being in Indiana, where overwhelming homogeneity makes so many potentially divisive questions seem unimportant next to the need for unity and strong communities. In some ways, to a lot of America these films about politics seem as distant and unrelated to everyday life as films noir or special effects extravaganzas or musicals. Crash simply plays differently in Nebraska or rural Illinois than it does in LA or NY or DC. How do we deal with this, and why are we dealing with it in film?

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