Wednesday, January 4, 2012

2011 the Year of Fear & 2012 the Written Word

What does Margin Call have in common with Contagion? Collapse. In Margin Call, it was the collapse of a company, but they know in the film they are just the first of the dominoes to fall in the total world market; in Contagion, it's the most basic aspects of civilized life that collapses, including being able to buy a box of cereal at the store.
I said it once and I will say it again: 2011 was a great year for film.
I don't intend to give you a list of the 10 best films of the year (there are plenty of those lists floating around and the Oscar nominations will be released January 24 and yes, I will be posting them); I do intend to provide you with an anthropological analysis of what the films that were made this year mean and say about life in 2011.There have been a lot of patterns and overlapping in films and it all means something.
What's so perfectly balanced in the film is the way in which each of the main characters demonstrates how a different aspect of society is effected by the virus which has developed and how the break-down of the family (Gweneth Paltrow's character committing adultery) brings down the rest of society.
I am not going to say that it was the best film of 2011, but I will say that Steven Soderbergh's Contagion best summarizes what all the others films of the year were saying: we are terrified. "Nothing spreads like fear," and the fear has been spreading (the Doomsday Clock has moved one minute closer to midnight, for example).
Contagion is being released on DVD this week, so if you haven't watched it yet, you need to (my review is Contagion: Bats and Pigs). Just as Contagion has about every character role filled by a major Hollywood star, so it covers all the subplots found in major films of 2011: disease, fear, chaos (including initial conditions and entropy), blurred lines of identity, re-establishing friendships and collapse.
This is quite a frightening scene for a modernized society. Mitch (Matt Damon) protecting his daughter resembles Curtis in Take Shelter protecting his daughter and both instances translate to the same concern: protecting the future.
Before I continue, please permit me to explain: when I say, "We are terrified," I don't mean you and me, I mean society and civilization which seems like a flock of birds moving in an simultaneous direction towards self-destruction that no one seems able to change (as in Take Shelter). The films of 2011 seem to be preparing us for the thesis that is coming in 2012 (a group of comparable exciting films to anticipate), the "I'm warning you now, and if you know what is good for you, you'll heed our advice," position.
But first, 2011.
Bryce Dallas Howard as villain-ness extraordinaire, Miss Hilly Holbrook in The Help.
Obviously, Contagion deals with disease and so did some other films. The Help not only examined the "cancer" of Jackson, Mississippi society (as symbolized by Skeeter's mother's battle, for analysis please see The Help: Of Chocolate Pies) but the disease Miss Hilly Holbrook spreads by spreading false information about blacks and whites sharing the same toilet facilities. Even The Rise of the Planet of the Apes has the sub-plot of a disease passed from one of the chimps to a human and the viral spread of it at the end of the film and Sherlock Holmes A Game of Shadows gave us a unique, super-fast acting TB virus knocking off Irene Adler. The incredibly uncanny film Take Shelter and My Week With Marilyn both utilize mental disease and, specifically, mental disease that is is passed on from one generation to the next (for my analysis please see Prophecy & Reality: Take Shelter and Sweet Despair: My Week With Marilyn ).
As in Contagion, Curtis tries to save his daughter in Take Shelter; and, like in The Artist (scheduled to be released near me this month) Hannah, who is deaf, cannot hear sound, just as The Artist is silent.
But illness abounds in 2011.
The Skin I Live In shows us Norma who wasn't "normal," and it's not just her obvious mental illness under examination, rather, all the characters, watch in their own way; J. Edgar took it upon himself to rid society of all it's "ills" (and that is exactly how he described it); very artfully, Martha Marcy May Marlene suggests that Martha may be ill, or maybe she isn't?  (Transgenesis-: The Skin I Live InVillains & Heroes: J. Edgar and Water For the Sand: Martha Marcy May Marlene). The ultimate film bringing disaster to the forefront, I mean besides Contagion and Take Shelter, is the Lars von Trier psychological horror Melancholia about a new bride burdened by depression who knows a rogue planet is coming to collide with the earth and incinerate all living beings, and it does.
I haven't gotten the chance to see this one yet, but I will the moment it comes out, there are just too many interesting symbols at work in this film to not be saying something highly controversial, and very interesting!
There is a tendency, when we are in danger, to seek out our friends, to surround ourselves with those whom we know we can trust, and there was certainly plenty of that going on this year: Cowboys and Aliens, Captain America and My Week With Marilyn all recall the British-U.S. alliance and seek to re-enforce it (Cowboys and Aliens: The U.S.-British Alliance and Captain America: A Movie Of Movies).When Cowboys and Aliens first came out, and then I saw Captain America, I thought it was just a targeted political statement aimed against American President Obama's (bizarre and historically unfounded) accusations against the British, with Hollywood extending the hand of friendship out across the pond in hopes that our past together will prove to be stronger than momentary insanity in Washington and I still hold this to be true, however, it also seems there is a preparation of war taking place, a stepping up to the line in preparation for something larger looming (and this is purely speculative based on films coming out next year).
There's more significance to this is romance than (American) Steve and (British) Peggy realize. Significantly, Captain America seeks to not only revitalize the British-U.S. Alliance, but further strengthen it with
There is no time like a crisis to do a little soul-searching and that may be the reason there were so many diverse films about identity coming out this year: Anonymous, The Skin I Live In, Martha Marcy May Marlene, The Thing, In Time, Moneyball, The Debt, Arthur Christmas, My Week With Marilyn, The Three Musketeers, The Help. On one end, there is the super-hyper academic debate about Shakespeare's identity in Anonymous (in 1998 the mega-hit Shakespeare In Love won seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture of the year, so we have to ask, what has happened between now and then that would make a film like Anonymous even possible to make?) and then the most basic (even to a degree ruthless) examination of how we exist within a time frame out of which we cannot exist in Justin Timberlake's In Time (Words, Words, Words: Anonymous and Re-Defining Possession: In Time ).
Robert watching Vera on a life-size television in The Skin I Live In; please note the carefully projected reflection of Robert's image on the television (from our perspective, over his right shoulder, next to Vera's cheek), destabilizing Robert's own identity which is exactly what happens throughout the rest of the film. The role of "television" projecting identities and shaping them is also explored in the critically acclaimed, We Need To Talk About Kevin which I have not seen yet, about a high school student who shoots up his school, another pretty good example of collapse as a theme.
There is extreme identity exploration from The Thing (a monster mutating everyone's identity) to the uprooting of all beliefs and what is reality in Martha Marcy May Marlene and then to The Skin I Live In with the total medical alteration of a man's body into a woman's body as a means of revenge (Imitations: The ThingWater For the Sand: Martha Marcy May Marlene and Transgenesis: The Skin I Live In). Even Hollywood is exploring who and what it is and the role it is willing to take in Hugo (where Hollywood came from in the silent film era), The Artist (which I should be able to finally see this month) and My Week With Marilyn. It's not silent films Hollywood is examining, it's how silent Hollywood is going to be with this upcoming election year, and if it wants to contribute to the upcoming debates and, by the films coming out next year, the answer is yes (please see below).
One of the most ground-breaking films of the year, Martha Marcy May Marlene. The seams between reality, memory and dreams are so tightly woven that it makes you dizzy, a technique suitably employed in Take Shelter as well; in its own way, In Time radicalizes time (the past, the future and our social class being determined by it) by measuring it and selling that which previously, would not have been thought as a commodity, but it contributes to this amazing conversation taking place in Hollywood and the world about the world in which we live and how we are living.
By far, the most important theme of the year is collapse.
Whether it's the social boundaries of a Southern city in The Help, or a baseball team in Moneyball, a nuclear warhead being launched in Mission Impossible, or an actress who can't get herself together to make it into work on time because of depression (My Week With Marilyn), a tremendous number of films explored "collapse" in small and grand detail (another film I have been waiting for nearly a year to see, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, I will finally get to watch this weekend, and centers upon a double-spy and the possible collapse of British Intelligence). Two great George Clooney films this year, The Descendants and The Ides of March, both revolve around collapse (the collapse of a family and the collapsing of a political identity) but, like Moneyball, Warrior and Contagion, also points the way to rebuilding, and that's the most important characteristic of the collapses we have seen in films this year: recreating.
Brad Pitt as coach Billy Beane in Moneyball. This is a great shot because Beane's team has fallen apart and he's searching for a way to re-construct. To do that, he has to undermine the history of baseball and everything the game has been based upon heretofore, hence, the reason he sits "underneath" the enlarged photograph of baseball legends and what he has to do to get out from "underneath" the weight of the legend and create anew.
There is collapse brought about by disaster and there is collapse brought about by necessity. Examples of the former would be Contagion, Melancholia, The Descendants; examples of the former would be The Help, The Debt and Moneyball. With the exception of Melancholia, all the films discussing collapse demonstrate the hope that a better, stronger world will come from it (this is the explicit theme of Mission Impossible Ghost Protocol). Moneyball, for example, illustrates how re-making the Oakland A's baseball team is a great parable for the American economy because it's getting back to the most basic principles of self-examination and genuine purpose, not a kind of final ending and demise to the team, but a chance to not only recreate themselves, but the entire game as well, so everyone will benefit; so these themes, while tapping into a sense of paranoia that may/may not exist in society today, also provide an important sense of hope and determination not to permit collapse to be permanent, rather, a phase in a new beginning (Moneyball and the Great American Economy and The Debt and the Theory Of Chaos).
The Debt is full of great performances and drama. Rachel (Helen Mirren and Jessica Chastain) and two fellow Israeli Intelligence agents agree to lie about a Nazi doctor they were supposed to have brought back for war crime trials but who escaped instead; they tell Israel that Rachel killed him as he was attempting escape. One of the agents, David, finds the escaped doctor and Rachel goes to kill him, to cleanse and heal the wounds that the lie they have told for years has created, so while the facade of heroism (symbolized by the dramatic scar on Rachel's right cheek from when the doctor was escaping) has collapsed because the doctor has resurfaced, it offers a chance for the truth to come out and heal each of them wounded in their own ways.
But these have been themes in film for years.
It would be absolutely correct to argue this, however, along with these themes have come an important characteristic: ground-breaking new techniques. One way to say something new, is to find an unexpected way of saying something old and familiar, and the films of 2011 have done that. Who would have thought that a silent film would not only make a huge splash critically (and be nominated for a ton of awards) but even be made in today's market? Yet The Artist is doing just that and it's because we need new ways to express ourselves, and that's always a good sign because we're doing just that.
Paranormal Activity 3 broke the record for a horror film's opening weekend. What was so great about it? If you liked The Blair Witch Project you would like PA3. In this sense, what PA3 is doing wasn't new, but it really hasn't been done since 1999 and it does it extremely well and effective. Using a "home movie" aesthetic instead of the studio polish and style, the interruption of a camera's viewing angel, for example, increases the startling encounter with the paranormal because of the randomness of the camera cutting out of the action.
And this leads me to what we can expect in 2012.
The most obvious trend in the trailers being released is an examination of  the fairy tale genre: Snow White and the HuntsmanMirror, Mirror, Hansel and Gretel Witch Hunters, The Lorax and Jack the Giant Killer. Why are fairy tales, generally considered to be naught but children's stories, important? Fairy tales contain the seeds of social norms expected of children when they grow up and the consequences of breaking those norms (this understanding of fairy tales is very standard in academia and one of the reasons why theoretical groups wanting political power or to demonstrate society's inherent intolerance of them will turn to fairy tales in examinations of why they don't have power). If you haven't seen it, here's a trailer for one of them:
There are too many disparate elements I'm seeing in this, and I am going to wait to comment until I see the film, due to be released June 15; it will be interesting and, above all, I am expecting this (among most other films) to be about class conflict and, even class warfare.
Very similar to the the fairy tale genre is the comic book which compounds the number of  "fairy tales" being released and the most important ones are The AvengersThe Amazing Spider Man and The Dark Knight Rises. This is the recently released Russian trailer for The Avengers; it contains some visual footage previously not seen and Robert Downey Jr. "speaking Russian":
What do these films have in common with other films being released?
The written word.
Fairy tales and comic books are based on original, authoritative written texts; undoubtedly, a film such as Snow White and the Huntsman will adapt its story line to the original fairy tale of Snow White, however, certain elements have to be retained in order for the audience to recognize the character, but what elements will be retained are decisions that will ultimately reflect culture and society--and the lessons the film will teach us--and the direction we should be going.
If you have not yet seen the trailers, please enjoy these, for Mirror, Mirror and then Snow White and the Huntsman:


There is going to be a tremendous amount of political presence both films serve up for the audience and, as we can see, it's the adorable 7 dwarfs being replaced by first a group of "rebels" (hardly the king's miners of great gemstones from beneath the earth as in the Walt Disney version) and in Snow White and the Huntsman it's an army and that army will want power.
I am far more interested now than initially.
The two elements in both Snow White and the Huntsman and Mirror, Mirror I will be watching for is a relationship between the Evil Queen and Snow White (is the Queen still a stepmother, or a removed political power who is threatened by one of her subjects, not a potential rival who is her equal) and does the Huntsman present a "pig's heart" to the queen to trick her that it is Snow White's heart? It appears that both Mirror, Mirror and Snow White and the Huntsman retain the "poisoned apple" as a device towards Snow White's demise, but how the apple is presented to Snow White will undoubtedly change, not only from the original text, but the two versions will differ also.
Kristen Stewart as Snow White; it's interesting that the white tree emblem upon the shield resembles the white tree of the Stewards from The Lord of the Rings.
One additional element to note: the prince.
In the trailer for Snow White and the Huntsman, it's the Huntsman who presents a far greater active role in the trailer and, given the attention the Occupy Wall Street has received, most likely it will be a class issue (a Huntsman as a worker vs a prince as a member of the nobility). This brings us to the question of how Snow White will be presented (in terms of class) as closer to the people or of the nobility and there will be consequences for both versions depending on their choice of depictions, but let us make no mistakes, these will be carefully chosen political roles because of affairs in Washington, not some far off and distant land.
But speaking of class" we need to take a look at Bruce Wayne, one of the richest men in the world and who it is that's coming to get him:
What undermines the information in this trailer has being purely about class struggle?
"You are as precious to me as to your own mom and dad, and I swore to them I would protect you," the BUTLER says, and this is symbolic of the sharing of the classes in the future of America (the young boy, symbolic of the future, singing the national anthem) because Alfred is the working class whereas the Waynes are the upper, 1% of America; it looks like a class film, but Christopher Nolan is far too clever to release too much too soon and , although 2012 is an election year and films will all seek to play a deciding factor in the election's outcome, the most subtle and important voice will probably come from The Dark Knight Rises.
Speaking of patriotism,...
Two films about Abraham Lincoln are set for 2012, one from Steven Spielberg and one called Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter, and it's the later I'm most interested in: the most popular character in film and television (and even books) are vampires and Abraham Lincoln, as the Emancipator of America and the last president who, because of his sacrifice and political positions can be called a "founding father" although he lived so long after the Revolution, is going to be taking on these demons occupying American art... who kills a vampire with an axe? That's the point, you don't kill vampires with an axe, but it's Abraham Lincoln the log-splitting, poor farmer from Indiana who is taking on vampires, and that changes everything; while Steven Spielberg's Lincoln will probably reflect his Democratic and pro-Obama administration political viewpoints, Abraham Lincoln the Vampire Slayer will probably examine how (if at all) the "vampires" are those "sucking the blood out of America" (which could be any number of groups, honestly) and it will be with his poor farmer background as a politician that symbolically, Honest Abe does it.
How do films about Abraham Lincoln contribute to the body of written word films coming out?
The Gettysburg Address, the Emancipation Proclamation and Lincoln's interpretation of the Constitution will all play, in greater of lesser degrees to the films presentation of him, but by far, the greatest American writer, Edgar Allan Poe, will be presented by his writings and the only question is, who is being butchered and who is doing the butchering?
The Raven, set for release March 9, juxtaposes America's greatest writer with (possibly) America's greatest president (Lincoln in the previously discussed films) and it's not by accident: examining what is "greatest" about America is a deliberate act of self-examination in preparation for, not only the election in November 2012, but those collapses discussed in 2011 films. We don't know where we are going until we know where we have been, and now that 2011 is done, we can stand firm and know that we are in for a ride, but we have choices and we have our past strength and great deeds to have faith and confidence that we, as a country, will make the best decisions and, in spite of what may happen, we will be stronger for it.
Also based on the original texts, The Hunger Games should provide a much needed scathing critique of American society, and I expect great things from it.
In preparation for these upcoming films, I will be examining the original fairy tales before the respective films are scheduled for release and the works of Edgar Allan Poe, so, going in, readers of The Fine Art Diner will be informed viewers and we will all know what to look for.
My next post is the very close examination of the chess game between Moriarty and Holmes.