Monthly Archives: October 2012

NOTE: This post was originally published on Dead Politics Society, a blog for my Political Sociology class in the spring of 2012, as my final paper.

“Let me tell you about the very rich,” wrote F. Scott Fitzgerald, “they are different from you and me.” If you look at eight movies that specifically tackle economic malaise following the 2008 recession, you would find that Fitzgerald rings true still today. They have Degas paintings in their office (The Company Men), expensive sports cars in their garage (Margin Call), and pools with a $100 bill painted on the bottom above their penthouse (Tower Heist).

Never mind that hundreds of feet below their offices and miles from their mansions, the unemployment rate swelled to 10% and 2.3 million Americans had their homes foreclosed. These films depict the fat cats of corporate America thriving off the misery of the middle-class, setting up two powerful frames for moviegoers to view the tough times. To borrow terms from Diana Kendall, the upper crust is repeatedly portrayed through “bad apples framing” while the middle-class is seen through “victimization framing,” a clash which sets up audiences to view the post-recessional landscape as a class conflict.

Each of these films represents a frame that is episodic in nature since they are limited, unrelated narratives dealing with the financial crisis in some way; these reports attribute individual responsibility to large societal problems. So rather than closely scrutinizing how capitalism itself might be responsible for middle-class woes, post-recessional cinema endorsed a theory of “bad apples capitalism.” This belief, rooted in the idea that a few people who refuse to play by the rules can ruin an entire system, allows viewers to direct their anger at a person rather than an abstract concept.

Indeed, it is much easier to blame Gordon Gekko, the banker who refers to money as a “bitch who never sleeps” (Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps), and John Tuld, the CEO who calls money “made up” (Margin Call) than to find the entire capitalistic system guilty for the current American misery. The “bad apples” emphasis allows the movies to rile cages and stir anger without inciting revolutionary sentiment. They villainize the products of corporate America without actually attacking corporate America. (Corporate profits make these movies happen, so “bad apples” is about as close as they can get to critiquing the system.)

To emphasize the corruption of the rich corporate moguls, the movies shower us with lavish descriptions of their lifestyles. They chat about their million-dollar paychecks while the financial system teeters on the verge of collapse (Margin Call), and we hear about their private islands in Belize (Tower Heist) as well as how they make 700 times the salary of the average worker in their company (The Company Men). And all of this has blinded them to the plight of their workers – they claim to work for their shareholders instead of their employees (The Company Men), rob hardworking staff of their pensions (Tower Heist), and claim that massive layoffs present an “opportunity” for those left at the company (Margin Call).

Meanwhile, the middle class, out of their sight and most definitely out of their minds, is shown as trying to preserve their virtues and lifestyles amidst the turmoil. They have to sell their car to get by (Larry Crowne), take on a bartending job at night to put food on the table (Win Win), and move back in with their parents out of necessity (The Company Men). Jason Reitman’s Up in the Air takes the most wrenching look at their economic woes, putting real downsized workers in front of the camera to reenact their firings and rehash their financial fears. Current cinema has, in other words, provided a fresh set of faces to fit the bill for the “new poor” archetype that first came to prominence during recessions in the 1980s.

(NOTE: Both of these clips show firing scenes with staged actors, but they echo the general sentiment of the truly unemployed.)

However, the middle class is normally defined by their values rather than income (Kendall 2011), and post-recessional cinema makes its depiction go further than just merely downward mobility: the crisis threatens to break the country’s moral backbone. The economy forces them to contemplate taking money unethically from the elderly (Win Win), relapse into alcoholism (Everything Must Go), and launches them into depression that ultimately proves suicidal for some (Up in the Air and The Company Men). In the extreme case of Tower Heist, a comedy that borders on farce, fired workers even hire a convicted felon to help them steal $20 million from a rich man who conned them. Sadly, Hollywood showed through this recession that the squeeze forced them to budge on their values.

Ultimately, a hopeful Hollywood ending comes for the middle-class that allows them to reconnect with their values and inherent goodness. Yet most films provide a pass to the people who caused the suffering as well. They make over a billion dollars off the crisis (Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps), walk out the door with a $90 million severance check (The Company Men), and giddily look forward to profiting from the meltdown (Margin Call). So why do they get off easy? Honesty.

In real life, these executives not only escaped punishment but also saw their fortunes grow. The filmmakers want us to be angry when the movie ends. So far, it has worked. Polls show that 60% of Americans supported cutting payroll taxes, and over half support raising taxes only on people who make more than $250,000 a year. If Obama ever gets the Buffet rule passed, he owes Hollywood a debt of gratitude.

For full bibliography, see the original post.

Does the above picture sum up your feelings toward The Master after one viewing?  Frustrated, grasping at nothing, perhaps a little crazy?

Well, let there be light.  Literally.

Paul Thomas Anderson was very forthcoming on his publicity tour for the film (probably on Harvey Weinstein’s demands), and he was willing to spill on the major visual influence of The Master.  It was a propaganda film directed by the great John Huston (The Maltese FalconThe Treasure of the Sierra Madre) for the U.S. Army documenting post-WWII emotional trauma.  Within the first few minutes, you’ll start to see the parallels.

So maybe that helps give you someplace to jump off into a deeper analysis of the film.  Because it’s definitely not meant to be left at surface-level.

Were you, like many in the audience at Monday night’s screening of Compliance, shocked by just how far people’s blind faith in authority extends?

Well, if you heard someone inopportunely chuckling during some of the most tense moments of the film, that was me.  Unlike most people who saw Compliance, I was not shocked in the slightest.  Rather, from the first time Sandra went against her better judgment and did what the voice on the phone said, I knew there was no turning back.

I can imagine people took comfort for most of the film thinking, “Surely this is an isolated incident.  These people are just exceptionally stupid.  No one would just totally abandon common sense and morality that easily!”  But then director Craig Zobel left you with the message that there were over SEVENTY instances of the events in Compliance taking place across America.

But let me share with you some knowledge I came into the movie with that may enlighten just what Zobel was trying to show – it’s too true to be good.  In my Principles of Sociology class from freshman year, we talked about a study done in the 1960s by a Yale psychologist known as “The Milgram Experiment.”

Milgram was curious to investigate the effects of authority and the limits of obedience.  He changed a few variables, but the results were pretty consistent: people pretty much obeyed what the person in charge of the situation said.

The experiment involved administering a shock to someone who missed answers to questions (obviously a simulation for ethical reasons), and in some of the trials, the person being shocked would cry out to stop the shocks or bang against the wall.  Merely by saying “you must proceed,” the person administering the shock continued in spite of their nagging qualms about the morality of their decision.

Milgram originally devised the study to discover why the Germans fell prey to Hitler and the Nazis.  He was going to repeat the study in Germany after doing some preliminary observations in America.  However, Milgram never went to Germany.  He was too disheartened by how easily Americans abandoned all discretion under the direction of authority.

I hope you somehow manage to have a nice day after reading this!

Plenty of criticism is being published about knee-jerk reactions to Paul Thomas Anderson’s cryptic sixth film, The Master.  So much so that someone might think a movie meriting serious consideration hadn’t been released in eons.  But while the scholars will have years to pore over the film frame by frame, there’s one particular piece that particularly stuck out to me because it is so firmly rooted in the now.  It abandons all claims of timelessness (a sentiment to which many reviewers harken when they have no earthly idea how to interpret a film) and looks at the film solely as it will be viewed and received in our own, current time.

Stephanie Zacharek, now of The AV Club, asks “Should some movies be taken more seriously than others?”  She writes:

“[…] what happens if you still don’t like the movie that has been deemed a masterpiece by nearly every critic you respect (and some you don’t)? Did you just not watch the movie hard enough, or think about it long enough? Are you just not smart enough to get it?

Is the problem you?

[…] As a film critic, I follow a lot of other critics on Twitter. Last week, as The Master geared up for its initial limited release, I noticed a number of critics and other observers noting that anyone who hoped to get the most out of the movie really ought to see it twice. In their eyes, the picture is that rich, that artistically challenging, that impossible to immediately ‘get.’ But the subtext of those tweets—unintentional, I’m certain—was passive-aggressively dictatorial. The unspoken suggestion was, ‘If you didn’t get it the first time, keep going back until you do.’

But what if viewers see The Master once and not only don’t warm to it—or find it engaging in any of the ways we engage with films we don’t exactly like—but also don’t think there’s much to get? Serious moviegoers who care about reviews—and, admittedly, there may be fewer of those than there were 40 years ago—may be baffled by all the accolades, or possibly cowed by them. Everyone who goes to the movies (critics included) has those ‘What did they see that I didn’t see?’ moments.”

First of all, having seen The Master, I can promise you that I don’t think even the brightest of film scholars could understand this movie in two, much less one, sitting.  The movie is just so dense, both in terms of the images and the story, and it tackles so much in such an unhurried, methodical manner.  You have a statement on post-WWII America, a look into religion, a glance at a curious power dynamic, a love story … and depending on how you felt about Joaquin Phoenix’s animalistic performance, maybe even a look at mental illness.

When you see a movie for the first time, I believe two things happen.  First, you take in the film as a whole, observing it as a progression of story and perhaps extracting some of the major themes.  Second, you react to your expectations.  You inevitably compare the movie to what you thought the trailer or the poster told you it was going to be.  You match it up against films in a similar genre.  And if you are a particularly avid cinephile, you might draw relationships to the previous works of the director or the actors.

With that in mind, I would argue that yes, a movie like The Master does demand a second viewing.  It’s a fiercely original film that answers to few (if any) cinematic conventions, one of which being the need for a story with palpable forward momentum and a clear sense of direction.  The Master moves in concentric circles where most movies proceed in a straight line.  Even if you knew to expect something different coming into your first viewing, there was still no way to prepare.

Second, you almost certainly had to go into the movie thinking it would be like something else you had seen before.  The Master honestly might come from any mold whatsoever.  Paul Thomas Anderson’s previous movies all bore striking resemblances to acclaimed American auteurs: Boogie Nights to Scorsese, Magnolia to Altman, and There Will Be Blood to Kubrick.  But look at the changed aesthetic from Magnolia to The Master – shaky, violent camerawork to still, beautifully composed shots.  He’s done learning from the greats who came before him and is boldly declaring himself a new pioneer in American cinema.

If you’re tired of Hollywood formulas churning out predictable movie after predictable movie (and then trickling slowly down into Indiewood to be ironically mocked and then become a formula itself), The Master should be a welcome treat.  Challenging, but welcome.  And one you should want to see again and again.

So welcome, Paul Thomas Anderson, a new undeniable great of American cinema.  A master.