Thursday, 27 February 2014

Motifs in Cinema: Disillusionment all around us (GUEST POST)

 (E/N: Nope, this is not my entry for Motifs in Cinema: 2013 come early, but a submission from Jose. Mr. Solis has abandoned his former blog, but was kind enough to oblige with an entry for the blog-a-thon. And, although he may be a blogger with a blog he's still has many things to say. The round-up of all participating blogs will be posted here tomorrow evening.)
Motifs in Cinema is a discourse across film blogs, assessing the way in which various thematic elements have been used in the 2013 cinematic landscape. How does a common theme vary in use from a comedy to a drama? Are filmmakers working from a similar canvas when they assess the issue of death or the dynamics of revenge? Like most things, a film begins with an idea –Motifs in Cinema assesses how various themes emanating from a single idea change when utilised by varying artists.
“You're nothing to me until you're everything.”
- Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams in American Hustle)

Our Man (Robert Redford) suddenly wakes up in his sailboat to realize he’s been struck by something that might slowly pull him down towards the bottom of the ocean. He peeks outside and sees a big, bold, red container with a Chinese name. Somewhere, far away from there, this container fell into the ocean. And, despite the aimlessness of its repurposed voyage, it seemed as if it was destined to screw Our Man’s fate. This very simple premise which sets up All is Lost, also sums up how the issue of disillusionment in 2013 cinema (especially American cinema) was directly tied to the economy and a world where the powerful can suddenly fall to the mercy of God, unpredicted economic forces, justice, Nothingness…
Why did the container that ends up sinking Our Man’s ship have to be Asian? Why did Our Man have no name? Why was the container carrying thousands of little shoes? The obvious answer is that writer/director J.C. Chandor (who’d once before shared his concerns with American economy in Margin Call) was delivering another tale of the United States’ seemingly imminent fall from economic power. That the movie has a man who's made a name for himself based on charisma, good looks, masculinity and that selfmade quality so valued in the Western world, is enough proof that we were now upon a tale in which Mr. America himself is brought down to its feet by a nameless machine. A seemingly far away power only known to us for its expediency and efficiency.

Once upon a time it was always the case to have Arabs, Russians or the Chinese to be villains in American films. They would usually boast outrageous accents, perpetrate catastrophic attacks or come up with plans that would destroy the world even they had to live in and for a moment we were fooled into believing those days of bigotry and stereotypes were over, only to have them return in 2013 cinema under the guise of economic powers. Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity similarly has two quintessentially American movie stars (Sandra Bullock and George Clooney) play pawns in a game of destruction set forward by the Chinese and the Russian.

It is after all the remains of a Russian satellite that first disturb the peacefulness with which Cuarón first introduces us to his outer space mission and by the time Bullock’s character reaches a Chinese space station only to find herself abandoned and forced to look out for herself, and we find ourselves right back where we were at the beginning: in Our Man’s sailboat surrounded by an ocean of emptiness moved only by the indifference and passive aggressive hostility of those trying to take away our power.

If Gravity and All is Lost are two extreme examples, let us then go to the “ripped from the headlines” nature of Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine, which saw fit to explore the cruelty of the Madoff case, only by pairing it with a reinterpretation of a Tennessee Williams’ play that reminds us that sometimes fantasy is the only way to survive. Perhaps because our society too, just like Cate Blanchett’s Jasmine (and Blanche Dubois before her), needs to deal in the currency of artifice; too perplexed, intimidated or terrified by good old fashioned truths. What’s fascinating about the auteurs who observed disillusionment last year is that they all came up with characters with no sense of agency. Our Man, Jasmine and Ryan are all characters meant to embody Western values, who are suddenly reduced to animals at the mercy of a large prey they can’t negotiate with. How do you get out of a contract with fate?

This overwhelming sense of loss and impotence was never crueller than in 12 Years a Slave which takes us back in time but continues exploring elements of powerlessness within a larger economic context. Steve McQueen’s horrifying story takes this even one step further by establishing what Cuarón and Chandor only suggested with their archetypes: that we tend to lose our humanity in the face of the economy. This isn’t meant to deny the specificity of Solomon Northup’s tragic story and its repercussions in racial and social matters. But to obviate the fact that slavery was, above everything else, a matter of economic power in post-colonial America, is also to lie to ourselves about a historical context in which inhumanity had a justification in the eyes of those who owned and abused their slaves.

Perhaps the most important takeaway from McQueen’s film and one which can be directly traced all the way to American Hustle, is how then we chose to wear masks in order to wash our hands off of the injustices we’ve helped commit, even if just by omitting to act upon them in the name of what’s right. David O. Russell’s latest, might look like a delightful heist film on the surface, but only because in its artifice lies its very essence: that by denying ourselves of self-awareness we are only doomed to commit the same mistakes over and over again.
The sense of disillusionment carried on by the characters in these films is mostly powerful because even despite of their distance from us (few of us are astronauts, Upper East Siders fallen from grace or 70s con artists) we can’t help but recognize how our sins have followed us throughout the ages. Until we are able to see life for what it is and act upon it, we are cursed with a task asked only of Sisyphus. But let us not despair, there is always another day to work on changing, another day to examine ourselves and claim our destinies. Change after all takes time and courage and like J.Law’s Rosalyn in Hustle, we too are afraid of change.

Perhaps so afraid of it that we’ll die before we change…

- Jose Solis


Andrew K. said...

jose i'm intrigued by this piece for multiple reasons but especially your reading on american hustle which reminds me of what nick prigge had said about it, about the film's underlying theme of the danger adopting roles and then taking it too far and although i still feel the film makes fun of itself too much for me to feel its pain your words on the disillusionment against his are really making me reconsider those final ten minutes.

great call on the lack of agency in the disillusioned, though. even the characters with a semblance of agency (like Llewyn Davis, for example) are really just all slaves to fate and their own bad habits. no wonder they're disillusioned.

Brittani Burnham said...

Great post! I love Jose's writing. Thanks for sharing!

Candice Frederick said...

great post! well said.

Nick Prigge said...

Excellent post. (You really went deep with "All Is Lost" & "Gravity". Things I hadn't considered.) Love your take on "American Hustle", which I whole-heartedly agree with. To Andrew, I think I'd respectfully say that the movie's definitely having fun but not necessarily making fun of itself. I think it might take a less than favorable view of some of its characters - Cooper's in particular - but the thrill of playing the part is so enticing that it has to be shown as fun.

And I can't help but shake the thought after multiple viewings that even in some ways the end is a con. That their attempts at change strike a phony chord and they're just conning themselves.