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…
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.
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