Movies Matter More Than Ever in Confusing Times

Their ability to synthesize complex moments of history shows us a path forward.

By Dorothy Woodend 11 Dec 2017 |

Dorothy Woodend writes about film every other week for The Tyee. Find her previous articles here.

There occurs a moment in a great many films this year, when a series of complex and thorny decisions come down to a simple yes or no answer. Do you enter into peace negotiations with the Nazis? Do you go against the Nixon Whitehouse and publish the Pentagon Papers? Do you run away to Walt Disney World to escape the long arm of child services?

In all of these very different stories, there is a price to be paid, for good or for bad. But the critical part is that singular moment of free will, of decision. Stay or go, in or out, old or new. Change or don’t change.

Weirdly enough, it is the choice to take the new path that predominates, not only in cinema, but also in the real world as well. There is a sea change upon us, and every day some startling revelation appears. It is positively whiplash inducing, running from the literary world through the NPR and to the Metropolitan Opera. Powerful people fall. Few institutions are spared.

The question that most hangs in the air is: “Now what?”

It was a question that seemed to be on folks’ minds when U.S. activist and academic Angela Davis spoke at a fundraiser for the Battered Women’s Support Services in Vancouver last week. You could virtually feel it humming like an electric current, as people took their seats.

Coincidentally, Davis’s speech took place on the same day that the Matt Lauer story broke open. Charlie Rose was also on the ropes, and the lurid saga of Harvey Weinstein’s predatory career was continuing to unspool in a long dark twist of stories. Along with a lot of other women and men, I went to the talk with some hope of clarity, of answers even. Davis is a magnetic speaker, with oratory cadences that recall James Baldwin and Malcolm X, but even she seemed a little bewildered by the sheer deluge and snaky tangle of stuff. Will intersectionality save us? Is it all Hillary Clinton’s fault? What really happened in the 1970s? As she traversed subjects as varied as prison reform, Palestine, sexual violence, and the statue of Gassy Jack, I thought, “Where the hell are we going?”

As I struggled to find the connective tissue between all the different ideas and issues she broached, it was tempting to look for something firm to hang on to. And, if Angela Davis can’t make any sense of things, what hope do the rest of us have?

But here is where we come back to movies and their ability to synthesize large ideas, huge chunks of history and complex emotion into story. The movies still matter, perhaps more than they have in a long time. Whether it’s a fantastical fairy tale about a woman and sea monster, a little kid living out loud in a shitty Florida hotel, or Winston Churchill weaponizing words — there is a veritable bounty of cinematic richness currently on offer.

As someone recently pointed out, film can be a civics lesson quite unlike any other. The statement was made in regard to Village Voice Critic Bilge Ebiri’s review of The Post and it is appropriate. Steven Spielberg’s new film recalls an era when newspapers held the feet of power to the flame. The film itself is stirringly old-fashioned, but at its centre there is something white hot. Those moments of personal decision-making that change the course of history.

Let the presses roll. Step up, even though everything may fall. Such defiance calls to the little kid heart inside me. It bypasses intellect, leaps over the many equivocations of adult life, and flashes a bolt of lightning through the endless grey zone of compromise and collusion. Speak the truth and let whatever is going to happen, happen.

In short, there is nothing more compelling than human courage. I know it’s corny as hell, but it still works!

In this aspect, the film that resounded more than any other this year was Jordan Peele’s Get Out. This may seem weird, as Get Out is ostensibly a horror movie with a thick streak of the satirical, but the film achieves that rarest of things, a revealing of truth.

The director has stated in a number of interviews that he never expected the film to get made, much less become a phenomenon, but it has prompted an outpouring on Instagram of images and reinterpretations. Paintings, drawings and art that actively contend with the pain at the very heart of the story.

In short order, the plot concerns a young black man and his white girlfriend, visiting her parents in suburban America. From the outset, things feel odd, and they get creepier as events unfold. The film moves swiftly from the uneasy to the downright terrifying with almost clinical precision, collecting along the way a compendium of images that curl inside you and begin to eat. Dead deer, white people, tea cups, milk drunk through a straw — excuse me while I scream at the top of my lungs for a few moments.

Watching Get Out, I had a shock of recognition and a flashback to another film. At the age of maybe 10 or 11, I watched the Stepford Wives, and was filled with a rage too large to contain. I didn’t know what to do with it, and the uncertainty of the film’s ending felt doubly cruel. The thing that still resounds, however many years later, is that sense of betrayal, confusion and the dawning realization that you (female person) don’t matter.

Whereas Stepford did not allow for any definitive resolution, Get Out does the opposite. Freedom, and the cathartic release that accompanies it, is undeniable. Some ferocious corner of my child heart crowed with delight, as bloody violent retribution was finally served.

Get Out has prompted a watershed of critical thought and analysis, but one of the most interesting takes came from Zadie Smith, writing in Harper’s Magazine. Smith gets to the heart of the matter in an incisive paragraph that details the shared otherness, that fuels the narrative:

“Peele has found a concrete metaphor for the ultimate unspoken fear: that to be oppressed is not so much to be hated as obscenely loved. Disgust and passion are intertwined. Our antipathies are simultaneously a record of our desires, our sublimated wishes, our deepest envies. The capacity to give birth or to make food from one’s body; perceived intellectual, physical, or sexual superiority; perceived intimacy with the natural world, animals, and plants; perceived self-sufficiency in a faith or in a community. There are few qualities in others that we cannot transform into a form of fear and loathing in ourselves.”

Equating sexism and racism is itself tricky, but I cannot ignore the feeling of empathy that Get Out engendered.

Which brings me back to Angela Davis talking in Vancouver about the need for intersectionality in the broadest sense possible. Davis referenced the divisions that fractured the women’s movement, along lines of class and colour. Glass-ceiling feminism is the term often used, but Davis said she preferred the term “Bourgeoisie Feminism.” She stated: “Women ought not to aspire to replace men but should aspire to radical social transformation.” And in this, everyone needs be internationalist in their approach.

But the movies are already there. The heroes of Guillermo del Toro’s splendid new film The Shape of Water — a disabled woman, a woman of colour, a gay man, and a sea monster — are a veritable rainbow coalition.

One of the most interesting things to come out of the recent culture wars is a new lens. You can’t look at old stories in quite the same fashion anymore. But this is a difficult process because it is very hard to give up the things that you love. As people debate whether it’s possible to watch Woody Allen films anymore, one is forced to look at one’s own culpabilities.

I have to admit I love the frisson of sex and violence, especially in film. The scene at the end of John Ford’s The Quiet Man, when John Wayne drags Maureen O’Hara through the Irish countryside and then proceeds to beat the living shit out of her brother, sent my sister and I into swoony ecstasies. Every girl who went gaga-bananas over the Brontesque brooders like Mr. Rochester or Heathcliff understands the thrilling glamour of male desire and violence. The more modern iterations of Twilight and 50 Shades carry the same electricity. But what to do with this stuff now? Can you give it up, and if so, what replaces it?

It feels a bit strangely fatalistic, this hurling yourself into new and unknown territory in the pursuit of something that you don’t fully understand, or even recognize, just yet. Where do you look for the path forward?

There is an excellent series in the Los Angeles Review of Books that examines the history of violence from a multiplicity of perspectives. It is heady, fascinating stuff and well-worth reading in its entirety. The final interview with writer Elaine Scarry is a perfect summation of what art can do, and has done, for millennia:

“Even when the humanities do not appear to be in the midst of repairing civic wrongs, they are often surreptitiously carrying out that work. The objects residing at the center of inquiry — the visual arts, the verbal arts, great philosophic treatises — are objects of beauty. Like objects of beauty in the natural world, they increase our capacity for fairness by decentering us, enabling us to step outside ourselves and stand on the margins. They remind us what symmetry looks like at a time when our weapons, our money, and the size of the cars we drive are vastly out of proportion to the rest of the world. They affirm the life pact by bringing about in us higher levels of perceptual acuity and by, in turn, requiring that we treat them with care and protection, as though they were living entities. Themselves laden with the secrets of creating, they incite in viewers and readers acts of creation, which will then bring new art works and treatises — new objects of beauty — into the world.”

I would argue that such beauty applies, especially, to film at the moment.  [Tyee]

Read more: Gender + Sexuality, Film

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