Wednesday, January 16, 2013

A Theory of Obama Cinema? "Killing Them Softly" is the Defining Movie for the Age of Obama

I am suspicious of unifying theories which try to explain the relationship between popular culture and politics. However, A.O. Scott's piece in the New York Times on the defining Hollywood films of the Obama era is pretty compelling:
Last year in The New York Review of Books the critic J. Hoberman wondered when we would see an “Obama-inflected Hollywood cinema.” “The longing for Obama (or an Obama),” he wrote, “can be found in two prescient 2008 movies,” citing “Wall-E” and “Milk” as releases about creative community organizers, with Harvey Milk also a political symbol of hope. It may be too soon to identify an Obama Cinema, but the president’s second inauguration seems like an appropriate time to try.
Film is one of the sites where societies negotiate meaning, develop and challenge their own mythologies, and express the hopes, anxieties, and feelings of the collective subconscious. Films talk to us, talk to each other, all the while revealing the "spirit of the age." In total, popular culture is an informal type of public opinion, a barometer for the attitudes of a given society.

Obama's election in 2004 was supposed to usher in postracial America. It did not. Hope and change was met by the twin realities of a coordinated assault on the legitimacy of the country's first black President, as well as how practical governance is an exercise in realpolitik. As such, hope and change had to be surrendered to practical realities--here Obama's right-leaning centrism was greeted by upset on the part of Progressives, and recast as treason and Socialist-Communist-anti-white tyranny by Conservatives.

How do the Hollywood movies made in the Age of Obama reflect these dynamics?

Films can be considered political in a number of ways. They can deal with explicitly political matters of public policy. Lincoln and Zero Dark Thirty fit this mold.

[Question: Am I the only person who thought both movies were exercises in tedium? Am I the only person who thought that Cloud Atlas was one of the year's best movies and should have been nominated for an Oscar?]

Films can also be implicitly political as they reflect changing attitudes, beliefs, anxieties, or social relationships in society without offering explicit commentary on "politics" per se. Likewise, films can tell us something about politics and society by how they reinforce taken for granted cultural values and tropes--the lies and stories we tell to make sense of ourselves as a nation and community:
Some of the connections between politics and movies are obvious, but we wanted to go beyond the topical resonance of films like “Zero Dark Thirty” and enter into the realms of allegory and national mythology.

What these period pictures have in common is a sense that righting our wrongs is a shared burden. Or, as Nick Fury, in describing another battle between good and evil, puts it: “There came a day, a day unlike any other, when Earth’s mightiest heroes found themselves united against a common threat.” 
“Marvel’s The Avengers” might have been called “Team of Rivals” — the title of the book, by Doris Kearns Goodwin, that was one of the sources for “Lincoln.” And Joss Whedon’s Marvel costume party is, like Mr. Spielberg’s historical costume drama, largely about an urgent response to a political crisis. It is also about community organizing, as Fury mobilizes a fractious group of individuals whom he must persuade to pursue a set of common interests.

As such, “The Avengers” may be the exemplary Obama Era superhero movie, replacing the figure of the solitary, shadowy paladin with a motley assortment of oddballs and, despite the title, focusing less on vengeance than on interplanetary peacekeeping. A similar ethic informs “X-Men: First Class,” which takes place around the time of Mr. Obama’s birth (at the height of the cold war and the civil rights movement) and which shows how the idealistic pursuit of justice and tolerance can end up tragically divided between radical and conciliatory impulses...
A.O. Scott omitted the movie Killing Them Softly from his theory of Obama Cinema. This is unfortunate. I would suggest that no other movie has captured the cynicism, anxiety, fear, and liminal moment between the end of Bush's tenure and Obama's election in 2008 with such clarity and insight.

The Great Recession is in almost every frame of Killing Them Softly. The disappointments of how easily Hope and Change became more of the same--where the banksters win, and the drones keep killing innocent people, while the 1% laughs all the way to the bank--lingers over the final scene of the movie as an ending note on what is a 90 minutes or so meditation on life in the Bush era and how it did (or did not) transition into "Obama's America."

Watching the hope embodied by 2008 election of Barack Obama in 2012, four years after we have seen the realities of his tenure, in a film about how even hitmen and gangsters are impacted by a failed economy is a profound comment on the American dream, and the realities of "austerity" and neoliberalism/hyper-conservatism.

Killing Them Softly came and went in the theater during the course of a few weeks. Maybe it spoke too much truth to power to be popular among the masses.

What do you make of A.O. Scott's list? Are there any movies which you think speak to the Age of Obama with a particularly sharp amount of clarity and insight, and which should have been included in his theory of Obama Cinema?


naum said...

No, you're not the only one -- I believe *Cloud Atlas* was the best movie of the decade…

chauncey devega said...

There are now two of us! Seriously, it was an amazing film that will be much much much appreciated in the future. It should have been an Oscar nominee.