Give Us Somebody We Can Blast Into Pieces!

Anthony Lane on Battle: Los Angeles:

Politically, the film is calculated to a tee. The real America remains in the claws of two foreign conflicts that have been morally and practically contentious from the start, so what can fictional Americans do to heal, or temporarily conceal, such wounds? The answer is to engage a hostile force that can be assailed with impunity and without division or debate; to be blunt, it’s not possible to commit atrocities against extraterrestrials. Against one, maybe, if he gets stranded in a forest, but not against a throng.

When I read that this morning, I had to laugh out loud. It’s a perfect illustration of what I was saying in response to this question in an interview at Iambic Admonit.

The interviewer asked:

What topics would you say tend to recur in films that have been released in, oh, the last ten years?

I answered:

While I say this with some chagrin… I’m an American moviegoer. I grew up in a world of commercial American entertainment. And while I tend to prefer independent films and imports, I’m better qualified to comment on trends in American cinema.

So, having said that, I do see some interesting trends in American cinema. It’s a heavy question, so here comes a heavy answer…

We’re seeing more and more movies that suggest that the world is in crisis, and that our methods for saving it are failing. We’re looking for hope in all the old familiar places, and those stories are starting to seem unsatisfying.

It used to be that we could find catharsis by demonizing another culture and making them the enemy. But globalization, technology, and an increasingly multicultural America have brought us into closer relationship with people who are different from us. It’s harder for American storytellers to make scapegoats out of people who are different than us. We used to cast Russians and Japanese and Iraqis as “the Enemy.” Now, we’re more careful. We’ve learned that it’s dangerous and foolish to portray another culture as thoroughly corrupt. And we’re coming to see that Americans can be as corrupt as the worst of them.

That’s a healthy trend. American storytellers would do well to learn humility. The pendulum can swing too far the other way, producing stories of cynicism and self-loathing. But I prefer a culture that questions itself to a culture that beats its chest in arrogance.

So what has replaced movies about evil Russians and Muslim extremists? Zombies, monsters, and alien invasions! We still enjoy the catharsis of watching people fight back with heavy artillery against whatever threatens us.

But I think a lot of moviegoers sense the emptiness in that ritual too. As much as we love movies about vengeance and violent retaliation—like Denzel Washington’s Man on Fire—the myth of the heroic Western gunslinger is fading. We’re realizing that the West is incapable of saving the world.

So we’re seeing a lot of bleak futures. Good movies like No Country for Old Men and The Road, and bad movies like 2012, Battle: Los Angeles and the Transformers films, suggest that we’re all anticipating some kind of apocalypse.

Stories about salvation through science are fading too. While we’re still trying to save the world through technology—a world of electric cars is beginning to seem possible—our own stories keep reminding us that technology is more likely to cause problems than solve them.

More and more, we look to the big screen for a vision of hope. But we’re reluctant to look beyond our own strength. We’re reluctant to doubt our own misguided impulses and hearts. So we keep falling back on these flimsy movies that tell us to “Just do it” and “Follow your heart at any cost.”

But I think we know, on some level, that our own hearts are too messed up for that. As Bob Dylan sings, “You’ve got to serve somebody.” American stories suggest we should serve our own hearts and impulses, but that’s not doing us any good. The films that resonate most powerfully with me are films about saints, not heroes—characters who put aside their personal impulses, live in humble service of something greater, and become conveyors of grace. On some level, we know that’s a step in the right direction. But those films are rare.

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