Page Two: Downward Spiral

Aesthetically, we have gone insane and dull

Page Two
"The world is ugly,

And the people are sad."

-- Wallace Stevens, "Gubbinal"

In the period following World War II, both nationally and internationally, many aspects of life and belief changed radically from what they had been before the war. Neither completely intentionally nor particularly consciously, American artists -- including novelists, playwrights, dancers, photographers, musicians, poets, and visual artists, as well as filmmakers -- responded to this brave new world by working with a sense of purpose coupled with a deep moral outrage. Their approaches were symptomatic and reflective of American society as changed by the war. All were affected by a general knowledge of wartime atrocities, the two atomic bombs, and technological innovations; just as important were significant changes in lifestyle brought on by women's new roles, mobility, shifting demographic patterns, suburbs, the baby boom, etc.

Artists felt it was important to get through the mannered layers of society, revealing basic and often ugly truths about our world. They also deconstructed facades, challenging accepted aesthetic standards by addressing traditionally ignored, and often socially and culturally taboo, topics and areas. Many artists embraced chaos by ditching all established rules. Depending on the art form, there was either a movement away from the representational toward deeper emotional meanings or a more detailed submersion into the representational, illustrating the darkest areas of our society and of its people.

To focus just on film: As diverse as Hollywood's output was at the time, a shared, consistent, understated world-view emerged -- one that was grim, grounded, and noticeably darker than in the half-century before. This dark tone was in contrast to the Horatio Alger/United States-as-great-frontier optimism that had been a viable cultural approach for the previous half-century. Certainly, during those 50 years, there was a range of thematic approaches, including more somber and critical ones, but the dominant and influential tone was light and positive.

In the late Forties and Fifties, films began to address social problems that they had long been banned from covering: racism, drug addiction, prostitution, labor issues, religious biases, and so on. Consequently, due to the loss of lighter releases and this new, aggressive social consciousness, the majority of American films released took a decided turn toward more mimetic themes and grittier settings. Rose-colored glasses were replaced by practically black shades. Many filmmakers were working through some guilt, accompanied by serious concerns about this country's role as a world power.

Exactly how many and what kinds of films Hollywood released changed dramatically in the postwar years. This was true for many reasons, but probably the most important catalyst was television. Vast sweeps of film genres were lost to television in the decade and a half after the war. Television programming basically took over from film in such genres as B-Westerns and B-movies in general, family films, serials, comedies, and character-driven series such as Blondie, Henry Aldrich, Charlie Chan, and Hopalong Cassidy, as well as with thematic series such as Suspense and Inner Sanctum Mysteries.

Occurring concurrently, these industry changes really emphasized the philosophical shift in cinematic focus. Filmmakers became more critical in their portraits and portrayals, some showing considerable courage in their choice of topics. Reacting to the world, most were very concerned about -- and some even anguished over -- contemporary injustices; they began addressing many issues previously ignored. Even in films that weren't directly addressing serious issues, there was still a darker tone; yes, "After all ... tomorrow is another day," but now that statement was more likely to be threatening than hopeful.

This critical and socially conscious approach was a needed response to the times. Accompanying it was essentially an ongoing dialogue with previous, American-rooted aesthetics -- a shared sense that any picture of a clean and healthy world bathed in sunlight was a psychedelic, Norman Rockwell, Pollyanna-type illusion: This was not the best of all possible worlds. By the late Sixties and early Seventies, the primary underlying tone in most Hollywood productions was socially critical and subversive.

This aesthetic was a legitimate cultural response to that first half-century of U.S.-centric jingoism and its narrowly focused perspective on class, jobs, labor, religion, sex roles, race, and individual potential -- as well as a way to deal with the country's new position as a major and dominant world power.

Now, six decades after the end of World War II, these styles and tones have become so commonplace that they are as hackneyed and predictable as were the social rules and world order in B-movies. Attitudes that once were enlightened, courageous, and progressive have degenerated into the mind-numbingly routine. Realism is a genre with strict rules. Social realism is an established style, with as many stereotypical affectations as the hard-boiled detective genre.

There is a prejudice driving this dark world-view, in which tragedy is art, reality is evocative, comedy is entertainment, and optimism is unreal. Unhappy/troubling endings are simply the most honest entrance into the cruelty of the lives we lead; happy endings are fantastic, unreal, in denial, and "Hollywood." Such "Hollywood endings" usually disqualify a film from any kind of serious consideration. The prejudice privileges the past and regrets and resents the present. (This is a culturewide phenomenon, but film is the focus of this particular column.) Now, despair is the shared and lazy, accepted, meaningful language.

Films that love and embrace people, even when they are well aware of the unevenness and pitfalls of life, and end on any kind of positive note are rarely taken seriously. Both critically and when awards are given, they usually get short shrift. Most contemporary films considered great either overtly or inherently track toward the tragic.

American filmmaking still believes that bravely announcing "the world is ugly, and the people are sad" is the most important theme in American cinema. What was once daring is now boring.

Instead of being progressive or visionary, the dominant tone of contemporary filmmakers is cloyingly anachronistic. More often than not, this is quite overt. Science-fiction films are usually about the horrors of the future. Most of Steven Spielberg's films are about finding the lost father and reuniting, thus re-creating the family. George Lucas quite literally wants to make Thirties and Forties serials. Other times, it is seen in the acceptance of the world as a now-miserable place, one that used to be so much better. Robert Altman dislikes most of his characters and is usually disinterested in the rest. Martin Scorsese celebrates the kinds of dangerous social psychopaths who would destroy the very kind of world the director craves. In his films they are seductive rather than threatening; vicious, inhuman brutality is rendered as a mild generic attribute.

The sophomoric social criticisms found in films like American Beauty and Mystic River are painfully obvious. It is especially sad that critics often celebrate them as though something new is being said.

Audiences don't disagree. Aesthetically, we have gone insane and dull. The most tired, melodramatic crap is now revered; most of these are not even tragedies in the classic sense, as there is no possibility or ascent -- just a descent and then a deeper descent.

We live in a time in which few believe the world is better than it was; instead, most assume that everything is growing worse. The right, the left, the middle all share the notion that we're heading straight to hell -- although each believe so for different and often completely opposite reasons.

Dark is easy; despair is lazy. They require no courage or imagination; one takes no chances but instead is reconciled to the inevitability of failure and loss. Rarely is one disappointed. None of these attitudes requires aesthetic bravery: The dullest is celebrated and the most obvious saluted, while the dumbest is reinforced. This is an age of lightweight profundity, providing easy access to fat-free moral outrage and self-service despair. It is a time of carefully structured ennui and a way-too-easy existentialism that is less a philosophy than a world-view validating personal disinterest, too-convenient alienation, and philosophical vapidness. The most "conscious," "relevant," and "serious" of today's films are without courage, vision, genuine moral outrage, or humanist hope. Instead, they are artificial constructs of generic archetypes, rendered without belief, thought, or passion.

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contemporary film, film history, American film, American Beauty, Mystic River

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