American film is divorced from the lives that it photographs. The camera distorts their worries and concerns, it leaves their contours misshapen.
Memories of the war and recession flood American life, a life still interrupted by the ripple effects of September 11th, the War on Terror, and the 2008 mortgage crisis. The countless deaths, the social and health stress, the debt surge, income flatline, and wealth plunge — where would we be, who would we be, if we were fortunate enough to have skipped these last two decades? Grand questions of justice and exploitation are relentlessly asked in public space, because the recent past has been patently unjust, obviously exploitative.
This same 20-year period of American film is, in contrast, intimate and personal. Its tone is melancholic, solipsistic; the questions it asks emerge from individual experiences of grief and trauma. We see stories tend to focus on broken and lost families, misplaced love, and misdirected aggression. They feature violence, often the violence that we cause to ourselves or bring onto others in our quest to author our own identities. They depict split identities poorly stitched together, or desires too entangled with our reasons about what we should believe and what we are obligated to do. This is the direction of the mood governing film, hardening the sensation that we are vulnerable to the world, that the moment we face it is one of unescapable danger.
The specter of war and recession haunt American film. Film is intimate because of the terror of modern life; it features trauma and grief because combat and poverty are traumatic, are occasions for grief. But whose trauma, whose grief is it? It’s not the trauma of parents lost to opioids, of children fleeing gang violence, of teenagers trapped in crumbling education, of families displaced by rent hikes, or of single mothers whose husbands reenlisted, or worse. It’s not the grief shipped over from international waters, of those living in war-torn regions or under debt-ridden governments, whose jobs and security are vulnerable to our politics. It’s not even the unenviable pain, if we can call it that, of the wealthiest Americans, whose lives, by their own making, have been cleansed of culture and connection. These roots of trauma and grief, so present in our recent past, are exiled from screen.
There is a wide gap between film and life. The imprint war and recession make on film is hardly intentional and rarely concrete. A focus on the individual is used to avoid the universal; a focus on trauma and grief used to crowd out justice and equality. Since cinema acts as a cultural witness, shedding light on the tensions that define us, forge us, and break us, its virtual silence about our recent past wounds more than it heals.
How do we explain the divergence of film from life? What elements of American film’s mood have led it to evade the past? Two features stand out. The first feature is the change in lighting and coloring. The norm — a norm in the sense of a rule, an expectation — is to deliver a frostiness to what we see on screen. Images tend to be left desaturated. It’s common for them to be filtered through darkened lenses; for lighting to be depressed, softened; for the preferred color wheel of blues and oranges, browns and greys to be toned-down. It can give film a punk edginess, a subculture resistance stressed in films like Blade Runner 2049 (2017). More often, this new look encourages the felt desperation of a cold, long winter to come. Compare Terrance Malick’s Red Thin Line (1998) to Christopher’s Nolan Dunkirk (2017), both of which take on themes of wartime violence. Where Mallick’s naturalistic coloring invites a spiritual, alive world of grief and courage, Nolan’s images, sterilized of saturation, dwell on the dreary, personal anguish war fosters. His world is immobile and deafening. (While Nolan is British, he is a founder of contemporary American cinema).
The second feature is that cinematic techniques are modified to give a sense of chaos. Films often drop sequential narration, and often are told from multiple points of view, none of which is authoritative. They use fast-cuts and handheld, or what is called “free,” camera, to allow the shot to look as agile and maddening as normal visual perception is from our own point of view. Part of this is due to the digital revolution, which created a wealth of resources for unconventional composition; part of it is due to the lo-fi texture that filmmakers, on the whole, prefer. The change boosts psychological themes. Consider alterations in crime films, like Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas (1990) and the Safdie Brother’s Good Time (2017); Scorsese’s concern with crime and injustice, his neo-noir attitude, is echoed by the Safdie Brothers, but their bumpy use of a third-person, handheld camera, coupled with slick visuals, drops the viciousness of business and commerce, of organizations like the mafia. By their camera choices, they suggest that the world is composed of various sorts of individuals, all with the potential for criminal action, who make and receive violence because the world, because other people, are hell. In their inverted view of the world, it is personal trauma that causes social violence.
The war and recession might be thought to invite both these changes. They can capture chaos, mimic fragility. They can show the weight placed on life these past two decades without speaking too directly about their origins, which can feel inappropriate. In a world so fractured that we must retreat into the mind and live with its confusion, there is room for first-person narratives told through free cameras and unconventional timelines, desaturated to reveal life’s colorlessness. For a Philip Roth, a Roberto Bolaño, an Elena Ferrante.
But American film’s mood bends the opposite. Lighting, narrative, and camera are paired so as to intimate that all the feelings we feel, all those pathologies that have metastasized since 2001, 2003, and 2008, are psychological through and through. Desaturation is used to stress that the world is a perpetual site of pain, that any collective action to improve it is in vain. By foregrounding the free camera and making it third person, most films want us to believe that the world we live in is endlessly confusing and impossible to comprehend. By breaking narrative linearity, they do not so much depict a raw psychological chaos as dryly, tediously repeat that the world is a tormented construct of each of our own subjective experiences, a perspective that incarcerates us. The intended effect is to reinforce a psychologized depiction of trauma and grief — of the mind really — as built on its own, divorced and protected from the world’s influence, both of which are effects of trauma and grief but not their causes. And the issue is it turns trauma and grief on their heads, insidiously promoted by the view that trauma and grief would look the way they do without the soldiers who’ve died, the houses foreclosed, the debt ballooning, the Twin Towers falling. If film doesn’t need to demand a revolution for it to be revolutionary, then neither does it need to explicitly advocate conformism for it to be conformist.
Roots to intimate film were set in 1970s cinema, taking shape in the politics of the late 1960s and the “New Hollywood” movement that responded to it. After the 1968 student protests’ failure to effect substantive economic reform, the elite — academics, intellectuals, and leftist politicians — abandoned the search for comprehensive and unified narratives of social life. Their interest, partly as a reaction to the economy’s ability to flexibly incorporate violent, sustained critique into its logic, turned to the ways individuals or groups experience the environment they inhabit and to the forces that differentially shape (or, in their words, “subjectivize”) them. Politics, then, became conceived of from the grassroots level, as a bottom-up, locally-bounded engine whose pistons were powered by the coincidental merging of persons with vastly different interests, desires, and needs. With the releases of Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and The Graduate (1969), American film began to make concrete the political tensions latent in the decade, inaugurating the breakout decade of American independent cinema. This “New Hollywood” movement featured what had once been unthinkable violence and sexual vice in studio cinema. Mafiosos emerged from poorly-lit backrooms, and neo-noir rebels did petty crime and lived delinquently just for the sake of it. In films like Badlands (1973), The Godfather (1972), and Taxi Driver (1976), the gory senselessness of the crimes committed revealed the senselessness of the ethical codes by which they were forced to live. While there are certainly conservative aspects of New Hollywood, like its insistence on rebellion over revolution, much of it turns on a deeper criticism of the arrogant way of life the older generations endorsed that gave reactionary values like decency and respectability a weight and price.
Cinematic rebelliousness fell with the Berlin Wall, and, with few sovereign obstacles to American power left, conflict increasingly turned inwards. Film began exploring, and inventing, enemies in our own homes and minds. It became interested in the vulnerable sources of consciousness, in how each of us is both the author of our own actions and the ‘other’ who prevents our desires behind our actions from being satisfied. It’s a fracture that each of us deals with, to various degrees. But partly, this family of concerns is a byproduct of internalized guilt, from a recognition of American destruction overseas and its recoil on social life, which even the most hermetic can’t avoid. Think of how and why Superhero franchises have returned, where the villains who face them and thwart their goals are now their own damaged selves. Instead of asking the old political-ideological questions, of how to defeat a known global evil before it finds us, their new questions gave moral concerns an existential look. They asked how to act against evil when the evil originates from within us, when we are the source of our own madness, when our motives uncontrollably vacillate between the noble and shameful. And this inner turmoil is the genius of Heath Ledger’s Joker: he uncovers a destructive impulse within each of us that can’t be eliminated, and that ebbs and flows alongside the world. But as a movement, it’s evasive. The kind of moral reflection it invites is too contained to have a politics, and that is representative of most American film. It asks you only to look within, never to look around, and, more importantly, never to look within so as to look around — a discrete, disjoined approach to social life that especially now lacks conscientiousness, given the state of politics and the resources we have to engage it. Isn’t this safe, obscurantist filmmaking, a strange trend? And doesn’t it, in refusing to engage social devastation by casting its lens inward, knowingly breaks from its critical roots in American film?
How do we resist it? Two paths can be ruled out. There’s no need for film’s mood to become more political at the cost of aesthetics, or for its mood to become more aesthetic at the cost of its politics. As a movement, politicized films are ineffective. Apart from dispensing with artistic skill, they distort trauma in order to rally for a political platform. The subgenre of war films like American Sniper (2014) and Zero Dark Thirty (2012) enjoys an aggressively flat picture of patriotism for profit. Or look at films that enforce political agendas, like The Post (2017) and Hidden Figures (2016), which are confused, dishonest films made to satisfy the cheap liberalism and guilt of Oscar committee members. Here, art becomes a mere means for politics, and as a mere means for politics, it loses a sense of itself as art.
But it also would be misguided to retreat towards a more purified aesthetic formalism. This second option is ineffective because, at the least, films are rooted in life and politics. They emerge from the tension of deciding and agreeing about how our lives should be situated. More importantly, aestheticized films tend to experiment for the sake of form and so forget that form emerges to bring color to life. They forget that pain and suffering have been permanent products of human life, which artwork can capture, because we repeatedly fail to make our environment humane. When art becomes a mere object like a table, with properties that are treated as independent of the lives that the properties are built for, it becomes as lifeless as a table is.
The solution instead may be to rethink that very relationship between art and politics, film and life, divisions which are shallow. Their terms are fossils of an old existentialist protest asking for art that was “engaged,” as Jean-Paul Sartre called it, in response to the slogan of art-for-art’s-sake that he believed was unconscionably bourgeois. Sartre worried modernist artists, some of whom, like T.S. Eliot, leaned fascist, had retreated from life by stressing pure aesthetic form (a slogan which itself emerged to liberate art from Christian aesthetic valuation, not, as it’s now intended, to project equally punitive models of aesthetic judgment). There are overtones of our situation in his complaint, but it’s worth pressuring its soundness. Good art negotiates art and politics, film and life, mind and world, a level beneath. The form it uses commits and allows it to show how through the individual we come to see the universal; how grief and pain lead us to demand justice and equality. By exploring politics and experimenting with form, it overcomes the tiresome separation of art from politics and politics from art.
This should be the hope of American film. If it can discover trauma and grief in the world, if it can find the mood it needs to comprehend the war and recession, then film can anchor the intimate and vulnerable in the world they emerge from. To make visible the roots of trauma and grief is to capture life as we live it.