Sunday, May 29, 2011

Animated, American Dreams of Summer

It’s the start of the summer movie season, which offers some relief from reality and more celebration of cinematic American Exceptionalism. With the help of computer generated imagery (CGI) an Americanized Thor is already smiting evil giants. Many are salivating for the unreal, computer enhanced world of movies like Kung Fu Panda 2, Captain America, X-Men: First Class, Transformer: Dark of the Moon and Green Lantern. All potential blockbusters. I’m a childhood fan of the Green Lantern, so it will be fun to leave the world of real problems behind and see the emerald crusader deal justice to powerful CGI-created aliens with my grandsons. The image of a huge green hand swatting evil characters is compelling. And I like the combined message of achievement and serving Justice even if the violence used is a bit too up front compared to say Toy Story. Maybe it's all a comfortable distraction, but the smooth effects that technology-enabled effects allow, stand in contrast to our mired situation in the real world. One thought is, if we can do this why can't we solve REAL problems.
As American summers fill our screen with neat, crisp, wham-bang solutions reality, as in unemployment, rising oil prices and declining home values for many Americans, has no immediate good ending. Real, down-to-earth problems haunt lives back here on the non-animated earth. As many have noted, the Great Recession that started in 2007 continues to echo the unemployment and dim prospects of the Great Depression. One non-obvious comparison is the attraction of youth into the military since times of high unemployment and expensive education make this a more attractive option. But another phenomena is the success of movies. The 1930s weren’t necessarily boom times for all Hollywood dream factories, but there was a serious effort to put out comforting messages. These took many forms and were sometimes a mix of breadlines and champagne - see In Hard Times, the Hoi Polloi Stay in the Picture.
Champagne-style included the Shirley Temple and Fred Astaire musicals, and light, “screwball” comedies (and Marx Brothers) but also King Kong and SF features as harsh economics drove more people to seek cinematic escape. A movie like My Man Godfrey (1936) presents a common man embodying rare common sense in contrast to the foolishness of "privileged" society. These are portrayed as both insularly out of touch with reality, but also unprincipled. There were more critical perspectives offered in more breadline style movies such as Sullivan Travels, Our Daily Bread, and American Madness.

Perhaps we’ll see their like, but for this summer
technology-enabled animations are in the forefront of advertizing. There are now TV, computer games and the social web to comfort and distract. Still Hollywood produces Blockbusters of the American Exceptional sort. They promise to be great distracting comfits. Their appeal is perhaps a bit of the idea of American Exceptionalism that I covered in a previous post. They feed into concepts we want to be proud of. They also give use a sense of doing things or knowing how to do things without really doing things in a way that can be done this side of CGI. And going along with it they are often implicitly militant. I don’t mean militant in the sense used in the phrase "militant atheist". There the term is used to describe an atheist who stands up for his/her values and is bold enough to, as David Niose says, “openly question religious authority or vocally express his or her views about the existence of God,” I’d be happy to see a movie, animated or CGI heavy or not which included such values. It's not even the celebration of Veterans we see on Memorial Day.  No, the militancy I see is the one that take a stance that we are in a continual war with “evil” and that our physical-technical might is key to overcoming it. It's the the continuing hold that violence has on the human psyche, especially when its real consequences are abstracted away. Movies help create a cultural slippery slope celebrating combat and its militant values. As Chris Hedges says, "The communal march against an enemy generates a warm, unfamiliar bond with our neighbors, our community, our nation, wiping out unsettling undercurrents of alienation and dislocation."

No comments: