There’s an increasing trend in motion pictures I’d been grudgingly ignoring until I’d viewed the latest Star Wars film. It wasn’t the appearance of trend-I-ness in The Last Jedi so much as the blatant cliche in it’s depiction. In an ironic twist amidst the red headed evil dude, the passive yet ultra effectual asian, the square jawed hispanic machismo warrior and the purposefully placed vario-ethnic appearance of our heroine, the one cliche that seemed to subvert it’s own intent was the black guy being the sole character who had escaped the dark side. Just how much thought went into that particular decision led me to wondering more about current trend-I-ness and why 2017 seemed an increasingly high, or low, watermark.
There’s a write up elsewhere in this blog that pulls the plug on The Shape of Water. That film seems the epitome of current era trend-I-ness but you’ll notice the momentum in many films the last few years. The Shape of Water’s every character is constructed around social issues of present concern. A handicapped heroine, the matronly minority miracle worker, purely evil Russians, a cartoonish villain who parodies his cultural excess, a bigoted lunch counter encounter, an inhumanely aggressive general, an emotionally imprisoned wife, a self cuckolded husband and yes, even a gay artist. I’m sure I’ve neglected others, but among all these obviously consciously constructed cliched concerns how many are relevant to the unfolding of our story or explored in any interesting way? Arguably, one, and I’m being generous.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is equally inundated with socially popular memes that seem so superficially rendered and gratuitously layered on as to be a detriment to any narrative/thematic concern. Feminism, racism, ageism, classism, social isolation, end of life, institutional indifference, police brutality, fake news and gender conflict all pile into our clown car of social justice propulsion yet non really holds our attention for long or remains central to the concerns of our protagonists. It’s merely their existence which apparently gives these films their striven for gravitas. Surface acknowledgement masquerading as self congratulatory concern yielding audience identification without consequence.
Some films stake a significant marker early on then spend the remaining time looking away from the issues they’ve flagged. An early scene in the film Hell or High Water pans across a desolate urban landscape adorned with fraying red, white, and blue bunting while prominently framing the cross of a nearby church within the entrance portico of a bank. It’s a strongly critical observation on American values, and it ends there. Contrast that scene with the initial Channel View Estates vision from Inherent Vice. Same elements, same messaging, yet what takes place inside and surrounding Channel View renders more clearly our initial approach impressions. It’s also very cynically funny, but that’s a whole other idea.
Ironically, a film that was widely criticized for it’s inclusion of social messaging is Killing Them Softly from 2012. Presidents Bush and Obama feature prominently during and shortly after the election of 2008 and the concurrent financial collapse. Their words of hope, justice, trust and equality contrast sharply with the world unfolding around us and the real world financial collapse that devastates millions to this day. A bit heavy handed to be sure yet firmly integrated into the film’s fabric while providing historical reference to be measured and considered. Brad Pitt’s final monologue angered many viewers yet it ties in perfectly to the painful ironies laid out during the film’s proceedings. Form serving function, serving narrative, serving purpose, is apparently a bit too much for our liking.
(<rhetorical> parenthetical insert here. I’d gotten this far in writing and had taken a break to allow things to percolate a bit before writing further. Happenstance being the stepchild of coincidence the Super Bowl with it’s much heralded commercial diversionary confections played this weekend. I rest my case. Is there a singular source of branding driven market research into what themes are playing best to our captive populace every year? Does the collection of our universally mined, internet derived cookie droppings lead to a white paper dictating that all successful ads this year will include trend-I-ness as a way to sell us stuff? Puce being the color of the year followed by faux corporate concern for the social fabric of our citizenry driven to the benignly irresistible urge to own a really large, powerful pickup truck. Who the fuck thinks like this? </rhetorical>)
This certainly isn’t an argument against the use of social concerns in contemporary entertainment. This is wondering why the mere mention of social issues and their seemingly aimless inclusion in popular entertainment seems to be coming more common. Does the mere existence of these elements stroke the social ego of the viewer without challenging them into consideration? Or is it simply the ego of the director’s awareness being massaged? Do viewers consciously register their inclusion and consider them afterwards, or is their inclusion merely a reflection of their seemingly omnipresent relevance to our world? Not to be overly cynical, but this trend strikes me as mere pandering without principle. What is the purpose of presentation without grappling with the issue you purport to raise? If you’re going to place social awareness prominently in your work, shouldn’t their be some further resonance to the proceedings? Narratively they seem a misdirected distraction. Thematically and purposefully they feel smugly self congratulatory without a thread of commitment.