Signs of the Times

Will voters embrace films reflecting a Zeitgeist of fear, caution and repression?

Hollywood — As in any year, 2002 will be seen as much for what viewers read into movies as what the movies tell us about ourselves. With features often taking a year or more from script to release, it’s a matter of conjecture as to whether filmmakers are especially prescient in their handling of subjects or reflect the current Zeitgeist by sheer coincidence.

Regardless, consider the context: At a time when the White House relentlessly pounds the drumbeat of war, a homeland security department takes root, Osama bin Laden is still at large and racial profiling is legitimized — audiences could find deeper resonance in the issues of bigotry, xenophobia, paranoia and impotence explored in such films as “Gangs of New York,” “Far From Heaven,” “Adaptation” and “About Schmidt.”

Those who declared the death of irony in the aftermath of 9/11 might have jumped the gun a bit, but the mood of the nation has shifted, if ever so slightly.

“I think it has surfaced in little things,” says Neal Gabler, author of “Life the Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality.” “I think there is a new kind of psychological subtext in which society is very dangerous. People are very wary.”

While there are no single movies or trends that reflect the national mood — such as the Oscar-decorated war themes of “The Best Years of Our Lives,” “The Deer Hunter,” “Platoon” and “Saving Private Ryan,” or even statements of alienation like “Midnight Cowboy” and “American Beauty” — the films of the past 12 months have become layered with meaning in ways that even their creators might not have intended.

“This is a country that has always been tremendously resilient and optimistic, always able to shrug off any kind of danger or disaster,” says Gabler. “But there is this other dimension; I think we saw it in the sniper case. Here was a very localized situation. And yet, by one poll I read, 82% of the American people feared for their lives — people who were thousands of miles away. Movies play upon this notion. They create this idea of vulnerability.”

Underlying anxiety

Todd Boyd, professor of cinema studies at the USC School of Cinema-Television, traces this consciousness back to last year’s “In the Bedroom” as being “quite closely tied to what people were feeling and thinking in the culture at large.”

“That may not be the most obvious of choices,” adds Boyd, “but the lives of these normal, middle-class people are suddenly disrupted. And the sort of silence that exists throughout the movie is revealed as masking anxiety, which prompts a certain action. And I think the strong response to this film had to do with an underlying anxiety that existed in America after what had only recently taken place.”

This culture of fear is explored in “Bowling for Colum-bine” from director Michael Moore, perhaps the closest filmmaker we have to the ideological cinema of Stanley Kramer and Costa-Gavras. Moore tackles his themes with a combination of seriousness and humor, at least as much humor as one can get away with in probing the staggering number of gun-related deaths in the U.S. compared with other countries.

But perhaps most revealing about Moore’s documentary is how the news media propagates fear by blowing perceived threats to our well-being — inner-city violence, food contamination, saturated fat, killer bees and the like — out of proportion.

The point is not too far afield from Campbell Scott as the adman cad in “Roger Dodger” who explains to his nephew that what he does for a living is “make people feel bad.” It’s a substitution game, Roger explains: “You have to remind them that there’s something missing from their lives.”

As “Roger” writer-director Dylan Kidd explains, this is a guy “who excels at making people uncomfortable or feel insecure,” a talent that crosses lines from the Pentagon to Madison Avenue to local newscasts to primetime programming. Commercials for Victoria’s Secret staged as one-hour specials can only make the viewer feel envious, inadequate or out of the loop. But rather than propagating fear or envy, at least some industry players seem to be taking stock.

The aftershocks of Sept. 11 reverberated so widely that even Hollywood — not exactly a bastion of sensitivity — paused for reflection. Films were held back because they reflected reality a little too closely, or toppled the bandwagon of patriotism: “Gangs,” with its image of corrupt firefighters and policemen in 1860s New York; “Collateral Damage,” about an avenging firefighter (Arnold Schwarzenegger) whose family is killed by terrorists; “Phone Booth,” with its all-too-timely parallels to the D.C.-area sniper attacks.

It’s no wonder, then, that the contemporary heroes of “About Schmidt,” “Punch-Drunk Love” and “Adaptation” suffer a malaise of inadequacy, stasis and a form of impotence. There is a similar restlessness in the heroines of “The Hours,” “Personal Velocity” and “The Good Girl” — a sense that there’s something more than the suffocation of convention and an antiquated value system that expects them to settle for less.

This kind of thinking is contributing to a new breed of filmmakers who are not afraid to look inward, or present easy answers to their protagonists’ dilemmas. As “Adaptation” writer Charlie Kaufman recently told the New York Times: “I sort of live in a state of confusion. And rather than represent cut-and-dried things, I feel like my gift is to represent that confusion.”

Perhaps the most daring aspect of Todd Haynes’ “Far From Heaven” — an homage to the Douglas Sirk melodramas of the ’50s — is that it addresses racism and homophobia in a way that doesn’t feel anachronistic.

“‘Far From Heaven’ is about racism in a way,” explains Gabler, “but it uses racism to deal with the malaise under the surface. It’s really a movie about surfaces and what the surfaces hide. That makes the film extremely relevant to the current Zeitgeist.”Haynes says that “to impose upon the seeming innocence of the 1950s themes as mutually volatile as race and sexuality is to reveal how volatile those subjects are today — and how much our current climate of complacent stability has in common with that bygone era.”

But there is more than a sense of internalized fear and caution afoot. “The Quiet American,” based on a Graham Greene novel set in prewar Vietnam during the ’50s, questions the wisdom of foreign intervention, or, as the Bush administration likes to call its Iraqi aims, “regime change.”

“Minority Report” raises the issue of how far government can encroach on civil liberties in the name of security, and even how advertisers can assault the senses in frighteningly personal ways.

And in light of recent bloody conflicts ranging from Kosovo to Kandahar, even a film like “The Pianist” — with its well-trod message about the horrors of the Holocaust — reminds viewers that we’re doomed to relive the past by repeating it.

These are messages and lessons that have resonated among Oscar voters dating back to the first ceremony in 1929. “If you go back to the beginning of the studio era and look at the (best picture) winners, you could say that the process of criticism and the way these films spoke to the moment can be traced back to ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ to ‘On the Waterfront’ and beyond,” says Robert Sklar, who wrote “A World History of Film” and teaches cinema studies at NYU.

But when all is said and done, which 2002 films will voters and cineastes look back on as mirroring American culture past and present? With some important films yet to be viewed by critics, tastemakers and historians, the question might be a bit premature.

“When I think about a film like that it takes me back to ‘The Godfather’ in 72,” says Boyd, “one of the most profound statements on American identity ever. If you think about the timing of that movie, right in the midst of Vietnam, it forced Americans to rethink the way they saw themselves.

“This movie looked at ideals that are held very high — family, loyalty, cultural identity, nationality — but looked at them in a different way than you would normally. That movie wouldn’t have been made in the ’50s. It’s very much a part of the ’70s. All these things, set in a previous era but released in the midst of this interesting time, you could probably extrapolate that and apply it to a film like ‘Gangs of New York’ now.”

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