As the Occupy movements across the U.S. transition from an autumnal uprising to the winter of our discontent, politicians are finding it tougher to turn a blind eye to the financial inequities of a still-sputtering economy. Filmmakers, too, are finding it harder not to draw parallels between their work and the crises gripping the country, whether they’re moral crusaders exhibiting feet of clay (“Ides of March”), sexual permissiveness fueled — and numbed — by unprecedented access to porn in the digital age (“Shame”), or the growing sense that things will get worse before they get better (“Take Shelter,” “Melancholia,” “Bridesmaids” et al).
“Whenever you have (Occupy) people feeling the need to sleep in the streets, then that is a canary in the coal mine that we should not be ignoring,” says J.C. Chandor, the first-time writer-director of “Margin Call.”
“Margin Call,” about the 24 hours leading up the 2008 Wall Street meltdown, has connected with arthouse auds and critics (the New Yorker called it “easily the best Wall Street movie ever made”), but it hasn’t quite shown the mojo associated with films that touch upon the national consciousness in the way that Oscar nominee “The Social Network” did last year, or best picture winners “The Hurt Locker” and “Crash” did in years prior.
” ‘The Social Network’ is about something beyond Facebook; it’s about the role that social media has come to play in our life,” says Todd Boyd, professor of critical studies at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts. ” ‘The Hurt Locker’ to me was a film about the Iraq war minus the politics. But it had a topicality to it because it was a war that was still going on.”
Steve McQueen, writer-director of “Shame,” views sexual addiction as “the elephant in the room,” a topic that has gone largely unexplored in movies, and yet couldn’t be more relevant to the public discourse. “It has hardly been written about apart from being ridiculed or (questioned) whether it is a (legitimate) addiction,” McQueen tells Variety. “So for me it was important to present this in a way that it has a relationship to everyone who comes in the cinema.”
In other words, as Boyd points out, porn, in all of its manifestations, is “a Google search away.” But sexual addiction is a matter of perception. Gail Wyatt, a professor at UCLA’s Department of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences and a licensed sex therapist, prefers the description “sexual compulsion.”
“It is not like smoking or drinking,” she says. “It really has a psychological base to it that is anxiety.” In reference to the liberal politician played by George Clooney in “Ides of March,” not to mention real-life public figures like Sen. John Ensign, ex-Congressman Anthony Weiner and former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer, whose careers have been tarnished by scandal, Wyatt says they share “a lust for power.”
“Many of them are under tremendous pressure, don’t have time or energy to respond in the usual way in terms of generating and maintaining relations, even with people they are married to,” she says, “and (extramarital indiscretions) are outlets for them because of their anxiety and their need for speed and their need for danger and thrill that resort to compulsive sexual acts.”
If sexual compulsion, and the ubiquitousness of porn have gone beyond America’s dirty little secret, the Occupiers in city parks and campuses all across the land remind us daily that a broken financial system has led to broken lives.
Even such a movie as “Moneyball,” which on the surface represents the triumph of the underdog against the Goliaths of the sports world, points to a system (sabermetrics) that emphasizes statistics over personalities, with baseball players, no matter how popular, just as disposable as Styrofoam cups when it comes to the bottom line. And with 14 million unemployed citizens — many of them displaced by younger, faster, cheaper recruits — “Moneyball” can be viewed as mirroring the new economic reality where people are reduced to numbers, or companies are required to do more with less.
Which brings us back to the issue of whether there’s a “zeitgeist” film out there to rally around. Boyd, for one, doesn’t see it, and points to 2005, when “Crash” and “Brokeback Mountain” vied for the hearts and minds of Academy voters, as a touchstone.
“You had these two films about social issues, and here was a film (‘Crash’) people could read as a modern take on an issue we have been debating for many years,” Boyd says. “In terms of the gay issue, it seemed to be more recent: the presidential election of 2004, gay marriage in San Francisco; it seemed to be a social issue of our time in a way that people would associate civil rights with the ’50s and ’60s.
“So you can see why ‘Crash’ appealed to an older demographic of voters in a way that a gay film about cowboys might have been a bit too controversial for people who grew up watching Hollywood Westerns.”
In this regard, the generational split among Academy voters could bode well for a movie like “The Help,” which examines zeitgeist issues of the civil-rights era — bigotry, class warfare, and social and economic inequality — from the comfortable remove of the present.