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Heightened Sociology

Heightened Sociology

by Brandon Edmonds / 22.04.2010

“Cinema for me only has meaning when it has a relationship with what I see outside on the street,” says Jacques Audiard, acclaimed director of Cannes-topping A Prophet (now showing locally). You don’t hear directors say this often enough. Films grounded in social reality are all too rare. Here, at last, is one detailing life behind the headlines – intimately showing the making of a criminal. Malik, played with haunting quiet by Tahir Rahim, evolves in prison before our eyes from a clueless street chump to an all-powerful gang boss. Along the way he is forced to kill a man, a fellow Arab, with a razorblade in a sequence that rivals early Cronenberg in toe-curling body horror, ultimately out-strategizes the reigning heavy, and becomes a man perversely ‘worthy’ of family and community. The worse he behaves, the more rewarded and respected he becomes. It’s a brilliant indictment of the twisted values constituting success in a morally suspect age. ‘A Prophet’ immediately joins the ranks of powerfully relevant cinema.

Great films are generally heightened sociology – they show how society works on people, and vice versa. Within that baggy, roomy definition lies much room to maneuver, of course. Renoir’s prophetic wonder, The Rules of the Game (1939), set in a country house before the 2nd World War, turns a simple hunt into a chilling elegy for a whole way of life about to be wracked by carnage. Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941) stretches the search for a rich man’s identity into a cavalcade of 20th Century touchstones: the rise of the media, the fall of high culture, the cult of charisma, the absurd consolidation of vast wealth in ever fewer hands, and so on. Both films regularly sit atop critic’s all-time best lists.
They were both made, of course, with the ‘Great Depression’ still very much alive in people’s minds. Such a large-scale crisis, taking just about everyone to the edge of bankruptcy and homelessness, and ripping up all the shared beliefs that maintain public order and productivity, darkened and deepened many film-makers’ approaches. It lead to film-noir, with its hardboiled disillusionment about power.

And if ever a social period called for similarly challenging films of disillusioned realism, exposing lies and corruption, it’s now.

So the question film-lovers are asking is: will the 2008 ‘sub-prime crash’ and subsequent tax-payer bailout (funds to be replaced, of course, by squeezing the working populace on all fronts) – our own ‘Great Recession’ – prompt a wave of serious film-making, substantial films looking squarely at the social consequences of such widespread double-dealing? Or must we look forward to more of the same teen-friendly CGI laden comic-book heroics? Woo hoo, Iron Man 2!

A picture as strong as Audiard’s A Prophet bodes well. It has thriller dynamics and great action sequences alongside the brooding, distilled qualities of more demanding art-house fare. The film makes criminality and its world a logical, almost inevitable ‘choice’ for a marginal boy without prospects. It obviously has immense local resonance.

Sadly few films now seem interested in taking a broad, far-reaching view of society. There’s been a persistent narrowing of focus and ambition.
The last attempt at a historically resonant overview of society in mainstream movies was probably Coppolla’s first two Godfather installments in the 70s. (Significantly, an achievement now being talked about in the same breath as A Prophet). The old studio system had all but broken down by then and there were emerging opportunities, in the chaos, to make big risky films. Again the ‘oil crisis’ and social turmoil of the 70s, darkened the outlook of film-makers somewhat. But the conservative corporate take-over of Hollywood was fully in place by the 80s, and popular films got dumber, broader, more sentimental, violent, and less interested in social problems, in thrall to ‘blockbuster’ elements like sharks and dinosaurs, aliens and cyborgs.

The rise of Tarantino in the 90s has green-lit two decades (and counting) of depthless kicks soaked in blood and sprinkled on top with wise-cracking nihilism. This type of reference-laden fan-boy film-making is more interested in other films than telling us anything new or interesting about our social present. No other film-maker, besides those Wachowski brothers and Michael Bay, has done more to make popular film mean less.

In the past decade, we’ve seen the retreat of mainstream movies behind a carapace of special effects and motion-capture blue-screen mania. The last link to social reality – the human actor – is being eclipsed by computer generated ‘ghosts in the machine’. It was awful seeing Sigourney Weaver’s mature natural features, her intelligent eyes and sensual mouth, a face we’ve grown up with, one we know intimately from Aliens, reduced to a cutesy smoothed out blue in Avatar.

The reign of technology and fantasy in mainstream movies means audiences are repeatedly made to leave social reality behind. That’s fine for kids, but as Audiard’s A Prophet reminds us, great movies are for and about grown-ups.

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RESPONSES (20)
  1. Lizzy says:

    An intersting musing on cinema and a good topic for an academic paper. write it and i’ll read it!

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  2. Sarah Dee says:

    While I would contend that there are some points at which you have been a bit sweeping in your argument, I agree wholeheartedly with your overarching sentiment.

    Looking forward to the film.

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  3. Vida says:

    Good show, old chap :).

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  4. random says:

    dig the article/review, but have to say: Tarantino isn’t THAT bad…
    fair enough, he started a popular if sometimes shitty trend he now rides quite happily. But to compare him to Michael Bay? 🙂

    looking forward to seeing the film.

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  5. flipside says:

    “The worse he behaves, the more rewarded and respected he becomes. It’s a brilliant indictment of the twisted values constituting success in a morally suspect age.” – Julius Malema, take note!

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  6. Morpheus Re-Rising says:

    Dude, seriously, how do you form words with your sphincter?
    “Great films are generally heightened sociology ” – I think you owe Mahala your per word charge for those words. Do you even know what sociology is? It’s not social realism, if that was what you are referring to.

    “But the conservative corporate take-over of Hollywood was fully in place by the 80s,”
    Huh? Which planet do you live on? Corporate takeover, yeah, as if Hollywood was ever anything but corporate. Conservative?! Yeah those conservatives are all in favour of sex, violence, rock n’ roll, moral ambiguity, unchecked materialism. Well at least in whatever shadowy, delusional corner of nowhere you inhabit.

    Get a clue, serias.

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  7. brandon edmonds says:

    ‘sex, violence, rock n roll, moral ambiguity, unchecked materialism’ – mostly these are all regressive aspects of culture if you’re in any way progressive numb nuts. i use my frontal lobes and laptop to form words lately. though when i do use my sphincter later this morning, trust me, i’ll be thinking of you…

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  8. Andy says:

    Sociology – the study of the development, structure and functioning of human society. The study of social problems…

    what exactly are you moaning about?

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  9. Gluteus Re-Rising says:

    Yeah, you tell Morph off. People who disagree with the spirit of a piece should contend it on those grounds, not by semantic hair-splitting.

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  10. crayon says:

    nice, and actually, even kids deserve a bit of integrity when it comes to cinema.

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  11. amber says:

    “depthless kicks soaked in blood and sprinkled on top with wise-cracking nihilism”
    agreed.

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  12. Anonymous says:

    Silly me…and there I thought Hollywood was all about thought-numbing-sordid-reality-killing entertainment…nothing more – nothing less.

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  13. Anonymous says:

    And therefore generally go with anything that says “indie” or “french” in the blurb when I want my celluloid to taste like reality.

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  14. Morpheus Re-Rising says:

    Well done Brandon, you have found an identity for yourself – ‘progressive’, how very, progressive. Maybe people will like you now and you’ll feel important and get invited to parties with other progressive people and maybe even get laid by something hairy and progressively domineering. Conservatives are as concerned about social decay as other sectors of society, if not more, but since you imagine you’re carrying the blue lightsaber I guess you need to imagine your ‘enemy’ has a red lightsaber. Still, ‘heightened sociology’. That’s so dumb it’s almost good.

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  15. brandon edmonds says:

    Hey at this point, Morpheus, getting laid by ‘something hairy and progressively domineering’ – a Tasmanian devil with tenure, a Nobel prize winning stoat, a steroidal dalmatian – sounds awesome! How about contesting the content rather than picking on me personally?

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  16. Andy says:

    so Morpheus (are you referencing the god of sleep or that cheesy movie?), what is wrong with the term “heightened sociology” exactly?

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  17. The Fascist Dictionary says:

    Brandon, you were doing so well with those animal analogies….until you used the a-word.

    C’mon, that’s beneath you. I’ll write it off as Friday afternoon laziness, huh?

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  18. notlikeyou says:

    Morpheus, please excuse me. Before I write the rest of what I’m about to write, I’d just like to pigeon-hole you the way you’ve blatantly done. You, my friend, are a cocksmoker. Hear that? Cocksmoker? What’s more, I know it’s true enough for everyone else involved in this ‘light-hearted banter’ of yours to agree.

    Right, now to the real topic at hand. This is a good review. There’s something quite brave about taking a piece of work that’s stunned people worldwide – intellectuals and philistines alike – and venturing deep into its meaning and the effects thereof. I appreciate how Brendon has painstakingly built up a clear and comprehensive trail of thoughts and observations that lead us to his conclusion. I agree with Deb – the overarching sentiment of this piece is to re;ate to. It’s an interesting analysis of a multi-faceted, potentially explosive, ever-present set of social issues that transcends borders, and therefore makes it something we all need to wake up to.

    I think the thing to remember – Morpheus – is that a review is an opinion. A fucking opinion. This is Brendon’s, and it’s valid. Instead of being abusive, why don’t you try writing something of substance. I’m sure we’d all love to read it and imagine your sphincter doing all the work.

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  19. notlikeyou says:

    Apologies Brandon. I was accidentally calling you Brendon. Mild dyslexia.

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