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Culture, Movies

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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