In 1989, Spike Lee picked up a trashcan and hurled it into the front window of Sal’s Pizzeria, stirring chaos in Bed-Stuy and sending movie audiences into a tizzy about race relations in America. That same year, Oliver Stone and Brian De Palma were reopening heated debates about Vietnam (“Born on the Fourth of July,” “Casualties of War”), while Steven Soderbergh and Peter Greenaway were making us squirm by challenging conventional moral codes (“sex, lies and videotape,” “The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover”). Jump ahead 20 years: today’s watercooler cinema holds nary an ounce of subversive content. On the contrary, the most talked-about upscale American films of the year uphold such conservative myths as the sanctity of family and community.
Much has already been written about the reactionary elements of Lee Daniels’ “Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire,” which, despite its confrontational scenes of rape, parental abuse and fried pig’s feet, ultimately ends up just another triumphant afterschool story of social uplift and the power of a benevolent society. As New York Times critic A.O. Scott recently wrote, the conclusion of “Precious,” “fills the audience with a sense of hard-won redemption,” allowing them to ignore “the failures of institutions, programs and collective will that leave so many other Preciouses unrescued.”
Now comes Jason Reitman’s “Up in the Air,” entering the conversation with similar buzz, following its rapturous reception at this fall’s Toronto International Film Festival. The “Juno” director manages the same clever ideological reversal as in his previous cinema: Take an edgy character, insert crisis of conscience and watch all that anti-establishment chutzpah fall away into a reification of all-American suburban ideals.
For all its cynical sheen, “Up in the Air” is actually another Capra-esque journey of one man who learns close personal relationships are worth more than frequent flyer miles. The film’s potentially strong political subtext — about the ravages of unemployment, shown in heartbreaking interstitial sequences that feature interviews with real-life folks from Detroit and St. Louis who’ve lost their jobs — is easily swept away so we can feel sorry for George Clooney, an adrift bachelor longing for the permanence of hearth and home.
Even this year’s war films — “The Hurt Locker,” “The Messenger,” “Brothers” — avoid the tainted whiff of politics and instead emphasize the psychological, going out of their way to eschew the wider ramifications of American imperialism. Kathryn Bigelow’s “The Hurt Locker” displaces any serious consideration of wartime trauma on U.S. soldiers or their adversaries with testosterone-fueled thrills and one-upmanship masculinity. As critic David Sterritt observed in the online newsletter Counterpunch in July, the movie’s “politics are worrisome — not because they’re wrong, but because there are no politics in a film about the most politically fraught conflict in recent memory.”
In comparison, “The Messenger” is far more cognizant of its political context than the others, and may be the best movie of the three because of it. The angry tirades of dead soldiers’ next of kin shatters any sense of complacency in the lives of the film’s lead characters, and the viewing audience. But even so, the movie distinctly plays to the middle in its milieu and filmmaking style — like the others — making sure not to challenge viewers too much or offend the pro-war demographic by more forcefully questioning America’s militaristic escapades. Does this signal a new era of all-embracing nonpartisan cinema? Sophisticated movies for red and blue states, alike? Or has the cinema of mavericks gone soft?
That’s not to suggest the agit-pop screeds of Michael Moore — yes, he was back this year, too, with “Capitalism: A Love Story,” his biggest box office disappointment since 1997’s “The Big One” — are preferable. But it’s a reminder that the forceful, provocative cinema of Spike Lee, John Sayles, Todd Haynes or Gregg Araki has been replaced by the bourgeois niceties of Jason Reitman and Marc Webb — director of this year’s indie sleeper “(500) Days of Summer.” (As for the latter’s tagline, “It’s official, I’m in love with Summer,” Fox Searchlight VP of marketing Stephanie Allen told Variety it was “perfect.” “It’s really inclusive,” she said. “Who’s not in love with summer?”)