I just watched two movies that I didn't really want to watch. I recognized the promise in the trailers that these films were ready to deliver something grotesque and so I avoided them. However, my daughter Scholar, has a particular rule for selecting movies to watch with us and it was her night to choose. She refuses to watch anything the lot of us have watched before. For her, it's all about us in the living room experiencing the same emotions at the same time for the first time. I think that's a reasonable approach to watching even unreasonable films. For me, I want films that are unsubtly vivid and loud and I primarily want to see them at the theater. At home however, I much prefer something humorous and witty like Robot and Frank or The Grand Budapest Hotel. I don't like movies that take themselves too seriously. For me, films are only visual literature. Like anybody else, I occassionally watch movies for what I presume to be the same reasons as anyone else, including buzz about them being hot movies. These two very hot movies I consciously decided to stay away from with my customary 'ick'.
The two movies were Nightcrawler and Gone Girl, essentially two stories about psychopaths going about their business and getting away with it. Unlike with Indiana Jones or Robocop, the bad guy doesn't fall from a great height screaming all the way down.
There's not much to say about either flick in and of themselves. They are both professionally done in such a way that they convincingly tell their stories, although from a strictly cinematic point of view, Gone Girl is the superior film. What's more interesting to me is the reason why I would, or why you would go ahead and watch. You see both of these are films about a mindless public's complicity in the weavings of a psychopath. They are about the profession of maintaining a mainstream media narrative that is voyeuristic, perverse, obsessive and inescapable.
There's no news that dirty laundry sells, and that America is a huge market for that sort of nasty business. And it's no secret that even during the feral motorcycle movie heyday of the 70s, breaking through with Mad Max, the entire post-apocalyptic world was never so graphically obscene as what we watch today. However, there are a couple of questions that raise my eyebrows at this particular moment.
Firstly, how are thoughtful people to deal with the fact of their seduction into participating in this phenomenon? It never fails to escape me that I'm watching an explicit portrayal of something that I already know. As soon as an individual in a film is given a hinky enough personna, we know there's going to be ugly deeds done. How could you not know what Javier Bardim's character in No Country for Old Men was going to do? Films are about dramatic exposition and somebody has to die, right?
Secondly, how are less than thougthful people with an appetite for this sort of entertainment integrated into society? I say this not as a prude, but as an observer of the figurative 1000 channels of television (which are probably more like 50,000 channels of multimedia) and their capacity for narrowcasting only what individuals choose. This in contrast to the three television networks I grew up with that forced some common understanding of the world around us and thus some social cohesion. With my eye to radical autonomy, I see less of a fragmented society but on shattered into 50,000 bits - each adequately funded to create a Foucaultian epistemelogical multiverse. Every clique has its truth, and they carry it along with them in their smartphones in their idiot-proof cities. This is the world of the Nightcrawler. Why shouldn't his fantasy of what people ought to see be the truth? Look for Nightcrawler 2, the Nightcrawler News Network, (NYSE: NNNK)
Now it can be said that these are grim fairy tales about our modern times and provide a nail-biting exposure of exactly how much our media does satisfy the narrative of evil. In fact, that must be their only redeeming value, otherwise they are profiting from the very same game they ostensibly decry. Yet in both of these tales there are no heroes, there are only villains, victims and professionals who shape the way all of the nasty business is handled. The public, whose appetite for pathology fuels all of the madness cannot be stopped. They are an oceanic mob force whose perverse depth cannot be drained. We can only ride their waves until we drown or are shipwrecked. The public is like a god that must be satiated. If you are going to be a successful filmmaker, or TV anchor, or talk show host you pretty much have to believe that.
That is the crux of the matter that must be broken which is why I started this essay speaking about the reasons and the expectations for my video choices in the first place. I'm trying to be virtuous in all ways (except to the extent that I am growing fonder of what I know about Kingsley Amis) and I understand why watching any such movie, or six o'clock news show, or glib talking head program is derivative at best of what we should properly expect in our information flows.
What I'm not saying is that our entertainment should be a purified diet of stories where the good guy always wins, but who is going to be the hero when the evil is the public? How can you make movies about that which sell in a democracy? There is always something a bit self serving about movies that give you the opportunity to step away from 'them' which at the same time requires 'them' as a salacious audience posing as a sagacious audience. The true sagacious audience already read the book and doesn't need much prompting as to what psychopaths can do. It seems to me that there are only two answers, movies will have to be preachy or we stop letting the good guys lose.
Lost in my slight aggravation about the content of such movies is the proper disctinctions about art, education and ethics. It's hard to call either of these an art film, except to the point that they might be considered gothic horror in the vein of contemporary conspiracy flicks. I don't know what art is supposed to be in America, but I'm kind of sure that it's supposed to be important and I know these films are not art. They are crafts. They are well built and have a perfection about them as productions, but they carry a troublesome payload. We are grossed out, but not enlightened. Is that what movies are for?