Oscars 2011: How the year's top films reflect the times
Many of this year's top movies portray dark themes or flawed characters. Why one culture watcher says they mirror this moment in history.
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Hollywood has often been divided this way – between diverting us from reality and reflecting that reality, between giving us vicarious relief and plunging us more deeply into an emotional morass. Indeed, one of the longest running debates about our movies is whether they are mirrors or dreams.Skip to next paragraph
In Pictures Oscar nominees 2011
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Of course, the answer is that some are mirrors and some are dreams, and a few even manage to be both, the particular tenor of the country notwithstanding. But there may be a more interesting and complex division within Hollywood – not between mirrors and dreams but between movies that exude confidence about the American enterprise and those that express doubt. Almost all our movies gravitate to one of these poles – faith held and faith lost.
Many of the best films of the past year congregate around the lost pole, not necessarily because pessimism is more serious and artistic than optimism but because good films tend to resonate off the culture, and many of these movies were put into the Hollywood pipeline when it was obvious that the economic gloom wasn't going to lift soon.
Yet there seems to be something more that is influencing the darkness on the Big Screen this time around than grim unemployment numbers and record housing foreclosures. It may be a deeper sense of discontent. Even in the depths of the Depression, most Americans felt that happy days would be here again – eventually. This was still America, after all: the greatest country in the world. Now that sort of confidence has been shaken. It is much harder to believe in American exceptionalism when the country has been riven by political conflict and paralysis – harder still when China seems to be the ascendant power and America a descending one. There is a sense that we are at the end of our "empire."
Our movies may also be affected by the role that the Internet is now playing in disuniting the country and facilitating its splintering along all sorts of lines: political, geographical, religious, etc. While America has hardly ever been entirely united, the Internet can amplify even the smallest divisions by giving voice to discontents that probably wouldn't otherwise coalesce. We often feel less like a nation and more like a collection of folks venting. Our movies purvey this lack of community.
Then, too, Hollywood may have its own grievances to sound. The film industry, a notoriously liberal community, had rallied around the Obama candidacy assuming that the president would bolster the country with a Rooseveltian intrepidness. Of course that hasn't happened the way many people would have liked, and what we may be seeing in our films is Hollywood's disillusionment with the president and the country. Indeed, there may be few greater disappointments than the disappointment among people who have lived within and promulgated the idea that American heroism can conquer anything, as Hollywood has. Moreover, the industry itself has been hit hard by the economic downturn: smaller audiences, shrinking profits, fewer movies. One Hollywood veteran told me that business has never been worse.
Its own mood is sullen.