2012: The Poor Got Poorer

Happy New Year 2013!
2012 will be marked as the year that the world leaders were confronted with the effects of poverty on a global scale, and essentially shrugged their shoulders and turned their backs on it.

Instead, we watched as the participants in the various democratic movements of 2011 – the Arab spring, continued protests in Iran, strikes in China, the Occupy movements here and abroad – were systematically beaten, terrorized, arrested and otherwise coerced by the established powers and their police/armed servants. Another year passed while people in the U.S. and Europe were kicked out of their homes, went on welfare, declared bankruptcy, and made to suffer austerity cuts, while the rich people who put them in that position walled themselves with lobbyists and lawyers and defeated nearly every measure to hold them accountable. Another year was wasted while our two-party system deadlocked on key issues. In the so-called BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India, China) we see trends toward increasing political oppression, and a widening of the gap between rich and poor. But that’s okay, because their economy is “growing.” When we see something growing uncontrollably and eating up resources, we usually call it a tumor.

The sheer scale of the suffering is difficult to appreciate. Fifteen percent of this country is on food stamps, and it’s suspected that a larger percentage is eligible. The “real” unemployment rate is in the double digits here, and in the 20s and 30s in big chunks of Europe and the Middle East. Instead of lifting people out of poverty, our economic/political system is pushing people into it.

Poverty is probably worse than just about everything except slavery, rape and death (though it often includes all three). It’s a self-perpetuating limit of personal and societal potential, and it’s completely unnecessary. We have enough food, water, energy, shelter, clothing, medicine and basic human services to go around. The super-rich and even the middle class would barely feel the pinch. Instead we address poverty as a criminal problem – through citations, fines, arrests. We judge poor people’s behavior in ways we would never judge our own (I can’t believe he spends his welfare money on cigarettes, says the guy slurping down his $5 artisanal cupcake with a $5 Starbucks coffee). When we talk about educating people out of poverty, we speak about “math-and-science” and “high skills job training” as though they were a magic panacea, while cutting out other programs. But since we’re hell bent on deunionizing our workplace, in exactly what way will high mechanical/science/math skills help them? And in any case, shouldn’t poor kids be given the same level of choice as rich and middle class ones? Maybe some of them would like to be able to make a living one day as artists, teachers, therapists, historians, anthropologists… we need people in those professions too!

Anyway, this isn’t a blog about politics, but one about movies. But there is a connection. Everyone I know in the film business is trying to make do with less. The budgets are shrinking, and so are the salaries. There’s a wider gap between independent films (shot on a Canon 5D and getting no theatrical or a tiny release) and gargantuan ones (shot for and projected in 3D, getting huge releases). The quality of the films, however, is completely independent of the budget, but IS rather tied directly to the talent of the people involved.

Films addressed the issue of poverty in many ways. Some by offering escapism, some by confronting it head on, some by doing both. Some of my favorite films had nothing at all to do with reality (Cabin in the Woods) while others did (Nothing But a Man). The fact that the latter film came out in 1964 is both a testament to its art and very troubling.

So here’s some observations about movies I saw this year, which may include some that were released in year’s prior (hey, it’s my blog, my rules).

THE OVERHYPED

Paul Thomas Anderson is talented. He knows how to use his tools and how to get great performances out of his cast. But I always feel like there’s something missing in his films. And by midway through the second act of each one, I’m looking at my watch. Having seen the The Master, I now know what’s bothering me. He doesn’t know when the scene is over. I’m not just talking about editing (though that’s part of it) – hell, I love long, slow films – but development. Things build to a certain point in The Master but then they just stay there. It’s like watching a Meisner repetition exercise that goes on for too long – you’re bored, then you’re engaged again, then bored again. Give me some progression, please! Frankly, Down And Out In Beverly Hills and Henry Fool covered the same territory but were both more interesting to watch.

Prometheus: I had to shower and watch Alien again to remind myself that, once upon a time, Ridley Scott made smart, middlebrow films with meaningful visuals. Ignoring, for the moment, that everyone is an idiot in the film, including PhDs, corporate CEOs, and spaceship crewmembers (except for the replicant). Ignore the plot holes, weird shifts in tone, and the pitiful dialog. How about the visuals, which everyone applauded? I wasn’t impressed. Think of LA in Blade Runner, Japan in Black Rain, the Bronx in American Gangster or Europe (giving way to the desert warmth of Jerusalem) in Kingdom. He excels at creating a sense of place and embedding his characters in that place. But there’s nothing really behind the visuals in Prometheus. There’s no subtext to anything, for that matter.

The Hunger Games: I really wanted to love this movie, but I could only just like it. All the elements were there, but the whole thing felt rushed. The pacing was completely off. The over-reliance on close-ups meant that we barely saw the larger picture – literally and metaphorically. The CGI was shockingly cheap. The use of shaky-cam made it impossible to really get a sense of the geography of the space, which is, you know, important in a film with action. And worse, it was deployed at moments when I really just needed to see the characters and get to know them better. The film felt almost completely leeched of any of the political/social critique that is so obviously present in the books. Interestingly, the “poor” who are being oppressed are largely invisible in the film. Since we spend most of the film in the capital and on the field, there’s no real context to anything. And Jennifer Lawrence (who is a very fine actress) is given very little to do. Whenever an emotional moment comes up it’s soft-pedaled and smothered in music. I kept thinking that John Carpenter would have made a much better movie on a smaller budget. Or frankly so would Kathryn Bigelow. Explain to me why she isn’t directing the other movies – they are RIGHT up her alley (violent, visual, allegorical, action-with-subtext).

The Bourne Legacy: Jeremy Renner is a kick-ass action star, and Rachel Weisz is a great partner. They should do more movies together. But nothing happens for the first hour of this film, and then we’re thrown into a soupy mess with some great set-pieces and no real stakes.

Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows: A couple of years ago, Guy Ritchie managed to combine the light-hearted scruffiness of Snatch with Sherlock Holmes, and gave us an engaging film, featuring a decent mystery, some great performances, and a solid sense of place. For the sequel, he decided to go all Matrix: Reloaded on us and gave us more more more louder louder louder. The only detecting I could see going on was on Noomi Rapace’s part, as she tried to figure out where she belonged in the Holmes/Watson sandwich.

The Dark Knight Rises: And then goes back to bed. Seriously. I felt like I was watching a well-written but boring graduate thesis on Batman and social structure, instead of a movie. The show/tell ratio is crazy. The pacing is dreadful (oh, looks like we’re going to see some action – no, sorry, we’re going to stop and talk some more now). The movie takes forever to take off and has no energy at all (there’s no chemistry between Batman and anyone else, even Alfred, and Michael Caine is trying his best). And after three movies Nolan still doesn’t know how to stage hand-to-hand combat well (except for the end boss fight, which then ends with – you guessed it – more talking). See They Live to see how it’s done, please.

THE UNDER-APPRECIATED

John Carter was fun. A lot of fun. It takes a while to get going, but like Cabin in the Woods I felt it treated the subject matter with the appropriate level of B-movie energy (though it was not as well-written as Cabin). Interesting subtext, too – two civilizations are being pitted against each other while another (the Tharks) is exploited by both, and yet another is reaping profits behind the scenes. For the first time in a while, I felt like I was watching something epic in scope. It has problems – the ship-to-ship combat is a lot of badly-edited explosions, and the film needed to be longer (yes, longer) since they were trying to pack so much stuff in. But it’s not the disaster all the critics made it out to be. It’s also funny. Lynn Collins is smoking. And Willem Dafoe is nine feet tall with four arms. What more can you ask for?

The Avengers: Okay, what am I smoking? How is this an under-appreciated movie? But while a lot of attention has been paid to the (admittedly awesome) meta-dynamics of bringing all these different characters together, and the rather spectacular battle in the third act, what makes the film work are the quieter moments in the second, where Wheedon actually spends some time developing relationships and characters. He mixes genres, shifts comedic/dramatic tones without missing a beat, and apart from some very shameful stereotyping (not all Germans go to the opera, and not everyone who lives in Calcutta is poor with goats and black and white TVs in their yards) makes it all feel fresh. The other thing that doesn’t get as much mention is the ambiguous way it treats American power. It seems very pro-American at first, but as the film progresses it questions American hegemony (apparently, the high command at SHIELD felt that New York City was expendable, and Nick Fury is not an unalloyed force for good, but rather manipulative when he has to be).

Total Recall: This wasn’t a perfect movie by any stretch. The original is still quite entertaining, and the social/political points it makes are so fresh that the remake doesn’t really update them so much as just redecorate them. But it’s beautiful to look at, there’s some great set-pieces and good performances, and it does manage to be both fun and make a point (as the best of sci-fi does).

OTHER EXPERIENCES:

Nothing But A Man (1964) was amazing. A film about the destructive effects of racism and poverty made nearly a half-century ago, the film felt fresh and alive. I wish I could say it felt like a period piece, but you could make the same film today (the main character is fired for trying to organize the workers at one of his plants, hello Michigan) without changing much except some small details.

Devoured (2012) – I saw this at Shriekfest. It’s not what you think. I don’t even know how to describe it exactly, but it seems like it’s going to be a horror movie about a restaurant worker trying to save money for her son’s operation, who’s being haunted by something/someone in the place. But there’s a lot more going on here. The lynchpin to the whole film – apart from the solid cinematography, editing, and sound design – are the performances. The actress playing the lead, Marta Milans, will hopefully be on everyone’s speed dial by next year.

Sidewalls (2011) – This is a fun dramedy with some serious undertones, taking place in Buenos Aires. A young man and woman suffer from various forms of urban anomie, living in buildings opposite each other but never quite meeting. Dealing with internal and external separation form the bulk of the film. While you kind of know how it’s going to end, it’s a well-written, often surprising journey.

Many of the best things I saw this year were on TV – Game of Thrones, The Wire, Breaking Bad, and Walking Dead (sorta) – and in short form at Shriekfest and online (too many to mention). Television and particularly cable tv has become, over the last fifteen years, an awesome dramatic storytelling venue again. I’d love to see movies do the same thing – if we’re going to have a three-part Hobbit, why not a three-part Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man or Transmetropolitan?

Anyway, here’s to a better 2013 for everyone. Peace on Earth, goodwill toward all. Happy new year!

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