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How Is Hollywood Dealing With Recession?

Hollywood. It’s the place where dreams come true. Where normal things like traffic don’t bother heroes like Jack Bauer, credit ratings and mortgage payments don’t halt Carrie’s spending spree and Bruce Willis never has to fill out an insurance claim form. No wonder they used to call it Hollywoodland, like some sort of fairytale kingdom (in actuality it was to advertise a housing development). This magical quality (or, if you’re cynical, ‘disengagement’) means that Hollywood can take its time in reflecting the tastes of the common people and the issues that really affect them.

High-flying corporate executive...

High-flying corporate executive...

In fairness, Hollywood is reasonably quickly able to deal with political issues. Everyone remembers that spate of really preachy war on terror dramas – Rendition was awful, Syriana was confusing and Lions for Lambs was far better than it had any right to be. Whether this is something to be lauded is for debate, as the movies tend to be extraordinarily preachy. Admittedly things are getting better – The Hurt Locker looks to be one of the better films of the year – but there’s still the suspicion that audiences don’t want to be lectured on foreign policy by Hollywood celebrities.

Mundane, down-to-earth issues are somewhat harder to come by. Admittedly some of this is due to the sensitivity of homegrown issues – which is why Brokeback Mountain arguably took so long to get made – but some of it also arises from the fact that Hollywood just doesn’t care. Movies are escapist because they avoid the day-in day-out concerns that each of us experience in our lives. If movies were like real life, they’d probably be a bit more boring. Unless you went to Vegas and made millions at a casino count cards, but then Hollywood would probably change your ethnicity in the film version. You just can’t win.

The problem begins when Hollywood decides to openly flaunt these day-in and day-out concerns. That’s why we worry when the major studios handle big real life events, because we know how poor Hollywood’s sense of reality is. Magic moments are stuffed full of music and epic camera angles, but they rod these moments of their honesty – what made them so special in the first place. You can never tell when a tiny element of a film is going to backfire horribly. There’s the unfortunate echoes of a castmember’s suicide in the trailer for Youth in Revolt, as a recent example.

Still, even by these standards it’s hard to believe that Confessions of a Shopaholic or Sex in the City could have had worse timing. The last thing people struggling with massive mortgages and huge credit problems need to watch are comedies about how hilarious it is to have trouble controlling spending or how easy it is to live this jet-set lifestyle (Carrie writes maybe 500 words a week!). I’m not suggesting that movie viewers should be outraged (though I love that verb), rather that Hollywood just isn’t particularly adept at relating to the troubles of modern life. That these films entered production before the credit crunch kicked into high gear isn’t really a fair explanation either, as there were warning signs appearing long before their release.

Still, it looks like the studios are finally starting to acknowledge the biggest global slump since the Great Depression, perhaps in the unlikeliest of places. There aren’t really any major releases hoping to tackle the recession head-on – we know that Hollywood has never really been too good at grappling with the issues head-on.

Instead the downturn can be seen as a subtle echo resonating through awards season darling Up in the Air, from director Jason Reitman. It may seem unlikely for a comedy about a high-flying executive who frequents first class to deal with common economic woes, but the lead character (played by George Clooney) is a ‘career transition councillor’ – a guy who travels around firing people, a boom industry in these times. Critics seem to be reacting strongly the film and its central character, who believes that bad news like that should be delivered person-to-person rather than over a long distance line. Sure, it features a jet-setter, but the early word and the talent involved lead me to believe that this should manage to deal with the timely issue of corporate relations in the credit crunch era.

There’s also the somewhat less satisfying word filtering down that apparently Sex and the City 2 will also find the lead actresses living within their means. Clearly shoe-shopping is out. I’m particularly cynical, as the early rumours are the film will involve a flashback to the eighties, indicating that they won’t so much deal with the issues of living a high-flying life in New York as simply chuckle about how hard it was then and how hard it is now to wear bad fashions. Hearing Sarah Jessica Parker talk about how they are trying to “address these economic times in a franchise that has a lot to do with luxury and labels” makes me more than a little uneasy.

But maybe it’s sinking in. Or maybe it isn’t. Maybe people don’t want movies looking at the recession – at least not head-on. It’s hard to argue that the person who wants to see Sex and the City wants the girls coping with mundane things like paying bills instead of living in a fantasy land buying designer brands and bedding younger men. There was a lot of hubbub surrounding the release of Public Enemies, with people suggesting the audiences would flock to a movie about bank robbers stealing from those corrupt establishments in a time of great economic hardship. Like some sort of proto-socialist rallying call, or at least a vague hint of wish fulfillment. However, those crowds never materialised. I’d suggest that it was because the film was difficult and pretty divisive, rather than because the audience didn’t dig the undertones, but you could argue it either way.

It’s always interesting to discuss how movies are supposed to reflect our lives, if at all. Some would argue that they should over us glimpses into the honest lives of others or give us insight into our own, but others would suggest they are a means of escape or a satisfying fantasy – our lives but better. Some would say that effective movies must resonate with their audiences, at least subtly – even quintessentially non-realistic films like the Star Trek sequel (apparently) offer glimpses into real life – while others suggest that if we want reality we can stay at home.

It’s hard to know. Maybe films are what the audience expect them to be. Maybe their reactions to these hits will tell us something of their moods or their feelings. There has been some suggestion that audiences have rejected the darkness of films like Terminator: Salvation and Watchmen in favour of the light and fluffiness of Star Trek – though such wry soundbytes ignore there is a gaping difference in quality involved. If you believe that audiences are rejecting the darker elements, than maybe the darkness of our times has no place in modern cinema. Maybe people need to laugh when they’re crying.

Truth is that I am neither a sociologist, nor a psychologist. I’m just a guy who likes noticing patterns and developments in films. I like seeing the mirroring of mood and the zeitgeist that occasionally ends up reflected in celluloid.

Maybe that’s why I’m optimistic about Up, in which an old man – through patience and persistence – manages to get his own quaint house to rise from the ground and fly off into the sunset in search of adventure, no longer anchored down by his commitments or payments or the fear of removal. Maybe there is a sunset for us to fly away into…

2 Responses

  1. Lions for Lambs was far better than it had any right to be . . .

    What do you mean by that? Why was the movie better than “it had a right to be”? Why do you believe that LIONS FOR LAMB had no right to be a good movie?

    • Because it was a ridiculous liberal fantasy where the only politicians who believe in the Iraq/Afghanistan war are cynics with their eyes on the presidency, anybody who joins the army is just a hopeless idealist, journalists can save the world if they could be bothered and Robert Redford is the only one who knows what’s going on. The film had some solid performances and it said somethings about engagement that were interesting, but it immediately discounted an entire side of the American political spectrum in making its point. That’s what ticks me off about the Hollywood take on these issues – there’s very little food for thought or engagement. Whoever makes the movie gets to be right and it doesn’t make a argument, they make a statement. It was as politically sophisticated as a season of 24, but took itself far too seriously. It was like one of those insulting right-wing books (Anne Coulter or Rush Limbaugh), but in movie form and from the opposite side.

      I thought it was a well put together film and featured strong performances, but the movie itself was ridiculously heavy-handed.

      And in case you think I have bias here, I don’t. For example, I love Oliver Stone’s work (mostly… except Alexander) because he manages to write movies, not diatribes and because he grasps the concept of moral complexity and he argues his points rather than lecturing the audience (as an aside, an oddly appropriate choice of career for Redford’s character).

      I apologise if I was offhand in dismissing the movie, but it succeeds on the strength of it cast and its director, certainly not its content.

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