Like many of you, I am cycling through the stages of grief as I come to terms with the fact that a man who ran a campaign based on hate, racism, xenophobia and fear is the president elect. It’s a terrifying time in our nation’s history, for the poor and vulnerable, and it feels like things haven’t even begun to get as bad as they will be. It might seem like an absurd time to turn to film for comfort, but it is not, as Ryan said on this very site last week. Film might be a made up fantasy land of escapism, but in that land lie essential truths about our world. Truths that can be far too hard to bear on their own. We need film (and art of any kind) because we need beauty and emotion to help us face our fears.
Movies feature a lot of contradicting truths. Art is so powerful because it can make room for all of them. But in the end, I find the movies that stick with me leave me with a final conclusion of some sort. So here are five conclusions that I’ve formed this week…conclusions that I learned from the movies that made them.
Note: These movies feel pretty heavy, so by all means, watch several season of the Care Bears if you need to. Whatever you need to do for self care, do it. When you’re ready, these films will be there, if you want them.
Bad Times Were Ahead…And I Was Blind
Spike Lee’s 2002 film 25th Hour was bound to be one of his second tier works- based on a novel by now-Game Of Thrones creator David Benioff, it tells the story of Monty Brogan (Edward Norton), a major drug dealer trying to tie up some loose ends in his life and relationships the day before he starts a heavy prison sentence. But it shot to the top of his great works when he decided to bravely integrate the events of 9/11 into its story, as it was filming in New York at the time of the attacks. In fact, it was the first major film to actually acknowledge what had happened. Lee turns Brogan into a stand in for America, for each of us. A man with all kinds of good intentions, so caught up in the moment and protected by his bubble that he never thought his world would come crashing down. The events of 9/11 are very much in the background of the story, but like all of us at that time trying to carry on our lives, it was like a cloud of acute grief hanging over us. Sound familiar? No one could have made this film but Spike Lee, the most fearless poet of rage and resilience in our cinematic history.
“Forget it Jake, it’s Chinatown.” This final line from Roman Polanski’s masterpiece Chinatown (1974) is oft quoted, and on its own means nothing…but it sums up the entirety of the movie, and the banality of the evil that wins in the end. In this neo-noir, Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) is pulled into a typically complex and confusing web of deceit, lies and murder involving the wealthy baron Noah Cross (John Huston), water politics of 1940’s Los Angeles, and Cross’ beautiful daughter Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway). Chinatown is famous for subverting famous noir tropes- especially in the way that Mulwray is set up to be the femme fatale character, but ends up becoming the tragic victim of the story; having been raped by her father and forced to bear his child, her father who every major institution of Los Angeles is committed to protecting. It’s her eventual death that inspires this final line, as Gittes’ assistant encourages him to turn away from the crime scene after the police have shot and killed Evelyn (as she attempts a getaway from her father after shooting him in the shoulder). Polanski and screenwriter Robert Towne famously split on the ending, as Towne wanted it to be a happy ending, but Polanski insisted on the tragedy, feeling that people would easily forget the film without it. Polanski, having survived the holocaust only to have his wife and unborn child murdered by the Manson family, knew a thing or two about the ways that evil can triumph. It’s a film that validates that sinking feeling you might be having this week…that something is seriously wrong, and we’re not crazy. It’s not just in our heads. But it’s also time to fight like hell.
We Fail Each Other…and Revenge Is Empty
One of Steven Spielberg’s greatest films is one of his less remembered, 2005’s Munich. Eric Bana stars as Avner Kaufman, an Israeli Mossad agent instructed to assemble a team and carry out revenge assassinations in the wake of the massacre of the 1972 Israeli team at the Olympic Games in Munich, Germany, by Palestinian terrorist group Black September. While Spielberg brings his expert cinematic craftsmanship to the fold, it’s screenwriter Tony Kushner who brings the moral dilemmas to the forefront of the story so memorably. Kaufman’s various missions bring little satisfaction and redemption, and even less assuredness that they’re getting the right people. Yet as they begin, we feel full of bloodlust, which we are determined to satisfy. By the time the movie ends, we’ve taken a look in the mirror…and what we see is a lot more complicated. No other movie captures the generational trauma of the Jewish people so well, and the ways in which we have carried our justified grief and victimhood into a dark cycle of pain, perpetration and destruction. It’s a pattern not unique to the Jewish people.
Ya Gotta Give Em’ Hope
Gus Van Sant’s 2008 biopic Milk is about the political and personal life of Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man to be elected to political office in America. It’s that rare political film that fuses the personal and the political, in an extremely non-cynical way. Politics isn’t like sports- it may seem that way to some, but the reality is that real people are affected by them, especially the vulnerable, the poor, the discriminated. The film opens with us knowing the outcome of the film- that Milk was assassinated by colleague Dan Brown in 1978, mere weeks after working tirelessly to defeat Proposition 6, a bill that would have banned gays and lesbians from working in California public schools. Though it ends in tragedy, Milk is one of the most profoundly uplifting films of our time, and makes me cry every time I watch it. I have my girlfriend to thank for turning me on to its power. It reminds us that, as Milk himself said, “ya gotta give em hope.”
Another one is Ava DuVernay’s 2014 modern masterpiece Selma, the biopic of Martin Luther King Jr. focusing specifically on the Selma march for voting rights. It’s another film that we know eventually ends in tragedy, but primarily focuses on the remarkable, incredible things that people can accomplish when they believe in each other and work together. It also does not shy away from showing hatred, evil and injustice, that it exists. Rather, it stares it bravely, squarely in the face. It would make a perfect double feature with Milk, and is one of my favorite movies of the decade.
…Even If It’s A Tiny Glimmer
2006’s Children Of Men came out ten years ago, and as much as it is a reflection of the chaos of the Bush years, it feels eerily prophetic as well. It’s about the futuristic world of 2027, where a fertility epidemic has made it impossible for women to give birth. The crisis has thrown the world into war and violence, where immigrants are illegal and the government is a militaristic, terrorizing force. Clive Owen stars as Theo, a jaded former activist who gets pulled into a mysterious mission by his radical ex wife, Julian (Julianne Moore); a mission involving getting a young immigrant girl to safety offshore. Theo eventually discovers the young girl, Kee, is pregnant- the first woman to be pregnant in several years. Until this moment, the film feels like a devastating eulogy of the world we once knew. But at this moment, it turns into a prayer. The possibility of new life is no less than a sunbeam from the heavens of a sky now eternally grey. We were all children once- when we’re at war with each other, it’s because we seem to have forgotten that.