By Stephen Philip
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This article is over 18 years, 5 months old
Mainstream films continue to address political issues.
Issue 301

It seems that the mainstream press is finally catching up to the idea of the growing radicalisation of Hollywood movies. An excellent article in the Observer by Jason Solomon confirms a trend we identified a while ago (‘Hollywood: Rewriting the Script’, April SR, 2003). Solomon encapsulates the situation well when he writes that there’s a ‘new breed of global cynicism in the cinema. Cynicism is the dramatic meat of films now, with socially conscious messages offering food for thought and providing rays of hope’.

However, the ideological polarisation has led the writer AO Scott of the New York Times to argue quite the opposite. He believes that the studios are trying to strengthen the connection with religious and social conservatives. He cites The Incredibles celebrating libertarian individualism, Team America satirising leftist celebrity activism, and US box office hit March of the Penguins proving that divine intervention, rather than blind chance, is the engine of creation. Then there are the films Emily Rose and Just Like Heaven, which in the case of the latter challenges the science and rationalism behind arguments for assisted suicide. This may all sound plausible until we pause for thought and consider that this year’s Oscar winner Million Dollar Baby and foreign Oscar winner The Sea Inside were distinguished by one fact – they were both liberal-leaning films which defended a citizen’s right to assisted suicide.

We’re rarely likely to see such discussions in specialist liberal film magazines such as Sight and Sound and the US-based Cineaste. That is primarily for the simple reason that they are so stuck within the groove of either author-based criticism or championing Third World cinema and small independents versus the Hollywood giants that they miss the wider social trends in international cinema. It therefore falls to film journalists to give an account of the ideological forces at play on our cinema screens.

There may be some progressive shifts in US cinema, but not in terms of the representation of blacks in the industry. For example, blacks are grossly underrepresented in the Directors’ and Writers’ Guild and local craft unions. One only has to look at the career of Denzel Washington, who is rarely seen in a romantic situation with a white woman, to fully grasp how strong that taboo remains in Hollywood. Blacks compose one quarter of the key sections of the movie-going audience so there are quite a few concessions in terms of casting, but these concessions have their limits it would appear.

The Observer article correctly claims that there’s a feel of 1970s Hollywood in the current period. A homage to that period comes in the form of Jacques Audiard’s remake of the 1970s classic Fingers with The Beat That My Heart Skipped. Romain Duris delivers what many critics claim is one of the most exciting performances for some time in French cinema. He plays a seedy aggressive real estate agent with a dream of returning to the world of classical music. Bristling with energy, insecurity, romance and perhaps a hopeless personal ambition, he’s the compelling centre of a tense, intelligently filmed, masterly piece of cinema.

French cinema has historically led the way in politically conscious films. At the London Film Festival this year I caught two shining examples. Firstly, Burnt Out by Fabienne Godet, is the tale of a previously placid man who is shocked that his friend committed suicide because he was made redundant. The company’s silence and callousness drives him to commit an act of violence. But, the director asks, who will pursue the company directors for having led someone to suicide?

Secondly, the politically provocative Hidden by the doyen of European art cinema directors, Michael Haneke, is a highly original and unsettling, subtle film which begins with a middle class media type receiving anonymous video tapes sent to his ‘safe European home’. In the course of his investigation to find out who is responsible, the story raises issues of guilt and France’s dark colonial past.

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