FROM THE LEFT SIDE OF THE BALCONY | What current films say about the empire’s collapse.
Movies are both a reflection of our political culture and a means to shape it. For example, the James Bond films of the ’60s and ’70s helped maintain a distain for communists, whether a cruel Soviet spy or a machine-gun shooting babushka with a knife protruding from her boot. In retrospect, the heroic super spy turned out to be a serial sexual harasser and a murderer. How will today’s action thrillers be remembered?
A key element: Who are the villains? Over time, evil Soviets were replaced by Latin-American drug lords and the new stereotype: Muslim terrorists. Other films, such as Steven Seagal’s Above the Law, featured rogue CIA agents who were contrasted to the real CIA by the end of the movie. Then the Jason Bourne series came along, making the whole CIA the villain.
This summer, the latest installment, called simply Jason Bourne, reflects the unraveling of the American Empire. In the real world, the U.S. is currently involved in wars in six countries (Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, and Libya) with no victory in sight. The old policy of invasion and occupation isn’t working. Whether supporting Bernie Sanders or Donald Trump, lots of Americans sense that the government is corrupt and uses national security as a bogus justification for nefarious activities.
Bourne, played by a now 45-year-old Matt Damon, is the perfect antihero for our times. He was recruited into a secret CIA assassins program. But he could no longer stomach the murder of innocents and went underground. The government has been trying to kill him in four movies so far, with more likely in the future.
Director and co-screenwriter Paul Greengrass, an outspoken liberal, really tries to keep Jason Bourne topical. One of Bourne’s secret meetings takes place amid a massive anti-austerity demonstration in Greece. Later, a Silicon Valley CEO refuses CIA pressure to allow secret surveillance through a backdoor in his social networking program. And the film features two false flag operations in which the CIA murders or attempts to murder American citizens and place the blame on terrorists.
I wish the Bourne films would create as much antipathy toward the CIA as the Bond movies helped enhance the image of Western intelligence agencies. But the Bourne films run smack into the tropes of the action-film genre. The Matt Damon character engages in outlandish fight scenes and unbelievable car chases, murdering bad guys.
It also promotes the image of the CIA as all-powerful, capable of finding your location and ordering your assassination anywhere on earth through satellites and CCTV. Be afraid—very afraid!
So even when liberal directors and actors make a film with the CIA as the enemy, they create the notion that the people can’t win. It takes a superhero like Jason Bourne to outsmart them at their own game. Jason Bourne could have been enlightening as well as entertaining, but unfortunately, the important issues get lost in a mash-up of karate kicks and fiery car crashes.
We can also see the unraveling of Western culture in films about the dystopian future. Such dramas could show the possibility of a bright future for mankind after the empires collapse. Alas, such is not the case.
The arthouse film The Lobster is weird, slyly funny, and grim. Shot in Ireland, the movie stars Colin Farrell and Rachel Weisz and shows us one version of a post-Western empire society.
The characters wear contemporary clothing and inhabit cities that look as they do today. But in this dystopian future, every individual must become a romantic couple, whether gay or straight. When a spouse dies or separates, the remaining person has 45 days to find a new partner through accommodations at the world’s most sinister tourist hotel. If they fail to couple up, they are turned into an animal of their choice. Hence the title lobster, Ferrell’s preference.
Wolves, flamingos, a dromedary, and other strange animals wander the hotel grounds and nearby forests, a reminder of the consequences of failure to find a partner.
Ferrell escapes the hotel and joins the “loners,” individuals surviving in the forest who are hunted by the hotel guests. But the loners are the mirror image of the government, insisting on no romantic relationships whatsoever, enforced with brutal ferocity.
The film is ultimately a massive downer because the choice is between an evil government and equally evil rebels. Even Mad Max has the audience rooting for the good guys.
Speaking of strange male/female stories, did you see the hubbub over the new version of Ghostbusters? Even before the film’s release, misogynist bloggers attacked the film because four females played the leading roles, a supposed insult to the memory of the 1984 original.
Hello, isn’t this 2016? Aren’t we about to elect a woman president? Yet even The New York Times felt compelled to run an article by no less than three film critics to analyze the controversy. If I was a conspiracy theorist, I would guess that the studio planted the blogs as a way to drum up interest in an otherwise uninteresting film.
Ghostbusters: Answer the Call is mildly funny, highlighting the comedic talents of Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Kate McKinnon, and Leslie Jones. The women bond together in their common struggle to convince the world that ghosts exist.
The humor reflects a woman’s point of view, but that doesn’t make the movie funny. For example, in a reoccurring bit, the highly educated women scientists go gaga over a hunky male secretary, who can’t even answer the phone. But all the scientists want to know is whether he’s seeing anyone.
The bit is a weak attempt at reversing the role of the traditional lecherous male boss lusting after the female secretary with big boobs. (See the original version of The Producers directed by Mel Brooks.) But reverse stupidity isn’t a statement for feminism.
Ghostbusters suffers from the same problem as Mad Max: Fury Road, which stars Charlize Theron as the protagonist escaping evil sadists in a post-apocalypse future. She is a woman, but the main character still engages in impossible-to-believe fight scenes and endless explosions just as Mel Gibson did in the originals. A fine actress like Theron should have more to work with than a paper-thin plot and even thinner dialogue.
Hollywood should make more action films and comedies with female leads. I’d just like to see some not based on male stereotypes.
As an antidote to Hollywood mindless violence and silly comedy, I recommend a film called K2 and the Invisible Footmen, a documentary about Pakistani porters who accompany international mountain climbers scaling the famous K2.
Iara Lee, a film director who leads the nonprofit Cultures of Resistance, consciously set out to make a movie that counters the image of Pakistanis as wild-eyed terrorists.
The film crew trekked for eight days to the K2 base camp in northern Pakistan. They captured the bravery and humanity of the porters who risk their lives carrying 100-pound packs for less than $10 a day.
Film editor Javad Sharif, who recently visited the Bay Area, told me the film shows “the joys and sorrows of ordinary Pakistanis.”
K2 is making the rounds of film festivals and isn’t currently slated for Bay Area theatrical release. You can rent or buy it online: Amazon.com/K2-Invisible-Footmen-Agostino-Polenza/dp/B01B0DLS6K.
Oakland journalist Reese Erlich writes this arts and culture column every month. Follow him on Twitter @ReeseErlich, on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/reese.erlich) or contact him by email, ReeseErlich2@hotmail.com