Opinion – Ross Douthat: Has social conscience changed Hollywood?


“Tár,” the best film of 2022, whatever the Hollywood Film Academy decides to award, is a film about contemporary culture wars that refuse to participate in them. It portrays the generational gap opening between old liberals and young progressives in many cultural institutions, illustrates the powerful influence of cancel culture and #MeToo, and uses both forces in a believable (if hallucinatory or supernatural) way to drive spiraling decline of its title character, the fictional conductor Lydia Tár, played by Cate Blanchett. And she does all this in a spirit of controlled ambiguity, from a point of view external to the forces she depicts – which allows for variable judgments about the main character’s downfall, as well as comparable downfalls in real life.

Most art is not so independent of its own cultural matrix, which is why the pattern in the era of social consciousness – or awakening, or whatever you want to call the “wokeness”, the distinctive form of social justice progressivism that invaded elite institutions in recent years – is that the cultural territory is either colonized by the new rules and passwords, or creates fame as a zone of resistance to the “awakening”.

Examples of the first category abound, from museum curation to young adult fiction; stand-up comedy and Substack essay writing are arguable examples of the second category. (Even though, yes, there are plenty of progressive comics and Substack users.)

But movies are an interesting case. Has film policy changed that much since, say, the middle years of the Obama administration? “Tár” turns out to be a film about “wokeness” (and many other things). But is there an undercurrent of that consciousness in cinema that is clearly of our era in the way we look back on certain films that embody the leftist cynicism of the 1970s or the Reaganist patriotism of the 1980s?

It’s a tricky question, because Hollywood always churns out a lot of movies that lean left explicitly (along with a lot of movies that lean more tacitly right — like every Christopher Nolan movie and most horror movies). So just identifying movies with liberal messages doesn’t tell us much about what has changed in recent years.

The politics of a film like the sequel to James Cameron’s “Avatar,” for example, about a virgin ecosystem despoiled by encroaching colonialism and defended by indigenous resistance, could reasonably be described as “woke.” But it’s exactly the same politics as the 2009 original, which was made on the high tide of post-racial optimism and technocratic liberalism and recycled archetypes that go back to movies like “Dances with Wolves.” Likewise, last year’s series of class struggle films – “The Menu”, “Triangle of Sadness”, the terrible “Glass Onion” – are leftist in a sense, but not in a way that feels specific to progressivism. of this era.

Clearly, the age of social justice has influenced representation in Hollywood (though not enough, if you think “The Woman King” deserved an Oscar nomination). There are more diverse casts, more minority-led projects, an appreciation of non-white and female-centered narratives. And when people revisit the cultural politics of this era, the controversies over representation will certainly come to mind — the fan wars over “The Last Jedi,” the backlash to all-female “Ghostbusters,” and so on.

But the push to diversity has not necessarily affected a larger thematic transformation. Having more roles for racial minorities in comic book movies didn’t especially radicalize the lukewarm politics of Marvel Fanatic, for example. (Michael B. Jordan’s Erik Killmonger gets the best lines in “Black Panther,” but he’s still the villain.) And in the blockbuster industry in general there’s been more continuity than change over the past decade.

Meanwhile, in prestige filmmaking, we can identify some key moments and films that seem emblematic of a political shift: “Moonlight’s surprise win over “La Land” in the 2017 Best Picture race had a vibe of intersectionality. defeating whiteness. The following year’s best picture nominees included two films that could lead any socially conscious film studies program for decades to come: the excellent “Get Out!”, with its horror-movie white obamaphilia, and the not so excellent “The Shape of Water”, with its alliance of underling identities defeating Michael Shannon’s cis villain Cold Warrior. (A side note: A big essay remains to be written on “Get Out!” and 2008’s “Rachel Getting Married,” two very different takes on interracial romance and good-natured white liberals as props of the Obama era.)

But the range of prestige films since 2017, including this year’s Best Picture nominees list, does not indicate a drastic transformation in Hollywood’s standard political worldview. Declining audiences are the change that matters, and while some politically themed films were among last fall’s losers, the box office failures of films like “The Fabelmans”, “Babylon” and even “Tár” cannot be attributed to to the fact that the industry woke up and crashed. It’s an entertainment problem, not a political one.

In one place though, I think we can see a clear cultural-political shift: in children’s films, cartoons and Disney films especially, which show a real disjunction somewhere in the 2010s. old European fairytale narratives finding their last applause in “Tangled” and “Frozen” and then giving way to the Polynesia of “Moana”, the Southeast Asia of “Raya and the Last Dragon” and the Colombia of “Encanto”. But beyond that there are also major thematic changes, which seem to be linked to the new type of progressivism.

For example, romance is emphatically out of the question; a kind of therapeutic handling of family drama and trauma emerges. Antagonists cease to be personal villains and become increasingly structural or miasmatic; conflict is born of misunderstandings, accidents, or environmental degradation rather than jealousy or lust for power. Or else the real villain is an authoritarian figure who has led everyone into unnecessary conflict: there is an emphasis on deconstructing false histories and false family mythologies, or at least awakening from the spell cast by the narratives of previous generations.

Older Disney films, especially from the 1990s, often put a liberal-individualist veneer on traditional fairy tale structures, with plucky self-fulfilling heroines finding adventure and soul mates in the shadow of a bumbling, clueless older generation. or unfriendly. In films of this era, starting to some extent with “Frozen” and developing more fully thereafter, the older generation is still generally misguided or unsympathetic, but the individualistic spirit is reduced. The aim now is to cultivate alliances, embrace fraternal relationships and friendships rather than falling in love, the magical adventure being a kind of group therapy for the community, a source of reconciliation rather than transformation.

And the excess of adventures is also somewhat frowned upon. As The Washington Post’s Sonny Bunch recently noted, 2022 saw two major children’s releases: the Disney-Pixar production “Lightyear” and Disney’s “Strange World,” which were films about explorers whose message was indeed anti-exploitation, teaching its protagonists to stay home, embrace sustainability, and settle for lowered expectations—almost as if its creators had read a little too much Okun Theme and decided that the hero’s quest is just another facet of white supremacist culture.

Both “Lightyear” and “Strange World” were also commercial disappointments, and it’s not clear to me that any of the children’s films whose themes I’ve just described are particularly powerful or memorable as works of art.

But maybe that’s exactly what makes them a useful indicator. Like the mediocre action movies of the 1980s, this kind of children’s entertainment is a kind of background music or cultural wallpaper for our moment. Not necessarily what children want, but what the culture wants for them. It’s not conscience cinema in a grand, obvious way, but an ideological set of values ​​surreptitiously surfacing on a Saturday afternoon when the whole family is tired and out of ideas — but at least there’s a Disney+ subscription and the remote within reach. of hand.

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