You’d expect that when a decade essentially begins (towers fall) and ends (bubbles burst) with rude awakenings, with sudden bombardments of reality, that it would slow the drift of American movies into the realm of the private, the solipsistic, the computer-generated. But psychology often follows technology, and no objective catastrophe can jar us for long out of our increasingly seductive virtual lives.
The last decade (and millennium) ended with the Wachowski brothers’ The Matrix, the ultimate expression of our alienation from the physical world, our vague sense that we’re living in a simulacrum and desperately need to reconnect with our fellow humans and actual bodies. Now, on the brink of the next decade, we await the release of perhaps the most expensive movie of all time, James Cameron’s Avatar, in which a crippled American soldier gets turned into a blue … pixel-ized … thingie, plunges into another dimension, and attains a level of vigor and moral purpose that eluded him in his own world. If the movie works with audiences (I haven’t seen it yet), it might be because people seem to think differently these days about simulacra. They crave avatars, fantasy extensions of themselves in realms of their own design. That’s the only way they think they can achieve true autonomy.
Is this an alarming development? Is it a bourgeois-capitalist-masturbatory-decadent trend that bodes ill for our capacity to confront future economic devastation, environmental catastrophe, peak oil, and terrorism? Maybe. In any case, it underscores the range of ways in which filmmakers have begun to dramatize—directly, indirectly, and by accident, via osmosis—the breakdown of connections between people and one another, the planet, and even their own minds. The most compelling films of the last decade, bad and good, suggested that globalization and instant communication have not brought us closer but driven us deeper into our dream worlds.
A few of those filmmakers—the more socially conscious ones, idealists and cynics both—delivered some hard “Snap out of it!” slaps. But we Americans don’t pay to be slapped around, at least in public, especially from directors who are Mexican (Babel), British (Body of Lies), or, God help us, Swedish (the recent Mammoth). (The people who made Syriana had American names, but they might as well have been French.) With blinkered American protagonists and multiple multinational subplots, these movies aimed to show us that we’re not masters of the world, and that our cavalier exploitation (and consumption) will rebound on us. They rubbed our noses in our ignorance of other cultures. They depicted innocent children (not just little dark ones, but white and affluent!) paying for our crimes. None of those films broke through. Michael Moore preached to an unprecedentedly large choir in his documentary Fahrenheit 9/11, but even the sight of George W. Bush in a school chair with a book about a pet goat, staring into space after he has just been informed that his country is under attack—the most emasculating footage of a U.S. president in history—could barely rupture our pipe dreams of omnipotence. Old-fashioned anti-war conscience dramas flopped so hard you still feel the vibrations. Among movies centering on the “war on terror,” only this year’s The Hurt Locker has a chance of breaking through the bubble (assuming it racks up Oscar nominations and gets a rerelease)—and only because Kathryn Bigelow celebrates (a tad ironically, but with gusto) the kind of adrenaline-fueled American machismo that on the home front finds its outlet in Avatar-like video games. It’s the boffo Marvel superhero picture Iron Man that best sums up our psyches as the nation redoubles its Afghanistan efforts. Robert Downey Jr. is a greed-head American weapons mogul who has an improbable crisis of conscience, transforms himself into an impregnable weapon (his avatar), and uses Yankee might, money, and ingenuity to protect cowering Afghan families from marauding warlords. What a wonderful salve to our own troubled consciences. Iron Man says that, yes, our American military-industrial complex has helped to make an unholy mess of the region, but it can also deliver a golden savior. You expect the Afghans onscreen to sink to their knees and cry, “Iron Man akbar!” Avatar, based on previews, peddles a similarly self-serving fantasy in which a white warrior goes native (blueskin instead of redskin) and ends up fighting murderous imperialists who’ve forgotten his country’s values. The thinking is: Let’s show the world we’re still history’s truest idealists, even if we have to rewrite (and computer-generate) our collective memories to do it.
Maybe it all comes down to the poet Alexander Pope, who wrote: “How happy is the blameless vestal’s lot; / The world forgetting, by the world forgot! / Eternal sun-shine of the spotless mind; / Each prayer accepted, and each wish resign’d.”
In Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, we hear that verse after a despondent lover, Joel (Jim Carrey), has paid to have his memories of his ex-girlfriend, Clementine (Kate Winslet), removed by a newfangled memory-erasing machine. As she’s gradually purged from his head, he’s having a vision of himself and Clementine strolling along a Manhattan avenue amid a parade of circus elephants— a metaphorical sight gag, i.e.: Elephants never forget. The most marvelous, the most resonant, the best movie of the aughts isn’t overtly political, but writer Charlie Kaufman and director Michel Gondry weave together so many 21st-century fears that this truly screwball romance has the kick of a Philip K. Dick paranoid fever dream. Futuristic neuro-technology—in this case a private, home-delivery brain drain—helps to repress any trauma, to ease every pain except the dull one that insinuates, “Something is missing. This isn’t real.” Pope’s vestal’s lot turns out to be anything but happy. As the final memories are expelled, the screen is like a mushroom cloud: the blooming of the couple’s love and its obliteration in the same instant.
When I first reviewed Eternal Sunshine, I made the mindless auteurist’s mistake of treating it as too much un film de Charlie Kaufman and slighting the contributions of Gondry—who has transformed (along with, among others, Spike Jonze and Chris Cunningham) the art of music videos. Here, Gondry splinters the syntax and flouts the laws of space and time, yet the emotional and musical line is astoundingly fluid. While this was a decade in which George Lucas, who came of age in the rough-and-ready seventies, turned full-time to digital image, generating such breathtaking corpses as Attack of the Clones, Gondry proved that computers don’t have to be the death of the artistic soul—that you can create miraculous visions if, as in his The Science of Sleep, you find a way to attach (metaphorically) that USB cord to the unconscious mind.
Other filmmakers didn’t need futuristic devices to evoke an anguished, bell-jar subjectivity in which connections to the outside world are corroded. David Lynch’s Hollywood dreamscapes—so alluring, so fetid—made Mulholland Drive among the most lucid incomprehensible visions in all cinema. In the underrated Munich, Steven Spielberg chillingly dramatized the shrinking of a righteous avenger’s world. Roman Polanski delivered his masterpiece, The Pianist, a film that made poetic sense of both the horrors of his childhood and the abomination of his crime against a 13-year-old child. Here is a Polish protagonist (played by Adrien Brody) forced to view the slaughter of his people from a helpless distance, enclosed in a small room with nothing to sustain him but fantasy. Polanski leaves the central question lingering, unexamined: Is the artist entitled to special treatment? Is he morally exempt?
Subjectivity is everywhere in movies now, from the limited vantage points of Cloverfield and Paranormal Activity to the narration-heavy Up in the Air. Only a decade ago, first-person voice-overs were rare, a stern taboo in the lectures of venerated motivational screenwriting guru Robert McKee. Then Charlie Kaufman mocked McKee (played by Brian Cox) in the self-deconstructing Adaptation, and all at once, it seemed, you couldn’t get away from garrulous narration— I went, I thought, I felt, I saw, I blah-blahed. Films became like memoirs. Like blogs. In many of these movies there’s a loss of drama: Everyone but the narrator is an Other. But narration also liberated writers and directors to fool around with storytelling. (500) Days of Summer leapt around in time and space in ways that had you humming the syntax.
There are, of course, exceptions to the solipsistic-fantasy trend. After the late Robert Altman, the most refreshingly objective, stubbornly humanist, socially committed director remains Jonathan Demme. His documentary Jimmy Carter Man From Plains and the gorgeous concert film Neil Young: Heart of Gold (a portrait of an enduring musical family in a city with a heritage being wiped out by “progress”) were followed by the phenomenal Rachel Getting Married. Here Demme’s vision was double-sided: a breakdown in the nuclear family offset by a larger, multicultural communion that foretold the short-lived euphoria of Barack Obama’s election.
In the end, we might remember the aughts less for specific films than the technology that both created them and piped them into our homes: what we wanted when we wanted it. I was recently on a panel with indie-movie veteran Bingham Ray, who pointed out the most crucial difference between watching at home and in a theater: control. In a theater, you’re forced to cede power to the projectionist and, hence, the artist, whereas in your living room your hand is never far from the remote. You don’t invest the same attention when you know you can pause, go back, or fast-forward. You’re removed from the real, uncontrollable world, calling the shots, the avatar, just like your heroes onscreen.