By Sean Czarnecki, Daily Film Editor
Published February 18, 2013
I got a problem with movies today: Where’s the recession?
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Often when we want to better understand the past, we look to that time’s popular culture, and that includes movies. In this way, movies are a way of remembering. If you were to look at only what films were made in our time, you might assume the biggest financial catastrophe since the Depression is behind us. Everything is OK. And, if we’re not careful, that’s how the federal bailouts, the anxiety, the fear, Occupy and the great recession might be remembered — a dip in the financial timeline. That’s how we might be remembered. Is that truly how you feel?
2009’s “Up in the Air” took you into the life of someone who fires workers for a living, but that film was more about the alienation symptomatic of a system whose capital is bodies. That said, “Up in the Air” eloquently opened up the possible dialogue on livelihood. But I want to know about the blue-collar workers Clooney fired. I want to know what our storytellers think about the deep-seated uncertainty, confusion and anger we felt as a nation the day our parents lost their pensions. Where’s the angst?
There’s only one film to my memory that has summed up the fear of blue-collar people — and it was a mafia flick that swung with the heavyweight strength of a champion but barely blipped on pop culture’s radar. That movie was “Killing Them Softly,” and indeed, it went softly; it crept into and out of theaters, tip-toeing.
I’m here to freshen the bruises it left.
A neo-noir crime thriller, “Softly” was not a subtle film; it was spiked-bat politics. Delivered cruelly, cynically, with all the delicate graces of a cactus. The meditative nuance that’s normally preferable was substituted for open brutality — the bleeding of workers manifested in the vicious violence of the Mob. Crooks get away. The innocent get shot. The shrewd and cut-throat survive. You gotta be hardened, desensitized to the economic bloodletting. And it’s always going to keep happening this way without the “Hope” and “Change” we should believe in. Though imperfect and obviously heavy-handed, which may have lost it critical steam, I’ve yet to see another film brandish its teeth as bracingly as it had.
But “Softly” was no blockbuster wonder. I have a suspicion that Hollywood has recession screenplays laying around they’re too afraid to finance: The resulting product will just be too damn boring and too damn sad. We were lucky to get “Softly,” which worked because of its shameless black humor and hard-hitting allegory on capitalism, whose violence made the precarious economic condition of the blue-collar worker all the more visceral. It’s damn dangerous not being rich.
You see, I hate that dull, hammer-headed argument some tunnel-visioned nincompoop makes after watching a movie, “It’s not supposed to mean anything.” Somehow, the person saying that there’s meaning in film is turned into a nut for chasing after ghosts no one else believes.
Whether or not you watched it for one reason or another, films are always meaningful in that they reveal culture. They don’t have to leave us a moral, they don’t have to preach, they don’t have to go on a diatribe to mean anything because, invariably, they normalize a reality. And the real reality is often inadvertently glamourized; often, it is changed. When false images and stereotypes are popularized and consequently collectivized, they’re often mistaken for being true, and whatever problems plague our society go unnoticed.
Think of what conflicts can labor a time period: Depending on what piece of popular culture you’re examining, and when it was made, Native Americans are either brutal savages intent on murdering every white they see, or they’re tragic heroes. The 1950s are either a time of nostalgia and innocence or brutal conformity. You either party like it’s the 1980s or you blow up like it's the 1980s.