We live in cynical times. Our generation was brought up to question authority, challenge the status quo and distrust other people, and that’s just the way we are. And that’s cool. I’m definitely a sarcastic, doubtful person myself. But there’s something I’ve been wondering about us. With the rise of the Internet as a tool to remove ourselves from the world through ironic detachment, is it possible for any work of culture — like, say, a movie — to reach us emotionally anymore?
I got to thinking about this after seeing the new release “Precious,” which is about an impoverished, abused, pregnant black teenager in Harlem. That’s a lot of misery to squeeze into one film, and maybe a fault of the movie is that it’s too much to contain. But I’m wondering if it nevertheless has the power to touch us cynical college students. It’s unfortunate, but from what I’ve witnessed the past couple years, I’m inclined to say “no.”
My reasoning has to do with how we approach difficult subject matter. We laugh at it. Our tendency is to turn everything into a joke, and that includes ironic, over-the-top, look-how-offensive-we-are kinds of jokes. Maybe humor is our defense mechanism; maybe we just don’t care about the things about which we should care.
In a key scene in “Precious,” the mother (played by Mo’Nique) drops a newborn baby on the floor of her apartment. Over the top? Maybe a little, but it’s filmed without gratuity; it’s an event that happens during her fit of rage, and it’s meant for give audiences a concrete realization of the disturbing downward spiral of her character. But who among us hasn’t heard at least one “dead baby” joke before? You know what I’m talking about. They’re funny because of how absurd and outrageous it is to joke about infant mortality. And maybe I’ve told a few myself. But you take someone who routinely spills “dead baby” jokes, sit them down in front of a movie theater and play them that scene from “Precious,” and their first instinct is to laugh. It’s funny, right?
OK, so maybe it’s not just our generation that’s doing this. But we’re the ones who are trying to look at the supposed prudishness of our prior generations from the outside. Remember all those YouTube parodies of “Brokeback Mountain” from a few years back? Nobody meant any harm by them … at least, I hope they didn’t. It was just funny to portray C-3PO and R2-D2 as gay. But it also might be a sign that the movie didn’t emotionally resonate with us the way the filmmakers intended.
This is unquestionably the era of post-modern filmmaking: We’re past the point where we casually assume all movies are really “happening,” and we’re more aware than ever of the manipulative devices that actors and directors employ to win our hearts. The motives of filmmakers are much more transparent to us now than they’ve ever been with past audiences, whether that’s because of our heightened obsession with the industry or the increased self-involvement of the directors in question. Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds” was essentially an exposé of techniques used by wartime propaganda films, and documentarians like Michael Moore and Werner Herzog love describing their film’s emotional hooks to the audience during their narrations.
So with all this new transparency, we’re left with less of an incentive to get emotionally wrapped up in a film’s story. It’s hard to clap for a magician when you already know his tricks, it’s true. And this plays a big part in our newfound celluloid cynicism. But if we’re not careful, this immediate impulse to pick apart and mock every movie could permanently transform the ways we watch and respond to films.
Now, obviously the filmmakers themselves should be charged with making us care. If their old techniques of emotional manipulation are becoming too see-through, they need to think of some new ones. “Brokeback” was so easy to parody because all the hallmarks of a grand romantic epic — the picturesque landscapes, the swelling music, the tearful confessions — were already there. And in a few months, it’s not hard to imagine Mo’Nique’s baby-dropping in “Precious” making the YouTube rounds as well.
But a lot of this lies on us too. We can’t keep arrogantly distancing ourselves from every work of art that comes along. If that is where we’re heading, I want to discover one simple thing before the how-we-view-movies mindshift is complete: What was the last movie you saw that reached you in a really meaningful way? Which of film’s most recent endeavors penetrated your own defenses, so that you weren’t focused on any unintentional comedy or on the director’s shortcomings, but only focused on the characters and situations that were being depicted in front of you with utmost sincerity? It’s an honest question. I want to know if I’m exaggerating claims of our generation’s cynicism. Prove me wrong.