Features and Columns

Culture Warrior: The Politics of Summer Movies 2010

By  · Published on September 14th, 2010

For better or worse, this summer of movies is over, and now we’re in the early-Fall transition into the inevitable season of so-called “serious” awards-friendly films, films that supposedly say a lot about human nature and our time and place as a culture.

However, I’ve always contended that it is often the films that seemingly exist only for “entertainment’s sake” that have the most to say about culture, mainly because they operate in such a way that allows us to turn our minds off, passively consume them, and therefore go along unquestionably with the socio-political presumptions explicitly or implicitly embedded within their narratives.

Such films that purport to exist solely for entertainment value often end up telling us a lot about how and what we think about the present, and it just so happens that these types of films are most often relegated to the summer months. Summer movies in 2010 ranged from highbrow to lowbrow, blockbuster to indie to sleeper, with head-scratchers and brain-cell-killers alike, but many of these films, intentionally or not, had something to say or assume about the present cultural moment.

Iron Man 2 (May 7)

Picking up where Tony Stark left off in the first film, Iron Man 2 is an oddly comforting fantasy of American exceptionalism and its worship of the individual. But unlike the first film whose first act imagines an allegorical American victory in Afghanistan through Iron Man’s defeat of the Ten Rings, the sequel exercises its nationalism through resurrecting the remnants of America’s Cold War enemies through the threat embodied by Whiplash, whose aura of communist conformism is made literal through his manufacture of a mass identical army.

Thus, Whiplash’s ultimate defeat at the hands of Iron Man endorses a presumed superiority of individualism over the collective ideal for the common good (a point contradicted by the unacknowledged fact that Iron Man literally did not defeat Whiplash alone) to the extent that Stark even endorses privatized militarism in an echo of both Blackwater and the recent move by neo-libertarians to all but obliterate the public sector (“I have successfully privatized world piece.”) It’s interesting here that Iron Man 2 resurrects an enemy from the Reagan years to make its point rather than continue to engage, as the first film did, with Mideast politics.

See also: Salt (July 23)

Robin Hood (May 14)

Ridley Scott’s aggressively unnecessary epic replaces Kevin Costner’s accent-hopping with Russell Crowe’s alleged “charisma,” but instead of painting Robin Hood as the proverbial “Prince of Thieves” who scoffs at class distinction by taking money from those that don’t need it and giving it to those who do, Scott’s arbitrary “origin story” instead paints Robin Hood’s rebellion as a revolt against unfair taxes and a tyrannical government, thus transforming the legend into an unlikely narrative about a Tea Party long before there was a Boston or chalkboards and phony outrage.

What is essentially a story about humanitarian socialism and justice against inherent privilege (the classical Robin Hood would otherwise be rejected by today’s standards as a wealth-spreader and welfare-enabler) along with a damned compelling rivalry between the Prince of Nottingham and our hero, is instead stripped of its bearings and reduced to Gladiator for the Fox News crowd.

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time & Sex & the City 2: The Sands of Time (May 28)

Two separate movie studios chose one weekend late in May to explore the subject of Americans in the Middle East. With Prince of Persia, Disney gave us a – to put it mildly – messy video game adaptation with a not-so-subtle allegorical subtext as its story is framed around a holy city invasion predicated on a false report of weapon production (take that, Green Zone!).

Meanwhile, Sex and the City 2 was all-over-the-place politically, oscillating between an appropriate feminist criticism of an oppressive patriarchal culture and an astoundingly insensitive exercise in neo-colonialism (the ladies unapologetically consume the culture of Abu Dhabi as they simultaneously condemn it), while containing probably the worst-ever attempt at pathos regarding the America’s financial crisis: Carrie and Big won’t sell their second Manhattan apartment because of the difficult housing situation.

Micmacs (May 28)

Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s criminally underseen film is probably the most whimsical and hilarious revenge film you’ll ever see, and it also features one of the summer’s most satisfying exercises in political criticism precisely because it does so through its visually compelling cartoon humor. Using social networking and Internet file-sharing as a democratic means for witnessing and exercising justice against the corporate evils of international weapons manufacturing, Micmacs takes out frustrations on global injustices ranging between Darfur and international terrorism in a way that is intentional without being didactic, funny without being cynical, and insightful while being light.

Splice (June 4)

While Splice is admittedly a rare example of a wide-released summer movie that took risks, it’s also a pretty socially conservative film, acting as a cautionary tale about the dangers of stem cell research. The manifestation of a right-wing nightmare hasn’t been this extreme in an independently-financed film since Precious, as scientists here are painted as 1) power-hungry narcissists acting in direct opposite of man’s best interest and 2) sexual deviants.

The Karate Kid & The A-Team (June 11)

The 80s are back and in a big way. As the Right continues to elevate the corpse of Ronald Reagan into the realm of near-sainthood while Iron Man 2 longs for the Cold War, studio movies revisited the decade of excess and ALF by resurrecting its properties and icons, showing a nostalgia for the period that is only a little bit ironic (we’re far from the days of The Wedding Singer). Yet none of these films revisit the decade literally, like the spring’s Hot Tub Time Machine. They instead concoct a historical amalgamation of past and present, mixing the elements of these corresponding eras into a single instantaneous postmodern moment.

They operate on both nostalgia and short-term memory, attempting to engage with audiences familiar to the original material and its references while also recruiting new audiences too young to know they’re missing out on something. There’s clearly still a lot of capital to be mined from this decade’s nostalgia bin, but it’s a mystery to me why we would want to revisit the decade of “Greed is Good” as the disparity between rich and poor approaches a comparability to Latin America.

See also: MacGruber (May 21), The Expendables (August 13), Predators (July 9)

Toy Story 3 (June 18)

Armond White may have dismissed Toy Story 3 as an exercise in fetishising materialism, but as is so often the case, Mr. White misses the boat completely. Toy Story may be about a fetishization of objects, yes, but it isn’t concerned with the unbridled consumption that is implied in the characterization of American materialism. Instead, Toy Story 3 is more a story about the responsibility we have in the objects we have, about learning how to give things up and pass them along to people who might need them more than we do.

It’s about renouncing individual possession in favor of acknowledging a greater collective good (e.g., the day care center vs. Andy’s attic). In a time where it’s considered evil and un-American to be willing to give what is expendable to possibly save the life of someone who is poor, Toy Story 3 reminded us one of childhood’s simple but essential lessons in molding adult character: sharing is good.

Find out what the rest of the Summer had to say:

Cyrus (June 18)

“Soccer Mom” might be a problematic term, but what it represents is certainly relevant and apparent in our present culture: excessive parenting in the forms of over-preparedness in terms of safety, building childhood expectations to unattainable levels, and rewarding participation rather than success. Cyrus is a demonstration of a worst-case scenario in the child-rearing patterns of baby boomer parents by showing the end product as an over-dependant, pseudo-incestuous, emotionally unsound man-child who prevents the parent from being able to create new normal relationships. Cyrus is about the generation gap and the ever-extending age of reaching adulthood with each passing generation. Studies have shown that Gen-X parents have eased up a bit compared to the baby boomers, but until those children grow up the adult space might have a few Cyruses in it for the time being.

See also: Dogtooth (June 25)

The Last Airbender (July 1)

Whitewashing. The Last Airbender is hegemonic Anglo-centric propaganda in the guise of multiculturalism. Should we really be letting our kids watch this shit?

See also: Marmaduke (June 4)

The Kids Are All Right (July 9)

The Kids Are All Right represents a landmark moment in LGBTQ filmmaking, but it isn’t one without certain qualifiers. Making itself distinct from overly political films featuring gay characters like Brokeback Mountain and Milk by attempting to be apolitical or invisibly political, The Kids Are All Right also says something by not saying something.

The film attempts to make the central same-sex relationship of the film apolitical by making it seem normal, except that notion here is loaded and exercised through the paradigm of straightness. Thus, The Kids Are All Right (while undoubtedly a very solid film) calls into question which direction LGBTQ films will go into the future to fit into the mainstream: advocacy or conformity.

Inception (July 16)

Being about dreams, dreams within dreams, dreams within those dreams, and “Holy fuck, where am I now,” Nolan’s late-mid-summer savior of smart entertainment is, obviously, a film about subjectivities: subjectivities of perception, time and space, and, ultimately, reality. In Inception, these subjectivities quite literally compete with one another (each level is a different person’s dream architecture, the elements of one person’s dream invades another). This narrative of competing subjectivities is quite analogous to our present situation as a discursive postmodern culture.

Living in a supposed information age would implicitly allow a continuously objective assessment of any given subject seeing as all the facts are presumably available, but instead the opposite is true: we have an overload of information, so we panic and relegate ourselves instead to that specific interpretation of reality which suits us best, the one that makes sense in the context of previous products of information that we’ve already accepted as truth (think, for example, of which news sources you choose).

We have to stick to an ongoing narrative; we’d rather live in cognitive dissonance than have our given interpretation of reality contradicted. And, like in the film’s end, we don’t care if what we see is real or not, just as long as it provides the most satisfying impression of truth.

The Other Guys (August 6)

Yes, the film had a distracting, didactic, and tonally misplaced end credit sequence, but this isn’t where The Other Guys contains its socio-cultural worth. Instead, the film – using farce to disguise satire, and using satire to disguise commentary – functions as a statement on the true criminal of the 21st century: the white-collar criminal. The film’s actual plot – which, in films like these, is unfortunately more often than not expendable – is a bit messy and confusing compared to the straightforward drug-busting cop movies it parodies, but in a way this itself is a comment on why white-collar crime is so rarely brought to justice: something so damn confusing is pretty difficult to enforce.

Yes, Bernie Madoff might rightfully be enduring a 100+ year jail sentence (as the aforementioned end credits remind us), but The Other Guys also reinforces that fact that he can’t be our source of catharsis, our emotional scapegoat for a structural problem that lets so many criminal billionaires run free.

Piranha 3-D (August 20)

Thought the sequel to James Cameron’s very best film was an intentionally campy exploitation-fest reveling in the spectacle of breasts and blood? Well, that might be true, but it’s also a story of vengeance and retribution on behalf of an entire ocean of life that we ravaged and massacred through industry-enabled global warming and massive oil spills. Humans really had it coming.

Take a walk on the wild side with more Culture Warrior: The Sands of Time

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