I did not watch the Oscars last night. Something about watching institutionalized, self-congratulatory narcissism makes me nauseous. Ellen DeGeneres’ quip in her opening monologue about rain in Los Angeles dampening the evening seemed to sum it up. “We’re fine,” she joked. “Thank you for your prayers.”
Frankly, I haven’t seen any of the films that were nominated this year, aside from 12 Years a Slave, which made me feel guilty about having complained about anything, ever, in my entire life. For one, I don’t have the money. When faced with having to pay rent, groceries, phone bill, car insurance, and other essentials, spending what little discretionary funds I have available on what amounts to flimsy, cardboard representations of reality seems pretty ridiculous. Which brings me to the other reason I don’t go, which is that I find most films these days to be formulaic and predictable, as well as shallow and dull, and not worth my time.
Author Carlos Stevens wrote of the role of movies during the Great Depression: that they “offered a chance to escape the cold, the heat, and loneliness; they brought strangers together, rubbing elbows in the dark of movie palaces and fleapits, sharing in the one social event available to everyone.”
I don’t understand wanting to herd into darkened theaters to sit with strangers, or the desire to mingle gregariously. But I get wanting to escape from reality. It’s why I spent so much time with books as a teenager, preferring fictional universes where heroes overcame their demons. But it’s hard to relate to most of the stories presented for entertainment these days. Where movies of the 1930s were meant to give us hope in dark times, movies of the twenty-first century seem purposed only to numb us to the meandering banality of our own times.
Today I came across an article that explores the evolution of the horror genre and its use as contemporary commentary. The author writes of Wes Craven’s 1972 The Last House on the Left:
Scenes such as our female protagonist being raped and executed are meant to remind you of Mi Li or the notorious photograph of a Vietcong suspect being shot in the head outside a Buddhist Temple. Craven is telling us that the cinema is no long a safe heaven from suffering. ‘Look,’ his films seem to be saying. ‘This is what’s happening outside your door. Do something!’
Rather than attempt to hold a mirror to reality, most movies today promise shiny solutions to difficult solutions in fifteen, easy-to-follow “beats” (as per Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat). From opening image to that pivotal “dark night of the soul” at the end of Act 2, these stories promise that everything will be okay, no matter how impossible the situation.
Right now, it’s difficult to find much hope in these stories given my current circumstances. Sure, I’m not in living Russia, Uganda, or Nigeria, in real danger for my life. But I’m still looking for a job, my unemployment insurance runs out this week, and I’m not sure where money is going to come from in the next few weeks. My car is falling apart. I’m not sure how I’m going to force my unscrupulous landlord to return the security deposit without hiring a crackerjack legal team.
So you’ll forgive me if the avaricious characters in The Wolf of Wall Street or the charade of Dallas Buyer’s Club doesn’t assuage my anxieties. Hollywood loves to glorify the myth of the lone hero, the man or woman who overcomes villains and all odds to achieve his/her goal.
What’s so seductive about a story like 12 Years a Slave is that we know how the story ends. Even in its darkest moments, we know from the historical record that Solomon Northup will be freed. We know that Frodo will succeed in his quest. That Harry Potter will defeat Voldemort.
There is mythic truth in these stories. But that truth is only found in hindsight.
We are all heroes in our own narratives, which means that we are constantly in medias res – in the midst of the story. So I don’t know when life is going to calm down for me, and allow me to live a mode other than near-constant crisis management. As I said to a friend of mine today, it feels as if I’m always waiting for something awful to happen or expecting to be disappointed. One could say that this is how self-fulfilling prophesies are written, yet I’m tired of trying to play Pollyanna and paint a smiley face on a bleak situation.
What little hope I have actually comes from my atheism, and my layman’s study of cosmology and natural selection. In a recent NPR interview, astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson said:
You will never find people who truly grasp the cosmic perspective … leading nations into battle. No, that doesn’t happen. When you have a cosmic perspective there’s this little speck called Earth and you say, “You’re going to what? You’re on this side of a line in the sand and you want to kill people for what? Oh, to pull oil out of the ground, what? WHAT?” … Not enough people in this world, I think, carry a cosmic perspective with them. It could be life-changing.
It’s hard to look at the Hollywood elite gathering in Los Angeles to give themselves awards in light of knowing how utterly insignificant we are, especially when there is so much need in the world and so much progress left to make. As Piper Chapman says in Orange is the New Black, “I cannot get behind some supreme being who weighs in on the Tony Awards while a million people get whacked with machetes.”
It could always be worse. And it’s a miracle that any of us are here at all, given how it could’ve gone countless times for our planet throughout its history.
But it’s difficult to stay hopeful or plan for the future when storm clouds seem to be permanently camped on the horizon.