The Great(er) Depression: Films and Unhappy Endings

A lot of recent films haven’t had happy endings, and it just reflects what has always been true and what everyone knows, one way or the other: we’re having a culture crisis.

Well, culture has always been in crisis, but it has now crept into today’s mainstream American movies, and that to me is a sign that it has gone more acute, for others at least. Some films today, like Vicky Cristina Barcelona, capture a sense of losing one’s direction and purpose. They show that we are and can no longer sure how to live our lives. Opting for the settled, stable life is not enough somehow, while carefree, spontaneous living is volatile. It can be nasty and violent. Accordingly, like Cristina, we are left in a state of chronic dissatisfaction, “never knowing what we want, only what we don’t.”

The Reader meanwhile has us looking to the past, only to be told that nothing can come of out it. The Holocaust survivor said so herself, and Michael Berg’s love and devotion to Hannah ends up nowhere. He is stuck in the past, loving her for most of his life, but it hasn’t been a life-affirming affair on the whole. Michael is gloomy and solemn all the time. He is The Reader, but he is unreadable; distant, aloof and opaque. “When will a woman ever get to know what goes on inside your head?”

Love keeps the story going, but stunts it as well. The movie begins where it ends, with Michael looking back at his past love. Love here is a nothingness, just as the Holocaust was. Both defy Reason. Both don’t make sense. Why does Michael send all those tapes to Hannah? Why did Hannah help Michael when he had Scarlet fever? They don’t have to, but they do. And that is one reason why it is Love. It needs no more reason than itself, just as Evil doesn’t need any. True evil, they say, exists just for the hell of it.

Speaking of evil, some religious movies today have also become pessimistic. Before, we always saw the devil’s plans thwarted, and faith prevailing in the end. Demi Moore sacrifices herself in the Seventh Sign, Rachel Leigh Cook gets saved in the The Eighteenth Angel, and the devil is exorcised in, well, The Exorcist. But in The Haunting of Molly Hartley, we see no such optimism. Molly Hartley stabs herself so that the devil can’t get his hands on her. But to no avail, she gets to be the devil’s powerful servant, off to conquer the world as a bright, beautiful and successful young woman. It is not a compliment to the corporate world.

Each of these movies has an air of gloom and pessimism, but one historical event seems to encapsulate the mood more than any other. A few movies – Defiance, The Reader and Valkyrie – look back at the Holocaust, an appalling tragedy that captures today’s sense of meaningless, alienation, uncertainty, loss of purpose, collapse of conventional order, and the breakdown of and the inadequacy of the usual answers. The trial in The Reader and Michael’s classmate’s tirade against law are part of such questioning. Both show, among other things, that answers are no longer easy to come by. And though not a Holocaust movie, Woody Allen’s menage a trois disrupts Vicky’s well-ordered life and leaves Cristina more confused than ever.

The Holocaust serves as a backdrop with which we explore and make sense of this culture crisis. “How can we be moral in an immoral age?” asks The Valkyrie. The fact that we ask this question is not a good sign. As dumb and obvious as it may sound, it only means that we no longer have the answers(at least not yet). And that is precisely why we are in a crisis.

On a final, perhaps more sinister note, is it just a coincidence that these movies are coming out now when the global economy is in recession, thousands are being laid off and companies are downsizing?

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