As the fall film season begins and the midterm elections loom, our chief critics ponder the state of democracy, onscreen and off.
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A.O. Scott and
Are you ready to see some movies? We are. But if news reports are right, you, like us are also worried about the state of the nation. According to a recent NBC poll, “threats to democracy” top the list of public concerns — hardly surprising in the wake of the summer’s Jan. 6 hearings and other events. Does Hollywood care? Should it? With the midterm elections and the fall movie season looming on the horizon, our chief film critics ponder the complicated relationship between cinema and democracy and wonder about the future of both.
A.O. SCOTT We’re talking about two distinct issues that have always been entwined: democracy as a theme in movies and democracy as an aspect of moviegoing itself. Movies are often thought of as a quintessentially democratic medium, but that isn’t necessarily so. Lenin, Mussolini and Goebbels eagerly adapted the techniques of cinema to totalitarian propaganda, and other dictators have followed suit. In the middle of the 20th century, skeptical intellectuals of the left, right and center mistrusted the power that moving pictures could wield over the masses, turning active citizens into passive spectators.
But that mass appeal has also made movies feel uniquely accessible and egalitarian; they seem to belong to all of us, to be an art form of the people, by the people and for the people. At least potentially. And in America the movies have often gravitated toward broad civic questions even if they have mostly avoided taking specific political stands. I’m thinking of lower-depth weepies and crime stories in the Great Depression, antifascist morale boosters during World War II (here’s looking at you, “Casablanca”) and some of the big-picture westerns and earnest social-problem melodramas in the postwar years. Movies have often held up an imperfect mirror to our imperfect democracy.
MANOHLA DARGIS The idea that movies are inherently democratic has retained such power, even when we know better. Early on, some saw films as disreputable, even dangerous — and what were ladies and gents doing in the dark? — but also as a conduit to moral uplift, social reform, education. In 1918, an essay in the film fan magazine Photoplay criticized the older arts as elitist, but noted that when the moving picture arrived “democracy clasped it to its heart” — this was, the writer proclaimed, “the first art-child of democracy.” Hoot! Movies were for the masses but made by elites for the middle class; they were “universal” yet exclusionary.
The relative absence of true, grinding poverty in American movies underscores this point, and films like the 1940 studio drama “The Grapes of Wrath” and the 1977 independent wonder “Killer of Sheep” are exceptions. It’s fascinating to see how, in the decades between these two films, American cinema deviated from the old-studio playbook as did Hollywood’s role as a cheerleader for democratic ideals, a function that was also propagandistic. One thing that hasn’t changed is the movies’ faith in the people (customers) as good and their corresponding horror of the people, who can easily turn into a mob — populism cuts different ways.
SCOTT In the 1970s, when Charles Burnett was making “Killer of Sheep” in a part of Los Angeles light years from Hollywood, the studios were also dabbling in class consciousness. Movies like “Wanda,” “Norma Rae,” “Hooper” and Paul Schrader’s galvanic “Blue Collar” (starring Harvey Keitel, Yaphet Kotto and Richard Pryor as struggling auto-factory workers) responded to the economic anxiety, racial tension and social malaise that were eating away at the post-’60s body politic. That kind of filmmaking went out of fashion in the 1980s, with the simultaneous ascent of Ronald Reagan and blockbuster-minded producers like Jerry Bruckheimer and Don Simpson.
You could say that one kind of populism was exchanged for another, and also that the alienation from American institutions that characterized post-Vietnam, post-Watergate cinema was folded into the more superficially jingoistic entertainments of the Reagan era. The original “Top Gun” is a war movie without a war. “Rambo” is a revenge fantasy that also expresses profound disaffection with military and political authority. In movies about law enforcement or national security — from “Dirty Harry” to the “Die Hard” movies to the Jason Bourne saga — the system is riddled with corruption and bureaucratic inertia, and it’s up to maverick heroes to correct the balance while fighting the external bad guys. Cynicism can look like a higher form of patriotism, and vice versa.
But maybe that’s moot now that we’re all citizens of the transnational, post-ideological Marvel Cinematic Universe.
DARGIS Or captives! The anomie that characterizes many 1970s films we love has always drifted in and out of Hollywood, in gangster films, melodramas, noirs. The studios tended to mandate happy endings, but they couldn’t always change a movie’s underlying critique or just vibe that something, somewhere was wrong, including about the country. Films in the ’70s don’t necessarily end well and the countercultural pushback can feel intense, like a spirit of the age, signaling a larger, often inchoate dissatisfaction. But, as you say, that gave way to the blockbuster imperative. Alienation packed its bags, moved to Sundance and became mindful.
One meaningful difference between old and new Hollywood that seems relevant here is that the major studios were once committed to greater product differentiation (musicals, westerns, melodramas), a diversity that independent cinema now provides. The big studios still dominate the box office, but with fewer and more interchangeable movies: In 2004, they released 179 new titles; in 2019, just 124. Whenever I go to the movies as a civilian now, every trailer seems to be for a superhero flick. Independent cinema offers more variety, so it seems more democratic — in that there’s something for nearly everyone — but it likes to treat democracy itself as a series of discrete problems with solutions, often in documentaries.
SCOTT The division you describe between independent and big-studio ambitions — leaving aside for a moment the complicating factor of streaming platforms in this whole equation — isn’t just a differentiation of product. The way movies are marketed and distributed assumes, and even promotes, a stratification of the audience. “Popcorn movies” (a phrase I hate, though I don’t much care for popcorn either) are for everyone; the other kind are sold as elite, prestige products, less widely available and stigmatized (or celebrated) for their snob appeal.
It’s those movies, documentary and fictional, that are more likely to be concerned with democratic themes: injustice, inequality, the struggles of working people, the ethics of citizenship, the rights of women. But the distribution system — which is to say, the way the world is presently organized — too often seals them into an art-house echo chamber. They are likely to be met with mild appreciation or passionate approval (at least from critics like us), but not necessarily to spark much of the broader argument that sustains a vibrant democratic culture.
DARGIS I keep thinking about some recent movies involving class conflict that, in different ways, engage democracy, national traumas, the 2008 economic crisis and neoliberalism. Sometimes this consciousness turns into warfare as in “Joker” and “Parasite,” which feature brawling haves and have-nots. The recent Mexican movie “New Order” and the coming “Triangle of Sadness” also involve free-for-alls with the wealthy and the underprivileged. “Triangle of Sadness” turns that struggle into a cynical joke and won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, which feels fitting for an elite festival in a country that decapitated its royals.
One difference between “Triangle of Sadness” and these other movies is that its characters form a fragile makeshift society. It isn’t democratic, and it isn’t pretty. This reminds me of a crucial scene in the very dissimilar, forthcoming “R.M.N.,” from the Romanian filmmaker Cristian Mungiu, a contemporary story that takes place in a multiethnic village where, for the most part, people seem to live in harmony. Then a bakery hires workers from Sri Lanka, which upsets some locals. Tensions escalate, and the townspeople meet to discuss whether to expel the foreign workers. The scene encapsulates the limits of populism — it too isn’t pretty.
SCOTT You’re right to widen the scope beyond Hollywood. The crisis of democracy is hardly just an American concern, and filmmakers from countries with recent histories of dictatorship and civil strife are keenly aware of how fragile, how historically contingent, a democratic civic order can be. Communal hatreds run deep, and inequality can’t be erased by the good intentions of individuals. The movies you mention cast doubt on the liberal ideal that we can all get together and work out our problems, even as they come from a more or less liberal perspective.
Hollywood — the land of happy endings — stays away from that kind of pessimism. But there are also Hollywood movies that seem to me to affirm democratic possibilities without resorting to rosy, increasingly dubious projections of consensus. I’m thinking here about “Nope,” whose title suggests resistance, negation, refusal, and whose story concerns a band of movie-world outsiders joining together to protect their home. As with most great westerns, this one invites both a conservative and a left-leaning interpretation. It’s about the defense of property and family, and also about worker solidarity.
DARGIS You don’t need to be a pessimist to engage in democracy, but you do need to be interested and inventive. I get that it’s tough making endless meetings and people with bad hair cinematic, but Frederick Wiseman does it, though of course his documentaries don’t open wide. It’s amusing that his interest in institutions is shared by TV, which uses hospitals, schools, law offices, police departments, etc., basically as genres for its sitcoms and soaps. Movies, partly because they’re narratively compressed and love a guy in a white hat, rely on outsiders, renegades, crusaders — cowboys who ride in, take care of business and ride into the sunset. Part of the sly wit and punch of “Nope” is how Jordan Peele plays with that stereotype.
With their hierarchies of power and systemic prejudices, their rugged individuals and love of violence as a righteous way to restore order, American movies have been letting us know for a while — however unwittingly — that there’s a deep, unwavering crisis in our democracy. Sometimes they've actually acknowledged that we’re in trouble. In 1962, the white lawyer in “To Kill a Mockingbird” confronts a lynch mob intent on hanging his client, an innocent Black man, later telling the jury, “In our courts, all men are created equal.” But his client is convicted, and doomed. By the time we get to last year’s “Don’t Look Up,” about an Earth-destroying comet, you can’t even get people to listen to reason. We are all doomed.
SCOTT But we sure do enjoy contemplating that doom! We also like to look backward, to hash over the conflicts and contradictions of democracy at a historical remove. In this year of the Dobbs decision, we can look forward to “Call Jane,” a drama about a group in Chicago that helped women get abortions in the pre-“Roe” era. Two years after George Floyd’s killing, we will have “Till,” about the aftermath of Emmett Till’s lynching in Mississippi in 1955. The forthcoming “Armageddon Time,” James Gray’s very personal coming-of-age story set in Queens in 1980, is at least obliquely about white privilege, identity politics and the limits of a certain kind of middle-class liberalism. It’s also about Reagan’s election and (very obliquely and also blatantly) the rise of Donald J. Trump.
For six years now, Trump has so dominated public discourse that it almost feels weird that the movies have mostly kept their distance, even though that’s what movies have always done. Yes, the president in “Don’t Look Up” is a recognizably Trumpian figure, though she is played by Meryl Streep. And there have been documentaries about the 45th president, mainly by partisans like Michael Moore and Dinesh D’Souza. But the absence of Trump from movies may be the most normal thing about his presidency. The man in the White House has rarely showed up on the big screen during his term in office. It may take a decade or two for Trump to find his Oliver Stone.
DARGIS More Trump movies are sure to come, maybe a biopic (hello, Sean Penn?). But his story isn’t over — it’s still a cliffhanger — and he doesn’t fit the familiar American film template: Is he hero, villain, both, neither? And then there’s the tricky question of the audience and how to turn radically divided red and blue voters into one happy paying audience. Can any movie unite us so that we’re one nation under the cinematic groove? Is that even a good idea? I think it may be a while before we convene to discuss that possibility.