Film Essay

Posted August 25, 2011 in Film Features


Film, perhaps more than any other art-form, is inextricably tied to the worlds of industry and finance. While the commercial rules of production have been bent in recent years, with the advent of digital technology and Youtube, the distribution of film and its wider media-critical industry remain, fundamentally, a money-game. What happens when the American cinema-machine, as a cultural apparatus loathe to acknowledge its own commerciality, makes films about Capital? (Warning: spoilers of old films herein).

Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life (1946) performs the dual function of (thinly-) veiled pro-Capital propaganda and (appropriately) heartwarming Christmastime family viewing staple. Presenting a basic conflict between Big Capitalism, represented by Mr. Potter, a fat and greedy landlord who exploits his poor tenants’ financial insecurity and traps them into lifetimes of debt; and Small Capitalism (disguised as a Socialist manifesto of sorts), represented by the suicidal George Bailey’s (Jimmy Stewart) sympathetic, small town building and loans company. George’s own financial problems mean he will have to forefeit his company, and thus the fates of his friends and townspeople, to Potter, to whom he is in severe debt, until he is bailed out by the collected savings of the community. George and Christmas are saved by this act, which performs an analgesic rather than comprehensive “curing” function, as the illusion of collective social parity and justice persists beneath the conservative reality of Capital’s primacy, the ghost of Horatio Alger happily present at the feast.

Oliver Stone’s Wall Street (1987) suffers from similarly dissonant diegetic politics, allowing for Michael Douglas’ unscrupulous Gordon Gekko to be undone by his disgruntled apprentice, Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen), who utilises his skills as a stockbroker (through insider trading) to sabotage his mentor, after being betrayed by him on an emotional level. The film is preachy in a way that only an Oliver Stone film can be, whilst maintaining the confused narrative metaphor of “an eye for an eye” as a positive, Socialist solution with grand self-righteousness. Iconic though it may be, Wall Street is an abdication of the responsibility to examine the system it denigrates as something pervasively ideological, living and dying by the sword it refuses to acknowledge as real.

Avatar (James Cameron, 2009) is the most expensive and highest-grossing film ever made and, as though to satisfy the weak pan-critical clichés of the armchair cinéaste, is as overblown, undercooked and mindless as any blockbuster that has come before it or since. Positing itself as a parable of humankind’s shortsighted greediness, our fictional lust for “Unobtanium” overriding any feelings of respect for the natural habitat of the massive and blue-yet-Africanised (still fictional) inhabitants of Pandora: the Na’vi, James Cameron presents a strained “come on, lads” plea for conservationism through clouds of ash and smoke wrought by explosions in glorious 3-D for the entertainment of the spectator, whose thoughts could only unwittingly slip into questioning whether the proceedings are slightly hypocritical or not before feeling slightly ridiculous: the thinker in repose, eyes dim behind La Forge-esque 3-D glasses.

Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood (2008), adapted from the novel Oil! by Upton Sinclair, is the sort of airtight criticism of human greed as exemplified by exploitative Capital that comes around (particularly in American cinema) only so often. A brutal and unflinching portrayal of the rise of Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis), an oil man and rugged individualist, in the untapped West of early 20th century America, the film dedicates itself to examining the chaotic and destructive nature of unrestricted enterprise, culminating in one of the finest and most shocking scenes in recent memory, in which the troubled preacher Eli (Paul Dano) is humiliated and beaten to death with a bowling pin (such significance!) by Plainview. Also he says “I drink your milkshake!” to him.

Words: Oisín Murphy


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