The terror is right here in the room.
— A concerned voice from Good Night, and Good Luck
When Oscar announced this year's crop of short-listed films — Munich, Crash, Capote, Brokeback Mountain and Good Night, and Good Luck — the pundits stroked their chins and quickly pronounced: Hmm, interesting selection, dominated by relatively small-budget pictures, serious in purpose, downbeat in tone, minus the usual leavening of a bouncy musical or feel-good biopic or glitzy blockbuster.
As is their wont, the pundits were right and wrong — dead wrong in making a huge error of omission. They overlooked a crucially important connection within this list, one that speaks volumes about how we live and think now.
What unites all these movies is a shared and consuming interest in a single topic: violence. Violence in its various guises, violence justified and not, the reaction and overreaction to violence, the fear of the "other" that gives rise to violence, and our tendency to embrace the very violence we simultaneously abhor.
Why the fixation? That, too, seems clear. Since the horror of 9/11, and the subsequent horrors it engendered, the world itself has developed a shared and consuming interest in a single topic: violence, of course.
Surely this is no coincidence. What's in the air is now bleeding onto the screen.
Remember the immediate aftermath of 9/11, when the same pundits wondered how the realm of art, of calculated illusion, would be affected by this shattering new reality? Well, we're beginning to see. And don't be fooled by the fact that four of these pictures are set in the distant past. Despite that, every one of them is deeply and firmly embedded in the consciousness of the post-9/11 era. In their different ways, either explicitly or implicitly, they reflect anxieties and concerns that have come to dominate the global debate since that fateful day. Let's journey out to examine how, using the common theme of violence as our base camp.
Steven Spielberg's Munich and George Clooney's Good Night, and Good Luck are the most transparent examples, both being fact-based dramas that retreat into history to locate parallels to our current malaise. Spielberg begins with the terrorist violence at the '72 Olympics, the murder of 11 Israeli athletes and officials, and then charts the counterterrorist killings sanctioned by the Israeli government. What follows is a meandering revenge tale that occasionally pauses to take a moral sounding of the violence begotten by violence, of the arguable necessity for a civilized state to "negotiate compromises with its own values." The result may be a clumsy film, but it's undeniably a relevant one.
By returning to the Cold War era of Senator Joe McCarthy's Communist witch hunts, Clooney explores the issue of political violence, and finds a contemporary parallel in the climate of expedient scapegoating and state-generated fear. He also finds an iconic hero in the chain-smoking person of TV journalist Edward R. Murrow who, by standing up to McCarthy, fulfills two immediately germane functions: He serves as an object lesson in the need to distinguish "dissent from disloyalty," and he stands as a stern rebuke to the relative passivity of his modern-day equivalents in the face of similar pressures.
Ironically, in the movie's bittersweet climax, the villain and the hero meet the same end. McCarthy is effectively marginalized, but so is Murrow, as his brand of sober journalism gets shunted straight out of prime time, making way for the media's accelerating tilt toward sensationalism and celebrity.
Dealing as it does with a sensational mass murder tinged by celebrity, Capote picks right up on this idea and delves further into its ramifications. The true tale here also opens in the fifties, with a brutal case of psychopathic violence — the killing of an entire Kansas family by two strangers drifting into a small town. Enter the celebrated figure of Truman Capote, who, embodying our fascination with violence, becomes in a real sense the first "embedded" journalist, reporting on the slaughter even while ingratiating himself with the slayers, and doing so at the expense not only of his conscience but also, ultimately, of his art.
Capote would never finish another book. His intellectual attraction to the sensational spectre of the case, and (to some degree) his sexual attraction to one of the murderers, ends up killing his own literary career. Again, a fixation on violence wreaks its collateral damage.
Director Ang Lee likes to insist that Brokeback Mountain is essentially a love story, one that just happens to involve a couple of gay cowboys in the Wyoming hills of the sixties. Nonsense. Their homosexuality is crucial to the film, as is the violence incited by it — the tragedy hinges on the death of one of the lovers at the fists of gay-bashing rednecks. That we only glimpse the violence in flashback does nothing to diminish its resonance. After all, what stymies their love and kills the victim, and what steers the movie into the same orbit as Good Night, is the refusal of society to accept any departure from the conforming view. These cowboys are too ruggedly individualistic — their sexual difference poses a threat to the fearful majority, who then constrain the men's liberty in the name of emotional security. Needless to say, the constraint takes the form of vigilante violence.
The lone picture set in the present, amid the highways of today's Los Angeles, Paul Haggis's Crash investigates the problem of racial violence. The script implicitly argues that racial tensions have grown more pronounced since 9/11, given that the fear of the dark-skinned "other" can now be rationalized, even legitimated, under the star-spangled banner of national security (emotional security, too).
On the surface, the film is a good-hearted plea for tolerance. However, as Iranians and Latinos and Asians and poor blacks and rich whites all bump up against each other, there's also a distinct falseness to the whole scenario. In truth, if not in law, L.A. is a rigidly segregated place where such encounters rarely occur, and so the plot relies heavily on amped-up coincidence to break down those barriers, to make the city seem more fluidly multicultural than it actually is. In a way, Crash trades on the very anxiety it purports to explore. It labours to artificially generate a sombre climate of fear, and then preaches the value of sunshine — not unlike, come to think of it, the Bush administration.
If it's not apparent by now that all five films discernibly tap into the post-9/11 debate about the nature and necessity and consequences of violence, let's quickly summarize. There's the cycle of violence begetting violence ( Munich). There's violence initiated by the genuinely threatening stranger ( Munich, Capote). There's violence incited by a misguided fear of the merely non-conforming stranger ( Brokeback, Crash, Good Nigh t). There's violence condemned by the resistant observer ( Good Night) and violence sensationalized by the embedded observer ( Capote). And there's violence coloured by its long-time companion, sex ( Brokeback, Capote).
Which brings us to a final irony and to an egregious oversight by those Oscar voters. They've virtually ignored not only one of the year's best films, but the single film that steps back to analyze the very phenomenon so pervasive in the other five. David Cronenberg's A History of Violence is just that. In the trappings of a genre flick (yes, a movie about movies), it explores each of the themes and subthemes cited above.
There, in the opening sequence, we see a pair of evildoing strangers murdering an innocent family. We see that evil justifiably avenged by a dubious hero who, in so doing, perpetuates the cycle of violence embedded in his own past. We see his act of vengeance applauded by an admiring media. We see the sins of this father visited on the son. We see his wife simultaneously revolted by and sexually attracted to the violence resurrected in her husband. And, in the last frame, we see violence, personified by the flawed hero, returning home to sit at the head table, where it's tacitly accepted and silently welcomed.
During that final shot, terror is indeed right there in the room. But, in this hard analysis, it's ineradicable, partly because the monster lies within and partly because we continue to feed it. Cronenberg's film, unlike the others, is a relentless clinical study that sees violence as systemic, that coolly observes our relations with the implacable beast, and that refuses to moralize. No wonder Oscar snubbed the guy.
Obviously, post 9/11, violence has been on our minds. It's always been in the movies, but never quite so systematically as in this Oscar quintet. Violence isn't merely a plot device in these movies — it's a subject unto itself, a vast subject whose fallout, for good and mainly for ill, demands close scrutiny. The examinations vary in quality, but their joint intention is heartening.
If this is the kind of art likely to arise from the ashes of September, all the better. Maybe, in grappling with such deep issues, thoughtful films are starting to catch up with the concerns of thoughtful filmgoers. Perhaps, finally, the movies are pondering what so many individuals have long been pondering, and what too many states have not.