By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
I like France24 but sometimes that means suffering through its movie reviews. A recent one looked at the film ‘Baden, Baden’. The description itself tells the story: “After a failed attempt at working on a foreign film set, 26 year-old Ana returns to her hometown of Strasbourg. Over the scorching summer that follows, she decides to replace her grandmother’s bathtub with a walk-in shower, eat peas and carrots with ketchup, drive a Porsche, harvest plums, lose her driver’s license, sleep with her best friend and get back together with her ex. In short, over this particular summer, Ana tries to get her life together.”
This is the kind of minutiae that almost always characterizes continental European films. It’s always about the mundane, the simple life of simple, ordinary people. Little by little this has crept into American films as well, those like ‘American Beauty’ (1999). If you are already unhappy with what I’ve written so far you’re probably a fan of ‘Tree of Life’. Boring. Mundane. Meaningless.
But why are continental European films, and those film industries they influence in Israel or increasingly in the US, so concentrated on the frailties of life, the impossibility of grandeur, the hopeless banality of unachievement? Because that is the propaganda that was put forward by the socialist norms of Europe after the Second World War. In order to convince the masses to accept second-rate status in society, the idea was to show them movies about people who were “like them.” Scenes involving dirty bathtubs, or drunk men wandering across a country, were needed. The idea was to socially engineer the masses to expect a mundane lie and surrender their success to government bureauacrats who “know best.”
To condition society to accept a lack of success, films which are a kind of opium of the masses had to depict boring life. The concept of the socialist society in the post-war period was to abjure greatness and success and to turn people into a willing proletariate. They had to manufacture consent. How to do that but to have all main images of of humanity depict simple life. There would be no cowboys, no science fiction heroes, no soldiers, no superheroes, no individuals. People would instead wrestle with “inner meaning” and “life’s hardships” and “human relationships.” Everything would be super-reality.
That is why there was an essential difference in American film, because Hollywood, as naive and ridiculously heroic as it was, had an imagination as big as the people watching it. This was the land of dreams, of people who all wanted to create the next McDonalds or Walmart. Most of them never would, but films had to adhere to their view of themselves as great and their view that the world was their oyster.
People always pretend that film industries are not engaged in mass forms of social engineering, some conscious and others subconscious. Because film tends to be dominated by artists who tend to be more progressive than mainstream society, they often push boundaries first. They will make normative homosexuality, or have the first African-American president. Star Trek had the first “inter-racial” kiss (albeit Captain Kirk was forced to do it). This is a positive quality in general of a more liberal film industry. But European film is in a sense very conservative in this respect. Not because it doesn’t show “liberal” themes (Europe was always more liberal in terms of certain social mores), but because it intends to conserve society not to question government and question the role of humanity in the world. It wants small minded people focusing on everyday things, in order that they will not want to re-shape society.
American film has a kind of Janus face of late. Some films are becoming more “European” while others are resurrecting Westerns and superhero films from decades past. There is a great deal of soul-searching about concepts such as the ‘war on terror’ (Batman: The Black Knight), or the role of propaganda in starting wars and the nature of an all-knowing government (see the latest Captain America), there is reticence about America’s role in the world. Lots of people seem to be lost in space (Interstellar, Gravity, the Martian) and a distrust of Wall Street (Wolf of Wall Street, Big Short). But at least they aren’t boring and focused on bath tubs.