Meta-Cake Eaters – The Films of 2008

The place for the artistic statement has been sadly replaced by brass and taxes. This gloomy truth permeates almost every frame of the films of 2008.

Once, Bob Dylan and John Lennon were looked at with the same adoring, h opeful gaze now bestowed upon Warren Buffett and Steve Jobs. Even ten years ago, there was a reverence for artistry that granted the rock star, novelist or filmmaker prominence in the public sphere now granted the venture capitalist or CEO. Cynicism has gotten the better of us-no decimal, no point. The place for the artistic statement has been sadly replaced by brass and taxes. This gloomy truth permeates almost every frame of the films of 2008. Social messages abound, there was no lack of flag waving and chest beating. Yet, it came at no cost: to call George Bush a would-be well-meaning buffoon (W.) is to fall in line with the slew of late night talk show hosts who made the joke eight years ago, for free.

Blockbuster smash The Dark Knight is the epitome of such a stance. Never before has the analogy of good/evil democracy/terrorism been pushed further. Superman Returns reeked of Mel Gibson religiosity though its cartoon-ish presentation pacified its detractors by passing it off as light fodder. But this installment of Batman does its utmost to situate Gotham in our world, our neighbourhood; unlike Nicholson’s mannered portrayal now two decades ago, we see the imperfections in Heath Ledger’s makeup, in his greasy, matted hair-he is a method actor’s villain, rife with empty back-stories. The Joker, now almost overshadowing the film itself, has come to stand for the ultimate evil, one that exists for its own sake; Michael Caine as Alfred informs Christian Bale’s Batman that ‘Some men just want to watch the world burn’. Though this point is laden with superhero dramatic potential, it claims to possess something larger, some overarching commentary on the world’s woes; this is where The Dark Knight falters.

Performances aside, the Joker is on par with all other mentally ill people with violent tendencies, albeit brighter than most. He is devoid of a moral compass like a dictator may be but his mania makes his acts and motives incomprehensible, not terrifying. People like the Joker prowl the streets at night-they don’t run for office. A character like the Joker simply changes the subject, though it claims to stand in for so much else like only a super villain can. He is not Bush, nor Cheney, not even Rumsfeld. Their evil is mannered, calculated, analyzed by a thousand monkeys, that is far more petrifying. The Dark Knight assumes legitimacy by extensive metaphor and in the process nullifies its strengths as an awesome superhero film.

This intrinsic need to break through genre conventions can be seen in countless films of 2008; indeed, one could say that this year popularized the meta-genre more than ever before. The meta-genre uses all of the tried and true formal tropes of a genre while commenting on them; stealing a kid’s lunch money but sharing your sandwich with him is still thievery of the highest order. Now, instead of a straightforward superhero movie, we get The Dark Knight and Hancock.

Hancock is like anyone else: depressed, lonely, an alcoholic… but he is also from another planet with super cool super powers. Gone are the days of the graceful Christopher Reeves or even the mysterious Michael Keaton, today Will Smith is our stand-in, all loud burps and goofy grins. Hancock is hated by the public, so, OF COURSE, he needs a good PR man. This is Reality TV on an inter-galactic level, budget included. Media moguls and conglomerates worship at the altar of Reality TV because it is so cost efficient; such is not the case with Hancock’s 150 million dollar budget, or Tropic Thunder’s budget of 92 million.

Tropic Thunder is the meta-genre incarnate, a parody of parodies (watch out for Not Another Not Another Movie out next year, it’ll be right before the Rapture). It satirizes the movie business but does so at no cost, everyone and their agents get out unscathed. Ben Stiller comments on the ruthless, capitalistic side of Hollywood but concludes by celebrating it. An allegedly unrecognizable Tom Cruise closes the film looking at the viewer while dancing to Gangster Rap-if there is a message here, it certainly is hard to find. This is certainly a far cry from a film of similar themes, Paddy Chayefsky’s 1976 film Network; that film ends with an on-air assassination of a news anchor/delusional prophet, a murder approved by the powers that be to combat sagging ratings. Despite its harsh tone, it somehow rings truer than a Scientologist in a fat suit.

Yet, like Charlie Kaufman’s meta-genre cubed directorial debut Synecdoche, New York, beneath Tropic Thunder’s explosions there is an implicit statement: we’re in on the joke with you, and they almost are. But to chastise your bread and butter morally while benefiting from it financially is not social realism, or political commentary. It’s capitalism. The narrowing divide between art and life, the meta-genre, being in on the joke, call it what you will, is a trope exploited in nearly all commercial movies today.

To recap at warped speed (in no particular order): in Quantum of Solace, Bond is no longer the strong and silent type but has become a brooding Macbeth, confused about the value of a human life and his nonchalance in their taking. M. Night Shamalan’s new outing The Happening manages to forgo a villain entirely, no small feat in a thriller, but does so at the expense of any narrative coherence. Sex and the City had the potential to build upon the gender struggles it explored on the show but instead chose to have a two-hour shopping spree at Tiffany’s. Bill Maher’s Religulous forgoes any cultural criticism (in a film critiquing culture) and instead meanders across the world with an American shrug. Michael Haneke’s remake of his German film Funny Games explores the fear of the Other in the form of two Aryan suburban kids.  And Burn After Reading explores a world it has no interest in; the political sphere is of no interest to the Coen Brothers who are far happier wielding hatchets and pushing people through wood chippers. All of these films employ a tone that invites the viewer to partake, to rejoice in conjoined judgment but does so at the expense of their own narratives: for example, Haneke is so busy playing with the fourth wall that he forgets about the other three. Which brings us to Judd Apatow and his cronies.

In Apatow land, every day is Saturday on the Happy Days set, The Fonz is dead, and Richie is an obese fool who beats bright, beautiful women off of him like he’s paid by the hour. Film is supposed to have a heightened sense of drama where television is allowed to embrace the quotidian but Apatow and Seth Rogen have taken it upon themselves to rewrite the rules of 20th century media (and Aristotle’s Poetics) and turn feature filmmaking into a boys club, two-hour episode of Three’s Company. Apatow is responsible for three abominations this year: Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Pineapple Express, and Zack And Miri Make A Porno. In all of these films fat, hapless losers woo women they would not be allowed to stalk in real life. Now, although there is nothing intrinsically wrong with this trend, it is nonetheless a witless ploy to attract these would-be, couch potato lotharios. What ever happened to the Fonz? At this point, I’d settle for Richie…

In Bruges 2008 (©Focus Features/Courtesy Everet)

The Film Noir genre has not aged well over the decades, L.A. Confidential being a prime example of the repetition as opposed to the revolution. But In Bruges is a 21st century, post-modern Film Noir: multi-cultural, ironic, and sadistic. It does not try to include everything like The Dark Knight or Tropic Thunder yet, somehow in the process, manages to leave nothing out-by refusing to take a moral stance, it grants the audience the possibility of creating their own.

Jesse Klein is a filmmaker and freelance writer. He is currently in development for his feature-length debut Shadowboxing. He lives and works in Montreal.