Musings on a decade of media

Last week I talked about my favorite movies of the decade, and some of you posted your agreement with a lot of my choices. Many of the other media outlets around the web have been posting lists as well, and a lot of them are pretty similar (one them, I think it was the AV Club, also chose Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind as the overall best of the decade). I don’t mention this to support my list, but to support, to the extent possible, the conclusions I’m about the draw from the aggregated lists. It goes without saying that this article is UNSTOPPABLY SPOILERIFFIC, so don’t read too much if you don’t want some key plot points ruined for you.

What do you see when you look at my top ten movies? Let me restate them here for ease of reference:

10: Catch Me If You Can
9: Millions
8: Juno
7: The Lord of the Rings
6: The Bourne Ultimatum (Or perhaps we should say the Bourne movies in general)
5: Slumdog Millionaire
4: The Dark Knight
3: Shaun of the Dead
2: No Country For Old Men
1: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

The list has a lot of variety, but it seems to me that there’s a pretty clear commonality tying them all together: they all deal with terrible events, but more specifically they focus on the reaction to those events. Take a look at The Dark Knight, which approaches this theme head-on: everyone in the movie is overtly forced to confront a terrible situation and make a choice about it. Bruce Wayne loses his parents to crime, and becomes a crime fighter. Harvey Dent loses his girlfriend and becomes a murderer. Batman faces an unfindable enemy, and chooses to violate the privacy of everyone in Gotham in order to find him. The Joker makes this theme even more direct by forcing difficult choices at every turn: arrest Batman or I’ll kill somebody; murder a man on TV or I’ll blow up a hospital; save Harvey or his girlfriend, and let the other die; two ferries can each destroy the other, or be destroyed themselves. Everything in the movie feeds into this theme of choice, right down to Harvey’s habit of making decisions by flipping a coin: first a double-headed coin, and later a marred and damaged one. The most interesting use of the theme is the Joker repeated attempt to explain his own origin, which is different every time; he’s not content with simply committing crimes, he feels obligated to provides his actions with context–”I’m doing X because of Y”–as if that makes it better, or perhaps worse.

This theme provides a lot of narrative power, creating difficult situations and complex characters, but the real power comes from the connection to the audience: the movie is asking us, often directly, how we would respond to the same choices. Would you violate a city’s privacy if it meant catching a killer? If your boss violated that privacy, as happened to Morgan Freeman’s character, would you threaten to resign like he did? If you had relatives in a hospital, would you hunt down and kill a man to stop that hospital from blowing up? Even if you didn’t have a relative there, what would you choose–is it better to kill one man or, through inaction, kill an entire building full of innocent patients and doctors? And what if your own life were threatened, faced with the choice the Joker gave to the people on the ferry–would you blow up the other ferry to save yourself? Does it make a difference if the other ferry is full of convicts? Every event in the movie, every scene, every character, is asking you: what would you choose? What are your values? How will you respond to terror, tragedy, and evil?

Most stories (all the good ones, certainly) focus on conflict–there is a problem, and we need to solve it–but the focus of The Dark Knight (and a surprising number of the decade’s other movies) goes beyond those conflicts and focuses on the choices and reactions that spring out of them. What will you do when things go wrong? What compromises will you be willing to make? How will you live with the results of your choices? It is not difficult, in my opinion, to see where this focus comes from: we kicked off this decade with the biggest terrorist attack ever perpetrated on US soil, and arguably anywhere in the world, and we’ve spent the time since embroiled in shooting wars, intelligence, wars, and a seemingly endless string of sticky moral choices. How do we respond to a terrorist attack? Is it okay to go to war? Is it okay to torture a criminal if it means we can save lives because of it? What do we do if we disagree with our government? Is safety more important than privacy? Where is the border between freedom and law?

When something terrible happens, what will you do?

The Dark Knight is the most direct, but every movie on the list addresses the same topic, to varying degrees:

10: The protagonist in Catch Me If You Can is faced with his parent’s divorce, and the impossible choice of which one he wants to live with, and chooses to run away; he responds to this choice by refusing to face it, and spends the rest of his life running, hiding, and lying to avoid responsibility.

9: The little boys in Millions have just lost their mother, and while reeling in the void she left behind both boys scramble to regain control of their lives: one turns to low levels of crime and bribery, and the other turns to love and service while simultaneously retreating to a fantasy world (which he can navigate and understand much better than the real one).

8: The girl in Juno gets pregnant, which she is not in the least prepared for emotionally, and the story is about her struggle not only to do the right thing but to figure out what the right thing is.

7: The Lord of the Rings confronts the issue on two levels: there is the physical threat of Sauron, and the corrupting threat of the Ring; in a very real sense, each character in the movie represents a specific reaction to one or both of those threats. Do you endure it like Frodo? Do you fight against it like Aragorn? Do you try to harness it like Boromir? The story is exciting because of the conflicts it presents, but it is powerful because it focuses on the reactions to those conflicts.

6: Jason Bourne spends all three movies specifically reacting to the situation he finds himself trapped in–he has been brainwashed, deceived, and used, and reacts differently in each movie: first he tries to escape, then to figure out what’s going on, and then to stop the people involved from doing it again.

5: Now we’re getting into the top 5, and the theme is getting much more direct. In Slumdog Millionaire, “how do you react to tragedy?” is the entire point of the movie, starting with the basic premise of “all these horrible things I’ve experienced are inadvertently giving me the answers for a game show.” Deeper than that, though, the movie is about three people–Jamal, his brother, and a girl named Latika–who experiences year after year of horror and react to it in completely different ways: Jamal uses his experiences to make himself a better person, his brother chooses the opposite, and their friend Latika is too indecisive and thus stuck in the middle.

4: We’ve already discussed The Dark Knight in detail.

3: I’ve said many times that the point of a zombie movie is not the zombies, but the humans reactions to the zombies, and never is that more clear than in Shaun of the Dead. I mentioned last time the scene with Shaun’s mother, but now that we’re in spoiler land I can come right out and say it: Shaun’s mother is bitten by a zombie, and is lying on the floor, and the characters know through painful experience exactly what’s going to happen next: she’s going to rise up as a zombie and try to kill them all, and there’s nothing they can do to stop it–they’re only choice, if they want to survive, is literally to shoot her in the head. How can you possibly confront a choice like that? What would you do if it was your mother, or your spouse, or your child? Shaun of the Dead is very funny, but it doesn’t shy away from a long string of tragedies, and the difficult choices they force us into: the world is falling apart, so what do we do? Where should we go? Who should we follow?

2: No Country For Old Men is another movie that treats this theme very directly. What do you do if you find a bunch of dead bodies and a few million dollars? What if one of them isn’t dead–helping him could make you a target, but leaving him would make you the kind of person who leaves people to die. The “main” character is arguably Sheriff Bell, who is aware of the hunting and killing only peripherally, through investigation, but who is so affected by the senseless brutality of it that he can’t go on. He knows that if he stays it will destroy him, but he also knows that leaving will be just as bad, and maybe even worse, because he will turning his back on a problem that needs to be solved. His choice is impossible, but he has to make it anyway, and the ending presents us with a question of our own: was his choice right? If you can’t stop the evil, are you morally obligated to mire yourself in it anyway, or is it okay to retire and enjoy what you can?

1: The characters in Eternal Sunshine respond to a vast series of questions, almost all in memory, forcing them to remember and reconsider everything they’ve done. “We fought, and I left. Should I have stayed?” “Something happened, and I was scared, but I wish I’d been brave. What would have happened?” The first time they meet they choose to forget each other–they were love, but it didn’t work, and it’s easier to wipe their memories than to remember the pain (and, worse, the lost joy) of their relationship. Then they meet again, and fall in love again, and someone tells them about the earlier memory wipe and they’re suddenly confronted with teh most interesting decision of all: they know that they love each other, but they know that they’ve tried it before and it ended horribly–so horribly they chose to eradicate their memories altogether. Do they give up now, knowing what they’re in for? Their choice affected and inspired me more than almost any moment in any film I can remember:
Joel: I can’t see anything that I don’t like about you.
Clementine: But you will! But you will. You know, you will think of things. And I’ll get bored with you and feel trapped because that’s what happens with me.
Joel: Okay.
Clementine: [pauses] Okay.

In a decade defined by tragedy we’ve been forced to confront and make a thousand decisions we didn’t want to make–we’ve stood strong in some areas, and made some compromises in others, and we haven’t been happy with the consequences in either case. Life is hard. But we have to go through it anyway, and their are rewards just as often as there are disasters. After ten years of discussing and examining and theorizing on the different ways we react to terrible things, I’d like to think we’re a little better at it than we used to be.

12 Responses to “Musings on a decade of media”

  1. Wow, nice musings. A lot to think about. I think when a movie asks you these questions, it spurs a lot of talk afterwards. People like to talk about movies they’ve seen afterwards, and all of these ask the audience these questions you mentioned. Movies that get talked about do well. Great observations.

  2. Alex B says:

    I think you’ve hit on a great point there, but I would argue that this idea is bigger than, and predates, 9/11. You could ask that question of almost any film that presents a moral dilemma. I may be generalizing, but isn’t the theme of The Matrix “What would you do if you were told you had the power to save the world hidden inside you”, and the theme of Star Wars “What would you do if evil forces destroyed your family and left you with nothing?” Is there a difference between these questions and the ones from this decade?

  3. Frank Matheson says:

    Not a bad start. But you need to see more foreign language movies.

  4. Arlene says:

    You’ve almost convinced me to watch Eternal Sunshine. I do like Jim Carey when he’s not being wacky.

    Also, thank you for putting The Dark Knight in those terms. I’ve been trying to tell people why I like this movie so much and you hit the nail square on the head.

  5. admin says:

    @Alex B:
    Some of the choices on my list (like the Bournes) are definitely borderline, but overall yes, I do see a big difference between my choices and the average movie. The nature of storytelling means that pretty much every movie shows characters reacting to conflict, but very few movies (and books and so on) are actually ABOUT that reaction. The Matrix is about a lot of things–the secret nature of our world, the struggle against oppression, the friction between free will and prophecy, Neo’s journey of self-discovery–but it is not a moral quandary in the face of tragedy. Neo has to learn to believe in himself, but his basic situation is starkly black and white: humans are slaves, robots are evil, and we have to rescue my buddy Morpheus. Everyone knows exactly what they should do, and the story is about HOW rather than WHY they do it. It’s the later movies in the series added a touch of moral quandary, but since those were made in this decade and the first movie wasn’t, I would argue that this feeds my theory pretty nicely.

    It’s worth noting that Cipher, the traitor character, does indeed posit a choice to the audience: would you choose to live as a hellish fugitive, or would you re-enter the Matrix? But since his character is never portrayed as anything but evil, and since his choice involves not just self-deception but outright murder of all the good guys, the question isn’t treated with the same weight as the questions in The Dark Knight and No Country for Old Men and the other movies on my list.

  6. admin says:

    Also: It’s been a bad few years for me and foreign films, Frank. I’ve seen a few (technically, Shaun of the Dead is foreign, but it doesn’t really count), but overall I just haven’t had the chance to stay up to date. I did see some great ones, just nothing I thought warranted the list. I still need to see Pan’s Labyrinth, though, and I wonder if that would crack the top ten for me.

  7. Nate says:

    lots of good thinking, maybe you need to convince me more that these movies are somehow different than any other that deals with difficult circumstances. Without thinking too much about it I would say that any movie that tries to take character seriously is about responding to difficulty (similar to what Alex B commented.)

    And completely opposite to what Arlene mentioned, if that little conversation sums up the idea of Spotless Mind, I totally DON’T want to see it. Sounds like the anti-Gattaca to me. Depressing or pathetic, I don’t know which.

  8. Alex B says:

    I get the distinction you are trying to make now. You make some shrewd points, thank you for clearing that up for me =D.

  9. admin says:

    My response convinced Alex B, though; did it convince you? And as for Eternal Sunshine, I promise you it’s awesome. The thing I quoted you, out of context, can make it look like the story is about accepting crap trying to change it, but that’s totally not it at all. Trust me, it’s great.

  10. Arlene says:

    ….aside from all of the swearing. I watched it on Christmas Eve. I totally get what Dan is saying about it, but I wish the language was a little cleaner. Like, cut a few dozen of those F bombs. I didn’t really see the point for most of them.

  11. Nate says:

    Well, it’s a pretty fine point–movies that portray reactions to tragedy and movies about reactions to tragedy. I think The Dark Knight fits so closely in with the post-September 11th idea is that it is essentially about terrorism, and terrorism isn’t so much about the act as the reaction to the act. It seems that the other movies are a bit of a stretch to fit into this idea. Actually, I’ve only seen 6 of your selections in their entirety so I can only speak for those.

    Catch Me If…: we don’t see the crook agonizing over his decision on how to react to his parents’ divorce. He doesn’t seem to exert much control over his right/wrong choices.

    Slumdog: the difference in choices between dude and his bro is but one facet of this movie, and not the overall theme in my opinion.

    LoTR: too big to be defined in this way, akin to Slumdog but only greater in magnitude.

    Juno: ditto on the scale of slumdog.

    I guess what I’m trying to say is that these movies have so much more in them than what you’re describing that I resist saying “they’re mostly about this,” and the mental acrobatics I’m having to make myself do in order to understand your point means that it may not be the simplest description of these movies, and that they may not bee too different than other epics/tragedies/tragicomedies/whatevers past.

    Sorry for being contrary; it’s the devil’s advocate in me.

  12. Avi says:

    Don’t forget Memento. It’s not one of the best films of the decade, but it deals with the same theme of choice.

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