Just as it brings forth the need for sunburn lotion and family law, this season in Australia always offers us a cinematic pain. Summer is lousy with all the Social Issues waste the filmmaking community showers on us just in time for awards season. Works like Crash, Philadelphia or Million Dollar Baby are generally as unbearable as a day at a beach filled with drunk teens, as dry and uncomfortable as the menopause.
This, for aspiring screenwriters of award-winning liberal screen dramas, is the key to a gong: make your audience feel good by showing them how people who are not them are bad. See Dallas Buyers Club or Milk, both films that flagrantly rewrite real-life queer history and offer benefit to no one save for their stars, Matthew McConaughey and Sean Penn, who each received the traditional Oscar in the category of Some of My Best Friends Are Gay.
Oh, stop pretending you thought the movie Crash was rousing and meaningful. It was a wad of moralising cotton wool made specifically to insulate middle-class white cinema goers against the possibility of ever actually addressing the problem of racism in an intellectual, and therefore actually useful, way. FFS, Brendan Fraser did more realistic and culturally sensitive work in George of the Jungle. You hated it, I hated it and both of us would much rather watch a Wayans brothers or Harold and Kumar film. Films, by the way, that do a much better job of interrogating the idea of race than this or Driving Miss Daisy or even Selma, which managed to take one of history’s most stirring revolutionaries and dip him in the saccharine juice they feed screenwriters in cages at the Hallmark Movie Network for Women.
If you want a decent biopic on a powerful black leader made for a powerfully critical black audience, go back to 1992 for Spike Lee’s Malcolm X. Which didn’t score well in that year’s awards season, probably because it didn’t serve to make already comfortable people feel comfortable about how much things had changed for the better.
Every so often, there is a major Issues film which manages to upturn the bucket of righteous liberal blarney. Together, works which deserve the “this film is important!” praise of craven reviewers form a slim list which includes Brokeback Mountain, All The President’s Men, Lee’s earlier work and possibly My Left Foot — I disqualify myself from evaluating Boys Don’t Cry because, like all persons who appreciate extreme physical beauty, I spent the entire movie screaming “KISS! KISS!” at Chloë Sevigny and Hilary Swank.
Another rare Issues flick that managed to do more than merely reassure its audience that they were SO much better than those other bigots was Todd Haynes’ obscenely beautiful Far From Heaven. In his disciplined mid-century portrait of sexuality, gender and race, Haynes doesn’t simply say “things were awful in the olden times”. Like Matthew Weiner’s Mad Men, this anti-nostalgia prompts the viewer to acknowledge that the passage of decades is itself no guarantee that harmful social codes will dissolve. You leave Far From Heaven thinking: shit, we’re never freed from the society that forms us, and it’s foolish to think that we are.
Which is, peculiarly, the opposite of what Haynes’ disappointing new Oscar bet Carol achieves, bringing us up to date on this year’s (mercifully short) round of Issues films. If Carol, as film posters promise, is the “romance of the year”, then I guess a repressed, self-loathing handjob is what passes for romance in 2016. Goodness, this film could not be better looking or more expertly costumed, but Blanchett may as well just stand there in her vintage furs and say “I’ve touched a muff, now give me my Oscar”. It’s all very well and good to Tell Stories and shit, but when the characters who inhabit these stories are little more than sexualities in Dior, you wonder if (a) this sort of Hollywood embrace is not, in fact, a little bit bigoted and diminishing itself and (b) did Todd Haynes even read the book?
I would say that Best Picture hopeful Spotlight is to All The President’s Men as my Facebook feed is to the novels of Patricia Highsmith. But, I can’t say that. Nor can I say this is a tedious procedural for which Mark Ruffalo, who seems to have taken creative instruction from Jimmy Olsen, should be punished and not rewarded. This is a film about institutional child abuse and therefore Very Important, even if it actually very middling.
But I will say of the critically praised, if currently nomination-free, Suffragette: our foremothers did not throw themselves under horses in order that we take their history for a make-over.
This film has, as many Issues films do, very honourable intentions and its decision to move working class women to the centre of an account usually dominated by bluestockings means very well. But, the fact is, women’s suffragism was largely a bourgeois movement by both membership and intent. The right to the vote, also denied to many working class men fighting Britain’s wars, was never going to guarantee the right to fair labour, and this is a problem the film shoos away even as it ushers in a three-minute cameo by Meryl Streep as suffrage’s mother hen, Emmeline Pankhurst.
That Streep basically recycles her Iron Lady performance is appropriate. Pankhurst and Margaret Thatcher shared a great love of colonial militarism and a radical distaste for leftist politics. Sure, Pankhurst was instrumental in securing women the vote, but she had also been pretty effective in stabilising her nation’s lethal class system. Women dead from dangerous labour conditions don’t vote. Nor, for that matter, do poor men slain defending empire.
But, this is the work of Inspiring Issues Cinema each time this year. These are closed works that offer the viewer no alternative but to be Uplifted By Stories of Courage. If you don’t like Suffragette, you’re a sexist and if you feel asleep during Carol, you’re obviously a homophobe.
It is an offence to liberty to critique such films! Even as they continue to offer us a comforting, counterfeit view of liberty that offends liberty itself.