Evasion cinema

Otto Dix, Sturmtruppe geht unter Gas vor (1924)
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By LUCAS FIASCHETTI ESTEVEZ*

Considerations on some trends in contemporary cinema

When subjected to an analysis that goes beyond an uncritical enthusiasm, so common in the press, the hegemonic tendencies of contemporary cinema share a strategy of evasion in representing the existing world, in a structural denial of any realism stricto sensu. In principle, the strategy could point to something disruptive, given the countless aesthetic elaborations throughout history that, by moving away from reality, turned fantasy, nonsense, of parody and irony its critical force.

However, when they point to something beyond what already exists, the goods in circulation in the contemporary cultural industry do so in the most standardized and mass manner possible: there is nothing new to be presented. The escape from the real, thus, results in the most solid and reifying reaffirmation of what exists.

In the famous text The cultural industry: enlightenment as mystification of the masses, Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer rightly stated how culture under late capitalism takes the real world as an “unbroken extension” of that “world that is discovered in the film” (Adorno, Horkheimer, 1985, p.104). In this way, the cultural industry would contribute to the “emphatic and systematic proclamation of what exists” (Ibid., p.133), imposing the “paradox of routine disguised as nature” (Ibid., p.106).

As a consequence of this reification of the social world placed as natural through culture, the spectator would identify “immediately with reality” (Ibid., p.104), taking it as the only one possible. Although the reiteration of what exists and the absence of an alternative is still the implicit and unconscious assumption proposed by the cultural industry, we have seen that “realistic” films constitute a very small fringe of current production. Thus, if the ideology of culture “has as its object the world as such” (Ibid., p.122), this world now appears as something inverted, through an aesthetic strategy that is based on a desperate escape from representing reality.

In the 1980s, Fredric Jameson was already reflecting on this kind of escape from “nostalgia films”. Contrary to what the name might suggest, this type of production is not restricted to plots that portray a certain historical period in the past. In reality, “nostalgia” concerns a denial of the present time without specific temporal and geographical direction and has the result of emptying the story told “of most signs and references” that can “be associated with the contemporary world”. Under this model, the hegemonic narrative of the culture industry places films in some past, alternative present or future, in an “indefinable” nostalgia (Jameson, 1985, p.21) that distances the works from “aesthetic representations of our own current experience” (Ibid., p.21). In light of this, let us move on to an attempt to understand the physiognomy of this type of ongoing operation.

In the contemporary cultural industry, these “evasion films” (Adorno, 1993, p.177) can be organized into three main categories, although they intersect, present internal counter-tendencies and are far from exhausting the complexity of the analyzed scenario. Firstly, we identify historical films, a classic genre of commercial cinema, which begin with an escape towards the past and portray previous historical periods in a hyper-realistic way, whether they are “based on real events” or not. This broad category includes both films fromThe Godfather, like the recent Oppenheimer and the franchise Lord of the Rings. In a way, these productions express a certain fictional realism, on the one hand indifferent to the factuality of what is represented, on the other committed to a detailed and “authentic” representation of a certain period in the past.

 Next, we glimpse films from another present, which, although they have plots set in current times, portray events that take place in another dimension – see the case of superhero franchises and their self-styled “multiverses”. In the reality portrayed in these films, everything is at the same time very similar to our world, but there is the presence of disruptive elements such as magic, supernatural forces or heroism.

In this displacement, the serious contradictions of the contemporary world are generally exacerbated, but tend to be resolved by the heroes who rid “the civilized world of the archetypal monster” (Jameson, 1994, p.18). Currently, these films largely dominate the top box office list. As examples, we can mention franchises such as Marvel, Batman, Harry Potter and even the recent Barbie.

Finally, we find the films of tomorrow, which tell stories of indeterminate periods of the future, marked by profound technological transformations. Generally, we have a myriad of genres that are included and confused. In science fiction, the franchise stands out Star Wars; in the case of dystopias, Avatar; Among “disaster cinema” (Ibid., p.18) or apocalyptic “catastrophe films” (Fischer, 2020, p.10), we have Deep Impact, 2012, e Don't look up. What we rarely find, however, is the depiction of reconciled futures, where humanity achieves a happy ending. Generally, the only films that use this resolution are those with religious content, which portray life in paradise. Symptomatic of our current state of aesthetic atrophy, such films suggest that for the future to be beautiful and reconciled, it is necessary to turn to what is outside of time, to something that happens after death.

In principle, these films of tomorrow could be taken as representatives of what is most commercial and regressive in the contemporary cultural industry – after all, they bring with them plots full of clichés and the absence of more unique features that could be considered artistic. However, we will take the opposite direction. Instead of considering them as “pure ideology”, perhaps we should understand how such productions seem endowed with a kind of abstract premonition regarding the current irrational state of capitalist accumulation and its destructive effects in relation to humanity itself and nature, pointing out to what Fredric Jameson once called the “failure of the future” (Jameson apud Fisher, 2020, p.16). If philosophy decreed the death of God, late capitalism buried the future. In these films, this dystopian tomorrow is marked not only by unbridled technical advancement, but also by a society and nature in ruins under a cyberpunk atmosphere, as in the Terminator ou Robocop Interestingly, in these box office champions the contemporary cultural industry does not fail to reveal a certain bad conscience, in which the greatest of escapes is, on the other hand, the most realistic of them.

 In these films, the dialectic inherent to the goods in circulation by the cultural industry is clearly revealed. Unlike a bipolar vision in which radical, “autonomous” and critical works of art are dogmatically opposed to the most commercial cultural products, the films of tomorrow allow us to glimpse how even the most commercial and fleeting of films carries with it something that says respect for the most absolute realism of current contradictions and problems, drawing from them their most disastrous consequences.

At the same time, such films express these contradictions without reaching the level of consistent and anti-capitalist criticism. As symptoms of an impotent culture but aware of its impotence, such films are aesthetic contradictions in motion: they are far from any serious artistic elaboration at the same time that they translate into the language of cliché the destructive and calamitous path of contemporary capitalism.

If we follow Theodor Adorno's advice to take the cultural industry “critically seriously” (Adorno, 2021, p.115), we must commit to searching all cultural goods in circulation, “even the most degraded type of mass culture ”, the presence of a negative element, no matter “how weak” and powerless it is. In the same way, it is from the same prism of the Marxian understanding of viewing ideology as a socially necessary illusion and not just as a “lie” placed down society's throat that we must consider how the main trends of our current cinematic culture “cannot be ideological without being”, implicitly or not, “utopian: they cannot manipulate unless they offer a genuine grain of content” (Jameson, 1994, p.20-21).

However, this content ends up being reduced to a production without greater pretensions. Despite what may escape, generally the “deepest and most fundamental hopes and fantasies of the collective” (Ibid, p.21) are repressed and resolved in non-radical, conformist and apolitical ways. Thus, at the same time as they outline an ongoing malaise, such films “hide the contradiction” instead of “welcoming it into the consciousness of their own production” (Adorno, Horkheimer; 1985, p.130). In this way, we are faced with an unprecedented reinforcement of that “affirmation” of the existing advocated by the Frankfurtians.

Under the same liberal jargons of Margaret Thatcher and Francis Fukuyama that there is no alternative and that history is over, this entire escape strategy remains at the most superficial level, sometimes resulting in an explicit exaltation of our present time, sometimes in an abstract denunciation and without object.

In this way, this escape finds an insurmountable horizon: capitalist society itself. Faced with this “capitalist realism”, culture submerges amidst a “widespread feeling that capitalism is the only viable political and economic system, and that it is impossible to imagine an alternative to it”. The most that is observed is an “extrapolation or exacerbation of our own reality” instead of “an alternative to it” (Fisher, 2020, p.10). As Fisher (2020) insists in dialogue with several other authors, it has become easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.

When we briefly look at the mainstrain of contemporary cinema, we notice how the cultural industry does not refuse to represent social fissures, but systematically expels more radical solutions and proposals through imaginary and magical resolutions. The critique of capitalism, emptied of the critique of the political economy that underpins it, becomes a moral denunciation of the world's evils. As a consequence, our “illusion of social harmony” (Jameson, 1994, p.17) is projected onto cinema, even though it coexists precariously with a collective and growing malaise, which is itself the cause of the success of disaster films. Deep down, everyone seems to suspect that the end time has already arrived.

Ultimately, the problem with these “evasion films” does not lie in the fact that they turn their backs “on an existence emptied of its substance”, but rather because they do not do so “in a very energetic way” (Adorno, 1993, p. 177). Their impotence lies in the discomfort they carry but do not elaborate: the discomfort of the frustration of a tomorrow that could be another, but which for now is close to the catastrophes told by Hollywood.[I]

*Lucas Fiaschetti Estevez is a doctoral candidate in sociology at USP.

References


ADORNO, Theodor. Summary about cultural industry. In: No Guideline: Silly Aesthetica. São Paulo: Editora UNESP, 2021.

__________________. Minima Moralia: reflections from damaged life. São Paulo: Editora Ática, 1993.

 ________________ ; HORKHEIMER, Max. The Cultural Industry: Enlightenment as Mystification of the Masses. In: Dialectic of Enlightenment. Rio de Janeiro: Zahar, 1985.

FISHER, Mark. Capitalist realism: is it easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism?. São Paulo: Literary Autonomy, 2020.

JAMESON, Fredric. Reification and Utopia in mass culture. In: Marxist Criticism. Campinas: nº1, 1994.

 ______________ . Postmodernity and consumer society. In: New CEBRAP Studies. São Paulo, no. 12, Jun. 1985, p. 16-26.

Note


[I] The text presents part of the ideas discussed in a communication presented at the 100th Meeting of Critical Theory and Political Philosophy at USP, “26 years later: the senses of critical theory”, which took place between the 29th and 2023th of September XNUMX.


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