Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Cynicism and Childishness

"Cynicism has become the default position for so much of daily structure and daily intercourse.

Why?  Because it's easy, and there's good money to be made.

Cynicism is a great product to sell, and it's the perfect beginning of any examination of anything.  And part of that is conspiracy theories and what have you.

But I think when Fred Rogers first saw children's programming, he saw something that was cynical, and why would you put that in front of a two or three-year-old kid?  That you are not cool because you don't have this toy?  That it's funny to see someone being bopped on the head?

That's a cynical treatment of the audience, and we have become so inured to that, that when we are met with as simple a message as 'Hey you know what, it's a beautiful day in the neighborhood!' we get slapped a bit.  We are allowed, I think, to feel good.  There's a place for cynicism, but why begin with it right off the bat?"

When did cynicism become the default setting for adults?  A mark of maturity?

When did we become so concerned with showing that we were mature?

Hanks, for his part, refers to the underlying conflict in his upcoming film.  The battle between the cynicism of journalist Tom Junod and the unrelenting kindness of empathy of Fred Rogers, which formed the basis for Junod's article in Esquire in 1998.  It should not come as a shock that kindness and empathy won, especially when they are as pure as Rogers'.

I think we can see this battle in another upcoming film, though in the opposite direction.  Warner Bros. upcoming Joker film directed by Todd Phillips is already garnering a lot of attention.  The film won the Venice Film Festival's prestigious Golden Lion award.  It's being praised as a dark evolution for comics-influenced cinema.   For being deeply unsettling.  A tribute to Martin Scorsese films, closer to 1970s dark cinema than its comics influences.

In short, it's mature because it's dark.  "I say this not to show any disdain for comic-book movies, but only to point out the well-established seasonal logic by which the film industry typically operates.  The summer - the designated stomping ground for superheroes and supervillains - has finally passed, making way for the fall and its traditional bounty of ascetic art films, spit-shined prestige pictures and other subspecies of cinema that have no place in the Marvel and DC Comics universes."  "Built around a credible spiral from outsider to deranged killer, it's as much a neo-noir psychological character study grounded in urban alienation and styled after Taxi Driver as a rise-of-the-supervillain portait."  "You're always aware of how much the mood and design of Joker owe to Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy.  For a filmmaker gifted enough to stand on his own, Phillips is too beholden to his idols.  Yet within that scheme, he creates a dazzingly disturbed psycho psycho morality play, one that speaks of incels and mass shooters and no-hope politics, of the kind of hate that emerges from crushed dreams."     

It's a well-worn argument.  That comic books, that animation, that Disney, that fairy tales are too childish, too simple, too hopeful, too naive.  They are for children, not for any serious adult.

It's an argument that summed up a disagreement between fans of Marvel Cinematic Universe films and the DC Universe films, particularly those by Zach Snyder.  A reductivist argument that says Snyder's films are deep and complex, they are dark and mature.  Marvel films are jokey.  And yet it is an argument that ignores the fact that Marvel films have addressed racism, sexism, the military industrialism complex, and an AI singularity.  They dealt with simpler, more universal themes of standing up for what is right, what it means to have a heart, what it means to be worthy, what is a family, at what cost freedom.

The broader question ignores the fact that when PIXAR is at the top of its game, it produces some of the best films of the year, period.  Not qualified by animation, but the best films of the year.  I'll hold the first ten minutes of Up against any other material put on film.  Inside Out, likewise, was one of the most moving films of its year.  But these films still get dismissed as children or family fare.  Relegated to the Best Animated Feature, with a potential obligatory Best Picture nod to recognize the box-office draw of the film.  The kind where it is supposed to be an honor just to get nominated.

When we segment our entertainment like this, when we focus on the adult, the serious, the mature, at what price does our obsession with maturity come?   That is a question that is also being asked about with the release of Joker.

Richard Lawson wrote in his review in Variety, "There is undeniable style and propulsive charge to Joker, a film that looms and leers with nasty inexorability.  It's exhilarating in the most prurient of ways, a snuff film about the death of order, about the rot of a governing ethos.  But from a step back, outside in the baking Venetian heat, it also may be irresponsible propaganda for the very men it pathologizes.  Is Joker celebratory or horrified?  Or is there simply no difference, the way there wasn't in Natural Born Killers or myriad other 'America, man' movies about the freeing allure of depravity?

The honest answer is, I don't know.  Not after one viewing, anyway.  What I can tell you is that the reaction to the film from my packed audience of Italians and other international filmgoers sounded like roaring acclaim.  Perhaps it's a bit easier to accept and digest all this horror in a country where such men seem rarer - or I'm being an over-worried pill, and it's just a good, startling movie."

Does Joker go too far?  Does it actually reveal something to us, enlighten us?  Or by making us sympathize with a monster, is it desensitizing us, at best, and motivating the depraved of us, at worst?

Is it more problematic that the film refuses to give an answer?  It refuses to take a side in the narrative?  By doing so, isn't it validating all viewpoints, allowing the viewer to read into it whatever they wish?  Isn't that irresponsible storytelling?

Storytelling is one of the most powerful tools we have as humans. It is how we have relayed our history throughout time.  It is how we have taught lessons of morality.  Lessons of importance.

Jesus knew this.  It's why he used parables.  It's why the Bible is as much story, poetry, allegory, as it is history and genealogy.

The greatest story ever told is a story that can be told to all ages.  That seems foolish to maturity.  That requires childlike faith.  "But Jesus called them to him, saying ' Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God.  Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it."  Luke 18:16-17

I don't want to be misunderstood, I'm not saying we should not have any mature films.  Or that films should not handle mature themes and subject matters.  Art is supposed to be a mirror to the world around it.  It is supposed to enlighten us, to motivate us, to push us forward, to chastise us, to condemn us, to elevate us.  We need good art now more than ever.

Perhaps, though, we should be a little more careful in how we handle that maturity.  In what lessons that we are teaching.  In the statements that we are making.

Perhaps it's time to get back to basics.  To reiterate those lessons that we are supposed to hold to.

To mere Christianity.

To Common Sense.

To happily ever after.

To kindness, to charity, to virtue.

Perhaps we need fairy tales and myths now more than ever.  To be truly mature and embrace them all.

"Critics who treat adult as a term of approval, instead of as a merely descriptive term, cannot be adult themselves.  To be concerned about being grown up, to admire the grown up because it is grown up, to blush a the suspicion of being childish; these things are the marks of childhood and adolescence.  And in childhood and adolescence they are, in moderation, healthy symptoms.  Young things ought to want to grow.  But to carry on into middle life or even into early manhood this concern about being adult is a mark of really arrested development.  When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so.  Now that I am fifty I read them openly.  When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up."
C.S. Lewis, On Stories; And Other Essays on Literature

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