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Oscars 2011: How the year's top films reflect the times

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These are dark times in which we live, and the conventional wisdom about Hollywood's response to national cataclysm is that it bucks up spirits and provides therapeutic escape. Exhibit A has always been the screwball comedies of the Great Depression that allowed Americans to laugh their troubles away in the theater.

But that is only a part of the story. One can cite dozens of other films from the Depression that reinforced the sense of doom. In fact, there may be no more Kafkaesque movie in American history than "I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang" – no film with a greater sense of hopelessness. Far from escapism, American films have often reflected bleakness, and for anyone wanting more refutations of the escapist theory, there are the dark, paranoid films of the postwar period that came to be known as "film noir," literally "black film," that captured the anxieties of the impending nuclear age rather than calmed them; the violent, cynical movies of the Vietnam/Watergate era – from "Bonnie and Clyde" to "Chinatown" to "Nashville" – that spoke to a new national pessimism rather than allayed it; and even the savage anomie of "The Dark Knight" that seemed to erupt from a feeling of national aimlessness triggered by Iraq and Afghanistan.

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