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Democracy and the movies: simple acts of solidarity under threat

Amanda Seyfried and Gary Oldman in the upcoming movie "Mank," directed by David Fincher.
(Netflix)

Are we witnessing the end of the American experiment? Or just the end of the movies?

Whether you find these questions merely alarmist or genuinely alarming, they may seem odd to raise in the same breath. But for some of us, they have been curiously entwined sources of anxiety since earlier this year, when the COVID-19 pandemic sent the nation into social, economic and political freefall — and dealt a particularly cruel blow to an industry that, like the idea of democracy itself, thrives on an experience of public togetherness.

With film production and the industry’s usual distribution and exhibition mechanisms thrown into turmoil by the pandemic, the movie business faces a crisis of economic, logistical and existential proportions. The pleasures of casually, unconcernedly going out to the movies may return someday, but for some of us right now, it feels as distant a prospect as, well, bipartisan unity or a commitment to a peaceful transfer of power by the Trump administration.

Yet if our democracy can withstand the traumas of a sickened, demoralized electorate and a president bent on delegitimizing an unfavorable outcome, there is every reason to hope that the pleasures that sustain us, especially the art that we love, will also survive in the long run. Our national recovery could take years, and it will bring with it a sweeping reconsideration of how people behave and how industries do business. But when I envision the future of a healthy, hopeful, fully vaccinated electorate (a citizen can dream), I still can’t help but envision a movie theater — crowded with people who, in congregating together, are committing a simple yet powerful act of social solidarity.

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It is often said that the movies are our most democratic art form, the entertainment pastime that, more than any other, has a way of bringing us all together. There are reasons to be suspicious of this characterization, which can sound like naiveté at best and sham populism at worst, and which often overlooks the sexist, racist and homophobic norms that have governed Hollywood for the better part of its existence, keeping a tight rein on which stories can be told and exactly who might tell them. But even if the democratic spirit of moviegoing is more dream than reality, it’s a dream I cling to fiercely all the same, perhaps even more so at a time when democracy itself has rarely seemed more imperiled.

Donald Trump. Joe Biden. And a nation wounded by a pandemic plus the chronic diseases of racism, inequality, rabid partisanship. Artists must bear witness and aid the healing.

Movies are fundamentally democratic for a number of reasons, including the sheer range of artistic influences they draw upon: They are “the bastard art,” as Pauline Kael described them, capable of synthesizing literature, drama, photography, music and other art forms into a medium unparalleled in its emotional directness and popular appeal. And then there is the intensely collaborative process by which they are made — a process that depends on innumerable contributions big and small from cast and crew, which are then pulled together (hopefully) by a director’s unifying vision, even when said vision may be subject to ratification, revision and even rejection by producers and studio executives.

The egalitarian nature of movies also has something to do with the large public gatherings in which they are ideally — but of course, not exclusively — consumed. We can debate the pleasures of movie theaters and look askance at those who tend to wax poetic (guilty as charged) about a joyous communal experience that often means tolerating sticky floors, subpar projection and the hell that is other people. (Democracy can be a messy, ugly business.) And we can still mourn this year’s COVID-mandated closures of theaters nationwide, cherishing our fond memories of sitting alone together all those months ago in the dark, unmasked and untroubled.

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Sidney Flanigan in the movie "Never Rarely Sometimes Always."
(Focus Features / Sundance Institute)

For better or worse, theaters have reopened in some parts of the country, and certain pictures, notably Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet,” have helped keep them up and running. The resurgence of drive-in venues across the country has been one of the crisis’ more interesting — and heartening — secondary narratives. But the future of theatrical moviegoing nevertheless looks bleak. One 2020-dated Hollywood release after another, from the James Bond film “No Time to Die” to “Wonder Woman 1984,” has fled to the hopefully sunnier climes of 2021. Others, like Disney’s upcoming “Soul,” have abandoned theatrical plans in favor of a video-on-demand release. Major entertainment conglomerates like Disney and WarnerMedia have imposed sweeping layoffs and announced plans to make streaming content their primary focus, expressing a vote of no confidence in theaters.

Moviegoing in 2020 has already become a largely isolated undertaking: the province of on-demand platforms like Netflix, Amazon, HBO Max and Disney+, as well as virtual festivals and online screenings by independent theaters. And to push the cine-political metaphor a bit further on this momentous election eve: If moviegoing is its own regular form of democratic expression, then streaming platforms might well be likened to a form of regular mail-in voting, a means of enjoying the satisfactions of cinema safely and conveniently, minus the risk — but also minus the social solidarity, the communal pleasure — of lining up to participate with others.

The electoral implications of moviegoing are not limited to 2020. If we vote with our wallets, then every new picture that enters the market is bidding for some fraction of our support and perhaps even our love. We don’t elect movies as presidents, though we do anoint box office champions and Oscar winners, symbols of excellence (or at least profitability) that serve their own terms, some more limited than others, as Hollywood’s image bearers and cultural ambassadors. It’s an imperfect analogy: “Avengers: Endgame” may have won last year’s popular vote by a landslide, but does that mean “Parasite” prevailed in the electoral college? (For what it’s worth, the electoral college should be abolished; the motion picture academy, for all its issues, can stay.)

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Sacha Baron Cohen as Abbie Hoffman in "The Trial of the Chicago 7."
In “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” Sacha Baron Cohen, right, plays Abbie Hoffman.
(Niko Tavernise / Netflix )

As has been clear for decades, for members of the industry, the annual Oscar derby more or less functions as an election season, with its own built-in system of primaries and caucuses: film festivals, gala premieres, industry Q&As and other functions designed to weed out also-rans, boost profiles and secure votes. The narratives are shaped by media commentary, pundits’ predictions and highly unscientific polls, sustained by pricey campaigns and sometimes complicated by studio smear tactics. Along the way, some of the most interesting, exciting candidates are invariably deemed too niche to earn widespread support, forcing the general electorate to choose the lesser of two (or three) evils. All roads eventually lead to consensus, which can mean compromise and disappointment.

Those rituals have been upended this year, and some have even suggested they be suspended completely in the wake of the pandemic — for the Oscars, already postponed until April, to be canceled outright. But so far, there seems to be a stronger push to keep the season going, even if it requires significant adjustments. The idea of taking stock of a year largely devoid of theatrical releases and Hollywood prestige pictures doubtless makes many in the industry a little queasy, and maybe a little scared. But for those of us who have seen no shortage of excellent pictures from American independent filmmakers and filmmakers abroad, a season that forces voters to look beyond the usual suspects — and to weigh their candidates with greater care and discernment than usual — might be less a travesty than an opportunity.

It might even force viewers to reckon with powerful stories told by women, people of color and others who have been as historically ignored, slighted and tokenized in society as in Hollywood. And they may find that many of these stories exist on a startling, resonant continuum with the politics of the present moment. One of these is “The Assistant,” Kitty Green’s incisive and empathetic portrait of the everyday hell of working for an abusive media mogul clearly modeled after Harvey Weinstein. Before his public downfall, arrest and conviction, of course, Weinstein was not only a serial abuser but also a master at manipulating Hollywood’s election season, aggressively pushing his candidates, stamping out rivals and abusing his power.

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Orion Lee as King-Lu and John Magaro as Cookie in "First Cow."
Orion Lee, left, and John Magaro in director Kelly Reichardt’s “First Cow.”
(Allyson Riggs / A24 Films)

He is gone now, but the independent cinema that he claimed to champion continues to thrive in his absence, with renewed aesthetic boldness and political urgency. In a year of election-season controversy over the fate of the Supreme Court, it’s hard to imagine a more appropriate time to watch “Never Rarely Sometimes Always,” Eliza Hittman’s searing drama about a young woman’s right to determine her own future. And in a year that has stirred a fresh consideration of America’s troubled legacy, its centuries-long history of class inequality, capitalist greed and racist subjugation of Native Americans and immigrants, the dramatic force and exquisite humanity of Kelly Reichardt’s “First Cow” can hardly be overestimated.

Some pictures, of course, seem perfectly timed to capitalize on the nation’s political unrest, few more blatantly than Aaron Sorkin’s “The Trial of the Chicago 7.” A sweeping historical portrait of the tumultuous events preceding and following the fateful 1968 election, it’s about the courage and fortitude it takes to speak truth to power, to protest in the streets and in the courts, often alongside people you may fervently disagree with in service of a greater cause. It’s also an audience picture through and through, the kind that should be watched elbow-to-elbow with your fellow moviegoers, forcing you to lean in so as not to miss a scrap of dialogue over the snorts, chuckles and expressions of vigorous assent around you.

“The whole world is watching!” the protestors in that film cry. But in a world largely bereft of movie theaters and the sense of belonging they offer, that sentiment can be hard to fully embrace or appreciate. I thought about this when I saw Sacha Baron Cohen, terrific as the activist Abbie Hoffman in “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” pull off another form of cinematic protest in the mock-documentary comedy “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm.” Launching a scabrous attack on sexism, anti-Semitism and science denialism in Trump’s America, it’s a sequel to the first “Borat,” a movie I saw in a crowded theater 14 years ago and still feel I haven’t stopped laughing at.

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"David Byrne's American Utopia" features the former Talking Heads frontman in a concert film directed by Spike Lee.
(TIFF)

This one is more muted in its comic impact, partly because reality has largely matched Baron Cohen’s satire, outrage for outrage, and partly because what kills on the big screen often manages just a few glancing blows on a smaller one. At the same time, given that it takes on the subject of the coronavirus itself, “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm” was clearly, explicitly made for a moment without movie theaters. Like “Totally Under Control,” Alex Gibney’s even-toned but infuriating documentary about the Trump administration’s mishandled pandemic response, it was fast-tracked to the screen in the midst of an escalating crisis with the unambiguous intention of galvanizing viewers and weaponizing their anger ahead of the election.

But while these acts of cinematic and political defiance might sound like business as usual for liberal Hollywood, it is worth remembering that the film industry has never been as progressive or ideologically homogeneous as some would like to think. That’s one of the more intriguing insights of “Mank,” David Fincher’s forthcoming drama about the Oscar-winning screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz, which whisks us back to the 1930s and ’40s, when the all-powerful Hollywood studio system advanced the interests of the Republican Party, using industry-wide pressure and dishonest propaganda. Mankiewicz’s wry defiance of that pressure is depicted as a quietly heroic — and, in retrospect, profoundly democratic — act of resistance, and an essential part of the personal history and insight he brought to “Citizen Kane,” one of the greatest works of popular art the industry has ever produced.

 Isiah Whitlock Jr., Norm Lewis, Delroy Lindo, Clarke Peters  and Jonathan Majors.
Isiah Whitlock Jr., from left, Norm Lewis, Delroy Lindo, Clarke Peters and Jonathan Majors in “Da 5 Bloods” directed by Spike Lee.
(Netflix)
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“Mank” is not the only recent picture to give Hollywood a much-needed slap on the wrist. So, in its own way, does “Da 5 Bloods,” an impassioned rebuke to the historical and cinematic record of Black military service during the Vietnam War. It’s also one of two Spike Lee joints this year, the other being his joyous concert picture “David Byrne’s American Utopia,” which reminds us that art can be an act of protest and protest can be a work of art. In a better world, we the moviegoing people might have seen these films together in a darkened theater. In a better future, perhaps we will.


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