I went and saw The Constant Gardener
today. Summing up the film doesn't do justice to the experience of watching it, but I'll do it anyway: it's about the quiet, unambitious man, Justin (Ralph Fiennes), who after the death of his wife, Tessa (Rachel Weisz) and friend, Arnold (Hubert Koundé), begins down a path of unraveling the details leading up and beyond that event. It's a mystery set in Kenya, with a backdrop conversation about the aid crisis in the country and the responsibility of First World Countries, and also about trust between lovers. It's directed by Fernando Meirelles, whose previous film was City of God
, which I never saw, but always wanted to, and which I shall, now. The Constant Gardener
is a beautiful, taunt piece for the most part, with fine performances, but more than this, it's a culturally important film.
It's time to stop being nice about this. We're about one week from the release of King Kong
, made for something around the two hundred and eighty million dollar price tag, and it's time to address the misdirection of our talents and abilities as artists and, from an audience point of view, what kind of artists we want. There is absolutely nothing that King Kong
can do to justify its price tag. Nothing. I'm saying that right now before I've seen it. Nothing. Not one fucking thing will justify that movie. It's appalling. Superman
, made for something over three hundred million, is the same kind of shit. But it's more than just this cost, it's the waste of the talent involved. Jackson is an intelligent director who can make good films, but he wastes his time making these films that are, essentially, cocoons of isolation for us wealthy First World people to fall into. These are films that entertain, and that is fine, and I am not, in any position, claiming that it is wrong to make them... but, at the same time, they are not as culturally important as a film like The Constant Gardener.
This is not a question of skill, of ability, or of the end product. The Constant Gardener
is not a perfect film, and will certainly not go down in my movies I must rewatch list. It's simply a good film, which is rare enough these days, but what makes it an important film is that it is engaging its audience in a dialogue about the world. It is not telling the audience that, for the next three hours, they should forget that they live in a world, that that they should cocoon themselves in this make believe bubble that aims to immerse you in a world where morals and situations you should be aware of will never exist. Gandalf fought the Balrog in two films and that spoke to what, culturally? Always carry a sword to stab demons?
There is not, as I said, anything wrong with this. Why should there be? I'm certainly not going to tell you that it's wrong to be entertained and, y'know, I like a lot of things that I can cocoon myself in. But. But.
We have elevated being an artist (director, writer, whatever) to being culturally important because they cocoon us. The films that make huge amounts of money, that leave traces across our cultural psyche, have no conversation in them. Lord of the Rings
does not aim to enter into a conversation about our culture. One could be laid over it, sure, but that's a different position to occupy, and you can read something into anything, if you try hard enough. Likewise, Harry Potter films, Star Wars, Sin City, whatever was big this year... none of them conversed with our culture. George Lucas emphatically denied he was doing it when it was bought up about Revenge of the Sith
. Search the majority of what you saw and read and ask yourself how much aimed to give you a cocoon for a few hours, before you returned to your day to day life?
Now, ask yourself, how many films like The Constant Gardener
, which used real world concerns to motivate its plot, which entwined these things into a conversation with the characters and outcome of the film, did you see?
There is, of course, a contradiction. No matter how much the film entered a conversation, I didn't run out of the theatre and sign up to do aid work. That's not my kind of deal. Likewise, I don't march in protests. I don't donate money to Greenpeace. I'm hardly a humanitarian, here, so it is, in a very open and easy way, to dismiss my opinion because I do not go out and bang drums and whatnot. But, against this, I believe--believe
--that art is a powerful influence on the social consciousness of our society. Art can change things. Writing, in particular, is a dangerous medium, because it reaches right into you and twists your consciousness. Those conservatives who go around trying to ban books are right: books contain ideas that can change you and if you don't want people getting that sickness, then you stop them from reading it. That these conservatives spend their time on J.K. Rowling just goes to prove that wanting to ban books means you're poorly read. My point, however, is this: I might not protest, I might not donate, I might not sign up to go and build fucking huts, but when I sit down to write, the majority of the work that comes from me aims to enter into a conversation with you. I do not want to cocoon you. I do not want to immerse you. I want to probe, to stick, to stab and challenge. I will not be passive. This is how I do the things that I view important and, if that means ending up unpublishable, isolated, fucked off at the end of the world and read by two people, then so fucking be it.
But we, the First World People who can read and write and who have rights and more of an ability to change the way the world is, we want
to cocoon ourselves. We feed our kids, our students, our society--we feed them bubbles to go into and be immersed. We elevate the artists who do this for us, where we can cocoon ourselves in their lives, while we leave those who do not in quiet dusty corners, their conversations with ten, instead of ten thousand. And on a scale system, a pure scale system of measuring worth, a system that speaks of our morals and what we hope to achieve in our society, this is wrong. No maybes, no, oh, but what about Veronica Mars
, Ben,* no oughta woulda shoulda whatever. Three hundred million dollars on Superman
is stupid and insulting and wrong. Three hundred million dollars on a film that explores the misuse of Third World Countries by corporations in the First World, well, that's insulting too, but it's insulting for different reasons, because that amount of money on a film is absolutely obscene when there is, y'know, an AIDS plague in Africa and your three hundred million dollar film uses that as part of the plot, when it could have made it for much
less and kicked that money to useful things, like medicine.
But that's another post.
EDIT: As always, I write the blog posts with the idea in the start of my head and let it go from there. It's just all a fall out fromt he head and, maybe a few hours later, I agree with bits, regret bits, like it all, all sorts. But the result of this is that, naturally, things get over simplified and things should be added and, in case you don't read the comments, here's one I think I ought to have had that rozk
"'Constant Gardener' feints at significance, but, because it is a Hollywood movie, ends up oversimplifying issues around generic drugs, the epidemic and Africa in a way which is far more culturally imperialist than anything Jackson does. It ends up saying things that the most corrupt envoys of Big Pharma will be happy with, and reinforcing denialist politicians like Thabo Mbeki. It may not mean to, but it does - it is still a good film, but it is highly problematic politically and should be watched with this in mind."
As I said, I'm not in favour of stopping escapism films (or, you know, cocooning yourself), but benpayne
puts it in succinct terms:
"Escapism, to me, is a matter of context... if someone, to take an extreme example, is an aid worker working in Bagdad, I don't have a problem with them going home and watching some mindless escapism. In less extreme terms, everyone's entitled to some escapism. The problem is those people who don't also engage with real world issues.
So I guess I think we need both, but you're right in promoting the latter, because it's in the most danger or extinction."
* And Veronica Mars is shit. It has a ridiculous voice over. It has dumb ass flash backs where her dead friend says appalling dialogue like, "I have a secret, Veronica Mars." It has a ridiculous idea of class systems--Veronica is lower middle class like the world is flat. Her date rape experience that ends with her waking up in bed after being drugged, and then picking up her clean, unwrinkled and very white underwear, is idiotic. It has a stupid motorcycle gang. Sorry, the motorcycle gang. But most of all, it had Paris Hilton in it. No show that uses Paris Hilton is worth my time. Ever.