You can be highbrow. You can be lowbrow. But can you ever just be brow? Welcome to Middlebrow, a weekly examination of pop culture.
We tend to love platitudes about fiction. Ken Kesey has been quoted saying, “To hell with facts! We need stories!” The late Alan Rickman declared that “it’s a human need to be told stories.” Joan Didion’s rendition of the same sentiment may be the most famous: “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.”
It’s easy to deem 2016 a year of unpleasant stories. In America, we recounted prized anecdotes about David Bowie, Prince and Carrie Fisher upon their respective deaths; we watched as an alarming faction of the country proved its media illiteracy by perpetuating one phony news report after the next; we listened to the heartache that followed shootings in Orlando, Baton Rouge and Charlotte; most notably, we concocted narratives to explain the jarring election of Donald Trump, a bloviator who spun enough yarns to appeal to the electorate’s basest prejudices.
Then there were the stories we saw on the big screen, which, literally speaking, had little to do with 2016’s quagmires. Hollywood started cooking them up before anyone knew the “Celebrity Apprentice” host was a viable presidential candidate. But as a movie journalist who has plowed through the cinematic harvest, I’ve noticed a handful of films emphasizing the power of American myths ― the same myths that perhaps contributed to the most morally polarizing year in modern history.
Yes, if only we could access the empathy derived from the heptapods’ seamless global communication in “Arrival.” Maybe then I could easily convey the powerful messages scrawled across the silver screen over the past 52 weeks. Maybe then I could tell parents who scorn the internet’s talk of “identity politics” that, in taking their kids to see “Zootopia” and “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,” they exposed them to parables about the evils of social persecution. Or that “Moana” buried notes of global outreach in its Polynesian spiritual adventure. All four movies make noble cases for eradicating rigid assumptions about people who look different or behave in ways that don’t reflect the limited images in our bathroom mirrors.
No one can adequately argue that President Obama waved his magic wand and commissioned a post-racial America. Yet pundits and idealists alike foresaw a 2016 presidential outcome more reflective of the inclusive nation they thought we’d become. Was that merely a movie playing in our heads, offering “La La Land”-level escapism?
Because most of 2016’s films were greenlighted several years ago, they are, in some ways, a reflection of the halfway mark of Obama’s eight-year term, which itself reflects the aftermath of the war-torn Bush era. In Trump’s America, their significance intensifies. “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk,” the story of Iraq War soldiers being paraded about at a Thanksgiving Day football game, attempted to reckon with this complicated ecosystem. The Ang Lee-directed adaptation of Ben Fountain’s novel wallowed in technical missteps, but it offered one resounding message: Patriotism, as it exists in gratuitous public displays, is a sham. At every turn, it became clear the “Billy Lynn” soldiers were capitalistic ploys, a money grab for the NFL and a Hollywood producer attempting to turn their story into a movie. If nationalism isn’t televised, can it exist?
Fleeing capitalism in search of ostensibly freeing alternatives provided mixed results for the protagonists of “American Honey” and “Captain Fantastic.” In the former, 18-year-old Star (Sasha Lane) escapes a run-down home life and a predatory father to join a tribe of young misfits who travel through the heartland peddling door-to-door magazine subscriptions. She’s attracted to the group because they seem liberated. Alas, they are gamed by a system in which cashflow does not trickle down enough to provide abundant resources. Star and her cohort trade traditional vocations for the open road ― but this particular open road makes them submissive to corporate greed. The leader of Star’s pack (Riley Keough) punishes under-performers, creating her own form of capitalism: Make money or get the hell out.
In “Captain Fantastic,” Ben Cash (Viggo Mortensen) raises his six kids in a private enclave in the Pacific Northwest, teaching them to eschew societal conventions. All they need are nature, survival skills and one another. Not recognizing the holes in his plan, Ben ultimately comes to terms with the concept of balance. Maybe living in the world proper, with all its infantilizing strictures, isn’t ideal. But no matter who holds the highest office, abandoning society in hopes of finding nirvana is a delusion.
At the movies this year, stories underlined the difficulties of carving out freedom in the face of patriarchal models. In “Moonlight,” a latchkey kid (played in various phases by Alex R. Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes) came of age by safeguarding his queerness with the armor of performative masculinity. In “20th Century Women,” a single mother (Annette Bening) in 1979 California tried to raise her teenage son (Lucas Jade Zumann) to be a “good man,” proclaiming, “I don’t know how you do that nowadays.” (Good question.) In “Loving” and “Hidden Figures,” black women rose above the white men holding ostensible power. They become stronger superheroes than the title characters in the impossibly grim “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.” In the documentary “Weiner,” Huma Abedin ― a political savant with Hillary Clinton loyalties ― stood at her husband’s side while his sexual misconduct embarrassed her (again) in front of the world. Five months after its release, women statistically refused to accept that Trump had embarrassed his own wife with boasts of harassment. All of these movies’ subtext spotlighted cultural constructs’ vicious cycles.
Because of such constructs, this country has forever been obsessed with its image ― that’s why notions of “the American dream” and “American exceptionalism” prevail. Perhaps the greatest homegrown image-making on the big screen this year stemmed from two sketches of modern history: the 7.5-hour documentary “O.J.: Made in America” and the unconventional psychodrama “Jackie,” which leaps inside Jacqueline Kennedy’s head during the events leading up to and immediately following her husband’s 1963 assassination. Both tackle the power fame holds in molding public figures’ legacies. If there’s anything America can agree to love, it’s celebrities.
In “O.J.: Made in America,” Ezra Edelman thoroughly traces O.J. Simpson’s evolution from national hero ― an emblem of America as a land of opportunity ― to disruptive multimillionaire. The 1994 Simpson trial not only birthed reality television as we know it; it also conjured up a race war fought behind closed doors. It is only with hindsight that most of the country can view Simpson’s alleged murder of his wife as something other than an arraignment of the country’s fractured values. Throughout the trial, Simpson and his legal team tried to write the athlete’s own story. At the time, they succeeded, at least in the eyes of the law.
Similarly, Jackie Kennedy knew better than to leave her family’s political legacy to history. Upon her philandering husband’s murder, the first lady orchestrated a public funeral that matched the grandeur of Abraham Lincoln’s. One week later, she spoon-fed the famous Camelot analogy to a Life magazine reporter who wrote of the Kennedy White House as “one brief, shining moment” of splendor. (In terms of political achievements, it was not.) Both “O.J.: Made in America” and “Jackie” offer portraits of fame as driven by media accounts, by shape-shifting narratives where race and gender play supporting roles.
“People like to believe in fairy tales,” Jackie (Natalie Portman) says in the movie. Oh, what the glamorous Kennedys would say of Donald and Melania Trump and the merry band of boors who will enter the White House alongside them next month. It is the very opposite of a fairy tale, and yet the Trump camp convinced enough (read: too much) of the country that the populist escape they sought would be obstructed by a “nasty woman” (read: qualified candidate) on the other side of the aisle. What image of America does that convey? Certainly not one of intersectionality, despite the diverse stories that graced multiplexes this year. It instead conveys a process of image-making, specifically an image that tacitly mythologizes the idea that equality is an obstacle to those who have always enjoyed privilege (read: heterosexual white men). If we know things are going to get worse, is life still worth living? “Arrival” argues yes. Now we must too.
We are, in essence, a country of myths. Like Chiron realized in “Moonlight,” we endorse masculinity at a rate that disenfranchises even those who refuse to acknowledge they are disenfranchised (see, again: female Trump voters). We define heroism by comic books, as in “Doctor Strange,” in which a surgical superstar (Benedict Cumberbatch) is whisked to a magical land with a sensei named The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton). Never mind that the character in the comics is Asian and Swinton is British. The message Marvel sent in changing The Ancient One’s ethnicity? The story’s roots don’t matter as long as it’s entertaining.
Here’s another myth: We insist, as if life were a romantic comedy, that marriage is our end game. “The Lobster” satirizes that idea, while “Bad Moms” blanches at its conventions, portraying perfect marital companionship as unrealistic. And in a trio of ill-advised stories about the Trumpian theme of gaslighting ― “The Girl on the Train,” “Collateral Beauty” and “Passengers” ― we see that trusting others to protect us does not always yield the storybook results we are taught to expect. Maybe we should move to Zootopia.
All of this is to say that life proved just as complicated on the big screen in 2016 as it did elsewhere. Movies are the most fascinating reflections of reality, constantly arriving with a rearview-mirror perspective that often remains resonant long after their release dates. The reactionary artwork that we’ll see throughout the Trump years may twist some of these myths, especially if the electorate relies on the troubling stories it is currently telling itself about this impending presidency. But to remain the shining city on a hill that America wants to be, it’ll have to face some realities. It’ll have to redefine its stories. The movies that opened this year already knew that. Why didn’t our voters?