As the year and the decade draw to a close, I find myself in a strangely optimistic mood. True, there are many reasons for pessimism -- war, global warming, a so-so health care bill, a potentially nuclear Iran, huge unemployment, etc. But over the past week, I have found reasons to be cheerful in popular entertainment, specifically the films Up and Avatar. The former, I believe, is proof that the negative effects of consumerism run wild are so pervasive that they actually permeate children's entertainment (in a good way). The latter speaks to the best aspects of what capitalism in combination with the American Dream makes possible.
For those of you who did not see Up, I will not spoil the rather thin plot of this otherwise great film. Instead, I will share with you a central image of the film: an elderly man has no people in his life but spends his days literally pulling the weight of a house on his back that is filled with things that do not bring him happiness. It is only when he's cut free of the this physical and existential weight that he's sufficiently unencumbered to reconnect with the world of the living. For all of this, the film is fun to watch and visually stunning, but what makes me happiest is that it was made by Disney/Pixar, a company at the core of American culture. If it's okay for them to make this movie, then maybe there is hope for generation Tea Bag.
On the other end of the spectrum, there's Avatar, a film that never would exist without capitalism. It was hugely expensive, extravagant, lavish and a clear statement of what's possible when great vision is united with the means to make the unprecedented real. James Cameron has not merely innovated or incremental improved. In this film, he invents to create something wonderful and new. In other words, he has done exactly what the high priests of capitalism -- from Adam Smith and Alexander Hamilton to Milton Friedman and Alan Greenspan -- have always preached: allow daring, vision and capital to find one other and the extraordinary can emerge. All hail the invisible hand!
Both films, however, point to the fact that change -- personal, institutional and societal -- is the key to survival. If the American Dream is to thrive in the decade ahead that means that we must do better for ourselves in terms of health care, the environment, the use of energy and the way that we interact with an increasingly complex world. We'll need to leave behind the underlying question of the Aughts, "Why should I have to..." and move toward, "How can I..." That may sound like Pollyanna, but really it's a self-preservation strategy for the kind of America that we would all -- at least most of us -- like to live in.
So here's to great film, a great year and perhaps a great decade to come.