2011 … It was the worst of times.

31 12 2011

On New Year’s Eve, this year as always, we stand teetering unevenly between the past and the future – one eye looking forward, the other looking back.  However, this particular day more than any in recent history, people seem to be casting all sight and all hope towards the future because 2011 brought them more pain than pleasure.  Indeed, while there was plenty to celebrate, this year seemed to highlight the worst in all of us, emphasizing our shortcomings rather than our strengths, reminding us that we could be better … but for some reason we weren’t.

Politically, the year started with such promise as we looked to put an end to inflammatory and hateful dialogue in the wake of the horrific shooting in Tuscon that nearly took the life of Arizona congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords.  In a horrifyingly ironic twist, Sarah Palin had put her district on a map with a shotgun sight on it a few months earlier, drawing attention to the overuse of words like murder and kill in the vernacular.  The tragedy shamed us all, although apparently not nearly enough.

In this age of uncertainty, Washington moved towards its idealogical poles, only drawing attention to their vast differences instead of our many similarities.  We are all committed to having a government that functions (and functions with less debt), yet the parts nearly came to a screeching halt as politicians disagreed as to the machine’s output.  We all want to get out of this economic slump, but the inability to find common ground may have only added to the problem.  And amidst it all, you heard the same kind of hateful speech that we wanted to eradicate back in January.  Much of it was directed at the Tea Party: Rep. Maxine Waters said they “can go straight to hell,” Vice-President Joe Biden called them “terrorists,” and perhaps worst of all, Teamsters President Jimmy Hoffa issued a rallying cry to “take the sons of b*tches out.”  We could be better … but for some reason we weren’t.

It was also a year of scandals that highlighted the inability of men to handle the power granted them by society.  Rep. Anthony Weiner was forced to resign after moronically tweeting nude pictures of himself to young women (the icing on the cake was his wife’s pregnancy coming shortly thereafter).  It likely went unnoticed amidst the debt ceiling drama, but Rep. David Wu also vacated his position after an alleged sexual assault.

The most sickening, though, was the Penn State child sex abuse drama that resulted in the termination of much of the football staff including the legendary coach Joe Paterno.  As if 2011 needed any other humiliating debacle, Jerry Sandusky’s use of his charity for at-risk children to fulfill his perverse sexual desires (read the grand jury report if you want to gag) makes everything else look tame.  Yes, even you, lovechild bearing governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, accused rapist and IMF head Dominique Strauss-Kahn, or philandering former Republican presidential hopeful Herman Cain.  It makes Charlie Sheen look like he actually could be #winning.  We could be better … but for some reason we weren’t.

Look at TIME’s Person of the Year and you can deduce the prevailing emotion of the year: anger.  Protesters throughout the world channeled their distrust and disapproval of government, of institutions, even of people into the streets.  Some were organized, like the Arab Spring through social media and around a particular message, such as Egypt’s demands that Mubarak needed to resign for the sake of freedom and posterity.  Others, like Occupy Wall Street and its various offshoots, just inspired people to bring whatever grievance they had in a display of civil disobedience.  While the topics of income inequality, corporate greed, and the government influence of the financial sector floated into mainstream conversation, the lack of a unified goal has led to frustration, confusion, and inefficacy.  In America, anger has just bred more anger.

And in the tradition of societal tumult, we look for a scapegoat.  For some it was John Boehner’s Congress.  Others blamed President Obama.  But during the summer of our discontent, Americans found an unlikely figure to project their uncertainty and insecurity onto: Casey Anthony, the Florida mother accused of murdering her young daughter.  Here was someone that represented everything wrong with the country – neglecting her duties, failing her children, squelching the possibility of a bright future – yet ironically, she was deemed innocent.

Cue everyone on Facebook and Twitter screaming in all caps “CASEY ANTHONY IS SO GUILTY!”  No one wanted justice, they wanted blood.  An eye for an eye, the perpetrator for the victim.  That misplaced anger showed up once again at Penn State, where students rioted in support of their beloved Coach Paterno, whom they believed to be collateral damage in the fallout of the scandal.  Yet if they had really listened, they would have known that Paterno had not called the police when directly given the information of Sandusky’s sexual misconduct in his facilities.  We could be better … but for some reason we weren’t.

So why are you reading this on Marshall and the Movies?  You probably could have read all the above on CNN.  For one, I have firm belief in the ability of the history (the societal narrative) to affect the biography (the personal narrative), so everything from the shameful scandals to the angry Americans to the partial politics played a role in how we watched (or didn’t watch) movies and how they reflected us.

It was a year of intelligent apocalyptic movies, on a global scale by way of storms (“Take Shelter”), viruses (“Contagion”), planetary collisions (“Melancholia”), technological manipulation (“Rise of the Planet of the Apes”), and financial meltdown (“Margin Call”), all of which tied into the anxieties of living in the now.

There was also an abundance of movies tying into non-apocalyptic but hardly apocryphal personal crises.  Much of it centered around loss  – the loss of a family member (“The Descendants,” “Super 8”), the loss of health (“50/50”), the loss of a job (“Everything Must Go,” “Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop”), or the loss of perspective (“Martha Marcy May Marlene,” “The Beaver”).

However, plenty of these catalysts for change are the result of society, be they from industrial shifts (“The Artist,” “Hugo”), the impact of digital culture (“Shame,” “Page One”), the fallout of economic downturn (“Win Win”), an unfair playing field (“Moneyball”), hatred (“The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” “In a Better World”), injustice (“The Help,” “Weekend”), or a general loss of faith in an institution (“Higher Ground, “The Ides of March”).

Just as the movies had a tumultuous relationship with society in 2011, society had a tumultuous relationship with the movies.  Revenues fell again as ticket sales were the lowest in 15 years; you know, when Tom Cruise suited up as Ethan Hunt for the first “Mission: Impossible” movie, “Independence Day” ruled the box office, and “Super 8” star Elle Fanning had yet to be born.  Why so low?  Look to the same distrust of corporations that moved the Occupiers to New York’s Zuccotti Park.

Just like “Inside Job” showed us that the banks scammed America, the preponderance of 3D revealed to most moviegoers that the technology was being used less for art (like in “Hugo”) and more for increasing profit margins (like for “Captain America”).  As Grady Smith of Entertainment Weekly put it, “Consumers balk at the idea of having to pay a regular ticket price PLUS an additional $3.50 for an experience that doesn’t often provide much more than a headache.”  With the growing precariousness of the country’s economic situation, the consciousness of high ticket prices might have kept the public at large from seeing non-essential movies in the theater.

There also seemed to be a paradoxical audience reaction to sequels in 2011 (as if there already wasn’t enough confusion this year).  The top seven movies of the year were all sequels, and the rest of the top ten belonged to some larger franchise.  Only at #12 (“Bridesmaids”) do you get anything original.  However, this sequel success is double-edged as only the last “Harry Potter” film, “Fast Five,” and “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol” were able to outdo their predecessors.  Some fell just short, while others, particularly animated sequels like “Alvin and the Chipmunks” and “Happy Feet” severely underwhelmed.  The success of original films like “Inception” seems to have done little to phase the studio executives, one of which said that spectacle over story is what they count on for success.  Unfortunately, audiences have wised up thanks to filmmakers like Nolan, and traditional strategies now seem more and more out of touch.

Finally, before I reach my 10 worst movies of the year, which are awful for lack of creativity, purpose, ambition, and cohesion, I wanted to end this post on the worst of 2011 on a personal note.  After nearly 18 months of posting every day, I largely fell off the map this year.  I returned to blog all of summer, but in the spring I let festivities of high school graduation overpower my will to blog; similarly in the fall, I let the transition to college life get the best of my writing capabilities.  I never stopped watching movies (I saw a whopping 114 released this year). Hopwever, I did stop sharing my thoughts about them and interacting with the community at large, making all that time spent in front of the screen self-serving.  I could have been better, but I wasn’t.

But just because I wasn’t better doesn’t mean I can’t be better.  Mark my words, I will be better in 2012.  Hopefully, we all will be.

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OPINION: The Cinema of Casey Anthony

5 07 2011

I know that I’m a movie blogger by name, but if you’ll allow me a brief aside, I’d like to address a different field altogether.  I, like many Americans this summer, have been following the developments in the trial of Casey Anthony.  Today, to the shock (and disgust) of many captivated American television watchers, she was acquitted of murdering her two-year-old daughter, Caylee.

I will inevitably catch heat for this, but I do not sit in front of my computer typing this post in dismay.  Just a day after 311 million Americans celebrated the preservation of the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness that so many men have died for, the trial by jury guaranteed to all citizens in the Bill of Rights produced a verdict of not guilty.  Regardless how much Nancy Grace or Bill O’Reilly told us she is guilty, or will continue to tell us she is guilty, we have to trust the American legal system here.  We have to trust that these jurors listened to the evidence and made the right call.

But this post isn’t about the woman in the courtroom, it’s about the people that watched her courtesy of the courtroom cameras.  I learned a lot about how Americans view concepts of justice, vengeance, and entertainment, three ingredients that can make be quite poisonous when mixed.  Quite frankly, what I’ve seen over the past month should have the Founding Fathers rolling over in their graves.  This cannot be the America they wanted to create.

Just last Christmas, “True Grit” was an unprecedented success, grossing $171 million, scoring nearly unanimous critical support, and raking in 10 Academy Award nominations.  The Coens’ film grapples with the tricky question of revenge; in the movie, Hailee Steinfeld’s spunky 14-year-old Mattie Ross embarks on a journey to kill Tom Chaney, the man who murdered her father in cold blood.  She is seen as the hero of the film, and when she ultimately succeeds, the audience cheers.  The character representing justice, Matt Damon’s LeBoeuf, is a clown that is mostly mocked by the audience.

While the Coen Brothers likely expected this to play mostly for their usual niche audience, the excellent film wound up entering the mainstream and playing well into February and March in most theaters.  Not to insult the average moviegoer, but I don’t think that many of them understood that “True Grit” is supposed to be a meditation on the merit of retribution, not a vindication of it.  The movie is just ENTERTAINMENT, and the Coens deliver a cinematic vengeance that excites inside a theater.  But outside that theater, we aren’t meant to feel inspired to deliver payback in such a dramatic fashion.

Which brings me to the matter in question here, the Casey Anthony trial.  How does an ordinary 25-year-old mother from Orlando, Florida become “The Social Media Trial of the Century,” according to Time?  How does she grace the cover of People alongside Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, and Jennifer Aniston?  Simply put, people want VENGEANCE.  They want to see the death of Caylee Anthony avenged, and they want blood to pay for it.

How do I feel so confident in making this statement?  Because most people didn’t need a trial or the deliberations of a jury to reach their own verdict; they just went ahead and pronounced her guilty.  Bill O’Reilly even said, “She is as guilty as they come.”  Although it is not specifically codified in the Constitution, it is considered a part of common law and an American virtue that someone is presumed innocent until proven guilty.  Everyone has the right to due process of law.  Everyone has the right to a trial by jury.  It is not up to people watching the trial on Fox News from their couch, nor is it up to those catching glimpse on CNN from the water-cooler.

But how can Americans have strayed so far from the ideals of our Founding Fathers?  In my opinion, it’s the means of information that induce such expectations for violent ends.  It’s a tired argument, I know.  Let’s blame the media and putting cameras in courtrooms for everything!  But in this case, the drive for ratings and good television has muddled the distinction between justice and vengeance by adding entertainment to the mix.  We have become convinced that the American legal system is only doing its job when it’s convicting people because there is too much crime in this country for punishment to be spared.

All of those title cards for coverage of the Casey Anthony trial, no matter what channel you watched, read “JUSTICE FOR CAYLEE.”  But it was never about justice for them, it was about retribution for her.  They found a woman who represented all sorts of bad parenting and immoral behavior, two things they could prove without a trial.  They made the trial about the condemnation of a woman more for her lack of scruples and less for her action since the case was based largely on circumstantial evidence.  They wasted no time calling her a representative of all evil in society.

This, to any well-versed film watcher, echoes the message of “Chicago,” Rob Marshall’s 2002 Best Picture winning musical movie.  Richard Gere’s Billy Flynn is a master of the media; in the number “We Both Reached for the Gun,” he is shown manipulating everyone literally as marionette puppets, holding their strings and making them dance.  He is the best lawyer in Chicago because he can turn the tide of public opinion in favor of his merry murderesses, thus providing a nice complement to evidence that suggests, but doesn’t prove, their innocence.  Billy has a mastery of the courtroom too and manages to get false acquittals for Roxie Hart (Renee Zellweger) and Velma Kelly (Catherine Zeta-Jones) because he knows one fact: “This trial … the whole world … it’s all … show business.”

Here is a perfect study of opposites: Roxie is a victim of culture’s evils, while Casey Anthony was made to represent them.  The media tried to make her trial a proxy trial for her behavior.  But it’s not; it’s about her actions, and the jury could not find in evidence that her actions included murdering her daughter.  It makes for good television to focus on her unscrupulous behavior in the wake of her daughter’s disappearance, but it does not make for a trial in the American judicial system.

While I’m indulging in pessimism at the moment, I don’t believe this condemnation is a final verdict on America’s fate.  Now perhaps more than ever, I think “12 Angry Men” rings true and relevant.  The movie revolves around a twelve man jury deliberating a case based on reasonable doubt, not unlike the Casey Anthony trial.  When they enter the deliberation move, it seems that all will vote guilty.  However, one juror known as #8, played by the noble Henry Fonda, votes in dissent.  Over the course of Sidney Lumet’s movie, #8 tries to convince the other jurors that their mental picture of the defendant is not enough to justify a vote.  As he so eloquently puts it, “It’s not easy to raise my hand and send a boy off to die without talking about it first …We’re talking about somebody’s life here.”

With the death penalty on the table for Casey Anthony, she found herself in a position very similar to that of the Puerto Rican man in the movie.  But thanks to one noble juryman, he was saved.  As #8 struggles to change the rest of the jury’s mind, they take a second look at the evidence that seems to tell one story yet find that it tells another one – a story where the defendant is innocent.  When there are only three holdouts, #8 makes this speech that gets straight to the heart of the trial that has been the center of American attention for months:

“It’s very hard to keep personal prejudice out of a thing like this. And no matter where you run into it, prejudice obscures the truth. Well, I don’t think any real damage has been done here. Because I don’t really know what the truth is. No one ever will, I suppose. Nine of us now seem to feel that the defendant is innocent, but we’re just gambling on probabilities. We may be wrong. We may be trying to return a guilty man to the community. No one can really know. But we have a reasonable doubt, and this is a safeguard which has enormous value to our system. No jury can declare a man guilty unless it’s sure.”

Perhaps Casey Anthony is guilty.  That’s what many Americans still think in spite of this verdict.  But how many of us have come to this decision based on piecing together the evidence presented in court?  I’m going to guess very few of us have.  However, whatever notions I may have had about Casey Anthony thanks to Fox News or CNN have been wiped clean today with the jury’s verdict.  I’m not sure if the deliberations played out like “12 Angry Men” or if they took on another shape or form entirely.  Yet I am going to trust that however they came to their verdict, it is the right one.  And if you believe in the justice system that our Founding Fathers envisioned is morally right, then you must scorn notions of retribution and entertainment and believe in their verdict too.