Sunday, March 6, 2011

Who's Been Eating My Porridge?; or, Growing Income Inequality and the Resurgence of Fantasy in Film









Fairy tale remakes, the old gods resurrected, the fabulistic and super-heroical in many shades and sizes have dominated American cinema since c. 1990, at least in terms of audience size and revenues. Hollywood has found that updating the oldest stories and mining the Marvel and DC universes (themselves populated by updates of the oldest stories) are far more lucrative than producing the realistic dramas and satires that led their offerings in the late '60s and throughout the '70s.

Check out here the top hundred all-time grossing films in the U.S.A. Here are The Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, soul searching by Spiderman and by Batman, spaceships and dragons in Avatar (having your science fiction and your fantasy all in one go), The Lion King, various scherzi from Pixar, the adventures of Indiana Jones, the bravado of Iron Man, The Matrix series ("how deep does the rabbit hole go?"), Alice in Wonderland, Harry Potter and his friends growing up to face Voldemort, Twilight, the capers of Shrek, How to Train Your Dragon, slow-motion whimsy in Kung Fu Panda....and on and on, with the Hollywood A List on all sides of the cameras and computers, the highest production values, the fattest budgets.

The last time Hollywood invested this heavily in fantasy was in the 1930s and early '40s, when The Wizard of Oz and Disney's Sleeping Beauty, Fantasia and Snow White hit the screens.

Why then, and why now? The violence and illicit romance/sex of fairy tales surely appeal to audiences, but we can (and do) get massive dollops of those things from other genres as well. I suggest that the answer lies rather in the deeper thrust of the old stories, which typically celebrates the feisty underdog and offers a chance for the oppressed and marginalized to turn the tables on their superiors. The plucky tailor vanquishes the ogre and wins the princess, the goose-girl or cinder-lass reveals her innate worth, the bones of the murdered call out from the fir-tree to accuse their murderer...

Hence the thirst for such stories during the Great Depression and now during the Great Recession. Not just because the average American feels economically insecure but because he and she perceives that a few others do not seem to be suffering much or at all, that those few appear to be elevating themselves above the rest of the citizenry. And, in fact, since 1980 income has gone disproportionately to a very few, creating the largest inequality in wealth in the U.S.A. since the 1920's. (*)

As Louis Brandeis said in 1941: "We may have democracy, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we cannot have both." For the descendants of serfs and slaves, the sons and daughters of peasants and laborers who suffered a near-infinite variety of peonage and servitude, a defiant alarm is ringing, a challenge to any nascent aristocracy. In truth, we side with the hobbits-- to be left alone with a pint of ale by the fire-- and do not really want the return of the king.

The dance scene that ends the first Shrek movie epitomizes the will to overcome the fear of losing our democracy. To the tune of "I'm a Believer," a motley assortment of fairy tale figures dance in unison, a wildly diverse, rag-tag group (some not logical allies otherwise), the huddled masses, the little people...celebrating the overthrow of the grotesque, venal overlord. "Sure, we're plebes who live in a swamp, lack manners and grace, and like our humor rude and rough, but we will control our own fate, thank you very much." (**)

"I'm a believer," says the lobster. "Bring me my seven-league boots," chirps the canary. "We just found a magical bean..."

(*) For data and documentation on the rise in income and wealth inequality in the U.S.A., click here for work by University of California-Berkeley economist Emmanuel Saez (especially his summary "Striking It Richer," and his studies with Thomas Piketty); click here for analysis by Daniel Weinberg (U.S. Census Bureau); click here for study by Gary Burtless (Brookings); and click here for Timothy Noah's series in Slate. More generally, Paul Krugman and Janet Yellen have written persuasively on the topic.

(**) Another favorite-- both of mine and of audiences-- is Johnny Depp's "futterwacken" dance in Alice. Note also the portrayal of the Red Queen; the film lingers long on her depravity, on her utter disregard for her subjects, her complete selfishness and lack of compassion. "Bring me a pig!" she cries, from her rapacious red lips in her oversized bobble-head...

3 comments:

Erzebet said...

What a great connection you've made! I've heard sceptics say that the rise in fantasty film and literature in times of stress is due to the need for escapism, but I think you and I know that is not the case. Whatever Hollywood's motives may be, it never hurts to be reminded that the underdog can win the day.

K. Gore Wehner said...

I would like to add that there is a lot of interest in the old Greek myths nowadays as well. Great post, Daniel!

Jesse Bullington said...

Very cool column--certainly food for thought, as it wasn't a parallel I'd drawn on my own. Hmmm...