JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

Films relatled to Killing Them Softly

Genre Movies, the Great Depression and Beyond. “Capitalism, call it what you like, give to each and every one of us a great opportunity if only we seize it with both hands and make the most of it."
Al Capone in an interview with Claud Cockburn

Melodramas like Wild Boys of the Road (Wellman, 1933) and Our Daily Bread (Vidor, 1934) provided popular acknowledgement of the hardships experienced by people during the Great Depression. King Vidor had to self-finance his movie and with the help of Charlie Chaplin got the assurance from United Artists to distribute the film, which features notions like labor cooperatives that were too scary for the studios to support.

Musicals like Gold Diggers of 1933 (Berkeley and LeRoy, 1933), and 42nd Street (Bacon, 1933) acknowledged hardship while adding an ironic layer of denial, or maybe an affirmation of hope, via the escapist fantasy offered through the presentation of extravagant musical sequences.

But it was the gangster genre—some 70 movies made between 1930 and 1933 according to Mark Cousins’ Story of Film—that exposed the possibility, danger, excitement, and attraction of a subversive economy. Film analysis of the parallels between capitalism and the gangster genre as the ruthless side of the American Dream, especially by the left, are well-traveled, but thanks to the genre’s ability to morph with the times, remains relevant.

In The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse (Litvak, 1938), Edward G. Robinson plays a wealthy society doctor researching criminal behavior. He joins a gang of thieves in order to measure their, and his own, responses to the burglaries they commit. It’s not one of the most memorable movies of the gangster genre, but the following exchange between Clitterhouse and Jo Keller (Claire Trevor) is a good summation of why the exploited poor might choice the expressway to crime over the slow route to political action.

Jo is in the business of fencing the furs, jewels or whatever else that is brought to her, while Dr. Clitterhouse, working under the pseudonym “the professor,” is trying to understand the business model:

JO: When it comes to distribution don't ever worry. I get paid cash on delivery and I'm ready to pay out as soon as the job is done.
PROFESSOR: What if something should happen? If we should get caught and fail to deliver the stuff to you?
JO: Then I get another gang started on another warehouse. ...

PROFESSOR: I see. No sentiment, just the routine.
JO: Like any other business.
PROFESSOR: But tell me, don't you ever feel any pangs of conscience? I mean that what you're doing is wrong and opposed to the best interest of society?

JO: Wrong? Suppose you tell me something. Would you ask that same question of a stock promoter who robs widows and orphans? Or one of them society mugs who owns a lot of firetrap tenement houses where the rats and bugs eat you alive? The kind of place I was born in. No, the way I look at it professor, me, you, the all of us here are more on the level than those guys.

Let them eat bread! The image of the Cuba cake in Godfather II (Copola, 1974) is so iconic, it’s almost a cliché, but it’s an image that communicates so much, so quickly. The mafia, U.S. business, and the Batista government all got a piece of cake; the people of course had to eat bread, which no doubt was stale and moldy. The gangster genre’s status as a parallel or alternate universe to the sanctioned economy, makes it particularly adept at advancing political and social commentary du jour. Killing Them Softly’s poke at the 2008 Crisis being a case in point.

Films related to Cosmopolis

Waiting for the End of the World:
“It’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.”
—attributed to Fredric Jameson and Slavoj Zizek

Manufacturing Dissent: Situated in the near future, Don DeLillo’s Cosmopolis is at the edge of science fiction, a genre not foreign to David Cronenberg. Mixing art and artifice, the Times Square riot sequence was created in a green screen studio in Toronto, and a British-born heartthrob plays a Bronx-born asset manager. In the lower left corner of the picture, the centerpiece of the scene and the movie, the white limo, is barely visible under the rig of lights and other gear.

Recurring Nightmares. Limited resources, class warfare, authoritarian control, environment disasters, perpetual war, and gross inequity of all types are at the surface of the current spate of sci-fi, horror and dystopian movies- and there are a lot of them. Of course many of the same themes will be found in films from earlier cycles, Fritz Lang’s 1927 Metropolis, for example. In Elysium (Blomkamp, 2013) the Alice Braga character is trying to get her daughter medial care that is being hoarded by the privileged class who live in an off-planet paradise far from the terrestrial misery. Surface themes may be in the viewer’s face but they do not always clearly indicate the underlying message.

That’s All Folks: Searching for the underlying message, a 2015 issue of the now defunct print version of CineAction puts good use to the Jameson/Zizek quote above. Focusing on end-of-world scenarios, the issue features articles that categorize the stories as apocalyptic, post-apocalyptic or dystopian. It analyzes them in terms of whether a causal connection is made between capitalism and the calamity at hand (environmental devastation, alien invasion, authoritarian oppression, etc.). Some of the magazine articles apply a neo-Marxist framework to help determine the underlying ideological message of the films by posing the following questions:

  • Do the films identify (name) the system (capitalism) as the problem—or at all?
  • Is there a suggestion that there is no alternative to capitalism?
  • Does the movie’s presentation of a parallel reality that is much worse than our current reality encourage viewer nostalgia for and valorization of our present day reality?

Punch the Clock: This newborn baby was genetically engineered to live in the wrong zip code and enjoy 25 years of normal aging before the clock begins to countdown. At 25 she must earn her keep or she will be dead in one year. Some have all the time (money) in the world; others get by moment to moment (paycheck to paycheck).

Andrew Niccol’s 2011 movie In Time may substitute time for money, but social stratification is alive and well and capitalism is still depicted as a zero-sum game: “For a few to be immortal, many must die,” says a member of the 1%, a centenarian trapped in the body of a 25 year old.

Time Bandits: Sylvia (Amanda Seyfried) and Will (Justin Timberlake) rob banks because that’s where the time is. Sylvia is part of the ruling class and Will worked in a factory until a wealthy, suicidal centenarian gifted him a hundred years. Part Robin Hood, part Bonnie and Clyde and part Patty Hearst and the Symbionese Liberation Army, the couple chooses a life of crime in order to set the masses free. Does the movie inspire activism or at least promote class-consciousness? Or, as one writer in CineAction suggested, does the movie’s romantic pairing of lovers from opposite sides of the income bracket forgive class exploitation? Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of filmmakers?

Insurgent Media: With sales of newly released video games overtaking sales of newly released movies by a wide margin, it’s no wonder that the former has had a discernable influence on the later. To the left is an image from The Call of Duty franchise, a top selling game in the most popular genre categories: the action and first person shooter genres.

The Military-Entertainment Complex: Both the video game and the movie, Battle: Los Angeles (Liebesman, 2011) were released on the same day. Looking more like he’s in Iraq than Los Angeles, Specks (Ne-Yo) checks the pulse of a fallen soldier. Fed in part by the popularity of single shooter games that glorify war and military power, there are currently more military-themed movies available than you can point an M16 at. Along with the fear of terrorism, the militarization of entertainment may also be having the effect of acclimating the public to an uneasy acceptance of the militarization of urban police departments, the proliferation of military drones that allow soldiers to fight remote battles, and a threat to personal privacy for the sake of perceived security.

Practice Makes Perfect: Edge of Tomorrow (Liman, 2014) is modeled after game-playing behavior. As when playing a video game, the first person character, in this case Bill Cage (Tom Cruise), ‘dies’ numerous times while trying to achieve his goal: preventing aliens from colonizing the planet. Each time he ‘reboots’ he learns from his errors and gets a little further into the game (the story). This is repeated until he reaches whatever level is necessary to defeat the invading aliens and to bring us to the end credits. In the process Cage evolves from a spineless PR officer for the military into a relentless fighting man worthy of being played by the equally relentless Cruise who migrates from one mega budget movie to another.

Game Theory: Cronenberg’s eXistenZ (1999) also models game-playing behavior, but Cronenberg is more interested in the role of technology and how the user engages with the otherworldly content of the game, over the motor skill operations necessary to achieve a certain goal. An umbilical-like cable connects the fleshy game controller directly into a port that has been surgically inserted into the player’s spine. The movie is an ontological detective story where there is constant confusion over whether we are ‘in’ or ‘outside’ the game; whether the game is controlling the user or vice versa; over who is a real person and who is an avatar put there to move the game forward; and about what the actual goal of the game is. Amidst the confusion, Allegra (Jennifer Jason Leigh), the game’s celebrated designer and her inexperienced security guard Ted (Jude Law) are on the run from the violent “realist underground” who object to how gaming perverts reality.

Discipline and Punish: In the film Gamer a 17 year-old rich boy (Logan Lerman) controls the body of a death row prisoner (Gerard Butler) in a first person shooter game called Slayer while a homebound obese man controls the body of the inmate’s wife (Amber Valletta) in a Sims type life simulation game called Society. Unlike the east and west, the two shall meet, resulting in a satisfying if predictable outcome. The controversial Slayer game funds the prison system “with the full cooperation and approval of the United States Federal Government,” says the evil genius CEO of the game development company... ... Hyper frenetic from start to finish, Gamer (Neveldine & Taylor, 2009) is exhausting to watch as the filmmakers tell a traditional gladiator story through an acrobatic use of cinematic sleight of hand. By the end of the movie the husband and wife reunite with their daughter, the evil CEO is dead, and everybody can get back to playing their favorite game.

Estranged Labor: In Ari Folman’s trippy The Congress (2013), the actor Robin Wright, playing a fictional version of herself, loses control of her image after allowing a Hollywood studio to digitally scan her body. She receives a boatload of money in return for allowing the studio the right to use her computer-generated image. Twenty years later, driving into the “animation zone” to renew her contract, Robin enters a world in which people snort nifty glass ampoules in order to inhabit the being of others. And then the story gets complicated.

Sentient Commodities: Some of the recent movies that feature artificial intelligence—Robo Cop, Ex Machina, Chappie, Automata [not pictured]—are concerned first with what it means to be a sentient being, second in what the robots were originally manufactured to do, and then in how the A.I. reflects and/or rejects the masters (imperious corporations, mad scientists, boy geniuses) who built them.

The (open-ended) End: Warring political factions, underground rebels, and especially a synthesis of opposites leading to a transformation that is either horrific or transcendent, are recurring allegorical themes in many of Cronenberg’s movies, which all suggest an open-ended, undefined transformative synthesis. Examples include not only the relationship between Eric Packer and his assassin in Cosmopolis but the following:

  • top left to right, the evil yuppie Daryl Revok (Michael Ironside) defeated when his body is inhabited by his rebel brother at the end of Scanners (1981);
  • in Videodrome (1983) the James Woods character defeating a right wing conspiracy by destroying the old flesh to make way for the new flesh;
  • bottom left to right, gender ambiguity/synthesis in M Butterfly (1993), and
  • the enmeshed personalities of the twin brothers in Dead Ringers (1988) (Jeremy Irons).