Updated: Oct 21, 2020
I love film. I love movies so much that I spent most of my time in high school skipping almost every period after lunch to sneak off to the movie theatre at the mall. I would watch anything and everything. It didn’t matter, a movie was a movie.
One thing about watching anything is that you quickly realize, people will actually make anything. A movie isn’t a just a movie, and a good movie is hard to come by. Many of us unwittingly hold this aesthetic criteria in our heads based on the time that we live in, that allows us to experience, interpret and enjoy films, and filmmakers are aware of that. Film has the ability to leave culture vulnerable and open for future scrutiny. Films reflect the culture and time it was created in, more accurately than any other medium, with visual, sonic and literary references, beliefs, meanings and motifs. Sometimes, the present may not align with the moral compass of the past or future. Which begs the question: What exactly is the purpose of film?
Film creates the need to accurately reflect the culture of the times the story takes place in, and it always reflects the time it was created in because its creators are trapped in time. It has a unique ability to represent time itself. Space and time are primary organizing structures of film. Cinema space is a wholly visual place, and it is quite objective because it is a genuine visual space whose visual reality is immediate and inescapable. In French film theorist André Bazin’s ‘What is Cinema?’ he argued for an utter realism in cinema justified by film’s unique ability to represent time itself. “Cinema is objectivity in time … Now, for the first time, the image of things is likewise the image of their duration, change mummified as it were”
You can watch a movie that is trying to depict a certain place in time and we can be instantly transported there based on the clothes people are wearing, the conversations they are having, the slang and references they use, different advertisements and billboards, songs on the radio, food and drink. We can recognize a place in time and space through culture. Culture is a grouping of memories trapped in space. Popular films are able to depict stories that shape historical events and public knowledge of those events. Film isn't history so its not burdened with factual transcription, it's more concerned with the feel of the times. Movies try to accurately depict that feel, and by doing that, the medium itself becomes a replica of the times. Like how black and white movies, Westerns, Blaxploitation and our modern Superhero movies, represent a certain period in time. The movie becomes a piece of culture, with different quotables, jokes and moments that make us travel through time. Movies encapsulate our culture and by reflecting it back, we arrest memories in space. From a social standpoint, as time goes on we get different, newer and hopefully more forward thinking and progressive cultural norms, but film retains the feel of the era it was created in, created for and created by.
As the culture matures we shed some outdated norms, ideologies, belief systems, and we mature and create better worlds. In the past 20 years we have had exponential cultural shifts and we are continually seeing more. Especially recently, since the Covid-19 pandemic and the various “new norms” that have unexpectedly entered our lives. As we learn more, and as we outgrow certain modes of being, we recognize where we have made mistakes and we attempt to correct those mistakes. In our cultural epoch of political correctness, how much historical curation are we willing to allow? History has always been curated by the winners but for the first time in history, the world has a global record of everything anyone has said or done, so all of humanity is able to hold each other morally accountable.
For centuries, paradigms of power shaped history. In 'Telling The Truth About History' Joyce Appleby, Lynn Hunt and Margaret Jacob show how the history of the United States has changed over time. First history is focused on the Constitution as being based on self evident truths, discovered by philosophers and wise Founding Fathers, in 1913 though, Charles Beard emphasized the economic position of the Founding Fathers and how it was in their material interest to break from the mother country. It would take until 1980 for a Peoples history to appear, in the form of Howard Zinn's 'The Peoples History of The United States' giving those people a voice and a role to play in History.
The paradigms of power that shaped history have not disappeared, they have only continued to change with the times and the amount of information we store. We exist on a global record of information. Our world is riddled with street cameras, phone cameras, facts, pictures, video and identification. In this global record of information, the people have taken the mantle of history curation and have incorporated a variety of perspectives that weren't in the forefront. Things like Black history, Women's history and Queer history are making their way to the mainstream perception of history. Through the lens of the oppressed, many of the outmoded codes of conduct are being revealed as problematic, and because of the amount of individual information and history that is stored, people began getting exposed. History is picked apart with a modern moral lens.
The 'cancel culture' that requires constant and public curation of the individuals past, really starts after the 2016 United States Presidential election. Former Reality television star, pro wrestler and United States President Donald Trump had some footage leaked of him stating he likes to “Grab them by the pussy.” The “them” in question being, quite literally, any woman. This happened during the “Me-Too” movement.
Widespread media coverage and discussion of sexual harassment, particularly in Hollywood, led to high-profile firings, as well as criticism and backlash. Women were capable of accessing social media and for the first time in history, all women in the world were able to unite and share their terrifying experiences with men, specifically men of power and wealth using their positions to prey on them. The high profile conversations being started were pervasive on the internet and everyone's past came into question. Everyone was telling their stories, and many of the stories were decades old. The world was forced to look into history for a moment as a reflection. At that same time, a racist 70 year old pervert, started running the strongest military the world has ever known, and unwittingly acted as a direct reflection of the time of his upbringing, forcing the country to wake up and look at where they come from through the lens of the oppressed.
The United States, like every other country in the world, is a country riddled with a dark history. A history of criminals and savages that colonized lands, raped, pillaged and murdered everyone in sight. History is the echo of savages that progressively had to tone it down for various reasons. There’s still a lot of barbaric things that happen, wars, countries and lives stricken with turmoil and human malevolence, but objectively there has been global progress and many of us are shielded from many harsh realities that have been historically thought of as predetermined factors of existence.
The reason why Americans were sedated from this constant reminder that history is a red carpet of barbaric savages, was because of Barack Obama. 8 years of a Black President had created the narrative that we had transcended primitive concepts like race. For a second, we had this young, urban, Black Man leading the Country to a new frontier. Obama was a symbol more than anything else. Obama became President after the 2008 financial crisis. While many lives were in disarray, Obama's slogan was “Hope.” As a symbol of hope his administration led some of the most forward seeming bills that involved things like legalizing gay marriage. Obama led the movement of historically disenfranchised communities overcoming their struggles, and in that way, brought their stories and history to the forefront.
Obama was a symbol and symbols are transcendent in meaning. Matter is highly concentrated energy and symbols are highly concentrated meaning. As the Jackie Robinson of American Presidents, the man had to be perfect. He had the perfect family, the perfect life, the perfect dog, the perfect hobbies and the perfect walk. He was the most photographed man in history and every time you saw him, Obama was cool, friendly and witty. His public image was so perfectly curated that his symbol drew us into his world.
The world became transfixed in this illusory realm where we had transcended concepts like racism and inequality. There was still police brutality against black people, protests and riots under the Obama administration but it couldn’t publicly be called racism because the highest office in the land, the place where the buck stops, was held by a black man. “If America is racist, how could Obama be President.” The existence of Obama, the symbol, not the man, made it more difficult for Black people, and historically disenfranchised groups in general, to express the rampant racism, sexism, classism and homophobia because it would be picked off as “just a few bad apples.” Enter Donald Trump.
After the slumber through Obama's two terms, White America was shaken awake by the harsh reality that minorities were well aware of, through this racist old white man, spouting hatred and bigotry every chance he got, being voted into the highest office in the land. Trump stands as the physical manifestation of American history. That wake up call reminded everyone of the origins of this Country. How it was built on the backs of slaves and the bodies of indigenous people. Black people were brought here as inventory, forced to forge something out of nothing and never fairly compensated. When they asked for freedom they were met with violence, hostility and ostracization, and this all happened very recently. Women weren’t allowed to vote until the 1920s. Gay marriage became legal in 2015. The world was forced to look at the pile of bodies that paved the way for today and how it impacts us going forward. That realization, and the justified outrage, is how we got to cancel culture.
Social media became our stenographer and suddenly, we are all in court. Anything we say on social media can, and will, be used against us, on this global record of information. Cultural norms of today don’t apply to yesterday, but that didn’t stop us from judging and curating the past based on present criteria. The rage at the past is justified, but as with anything human, we went too far. The concept started with catching people who were historically physically abusive or predatory towards others, and then, it just became a way to mark everyone's life for perfection, like it was supposed to be some pop quiz.
People started getting canceled for things like making jokes that were completely acceptable and beloved during the moment of their creation, to the culture they were created for. Kevin Hart got canceled for making a lame Gay joke on Twitter in 2010, back when almost everyone used to publicly make Gay jokes. That raises the question, are we allowed to eliminate the past based on our modern morals? That's what brings me to this review of American Beauty.
The review in question is titled “The Steady Cultural Demise Of 'American Beauty' How the Best Picture winner, which turns 20 this year, went from esteemed suburban satire to widespread punchline.” Written by Matthew Jacobs for HuffPost US, the article goes on to tear down the film's artistic credibility based on the film's modern cultural moral merit. The movie American Beauty came out in 1999. The film, like many others that came out in the 90s, was a satire about contemporary domesticity.
The movie was about a telesales operative who was sick of living his life in quiet desperation, and begins to hunger for fresh excitement in his life. As he experiences a new awakening of the senses, triggered by his sexual lust towards a friend of his underage daughter, his wife and daughter also undergo changes that seriously affect their family. The movie shows the dynamics of this suburban community and the different beliefs that occupy it. The movie raised questions about pedophilia, queerness, masculinity and violence. It was seen as a progressive movie during its time and was critically and commercially successful. The film depicts the pulse of a pre-9/11 and Y2K paranoid America's feelings and emotions. Like The Matrix, Fight Club, Office Space and other movies that came out that year, the film digs into the existential nature of suburban life in a monotonous, technologically advancing, consumerist-homogeneous world. Since then, a lot of the cultural norms have changed, and now we look back at this movie and judge it with our newfound “woke lenses.”
That film, just like that moment, is just a page in history. That movie is a time capsule and everything that you morally disagree with, is reflective of its time. The movie is a fictional work, but all of the questions it raises, symbols it contains and meaning it conveys, stand the test of time. Now we view the film with a different cultural point of view and the movie is no longer a satire. In a world where the main actor in the movie, Kevin Spacey, was actually charged with pedophilia, for a situation that occurred around the era the movie was filmed, the movie rings true on a deeper level. The characters in the movie were reflecting life, more than anyone could have known at the time. They were asking questions that needed to be asked during their time, and to this day. Our cultural context gives us the view that the people in the movie were actually living their raps. Kevin Spacey was playing the movie version of Tay Ks 'The Race.' That does not discount the film's artistic merit, credibility, substance and value, it expounds on it.
The HuffPost article goes on to criticize the film, its motifs, plot, storytelling techniques, specifically because it doesn’t morally fit our modern cultural context. That brings us yet again to: What exactly is the purpose of film? Is film just something you watch because you enjoy it? Does film need to make you feel good? The best films contextualize history through storytelling, real characters and moments that take us to a place in time and space. This movie tells the truth of our world at that time, and the allegations towards Kevin Spacey make the movie even more important. This movie is a great movie, and great movies don't come by often.
Movies can take us to a place we might not tangibly know, but we can feel. The best films contain an aroma of nostalgia, like you’ve been there before. Even if it's not particularly happy or favourable, it's true. The people dressed like that, the music sounded like that, the people felt like that. The actors are pawns in the chess game of the story, they are irrelevant to the plot, even if the story applies to their real life. The writer's feelings, culture, society and worldview pour and stain their page, encapsulating and contextualizing the space and time they occupy. Film isn't history so it's not true in the way that, its an accurate transcription of events, but its an accurate reflection of the feelings of the people that created it, the culture it was created for, during the time it was created in. Even films like 'The Birth of a Nation.'
'The Birth of a Nation' originally called The Clansman, is a 1915 American silent epic drama film directed by D. W. Griffith and starring Lillian Gish. The screenplay is adapted from the 1905 novel and play The Clansman, by Thomas Dixon Jr. Griffith.
The Birth of a Nation is a landmark of film history. It was the first 12-reel film ever made and, at three hours, also the longest up to that point. Its plot, part fiction and part history, chronicling the assassination of Abraham Lincoln by John Wilkes Booth and the relationship of two families in the Civil War and Reconstruction eras over the course of several years—the pro-Union (Northern) Stonemans and the pro-Confederacy (Southern) Camerons—was by far the most complex of any movie made up to that date. It was originally shown in two parts separated by another movie innovation, an intermission, and it was the first to have a musical score for an orchestra.
It pioneered close-ups, fade-outs, and a carefully staged battle sequence with hundreds of extras (another first) made to look like thousands. It came with a 13-page "Souvenir Program". It was the first American motion picture to be screened in the White House, viewed there by President Woodrow Wilson. This movie was beloved by the audience it was created for, at the time it was created. The film portrays African Americans (many of whom are played by white actors in blackface) as unintelligent and sexually aggressive toward white women. The film presents the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) as a heroic force necessary to preserve American values and a white supremacist social order.
This is a real film, in real theatres, shown and acted in by many modern people's grandparents, who may be alive today. Those people existed, they held those beliefs and some of them still hold those beliefs. To erase these films, images and symbols from history is to lie to future civilizations. I am black, and clearly, I don't agree with the films premise at all, but I also can't remove it from history because it is real. Our method of moving forward should be “This is where we came from, that’s where we wanna go and these are the mistakes we made along our journey to get there.”
As we learn, we should decide to move on and progress in ideology, beliefs, values, culture, art, architecture, technologically, politically, in social ideology, quite literally every facet of life should focus on innovating, updating and advancing to create the most optimal life for every human, but we do that by learning from our mistakes and not repeating them. Not by misrepresenting history and curating it through our modern context. Birth Of A Nation's artistic merit cannot be discredited, the film can’t be destroyed from the library of film history because it stands out as an artistic innovation of its time. It pushed the medium forward and encapsulated its time, it did what a good film should do. Us not agreeing with the message is a positive thing and shows that we are making progressive strides in society, but to act like the movie never existed, or to remove its artistic merit would be to lie and ultimately discredits the critique.
American Beauty is a great movie, it truly and quite objectively reflects the period of time it exists in, it brings up very interesting questions and concepts and it was done so beautifully from a cinematography standpoint. Its artistic merit does not diminish because the country's moral compass has shifted or grown more aware. American Beauty talks about the progress being made in disenfranchised communities, some of the older ideologies like racism and homophobia that existed in 1999 and exist today, and how these ideological dichotomies coexist in a close-knit, clone-like, suburban community.
The movie talks about the relationship between liberals and conservatives, ultimate free will and necessary structure, destiny, God, death and beauty, it does so in a satirical manner that makes it timeless. Art should not be society’s moral compass. It's supposed to peer into the soul of society and draw out real stories. It doesn’t even necessarily have to be the artist's moral compass. The artists aren’t saying “hey this is right, you should totally attempt to seduce your daughters best friend.” They are telling you the story of a real character who did. How you choose to interpret and decipher his morality is part of the experience of watching the film.
There are tons of literary classics that don't stand the morality test of time. Many novels that have been judged over a period of time to be of the highest quality and outstanding of their kind, are also extremely problematic through the modern lens. T.H. White’s legendary classic, 'The Once and Future King' contains the word nigger. Are we going to remove its artistic merit and stop giving it out to read in high schools? No, because in literature it is understood, that is the culture of the time and the author gives you the ability to look through your own morality and decipher how you feel about the text. Classic films deserve that literary cultural respect.