Friday, March 4, 2011

Big Brother is Good People: Welcome to the New Paranoia

It’s a good time to be a paranoid moviegoer. The Adjustment Bureau, based on a story by Philip K. Dick, will no doubt provoke some comparisons to Inception, with its portrait of a world in which our actions and decisions are at the mercy of other people with mysterious powers of influence. Those aren’t the only ones either. Shutter Island, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, The International, and plenty of other movies indulge our certainty that there are those out there with almost absolute control over our fates. 
On some level, The Social Network too traffics in the fantasy of influence and control – what is Mark Zuckerberg doing with all that code, after all, other than figuring out what makes us tick? Heck, even the Harry Potter movies give us a world of shadowy, all-powerful forces that exists in relation to, and has power over, our own. 

Of course, paranoia flared up in the cinema of the 50s and 70s, too, but in completely different ways: In the former, it was the emergence of the Cold War, combined with the rapid acceleration of scientific discovery and accomplishment, that gave birth to popular films about mind control and invasion allegories. (I’m looking forward to reading J. Hoberman’s new book Army of Phantoms, which tackles this period in American filmmaking.) In the 70s, political disillusionment and the fallout from the turbulence of the previous decade led to films like The Parallax View, The Conversation, All the President’s Men, Three Days of the Condor, and many others.  

Needless to say, the New Paranoia is a bit different, and The Adjustment Bureau is a good example of how. (Fair warning: I'm about to get into some spoilers here.) On the surface, the film hews fairly closely to the paranoid signposts of yore: A likable hero discovers that Things Are Not As They Seem, and is then pursued by Mysterious and Seemingly All-Powerful Forces (Who Are the Reason Why Things Are Not As They Seem). The catch is that these All-Powerful Forces (aka the Adjustment Bureau) are a far cry from the assassins of the Parallax Corporation or the mind-controlling Communists of The Manchurian Candidate, or even the human-harvesting machines of The Matrix. No, the Adjustment Bureau, although they don’t want you to hang out with that free-spirited dancer chick and can wipe your mind if you protest, are actually kind of okay guys: They gave us The Renaissance, after all, and they just want to help us be the best we can be.

And, when you think about it, for all the industrial espionage going on in Inception, the actual act of inception ultimately has to do with a warm and fuzzy emotional breakthrough between a grieving son and his dying father. (And, as I’ve argued elsewhere, it’s also about bringing the hero closer to his own family.) Similarly, Shutter Island gives us an island full of leering head-shrinkers who turn out to be the good guys after all: Shock Corridor by way of Frank Capra. Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps re-invents Gordon Gekko as a repentant do-gooder, before giving us a last act twist that suggests he's back to his nefarious, controlling ways – and then re-re-invents him as a repentant do-gooder. The people that control the world, in other words, have a heart. *

Even the films that are still willing to engage the villainy of such shadowy organizations tend to water down their conclusions: In State of Play, the private defense contractor suspected of being behind a young woman’s murder turns out to be partly a scapegoat for the doings of one corrupt politician. In this sense, the Bourne films (which I really shouldn't lump in here, but I will) are a bit of fresh air, but even they make a lot of noise about rogue organizations and projects within the U.S. intelligence apparatus. 

Collectively speaking, it seems as if we’ve decided Jonathan Pryce’s last moments in Terry Gilliam's Brazil wouldn’t be such a bad fate after all -- a world of endless, safe, imaginary, perhaps lobotomized bliss mediated by the powers that be.

So, what happened? If the era of Vietnam and Watergate created a sense of unease about government secrecy and power, then the post-9/11 period has seen more of us willing to accept – even seek solace in – that same secrecy and power. Although the Adjustment Bureau are the ostensible villains of The Adjustment Bureau, their presence is also strangely reassuring; not only do they have our best interests at heart, they can even be convinced and touched enough to change their minds. We’re even told that they might one day let us have free will, if they think we’re ready. (The last time they did that, though, we went out and started World  Wars I and II. Silly us.)  They’re more like a stern but fair parent than anything else. It's all for our own good. 

* It pretty much goes without saying that I actually like and even love some of these movies. My fondness for Inception and The Social Network cannot be overstated. And I even kinda sorta liked The Adjustment Bureau, when I wasn’t rolling my eyes at it. The last Harry Potter movie was pretty good, too. Where do I sign up for the brain harvesting?

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