Post-Occupy Cinema

by Martin R. "Vargo" Schneider

Over the past year, my addiction to social media, love of being miserable, and my unwillingness to click "unfollow" out of sheer laziness have combined into a perfect storm that ensures I will never be able to check Facebook without being reminded that the world is a terrible place where bad people are constantly rewarded. As I write this, fingers crossed that my savings account and my income taxes for the year slightly resemble each other, well-meaning liberal link-baits on Facebook and Twitter are reminding me that the following organizations and companies did not pay any taxes in 2013: General Electric, Apple, and ... Facebook. (I can't help but feel the delivery method on this information was a little flawed.)

Look at his shit.Why do we do this to ourselves? Why are there numerous sites and Facebook groups -- like The Other 98%, Mother Jones and to a lesser extent Buzzfeed/Upworthy -- dedicated to telling me why life isn't fair, using GIFs from Rocket Power or whatever it is they do? Because we as people have this irrational hope that maybe, if we monitor the bad guys close enough, we'll catch that one moment where we see their downfall. It's not unreasonable. After all, we're very much inclined to believe that the good guys (us) will eventually win, and the bad guys (The 1%) will eventually lose. This is probably because we've been told as much by stories and movies our whole life. Which is why it's fascinating that the films of this past year chose to focus on the bad guys' inevitable failure, and decided just to ignore the whole "good guys" part.

The most consistent visible theme in the films of 2013 was characters who believed themselves invincible by virtue of their money and their stuff. This is the year that gave us the "Amateur Crime" trilogy of Pain & Gain, Spring Breakers and The Bling Ring. Leonardo DiCaprio took on the sin of ambition twice in The Great Gatsby and The Wolf of Wall Street. In a fit of literalism, the stars of This Is The End actually believed being rich and famous would protect them from the Holy Apocalypse. Even Iron Man 3 followed super-powered douchebag Tony Stark losing his precious toys and having to learn to be Tony Stark all on his own.

This idea is nothing new, of course. Hell, The Wolf of Wall Street directly takes the office-parade scene from Citizen friggin' Kane. But what makes this year's crop of rich bastards interesting is this inherent sense of entitlement that they all feel towards their claimed riches and possessions, combined with the fact that most of them don't do anything at all to earn them.

The girls in Spring Breakers and The Bling Ring don't just want cool parties and nice clothes, they feel that they deserve them, because they are young and hot and that's what young hot people get. Jay Gatsby just decided one day 100 years ago that he was destined to be Jay Gatsby, and everyone who went to ninth grade knows how well that turned out. And yes, millionaire douchebag Tony Stark may have built and earned the right to be Iron Man, but he was millionaire douchebag Tony Stark since birth, capitalizing on his father's name and accomplishments, which were totally not stolen from Mickey Rourke's father or whatever was going on in that second movie. Probably the least subtle of these, because Michael Bay is not a man known for being understated, is Pain & Gain, wherein Wahlberg and Co. claim that they are allowed to commit kidnapping, extortion, and grand larceny in the name of fulfilling the American Dream. In a fit of super-irony, the person they are stealing from is an immigrant who got rich through hard work and smart investments.

He's not a literal wolf.

So of course, why now? Because, for all we complain about them, Hollywood is very good at knowing what people want to see. They're much better at it than say, the U.S. government, because unlike them, Hollywood actually loses money if the general public is not happy. This is Post-Occupy Cinema, folks. It's a more cynical movie-going experience for a more cynical age. No one wants to see a rags-to-riches movie anymore, we want the exact opposite. You couldn't make a movie like 2006's The Pursuit of Happyness today, a movie wherein a man goes from being homeless to having a multi-million dollar business because he works hard and never asks for help. Today, that notion comes across as condescending and out-of-touch, which it very much is. This is the kind of movie that deceives viewers into believing themselves to be temporarily-embarrassed millionaires, and we've wised up to that by now. We've reached a point where the fantasy is no longer "With enough hard work, I can be rich," (Which is also the exact logic used by Jordan Belfort in Wolf of Wall Street and Ken Jeong's character in Pain & Gain to sell worthless knowledge to stupid people). The fantasy has become "If we wait long enough, maybe they'll get theirs."

The tanning bed will keep the money safe.And for the most part, they do. Eventually. But not always. Spring Breakers and Wolf of Wall Street both paint scenarios where their main characters' greed actually puts a sort of bubble of protection around them, saving them from ridiculously deadly scenarios. In these films, spoiler alert, they get away with it. Because that's what actually happens. (I'm speaking here of Wolf, of course. Spring Breakers should be praised for many things, but "plausibility" is not one of them.) Wolf is particularly interesting because within twenty minutes the protagonist, Jordan Belfort, goes from literally giving the finger to middle America, to announcing he will deliberately attack only the wealthiest 1%, and that number is used very deliberately. The way this is set up is particularly noteworthy, as it rings of fake altruism. Jordan's wife suggests he would feel better ripping off people who can afford it, he just realizes there's more money in it. This money seems to cast a force-field around him, saving him from helicopter crashes, explosions, and sinking yachts. In Jordan Belfort's case (like Tony Stark), money is a literal superpower.

Of course, with all this semi-glorification of greed and excess, there's bound to be people that miss the point. While most of your theater should think "I can't wait until they get caught," at least 25% will say "The only problem is that they got caught," leading to the belief that they too, can be ruthless millionaires. It is the Scarface effect, wherein stupid people believe that Tony Montana is an ideal to which they should aspire, because of his money and his cocaine, while completely ignoring the fact the brutal ending he meets is entirely deserved. (And also ignoring the incestuous subtext.) In Spring Breakers, James Franco's Alien is one of those people, and he's a fairly successful one for a bit, but it's only temporary.

So, what we're left with in Post-Occupy cinema are films intended to serve as cautionary tales, and middle-class revenge fantasies. Because film (and television) is still the most easily accessible of all the "high arts", it still must recognize and reflect these desires in mainstream audiences. If half your movie shows the cool part of white-collar crime, you're going to have people dumb enough to ignore the second half. This means that yes, there is a chance of attempted criminality from stupid people who fully believe they know how to get away with it because they've seen it in movies... Which is literally exactly what happens in Pain & Gain. We've come full circle here, folks, and this is what happens in a Hollywood that's good at giving us what we want to see: we set ourselves up for more of what we may not need. But when has that ever been a problem?

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