American Escapism: A Hero For Us All

Last week, an article regarding the progression of the American entertainment industry caught my attention. According to the author, the subject and tone of the movies mirror contemporary events. She claimed that the recent Oscar contenders, some with dark themes, parallel the nation’s recent economic recession and international conflict. In other words, the violence and war – or lack thereof – in a particular era is mirrored in the entertainment industry’s products. It is my belief that the exact opposite is true. “American escapism” is a term coined in reference to a dangerous tendency of the American public to take refuge in fantasy and fluff, when reality becomes too dark to face. In order to determine what the American public is watching, one does not necessarily look to the Oscar contenders, but rather to the box office. Though sometimes one and the same, the opinions of the critics and those of the viewing public do not always coincide. “Far From Heaven,” an arguably subtler and better-made movie than “The Two Towers,” garnered a lonely total gross of $13.8 million as recently as February 9th, whereas the latter made a striking $46 million on opening day alone. So which films are Americans really watching? Even aside from the range of respective releases, the stark disparity is too dramatic to discount. Notable comic book heroes, famous for their clear-cut roles and staunch justification, came into the limelight during and shortly after the Great Depression. These “All-American” figures like “the Man of Steel,” born during the worst economic depression of the century, were also utilized in recruiting campaigns for World War II. Rarely is internal conflict found in these almost mythical characters – a fact often seen as the failure of Americans to progress past their childhoods. But in darker times, these are the features to which Americans turn. The stock market crashing? World war? The fastest, easiest escape route? Shall we spend two hours of mindless entertainment at the movies or remain mired in black and white comic books with cardboard plots and central characters who treat dialogue like declarations? Numerous analyses have been conducted on the post-9/11 US, where the average American finds it far more comforting to seek the padded security of the plain, old-fashioned fantasy novel than to turn on the news and watch current events unfold. The noticeable decline of interest in political and contemporary thrillers is also understandable. Directors are afraid to touch upon a wound that has yet to heal and will likely leave a lasting scar, with some even going so far as to digitally edit out any images of the Twin Towers from shots filmed pre-9/11. After all, as one journalist put it, “Why go see a thriller when all you need to do is switch on the news to be terrified?” Summer blockbusters like “Spiderman” and widely publicized holiday releases such as “Harry Potter” and “Lord of the Rings” drew audiences like bees to honey, and continue to do so. The American public is wary of seeing more meaningful films like “The Quiet American,” which may incidentally touch closer to current events. There is no argument that comfort can be found in being able to watch a movie shorn clean of moral ambiguity, in which we are able to have complete justification in cheering for “the good guy” throughout the entire storyline. But is that really what America needs to see? Even in connecting these escapist fantasy flicks to current events, we are still looking for that clearly delineated morality that simply cannot be found in reality. It has been remarked that “Lord of the Rings” evil dictator Sauron bears striking, nominal similarities with current US enemy Saddam Hussein. The reptilian, red-eyed Voldemort, of “Harry Potter” fame, has even been equated with Osama bin Laden, the apparent origin of this new wave of escapism. When contemporary directors do get around to touching upon more serious themes, they either seek heroes in another time, as with Scorcese’s latest epic, “Gangs of New York,” or in blind patriotism, as in “The Sum of All Fears.” The point is that we are not children who must be taught in terms of good and evil, because we are too naive and too ignorant to understand shades of gray. It is nothing short of dangerous for America to grasp perpetually at a world that does not exist. We cannot seek complete justification and carelessly throw labels such as “evil” around in an international community that has grown far more sophisticated and nuanced. As a nation, we should be facing our troubles as they come, not hiding away from them. We should have the integrity to judge things as they are, not solely for our own interests. We should be able to honor the victims of 9/11 by remembering their deaths and considering both the justifications and the consequences, not covering up the event as if it were a shame. In fact, if Americans really were more interested in films like Polanski’s thoughtful, sober “The Pianist” rather than the latest comic-book-hero-turned-movie-star, it would show that we, children in the face of older nations, have indeed grown up.