Movies are not a popular art for nuthin’. They may not appear to take on serious aspects of our lives at the moment they hit the screens, but what’s going on in the world registers in all sorts of ways, both obvious and opaque.
Great and traumatic events — hot world wars, cold wars, financial crashes — all have inspired great art. Think John Steinbeck’s novels, Picasso’s “Guernica,” Woody Guthrie’s protest songs. Or go back to Boccaccio’s “The Decameron,” fueled by the plague of the 14th century in Europe. The coronavirus pandemic is clearly one of those global events, but it’s important to look back before we consider how the present might influence artists.
The movies are like litmus paper for the popular imagination, the mood of the people, the zeitgeist or whatever you want to call it. Our movies tell us about who we are and what we’re thinking. Not in a literal sense most of the time, but in metaphorical terms, and in images that get to us, even though we don’t immediately know their definitive meaning, often for decades.
It’s easy to say that recent action pictures show that we’re angry and combative and that we dream that superhuman beings will bail us out and make everything all right. They’re also escapist in a rather literal sense — they express a serious desire to get out of this world. But what those films could mean more deeply emerges in its own time.
Movies have registered what’s going on with us for at least more than a century. During World War I, there were films, even at least one animated documentary (Winsor McCay’s 1918 “The Sinking of the Lusitania”) that showed fury over German actions in the war.
Charlie Chaplin, always a nervy filmmaker, released a comedy “Shoulder Arms” in 1918, while the war still ground on. Comically, Chaplin’s Tramp single-handedly captures an entire German unit — “I surrounded them,” he says.
Only later did movies come out showing what the war meant to people on a deeper level. The sad and beautiful “The Big Parade” was released in 1925, seven years after the Armistice, as was “Wings.” Both show exuberance for the war turning into grim loss and loneliness, with a desire to reconnect with other human beings. The 1930 “All Quiet on the Western Front” does similar things.
In the 1930s, World War I shows up as explanation for a range of social problems, and it melds with the Great Depression. In “Heroes for Sale” (1933), a World War I vet (Richard Barthelmess) loses his job at a bank because he’s addicted to the painkillers he had to take for his war wounds. He winds up in the Bonus Army — the angry veterans protesting because the government had stiffed them on their promised service bonuses. Marching next to him is the son of the banker who’d fired Barthelmess, who is now also broke because the banks failed. But the dismal history of these two men goes back to the war. No one yet knew to call it PTSD.
And another fine young man changed by World War I (Paul Muni) winds up a permanent fugitive in the remarkable 1933 movie “I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang.” He couldn’t “fit in” when he got home from the war (code for depression, etc.), so he wanders. He lands on the chain gang basically because he’s hungry, and is treated to a burger at a dog wagon by a guy who pulls a gun on the counterman.
World War I also gets credit for driving men into crime in the great 1930s gangster films, like “The Roaring Twenties” (1939). Over and over, a young vet comes home from the war despondent. As a last resort, he’s hired to drive a truck for bootleggers, until he reaches the top, running the organization. But with a dose of sympathy for what the war did to him.
The 20th century saw no end of calamities that inspired unexpected repercussions in the movies. The Great Depression stands at the core of the great 1930s screwball comedies — “Easy Living,” “Bringing Up Baby,” “You Can’t Take It With You,” “It Happened One Night.” It’s been said often about these films that the women characters go crazy to bring the men back to sanity — those men who caused the depression in the first place.
While World War II raged, the public got war films that usually show victory after struggle — and with a triumphal spirit. We still get films about defeating the Nazis, partly because the Nazis are such great villains that they ultimately can serve to represent any evil that our group psyche wants to defeat. But we also still believe that World War II was clear in its goals and its villains. Since then, though, nothing is very clear — so that’s another reason for our superhero mania: clear up the ambiguities and make life look simple.
But World War II emerged a few years after it ended in another film incarnation that’s not at all simple to discern — film noir. Film noir is the one genre of American movies that’s about the vulnerability of men, a possible state of being that makes mainstream America plenty nervous. Noir shows failing petty crooks and schemers, and guys deathly afraid of women. Behind the action in most noir films, the reason that the men are so weakened, afflicted, frightened and inept, is what happened to them during World War II.
It’s another rising of what we call now PTSD, but then was “battle fatigue” or “shell shock,” and afflicted men were shamed and scorned. (Take a look at John Huston’s once-suppressed post war documentary “Let There Be Light,” about the psychological treatment of World War II vets just home from the war).
You wouldn’t realize that so many noir films are about PTSD until you notice how many of them refer to something “back there” that haunts these men. The big “back there” was the war. Many of the best film noirs are B-movies, made cheap and fast to fill the post-war double features.
There’s no intention behind them to make films expressly about how veterans suffer long after a war. One of the fine B-movie noir directors Joseph Lewis once said at the Telluride Film Festival (with some sarcasm), “We didn’t know we were making FILM NOIR; we were just making pictures. At the same Telluride the great noir actor Richard Widmark echoed, “We just thought it was a 15-day shoot.”
B-movie noir was instinctive, felt, not thought, like dreams, which is why these films tell so much about their times in metaphorical ways.
Some of the most lurid not-thought responses to the world are the monster films and space invader films of the Cold War. It’s hard to separate the horrors of the time, like eggs and chickens. World War II led immediately to the Cold War, the war in Korea and the Red Scare. And what popped out (often literally) in these movies were grotesque images that register the fear of communism.
In some of the space invader pictures, a scientist and a soldier debate what Americans fretted over — do we kill ‘em, or should we study and communicate with ‘em? In the 1950 “The Thing,” the upright Army captain speaks plainly and directly, and figures out how to fry the invader. The wrong-headed scientist who wants to talk with the monster looks like Lenin.
From the other direction, 1950’s “The Day the Earth Stood Still” has trigger-happy soldiers set off plenty of trouble, while a humane and thoughtful scientist, who looks like Einstein (better than Lenin), counsels conversation and restraint. If you want to understand the Cold War in your gut, watch these two films.
Movies about the war in Vietnam range from the sober 1978 “Coming Home” to Francis Coppola’s hallucinatory “Apocalypse Now” in 1979, and many films since then. Nearly all of them stress disillusion, human damage, insanity and betrayal. They’re all post-war films. John Wayne’s jingoistic “The Green Berets” came out in 1968, right in the thick of things when American society had yet to absorb what was happening.
So what about the present? How will movies help us understand in our gut the pandemics of our politics, our climate and COVID-19?
I don’t have a clue. What I do know, though, is that deep feeling and understanding will not come from current documentaries, or any of the dozens of pandemic movies from before now. The documentaries will give information, but they won’t help us, as the shrinks say, “master” our fears.
In whatever forms that art will surface, it is right now cooking somewhere. Some nerdy and brilliant 12-year-olds who see the world with deep feeling instead of intellectualizing, and have at hand pencils, laptops, brushes, pianos or guitars or spray paint.
Those girls and boys are watching and taking it all in, and slowly whatever they’re absorbing will take shape. These coming artists will likely be outcast and scorned by many, and that will become part of the brew, and eventually some of these artists will figure things out (although they will never be satisfied), but for many that art will bring a measure of understanding, comfort maybe — and discomfort if the art is good.
Howie Movshovitz teaches film in the College of Arts & Media at the University of Colorado Denver and is a film critic at KUNC.