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Films are a great binding factor, or so the late film critic Roger Ebert would have us believe.
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Pass the past, please
In 1944, in the midst of the Second World War, America's Hollywood produced Meet me in St Louis, a film that took the American viewer back almost four decades connecting it with what families were and how peaceful it was then. Some ten years earlier during the decade of the Great Depression, studios out of Hollywood put together films such as It Happened One Night (1934) and My Man Godfrey (1936) - both romantic comedies - aimed at bringing love and laughter to a society that at some level seemed to have lost both elements in an otherwise gloomy world.
Yet, as the Depression reached its last few years, Hollywood aimed to bring in focus dire human conditions and helplessness, to an economically more able society with films such as The Grapes of Wrath (1940) and How Green Was My Valley (1941). Critics believe that while the object of such films was to bring upfront misery caused by the economic depression, there was an underlining message that governments should desist from war and deal with more real issues of livelihood.
At each instance, the American film industry has either tried to distract and let people escape from grim situations or has reflected the mood of society, the latter being a claim that the industry believes it does. The former often, many argue, is usually part of a constructed marketing effort that leverages off the emotions and moods of a society and a nation at large.
Since 2008 - when the US economy started to melt - Hollywood has attempted to turn back time, and strangely, the periods of reference go back three to four decades or the good ol' days. While Hollywood is more evolved and technology far more advanced, the objective and tactics of film scripting seem to be largely the same - to orchestrate a sense of comfort.
However, the issues and task during the past few years have been significantly different from the '30s and '40s. Material gain or success has never been as big as it was prior to the economic meltdown of 2008. While the sense of supremacy over the world may have been hurt a bit post 9/11, the clout of the nation continued to be largely what it was and the media, including cinema, has always propagated that thought to the 'world' in the US. But the question over the past few years that average Americans face - even if it sounds extreme - is whether the American Dream was a dream worth living and this was reflected even during the Occupy Wall Street protests that took shape in NYC. The sense of loss is embedded in the minds of many and the current political set up, it is often felt, has no big idea to take the gloom away. At least, some say, at the time of the Second World War, the purpose was clear and the expectation of peace was real.
Therefore, if there is little to look forward to, to lean on the past through the most powerful mediums of cinema (known to shape the life and lifestyle of a large section of American society ) and music is what that nation wishes to hinge its present on. "If you look at this year's Oscar contenders, many of them take place in 'simpler times' and are about old-fashioned values - The Artist, Hugo, Midnight in Paris and War Horse - are all feel-good movies, points out Mark Pogachefsky, president, MRPM Communications, Los Angeles. And each one (My week With Marilyn, included) has a period of the past attached to it!
Why the past, one would ask. US society has had its fair bit on discussing and debating the meltdown and troubled times in the past two to three years with no real solution in place. From 2008 to early 2011, one saw films on the perils of uncontrolled money making with attempts to bring out the insides of what happens in the financial system through Inside Job, Collapse, I O U. S. A, Capitalism - A Love Story (a documentary), The Company Men and Wall Street: The Money Never Sleeps. The need for love over the rat race and the pains of issuing pink slips was shown in Up In The Air. This film, for many, was seen as the conscious shift of mainstream cinema's attempt to escape from the reality and turn to importance of love, emotions, togetherness and human values that later became central to themes to many films that were made in 2011 and are now running for the Oscars.
The interesting part though is that love and family values have now all been set in decades gone by or "simpler times" as put by Pogachefsky. This is being seen as constructed escapism from reality. Points out Bob Frause, the President of PROI and Chairman & CEO, Frause, a Washington-based media consultancy, "It is not so much telling people about life the way it used to be but letting them take a breather from reality. "
In more or less a similar trend, the next big commercial art form in the US - music - has seen country and soul music taking centre stage on the Billboard charts and award ceremonies such as the American Music Awards (AMAs) and the Grammys. In 2009, Taylor Swift went on to win the album of the year category. The following year saw Lady Antebellum taking centre stage at AMAs and Grammys. In 2011, it was Taylor Swift again at the AMAs and Lady Antebellum at the Grammys. And this year, it was soul-cum-folk star, Adele, who stole the show. As Daniel J Flynn, author and writer, pointed out in his American Spectator write-up, "Turn on the radio and Adele's Rolling in the Deep, the monster song of 2011, deludes you into thinking that you are listening to an oldies station playing a '60s girl group. " The New York Times in a report after the 54th Grammy Award winners were announced, pointed out that "the
Grammys went with familiarity over risk, bestowing album of the year honors (and several more) on an album that reinforced the values of an older generation suspicious of change. " In other words, past values or even simpler times and periods of conservatism! "It's true that country music themes seem to reflect conservative values of the past but that is the way it has always been, " observed Frause.
The emphasis on what is American or what connects with the roots, was pronounced not just through these mainstream awards but even the New Artist of the Year 2010, that was given to American Esperanza Spalding - a jazz musician - over someone almost everyone expected would go to Justin Bieber. It was traditional jazz over pop (read as the times of now!).
"There is without a doubt a negative mood on consumerism and perhaps there is a link where success was seen for too long as a progression of gadgets, " points out brand guru Santosh Desai. There is a threat of loss and not much to look forward to and hence the need to "retreat to comfort, " he adds. This may explain then why the focus of cinema is to leverage "of the mood of the society, " says Bhuvan Lall, LA-based film producer and investor. This could also explain why the iconic Radio Jockey of the '70-80 s, Casey Kasem, is now being called upon by some radio channels even at the age of 79. In an arguably over-communicated and marketed world of consumerism and personal identities, the mediums that have always shaped lifestyles, beliefs and consumption patterns and moods, is now clearly moving away from the pace of the same and the technology that was to take one forward, moving to a period that was slower, simple and less material. As once said in blockbuster, All That Jazz, "Don't throw the past away, You might need it some rainy day, Dreams can come true again, When ev'ry thing old is new again. "
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