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Perspective: Movies of the moment vs. movies about the moment

The films that continue to resonate are more likely to speak to their times than to speak directly about their times.

December 01, 2012|By Reed Johnson, Los Angeles Times
  • George C. Scott in the 1970 movie "Patton."
George C. Scott in the 1970 movie "Patton." (20th Century Fox )

In December 2001, the original production of Tony Kushner's globe-trotting drama "Homebody/Kabul" opened at a small New York theater. Kushner, author of "Angels In America" and the script for Steven Spielberg's heralded epic "Lincoln," had written the play several months before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the subsequent U.S. invasion of Afghanistan.

Yet the themes of "Homebody/Kabul" — global politics, human upheaval and the historically tortured relationship between Afghanistan and the West — were so timely that it seemed as if Kushner had been gazing into a crystal ball or the collected writings of Nostradamus. Later, the playwright joked that "Homebody/Kabul" was described so often as "eerily prescient" that his husband suggested Kushner should adopt it as a drag name: Eara Lee Prescient.

"I'm not psychic," Kushner wrote in an afterword to the play's 2004 paperback edition. "If you choose to write about current events there's a good chance you will find the events you've written about to be … well, current."

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But Kushner's witty aperçu doesn't fully account for why some books, movies, plays and TV series resonate with pundits, politicians and/or the public and others don't. Or why the works that reverberate loudest, inside the pop-culture echo chamber, aren't necessarily the ones that resound longest once their topicality has waned.

As another Oscar season draws nigh, a number of this year's prize-contending films — some already released, others soon to be — have prompted the usual spate of political commentaries and incendiary blog posts. Among the films drawing both praise -- and in some cases fiery condemnations -- for pushing hot-button topics are the already-released films "Lincoln," "Beasts of the Southern Wild" and "Argo" and such upcoming films as "Zero Dark Thirty" and "Promised Land."

But will a film like Kathryn Bigelow's "Zero Dark Thirty," about a specific, recent event — the killing of Osama bin Laden — resonate in the same way that her previous, fictional movie about the Iraq war, "The Hurt Locker," did with its fearless main character channeling our deepest fears about the price of that misbegotten war? Two of the great films about the Vietnam War, "Apocalypse Now" (1979) and "The Deer Hunter" (1978), provided devastating commentaries about American involvement there without ever directly confronting the morality of the war itself.

Being timely isn't the same as being timeless. Often movies that end up best encapsulating their eras — the ominous, angst-ridden German Expressionist cinema of the Weimar Republic period, the Raging Bulls and Easy Riders that rampaged across movie screens in the tempestuous '60s, '70s and '80s — seldom speak to the issues of the day in literal-minded ways.

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The TV listings and cineplexes are full of ripped-from-the-headlines stories and biopics of the rich and famous that have the shelf life of last week's newspaper. Movies often find long-term durability by coming to their subjects from more oblique angles, like a jazz riff hitting an unexpected chord. They picked up something inchoate in the atmosphere, then somehow managed to verbalize and visualize it.

Jean-Luc Godard's "Breathless" (1960) became a curtain-raiser on '60s youth rebellion several years before anyone heard of Beatlemania. George C. Scott's Oscar-winning performance in "Patton" (1970) was so perfectly balanced that conservatives (including Richard Nixon) saluted the biopic as a patriotic homage to the blood-and-guts World War II general, while liberals saw it as a brilliant satire of a warmongering lunatic. From either viewpoint, the film brilliantly assimilated the national tensions wrought by the Vietnam conflict.

Examples abound of how cinematic indirection can produce movies with longer shelf lives than films with more explicit topical agendas. Ang Lee's "Brokeback Mountain" (2005) indirectly struck a blow against homophobia through relating the tragic story of two closeted love-struck cowboys. By comparison, Gus Van Sant's "Milk" (2008), about the life and times of San Francisco activist-politician Harvey Milk, pushed an upfront gay-rights message in a period when the United States was embracing same-sex partnerships as never before.

Yet despite the movie's impressive achievements and Sean Penn's standout title performance, "Milk" hasn't acquired "Brokeback Mountain's" enduring status as a harbinger of shifting popular attitudes about homosexuality. Like "Crash," Paul Haggis' drama about racial tension and redemption in contemporary L.A., which beat "Brokeback Mountain" for best picture, the sprawling, ambitious "Milk" may lose its freshness faster than Lee's intimate, poetic allegory.

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