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Recovering backpacker, Cornwallite at heart, political enthusiast, catalyst, writer, husband, father, community volunteer, unabashedly proud Canadian. Every hyperlink connects to something related directly or thematically to that which is highlighted.

Monday 17 September 2012

Spielberg Politics: Risk Doesn't Sell, But Vision Does

Cloud Atlas is just a movie - a sprawling, narratively complex film that tries to get us, the potential audience, thinking about the bigger, broader themes that connect us as human beings.  It tries to make us break outside the bonds of our usual perspectives.  That kind of storytelling doesn't come cheap.  Make no mistake - new ideas do cost money, because they break entirely new ground. 
The Fountain, a film that challenged us to rethink what we prioritize in life and how we view death, tanked.  On the other hand Avatar, which changed the way we view film and immersed us in the breathtakingly complex world of Pandora, wrapped a ground-breaking vision around a familiar story we've seen in everything from Dances With Wolves to The Last Samurai.  In so doing, it struck the right chords of visually new yet narratively familiar; with a solid marketing campaign, these details helped propel James Cameron's alien epic to the position of highest grossing film ever.
Films don't come cheap and the people who fund them do so with one goal in mind - profit.  So, Avatar gets a sequel.
In that way, film making is a lot like politics.  Politics is also about coming out on top.  Doing politics is not a cheap affair and in a survival-of-the-fittest game of escalation, the cost just keeps going up.  Advertising, polling, producing materials, holding conventions, recording phone calls, oppositions research and now, finding ways to bring the conversation to the online places where the people congregate costs millions of bucks.  These activities are the political equivalents to putting out trailers, going on the talk shows and putting billboards on street corners.  The end goal in both cases is the same; get the potential end-user off the couch and out to the theatre/polling station.  If all goes well, you can keep mining the well with sequel after sequel.
Call it the capitalist model of democracy; sellers must tailor products they know consumers will want and then work hard to convince end-users the product isn't a want, it's a need.  Movie marketers will tell us their latest product is "the must-see movie of the year" or "if you see just one movie this year, make it this one;" political operators replicate this leitmotif  by telling us that a vote for the other guys will lead to "a thousand years of darkness" or that only a vote for them is a vote for a secure tomorrow.
In short - traditional marketing tries to paint a picture of the risk lying in not buying into their product.

 In general, people don't like risk - they like stability.  Even when they stand upon a burning platform, they will wait until the ground gives way beneath them before taking a leap of faith into untested waters.  Unless, that is, someone charismatic enough with a vision that transcends stability and embraces something bolder steps into the light.

Steven Spielberg is one of the most bankable directors in the history of film.  His movies consistently bring us fun stories, likable characters and all the action, scares and humour we could ask for.  As a filmmaker, Spielberg has also made some incredible contributions to the medium of cinema - Jurassic Park broke ground with its use of computer animation.  The film that really kick-started his career, Jaws, became the world's first blockbuster.  Yet, Spielberg almost gave up on Jaws because he felt it was just too big of a risk.  It was his belief not necessarily in himself, but in his vision that kept him going.  Perhaps that anecdote hints at his greatest contribution - a sense of wonder, but also a belief that no matter how bad things seem, there's always a chance they'll turn out better. 

One of the most iconic moments in cinematic history is an image of a boy and an alien riding a bicycle through the sky, silhouetted by the moon.  It's pure magic.  But consider; we're looking at a child, at height, wholly caught in the clutches of an extra-terrestrial force.  In its essence, ET is any parent's nightmare; in the hands of another director, ET could have been a story more akin to Invasion of the Body Snatchers.  Same holds true for Jurassic Park; the novel on which the movie was based is a visceral experience.  James Cameron, that other highly bankable director, has recently discussed how close he came to getting the rights for the book and how his take would have been decidedly darker.

Spielberg himself has discussed what he considers to be his master image; the heavily back-lit door of the mothership in Close Encounters of the Third Kind.  It's a beautifully juxtaposed scene; whereas traditional popcorn fare like Independence Day or Mars Attacks relies on the idea of the unknown (as represented by aliens in big ships) as something dark, sinister and malevolent, Spielberg infuses The Undiscovered Country with light, embedding the unknown with hope.  That's his big trick, the secret ingredient to the Spielberg success.  Spielberg movies unquestionably cost a pretty penny, but they always turn a profit; more than that, they generally inspire us to think that just maybe, tomorrow won't turn out so bad after all.  He is consistently ranked as one of the most successful film makers in the history of movies.
The Bearded One's next movie is, appropriately enough for the times, a political one - a biopic of the 16th President of the United States.  I don't think it's a coincidence that Spielberg's Lincoln focuses on a man successfully leading his country through constitutional, military and moral crises.  That was a dark time in history, the future of the United States looked pretty grim.  None could have predicted then what America would have become today.  Certainly, there were those who felt being part of a Union presented too much of a threat to their traditional way of life and stood fast against such a risk.
Lincoln never wavered from his steely determination and steadfast belief in a risky idea - that a strong society must be a just society and that a united whole was more than the sum of its parts.  A polarizing figure in his time (and the first US President to be assassinated), Lincoln is now ranked consistently as one of the best Presidents the United States ever had.  It's hard to imagine what would have become of America if the risk averse had won the day.
On both sides of the border there are, once again, conversations about Constitutions, the military and what has become of our moral fabric.  Financial times are tight and nobody wants to bet on risky ventures.  In fact, the most common political theme today is that stability can only be maintained if we shut our doors to external risks or by fighting against those who might challenge our status quo.  There are always those willing to die to stop change, for they view change as death itself.  If there is to be a brave new world, it's these folk that will have the hardest time living in it.
An uncertain future is rapidly drawing nearer; the stability one generation previous took for granted isn't waiting for those teenagers huddled on today's couches, nor for the unborn millions to come.   We have plenty of leaders casting themselves as the least risky guides through the shadows of tomorrow.  Perhaps what we really need is a vision of the future our youth can aspire to be part of.  Whoever can inspire us with their ability to light the way forward might just be the kind of leader we'd be willing to take a risk on. 

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