First published online by Xan Brooks.
The Great Gatsby ends at night, on the beach. The hero has been shot and the party is over. So narrator Nick Carraway sits down on the sand and mourns not only his friend but America as a whole – a New World grown somehow old and corroded. He thinks about the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock and about how Gatsby ran at it, stumbled and lost, not realising that his dream was already behind him. “Gatsby believed in that green light,” he writes. “The orgiastic future that year-by-year recedes before us.”
I’m now wondering whether the film version of The Great Gatsby may not be a little like Daisy’s green light itself, winking in the distance, barely out of reach. Until this week we had Baz Luhrmann’s 3D spectacular filed as the main event in Hollywood’s autumn collection; a hedonistic revel that turns into a wake. It now transpires that the release date has been delayed, batted forward into summer 2013. In a way that’s oddly fitting. The ultimate film about American loss is the one that recedes forever before us.
The ghost of Gatsby sends back a chill, setting the tone for the cold months ahead. If last year’s Oscar frontrunners (The Artist, Hugo, even The Help) rode a wave of warm nostalgia (“borne back ceaselessly into the past”, as Fitzgerald would have it), many of the current early contenders seem cut from an altogether different cloth. They are stark, self-critical, thrumming with unease. This year has already thrown up a brace of surprisingly dystopian blockbusters in The Hunger Games (in which impoverished underlings fight for their lives on primetime TV) and The Dark Knight Rises (in which the villain foments a people’s uprising in Gotham City). Now these themes of loss, ruin and class envy look set to roll right through the autumn season. In America they call it the fall.
If you’re looking for the emblematic documentary of 2012, for instance, check out The Queen of Versailles (released on 7 September ), a twisted cousin to Gatsby in the way it charts the rise and fall of the super-rich. Lauren Greenfield’s Sundance prize-winner spins the tale of David Siegel, a Florida time-share mogul who brazenly boasts about pulling the strings that helped George Bush win the 2000 presidential election. Siegel, alongside his trophy wife Jacqueline, dreams of building America’s biggest house. He winds up shredded by the financial crash and shopping at K-Mart, his golden future already behind him. “I guess you could call this a riches-to-rags story,” he says and for once he’s right.
Alternatively, there’s Killing Them Softly (21 September) – a sinewy Brad Pitt hit-man thriller, described by the Hollywood Reporter as “a metaphor for the ills of American capitalism”. Andrew Dominick’s film plays out against a backdrop of the 2008 presidential election, where the economy is in free-fall and pristine election billboards stand proud in vacant lots. “America’s not a country, it’s just a business,” snaps Pitt’s character at one stage. But in this case the business is failing and everyone – even the criminal – is feeling the pinch. Speaking in Cannes, where the film had its premiere, Pitt referred to it as “a story that says something about our time and who we are”.
Pitt’s comment prompts obvious follow-up questions. Because if films such as Killing Them Softly and The Queen of Versailles are a portrait of America, then they are also a mirror – reflecting contemporary anxieties back at their audience. And by and large, the picture’s not pretty.
Over at New York magazine, US critic Frank Rich identifies what he regards as mass hysteria in the land at large. “If there’s one battle cry that unites our divided populace, it’s that the country has gone to hell and that almost any other modern era, with the possible exception of the Great Depression, is superior in civic grace, selfless patriotism, and can-do capitalistic spunk to our present nadir,” he writes. “For nearly four years now – since the crash of 08 and the accompanying ascent of Barack Obama – America has been in full-on decline panic.”
Central to this panic is the suspicion that the US is tanking and that its golden moment may have passed. Certainly this is a concern within the domestic film industry. North American box office shrunk by 4% in 2011, while Chinese attendance swelled by 40%, forcing the major studios to rely more and more on the overseas market. Outside the Hollywood bubble the issue is still more pressing. The economy continues to stutter, allowing China to creep inexorably to the front of the stage. Meanwhile public panic finds its voice in Republican accusations (particularly clamorous in this, another election year) that Obama is somehow a defeatist, unpatriotic commander- in-chief, gently presiding over his nation’s decline. All of which adds to the abiding tremor of angst, woe and disquiet – a mood that Rich (subverting an old Reagan campaign slogan) refers to as “mourning in America”.
Many of the films scheduled for this autumn are still under wraps, so it remains to be seen how far the rot extends. It seems unlikely, for instance, that the likes of Frankenweenie, the final Twilight or the first Hobbit movie will contain damning critiques of modern American society – though obviously time will tell. In the meantime I have high hopes for Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln, directed by Steven Spielberg and The Master (9 November), which plays at Venice next month. It’s the tale of Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a would-be demagogue reputedly based on L Ron Hubbard, who concocts a cult called “the Cause” and promises to liberate the faithful from the pains of the past.
Judged on face value, The Master looks like a natural extension of director Paul Thomas Anderson’s previous work. The Oscar-winning There Will Be Blood concerned itself with a raw-boned, ascendant US, a nation building itself up on the twin pillars of oil and church. This one, by contrast, comes mired in sophistry and doubt. It suggests that a new religion can be run-up out of nothing – an ersatz belief-system cast out onto the continent. And yet Dodd is surely more about snake-oil than salvation. In the words of one non-believer: “He’s making all this up as he goes along.”
Slide south far enough and long enough and you eventually fetch up in the delta wetlands of Louisiana, a landscape still reeling from the aftermath of hurricane Katrina and the BP oil spill. This is the backdrop for Beasts of the Southern Wild (19 October), possibly the most warmly received film on the 2012 festival circuit. Directed by Benh Zeitlin and produced by Court 13, a “grassroots film-making army” from New Orleans, this is a vibrant, unclassifiable mongrel of a movie – a post-apocalyptic fantasy that feels naggingly relevant.
Beasts of the Southern Wild plays out in a fantastical bayou called “the Bathtub”, where raggle-taggle outcasts forage through garbage and eat cat food from the tin. They are the scattered and shattered, adrift in a land that has been flooded, polluted and left to die. Naturally the prognosis is bleak. Early reviews have rushed to position Beasts as a film from the frontline, perched on the edge of 21st-century America and beckoning the rest of us forward.
All of which sounds fair enough, although it arguably paints a partial picture – conveniently ignoring the often buoyant tone of Zeitlin’s picture: the exuberance and festivities and the familial bonds that sustain its characters in times of trouble. These qualities are borne out by the director’s own view of Beasts of the Southern Wild. For him, “the film is about how to survive and combat the loss of a place, the loss of a culture and don’t let those things crush you”. And amid all the gloom – the half-built mansions and made-up religions, the vacant lots and cat-food suppers – it’s hard not to draw comfort from that. Even in the ruins, it seems, there is still a place for fun, fireworks and the hint of a happy ending.
Subtext alert! Hidden messages in the autumn’s big movies
Tim Burton’s monochrome cartoon spins the story of little Sparky, a nice dog who grows old, dies and is later re-animated – like Frankenstein’s monster – by an intrepid boy scientist. Quite clearly the dog is the US economy, jump-started from its deathbed by quantitative easing. At one stage (rather ominously) the dog’s tail falls off.
The cuddly creatures (lion, zebra, giraffe et al) pine for America and decide to travel back from Africa. Big mistake: their old zoo is now a derelict shell and the beasts duly find themselves targeted and tranquilised. We’re torn between viewing this one as DreamWorks’ version of Animal Farm or a pitch-black twist on The Wizard of Oz. Ho, ho, ho, there’s no place like home.
James Bond is missing, believed dead, and the identities of every MI6 operative have just been spread, like wildfire, clean across the internet. It’s a 007 adventure for the WikiLeaks era, with nothing secret, nothing sacred and a bunch of Cold War skeletons rattling merrily in the closet. The special relationship is under strain.
The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 2
Edward and Bella are now a happily married vampire couple – cold-blooded and elegant, striding purposely across America as though they owned the whole damned place. Indisputably they are meant to represent Barack and Michelle Obama, undead regents of a nation on the slide.
Rise of the Guardians
Meet Jack Frost, a happy, feckless, carefree kid who brings the winter wonderland wherever he goes. Now meet the Boogeyman, an evil interloper who wants to pitch the entire world into eternal darkness. For Frost, read Uncle Sam (or possible Santa Claus?). For the Boogeyman: the financial crash. Christmas, we’re guessing, is about to be cancelled.
The Hobbit: an Unexpected Journey
Bilbo Baggins is a little fellow from a western nation who journeys east, through great danger, on a mission to steal a dragon’s treasure. Just how obvious can this be? The Shire is America and the dragon is China. Go plunder that treasure and bring it back west.