“Tár,” the best film of 2022 no matter which motion picture the Academy decides to honor, is a movie about contemporary culture wars that refuses to participate in them. It portrays the generation gap that yawns between liberal elders and progressive juniors in many cultural institutions, it illustrates the potent influence of cancel culture and #MeToo and it uses both forces in a believable (if hallucinatory or supernatural) way to propel the spiraling descent of its title character, Cate Blanchett’s fictional conductor, Lydia Tár. And it does all this in a spirit of controlled ambiguity, from a vantage point outside the forces it depicts — one that allows for varying judgments on the main character’s undoing, in the same way as comparable downfalls in real life.
Most art isn’t this independent of its own cultural matrix, which is why the pattern in the age of wokeness — or whatever you wish to call the distinctive form of social justice progressivism that has swept through elite institutions in recent years — is for cultural territory to be either colonized by the new rules and shibboleths, or else to develop a reputation as a zone of anti-woke resistance.
Examples of the first category are legion, from museum curation to young adult fiction; stand-up comedy and Substack essay writing are arguable examples of the second category. (Even if, yes, there are plenty of progressive comics and Substackers.)
But the movies are an interesting case. Have cinematic politics changed all that much since, say, the middle years of the Obama administration? “Tár” happens to be a film about wokeness (and many other things besides). But is there a current of wokeness in cinema that’s distinctive to our era in the way we look back and see certain movies embodying the lefty cynicism of the 1970s or the Reaganite patriotism of the ’80s?
It’s a tricky question because Hollywood always produces a lot of movies that lean left explicitly (along with a lot of movies that lean rightward more tacitly — like every Christopher Nolan film and most horror movies). So just identifying liberal message movies doesn’t tell us that much about what’s changed in recent years.
The politics of a movie like James Cameron’s “Avatar” sequel, for instance, about a pristine ecosystem despoiled by settler colonialism and defended by indigenous resistance, could be reasonably described as woke. But they’re just the same politics as in the 2009 original, which was made at the high tide of post-racial optimism and technocratic liberalism, and which recycled archetypes that go back to movies like “Dances With Wolves.” Likewise, the past year’s spate of class warfare movies — “The Menu,” “Triangle of Sadness,” the god-awful “Glass Onion” — are left-leaning in some sense but not in a way that seems specific to this era’s progressivism.
Clearly the age of social justice has influenced representation in Hollywood (though not enough, if you think “The Woman King” deserved an Oscar nomination). There’s more diverse casting, more minority-led projects, a certain premium on nonwhite and female-centric narratives. And when people look back on the cultural politics of this era, the controversies about representation will no doubt be remembered — the fan wars over “The Last Jedi,” the backlash to the female-led “Ghostbusters” and so on.
But the push for diversity hasn’t necessarily effected a larger thematic transformation. Having more roles for racial minorities in comic book movies hasn’t especially radicalized the bland politics of the Marvel juggernaut, for instance. (Michael B. Jordan’s Erik Killmonger gets the best lines in “Black Panther,” but he’s still the villain.) And in the blockbuster industry writ large, there’s more continuity than change in the last decade or so.
In prestige moviemaking, meanwhile, you can identify a few key moments and movies that seem emblematic of a political shift: The surprise victory of “Moonlight” over “La La Land” in the 2017 best picture race had an intersectionality-defeating-whiteness vibe. The next year’s best picture nominees included two movies that could lead any cinema of wokeness syllabus decades hence: the excellent “Get Out,” with its horror-movie sendup of white Obamaphilia, and the not-so-excellent “The Shape of Water,” with its alliance of subaltern identities defeating Michael Shannon’s cishet Cold Warrior villain. (A side note: There’s a great essay to be written about “Get Out” and 2008’s “Rachel Getting Married,” two very different views of interracial romances and nice white liberals, as bookends of the Obama era.)
But the range of prestige movies since 2017, including this year’s roster of best picture nominees, doesn’t bespeak a dramatic transformation in Hollywood’s default political worldview. The dwindling audience is the shift that matters, and while some politically themed movies were part of the recent autumn of tanking, the box office failure of films like “The Fabelmans” and “Babylon” and even “Tár” can’t be chalked up to the industry going woke and going broke. It’s a problem of entertainment, not politics.
In one place, though, I do think you can see a clear political-cultural shift: in children’s movies, animated and Disney movies especially, which show a real disjunction somewhere in the 2010s. There’s diversification and multiculturalism, with the old European fairy tale narratives having their last hurrah in “Tangled” and “Frozen” and then giving way to the Polynesia of “Moana,” the Southeast Asia of “Raya and the Last Dragon” and the Colombia of “Encanto.” But beyond this there are also big thematic changes, which do seem connected to the new kind of progressivism.
For instance, romance is emphatically out; a kind of therapeutic management of family trauma and drama comes in. The antagonists cease to be personal villains and become increasingly structural or miasmic; conflict is borne out of misunderstanding or accident or environmental degradation instead of jealousy or the will to power. Or else the real bad guy is some authority figure who has misled everyone into unnecessary conflict: There’s an emphasis on deconstructing false histories and false family mythologies, or at least on waking up from the spell cast by prior generations’ narratives.
Older Disney movies, especially from the 1990s, often put a liberal-individualist gloss on traditional fairy tale structures, with plucky self-actualizing heroines finding adventure and their soul mates in the shadow of a bumbling or clueless or unsympathetic older generation. In this era’s movies, starting to some extent with “Frozen” and developing more fully thereafter, the older generation is still usually mistaken or unsympathetic, but the spirit of individualism is diminished. The goal is now cultivating allyship, embracing sibling relationships and friendships, rather than falling in love, with the magical adventure a kind of group therapy for the community, a source of reconciliation more than transformation.
And too much adventuring is somewhat frowned upon as well. As The Washington Post’s Sonny Bunch noted recently, 2022 brought two major kids’ releases, the Disney-Pixar production “Lightyear” and Disney’s “Strange World,” which were movies about explorers whose message was effectively anti-exploration, teaching their protagonists to stay home, embrace sustainability and be content with diminished expectations — almost as though their creators had read a bit too much Tema Okun and decided that the hero’s quest is just another facet of white supremacy culture.
Both “Lightyear” and “Strange World” were also commercial disappointments, and it’s not clear to me that any of the children’s movies whose themes I’ve just described are particularly powerful or memorable as works of art unto themselves.
But maybe that’s precisely what makes them a useful indicator. Like middling ’80s action movies, this sort of kids’ entertainment is a kind of background music or cultural wallpaper for our moment. Not necessarily what kids want, but what the culture wants for them. Not a cinema of wokeness in some grand and obvious way, but an ideological ethos that comes sliding in unbidden on a Saturday afternoon when the whole family is tired and out of ideas — but at least there’s a Disney+ subscription, and the remote is close to hand.
Musa al-Gharbi argues that the Great Awokening is beginning to wind down.
Jonathan Haidt on the rise of teen mental illness.
Leah Libresco Sargeant on the remains of a pregnancy.
Jesse Singal reads the latest study on transgender youth and hormone treatments.
Dara Massicot autopsies the initial Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Marina Warner on the sense of wonder in medieval life.
Does the Islamic world need a caliphate?
This Week in Decadence
“What chatbots do is scrape the web, the library of texts already written, and learn from it how to add to the collection, which causes them to start scraping their own work in ever enlarging quantities, along with the texts produced by future humans. Both sets of documents will then degenerate. For as the adoption of A.I. relieves people of their verbal and mental powers and pushes them toward an echoing conformity, much as the mass adoption of map apps have abolished their senses of direction, the human writings from which the A.I. draws will decline in originality and quality along with their derivatives. Enmeshed, dependent, mutually enslaved, machine and man will unite their special weaknesses — lack of feeling and lack of sense — and spawn a thing of perfect lunacy, like the child of a psychopath and an idiot.
I can hear the objections to this dire scenario of a million gung-ho programmers as well as the ambitious A.I. itself, but I, a creative writer, am wed to it. I think dramatically first and scientifically second, such is my art. My ancient and possibly endangered art is imagining worst cases and playing them out to their bitter, tragic ends, as Sophocles did when he posited a king who unwittingly killed his father, married his mother, and then launched an inquiry into the matter after vowing to slay the perpetrator. See? See what writers were capable of then?
Now we have ‘Ant-Man.’ And worse, ‘Ant-Man’ sequels, enhanced by C.G.I.”
— Walter Kirn, “Goodbye to the Future,” Compact magazine (Feb. 8)
Advertisements for Myself
I’ll be speaking next Thursday, Feb. 16, at 5 p.m. at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kan. The theme is “Hard Choices: Christian Politics in a De-Christianizing Society.” The event is free and open to the public.