Recognition of corruption and the revelation of uncontemplated depths of evil have in the past driven Hollywood filmmakers to chart the decay of innocence that lies at the center of the human heart. The darkness of the Great Depression was not still not nearly black enough to prepare Americans for what the true face of evil was going to look like when the mask of German efficiency was stripped off in front of everyone at Auschwitz and Dachau.
Even the counterrevolutionary tumult of the 1960s had not instilled enough cynicism into the strain of this country to prepare it for shock of realizing that the leader of the free world could be a greater criminal threat to the nation as a collective whole than Charles Manson. The reaction to decadence as a vital component of human DNA and the inescapable disillusionment with the fracturing of a very carefully constructed social order intended to distract our attention away from these painful truths resulted in the rise of a significantly more ambiguous cinematic world in the 1940s than had existed in the 1930s that came to be known as film noir.
The lesson that even the most powerful man in the free world could be little more than a petty thug brought a swift end to the optimism Hollywood dished out in response to the violent social upheaval of the 1960s and ushered in a much bleaker examination of the disintegration of the American Dream that counted on the most emblematic icon of its democratic ideals not seeming to be within a single locked door of getting away with the belief that he was above the law. Films like "The Godfather" and "Chinatown" threatened to turn conventional expectations of heroism and villainy inside out so that it became impossible to tell them apart.
The latest attack on America's carefully constructed sense of imperviousness to the threat of true evil were the attacks on September 11, 2001. A thematic linkage can be detected between World War II, the politics of 1968-1972 and 9/11. Each of these eras allowed the horror that America was able to repress to rise violently into our collective consciousness. The first two eras produced film noir and neo-film noir that responded to challenge of ideological comfort zone by forcing a deeper and more complex examination. The films noir of the 1940s and early 1950s and the American New Wave of the late 1960s and early 1970s all repurposed a world in which there were far more than just 50 shades of grey.
Shadowy uncertainly existed everywhere from the dankest diners at 2:00 in the morning to the corridors of the Los Angeles Dept. of Water and Power in the middle of the sunniest of the day of the year. The dividing line between heroes and villains not only was impossible to see, but seemed to have been permanently erased.
Film noir and the neo-noir of the 1940s and 1970s seemed to be an expression of expanding social consciousness in America. These films represent what might be termed an scientific research project to reach a greater understanding of the sociology and psychology that still remained hidden behind the exhibitions of what is commonly termed evil in an anti-scientific attempt to justify the lack of effort to reach understanding.
Today's writers and directors are making movies that are a direct response to the forced recognition of the darkest aspects of the human strain. That response has been significantly difference, however. Rather than attempting understanding by forcing audiences to examine the ambiguous duality of a determination between good and evil, the response has been to sharpen the line and heighten the difference. Whereas Hollywood responded to confrontation of political complexity of the 1940s and 1970s with film noir and neo-noir that cast a shadow over certainty, today's filmmakers have responded to darkness of the 9/11 attacks the subsequent corruption of the Bush administration's response to those attacks with comic book heroes and villains.
Same stimulus. Different result.
For more from Timothy Sexton, Yahoo!'s first Writer of the Year, check out:
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