More thoughts on James Harkin’s Cyber-realism essay: With all my chat about hyperthinking in my previous post, I didn’t mention some alternative cultural reasons for the emergence of some of the films that Harkin name-checks. For me, what is noteworthy is the outward looking nature of many of the films. These movies have strong characters to carry them, but the story is never about the dissection or development of that character. They are not about the conflict any one character might be experiencing within themselves. Few people change, or learnanimportantlesson.
Instead, the stories are about the interaction between the ensemble, and the contradictions between them. They are about how whole cultures (Babel, Syriana) or classes (Crash, Traffic) fit together. They are political, scratching a post 9/11 itch to understand other worlds, and how the people in them can have an impact on our lives.
Linked to this idea is the concept of randomness. The key accidents in films like Babel, Crash, 21 Grams and Amores Perros all include an element of bad luck that the characters don’t really deserve. They are the opposite of tragedy, where the negative outcome depends on the character. The stories are utterly amoral in this respect, although admittedly the characters in Babel and 21 Grams are given the chance to show how they deal with the crisis (badly, it turns out).
The non-linearity of the story-telling in the films mentioned allows us to see alternative viewpoints on a key scene. In other films, the same techniques allow us to see parallel universes. But again, there is little room for morality in the stories. In the sexy, cartoonish classic Lola Rendt, the life or death of the characters depends not on a kind word or altruistic act (or, conversely an act of cruelty or selfishness), but by how Lola’s encounter with a dog-owner plays out. Sliding Doors (an early example of the genre) has a similar anti-lesson for its main characters.
Ultimately, what is being purveyed in all these films is the idea of determinism. The stars are in alignment and your destiny is written. Happenstance rules all.