Motifs in Cinema is a discourse across some film blogs, assessing the way in which various thematic elements have been used in the 2012 cinematic landscape. How does a common theme vary in use from a comedy to a drama? Are filmmakers working from a similar canvas when they assess the issue of death or the dynamics of revenge? Like most things, a film begins with an idea – Motifs in Cinema assesses how various themes emanating from a single idea change when utilised by varying artists.
My subject is “Economics and Money,” which has me thinking about how Mitt Romney—that scion of wealth, that symbol of the 1%—worked his way into the movies of 2012. You could see him, for example, in The Dark Knight Rises and its garbled vision of class warfare; in the resilience of its “job creator” hero Bruce Wayne. You could feel the GOP’s “We built that!” ethos writ large in Wayne Enterprises and in the way Wayne’s money entitles him to our trust, because he and only he can build “all those wonderful toys.” (I also spent election season thinking of Romney in terms of another iconic Christian Bale plutocrat: American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman, who exhibits precisely the same supreme confidence and nonexistent empathy as Romney’s public persona.)
Ah, but The Dark Knight Rises was a wish fulfillment fantasy where the rich got richer and retired to Italy. Whereas Romney lost. So maybe a more accurate avatar for him would be David Siegel, the real estate mogul whose downgrade from “mega-rich” to merely “rich” provides the narrative for Lauren Greenfield’s The Queen of Versailles. It’s hard not to laugh at Siegel, who’s really the victim of his own mammoth hubris, but it’s hard not to pity him either; post-2008, liquid exhaustion seems to have replaced blood in his veins. So while Christopher Nolan depicts the rich as our saviors, Greenfield turns them into a queasy cosmic joke. The film does humanize the Siegels, but I still occasionally felt like cackling at the screen: “That’s what you get, motherfuckers!”
Yes, Mitt Romney oozed his way into superhero movies and documentaries. But you may be wondering, “What about middlebrow dramas?” He was there too! In Nicholas Jarecki’s Arbitrage, that is—2012’s “Wall Street thriller” follow-up to Margin Call. Robert Miller, the stock market savant played by Richard Gere, is not unlike Bruce Wayne or David Siegel: like them, he depends on an elaborate façade. As with them, it’s all that keeps him from personal and financial ruin. Although Gere squeezes some pathos out of the film’s half-dozen dilemmas, it’s obvious that Miller’s morally compromised down to his bones, willing to endanger family, friends, anyone to save his own ass. Yet he’s still allowed to impress the audience with his quick maneuvering, which is symptomatic of the thoroughly disposable Arbitrage’s have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too inclinations.
Light-years from the pedestrian likes of Arbitrage lies my favorite 2012 manifestation of Recession-era anxiety: it’s David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis, with heartthrob Robert Pattinson starring as Romney-ish lizard-god Eric Packer. Cronenberg takes a tack opposite that of most filmmakers, choosing to anti-humanize Eric, to embalm him in theory and harsh lighting until he becomes this throbbing, phosphorescent thing. It’s alienating to watch, since you can’t give Eric your pity or sympathy or love. But for a year so full of unfeeling, digitized violence (whether physical or economic) and with more of both on the way… I suspect Cronenberg got it just about right.