While class issues became even more prominent in 2019 than they were a year before, they have been overshadowed, since late July, by the cataclysmic fires in Australia—a “Check Engine” light for the global ecosystem. In the midst of this ongoing crisis, rulers continue to publicly side with climate-change denialists; some of the 1% entertain fantasies of surviving the ecological end-times in lavish bunkers, leaving the rest of us behind.
With reasons for hope seemingly growing scarcer by the day, the collective mindset feels shaped by some of the hardest-hitting films of the 70s. No, I’m not simply talking about the dark imagery, which has been ripped off countless times. What I’m really talking about are the downer endings that follow depictions of the difficulty in dealing with personal and collective abandonment. In these sorts of films, to draw happier conclusions would be, at best, a copout.
This artistic ethos was followed, at least in some variant, until the 80s when it was largely ended by a confluence of counter-revolutionary politics (Ronald Reagan in the US, Margaret Thatcher in the UK) and the profit-driven motives of the Hollywood studio system. In brief, to promise people that it was, or would soon be, morning after a long, despairing night, fit with selling both neoliberal ideology and blockbuster films.
And it’s been this way ever since. We’re a considerable distance from when Sorcerer, a 1977 remake of the nihilistic Wages of Fear, was released at the same time as the debut of Star Wars. Hollywood gatekeepers make it a regular practice to limit the range of films to the hopeful side of the emotional spectrum. The best we can hope for from the major studios is a new spin on a traditional narrative formula designed to produce an audience-pleasing resolution.
But the recent news makes it harder to accept happy endings. While Hollywood is predictably slow to take account of this critical change, films made outside of the studio system have harnessed the power of negative thinking to create memorable stories about loss. Not only do these films pair well with iconoclastic 70s cinema; the major artist of the year is Martin Scorsese, the epitome of a 70s filmmaker not afraid to take chances that might hurt the bottom line. Scorsese made a career-defining film, The Irishman, and executive-produced The Souvenir and Uncut Gems—three of the four films that have made 2019 a singular year. And compared to Hollywood, all four films feel as if they are indeed in a galaxy far, far away.
The Souvenir makes no excuses for its autobiographical dimension; director and writer Joanna Hogg conveys the bittersweet impressions of her struggle to develop as a filmmaker. We watch her younger self hard at work making what she’d consider, at the time, as a real film, one based on working-class life. But she is stymied creatively by her upper-class upbringing. The person who points that out to her becomes her lover, and their affair is depicted as a crucial first step in her artistic growth. This guy, however, epitomizes the darker side of fashionable decadence. As a fellow artist (played with brio by Richard Ayoade) acidly remarks to her about the relationship she’s now in, “I’m trying to work out where you two tessellate—habitual heroin user and a trainee Rotarian.” The Souvenir follows the precedent of The Panic in Needle Park (1971), written by Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne, in observing the poisoned social environment of heroin addiction. Yet The Souvenir holds back even more on taking a moral point of view: if Neil Young sang, in “The Needle and the Damage Done” (1972), that “every junkie’s like a settin’ sun,” then Hogg is powerfully honest in watching it go down.
Parasite, directed and co-written by Bong Joon Ho, is an indelible portrait of a class-war casualty: an exhausted father of a poor family at the end of his rope. After a back-breaking disaster which demonstrates that shit really does roll downhill, he says to his son, “You know what kind of plan never fails? No plan.” At this moment, some of the laughing gas has leaked out of the devilishly clever plot initiated when the son replaces a rich girl’s tutor. Then unfolds a conspiratorial plan to have all of his family members replace those who work for the girl’s family. We become accomplices as they spy on the rich family, who seem right out of The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972), director and co-writer Luis Bunuel’s surrealist assault on the cluelessness, idleness, and casual cruelty of the social elite. The crucial difference between the two films is that the poor family members in Parasite can overhear the cutting remarks directed at them. Capped off by the entertainingly suspenseful power struggles that originate in the underground labyrinth of the rich family’s postmodern mansion (quite a class metaphor there), Parasite does, finally, take aim at the cliché of hope for a better day—but not in a manner likely to give the 1% any sleepless nights had they, perchance, seen the film.
With The Irishman, we’ve come full circle from the stunning first scene in Mean Streets (1973)—”You don’t make up for your sins in church. You do it in the streets”—that crystalized Scorsese’s intense focus on the question of redemption. The Irishman shines a cold light on the inability of Frank Sheeran, a mob foot soldier, to examine any of his fateful decisions, especially his alleged role in the death of Jimmy Hoffa, his close friend and outspoken leader of the powerful Teamsters Union. Following the orders of a mob higher-up (played with a diabolical coolness by Joe Pesci), Sheeran caries out the hit on Hoffa in return for safety for himself and his wife. In a deliberately slow-moving narrative that annotates on-screen the mob-related deaths of Sheeran’s acquaintances, the last scenes move at a glacial pace, a suggestion of the eternal reckoning to come. After a priest unsuccessfully tries to get Sheeran to repent, the door, at his request, is left half-open to his room in a nursing home, a visual callback to an earlier moment with Hoffa. Its camera work sparingly precise, except for a tracking shot that parodies the stylistic flourishes of Goodfellas (1990), The Irishman argues that the moral gravity of betrayal would make any attempt to shape Sheeran’s life along the lines of a more conventionally entertaining film as nothing short of a bad-faith gesture.
You get the impression that the Hollywood establishment doesn’t much care for Josh and Benny Safdie, shutting out Uncut Gems, which they directed and co-wrote, of the Oscars altogether. Not that they really give a shit, as they demonstrate that they can make sports betting as nervy as their earlier portrayal of heroin addicts in Heaven Knows What (2014). The first shot of Uncut Gems explores, in their usual smart-ass way, the potential of cinema as visual language, moving from the inner surface of a precious stone to a very intimate view of Howard Ratner, a New York City jeweler. We’re bedside at his colonoscopy, and that’s the last time he will be seen as still—or as harmless. Adam Sandler shape-shifts into Ratner, having the combined drive of both of the two leads, Elliott Gould and George Segal, in California Split (1974), Robert Altman’s grimy masterpiece (available on Amazon Prime) about two gamblers who roll through Reno in search of the ultimate high, only for the inevitable comedown to hit hard. In Uncut Gems, the cosmic consequences of Ratner’s non-stop hustle make his boast, “This is how I win” (having become a meme that’s spread like wildfire), an ironic encomium for the exploitative systems that are wrecking the planet. Keep in mind that the Safdie brothers reportedly wanted a bleaker finale: suffice to say it’s best not to think too much about what might happen to his girlfriend and his family as the film ends