Any film-goer who lacks that conspicuous odour of pretentiousness should mutter a silent groan each and every time they witness those dreary seven words “the following is based on actual events” (or some variation). This is not an attempt to apologise for escapism; rather, there is a structural shallowness to reality which far too often makes for poor storytelling. Tinseltown’s appeal is largely built on this distinction so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Hollywood is impressively incompetent in the real world. We the people have looked on at the poor saps in their enclosed tower of delusion as their personal lives fall apart with hilarious regularity, all too keenly aware of the irony enclosed in Hollywood’s credibility-lacking lectures on compassion and the proper operation of society. There’s no malice in saying all of this—Hollywood’s expeditions into reality have previously been seen as cute and nothing more. The problem has arisen ever since Hollywood’s traditional perception of loftiness broke down. Reality and other related concepts have been shattered beyond recognition in the past year; surreality is the new normal and is permeating throughout society. This uncanny bridging of reality and anti-reality has driven Hollywood far outside of their artistic safe spaces, and the results are dull social commentaries and even worse movies.
The origins of this poignant surrealist air to modern politics would constitute its own discussion beyond the goals of the author, what can not be denied remains that as a phenomenon it has far-reaching cultural dimensions. The cocktail of truth and delusion that has created our current societal waking dream has been recognised almost universally, phrases often traded around are “post-truth” or “alternative facts,” but these all identify the same phenomenon—the cultural bubbles and echo chambers that result from a society where communities are opt-in only has normalised all manner of intellectual taboos. Conventions that were once thought certain via consensus are now challenged freely while near extinct fringe positions are argued for unabashedly, the result is a strange sensation that results from the “truth” of the past and these modern “post-truths” being stated with an identical aesthetic of legitimacy. This is the sensation of surreality. In this new normal the once cute and pathetic forays of fictionists like Hollywood into genuine commentary appear awkward, nonsensical and especially disconnected.
This year’s Academy Awards were, unsurprisingly, the apex of Hollywood’s cultural decline. However, Meryl Streep’s speech on the 2016 election at the Golden Globes will be remembered as the moment Hollywood’s transformation became bare-faced and apparent for all to see. Streep herself was perceptive to the fundamental nature of Trump’s campaign, readily identifying the contradictions in Trump’s endorsement of positions so unconventional they could be mistaken for satire. One particular section stood out:
There was one performance this year that stunned me. It sank its hooks in my heart. Not because it was good. There was nothing good about it. But it was effective and it did its job. It made its intended audience laugh and show their teeth. It was that moment when the person asking to sit in the most respected seat in our country imitated a disabled reporter, someone he outranked in privilege, power, and the capacity to fight back. It kind of broke my heart when I saw it. I still can’t get it out of my head because it wasn’t in a movie. It was real life.
On the surface it is harmonious with the principles underpinning our new surreality, but Streep missed a crucial contextual irony, and as a result became a pariah following her uninhibited polemic against Trump. There stood a wealthy and privileged adherent of the same urban elite culture that produced Trump, and she presumed to lecture middle America on its morals for supporting him. Streep had set out to simply share her personal opposition to Trump, instead she had proven that she was indeed in “the bubble,” and as a result fell into Hollywood’s age-old trap. She had in effect validated the very essence of Trumpism—the disconnected elite and their “degenerate” culture had no place ruling over “real America,” and the peasants were in full revolt.
The Oscars now became a symbolic showdown between the coastal elites and Trumpism, Hollywood had an opportunity now that Trump’s victory was complete for examination and reform in order to rediscover the magic of fictional worlds. Hollywood failed in this mission spectacularly. To be clear, the Oscars never have been and never should be about what films are truly great; the Oscars are a statement about what the film industry believes films should aspire to be like. This year the Oscars said that the technically masterful and universal themes of Kubo and the Two Strings were less important than the compared to the comedically toned, self-aware, politically allegorical Zootopia in the animation category; and, in iconic fashion, declared the grounded, realistic, partially biographical, minority-filled Moonlight best picture of the year over the more critically acclaimed, intentionally unrealistic musical La La Land. In the now infamous misreading of the winner Hollywood’s transformation was complete, all present knew that La La Land was the film that defined cinema best, it was the film creators should aspire to more, but in response to Trumpism Moonlight simply had to win. The constricting force of surreality declared La La Land and Moonlight simultaneous winners—Alternative Best Pictures.
The solution is simple, Hollywood must define itself by its art rather than any designs on reality. Art is exceptional precisely because art speaks to us beyond the limitations of reality, and in a world of surreality Hollywood’s perception of itself has become clouded beyond recognition. Their most successful films are fantastical superhero blockbusters, and they despise themselves for this. Hollywood wishes it was an arbiter of the American moral consciousness, that Americans would recognise the moral wrongs that Hollywood sees in society simply by consuming the “correct” art. If Hollywood’s self-image remains so disconnected in their coastal post-fact reality, the cinema will finally be replaced by the video streaming service both economically and culturally.