Trying (and Failing) to Talk About the Big Picture
Movies can do some pretty fantastic things.
They can mess with your emotions, bring your heart rate up, or even give you a reason to stick around on this big ol’ green Earth of ours and not call it quits about 30 years too early, and no I’m definitely not talking about myself what are you talking about?
Movies also have the ability to talk about some very important things, big-picture topics that we have a hard time bringing up in real-life conversations.
Class struggle, classism, wealth disparity, and societal power dynamics are all very important topics that we should absolutely be talking about, especially in America and especially right now.
But I’ve tried to talk about these things with friends, smart friends who have historical context on our current situation and who are good at talking about pretty abstract concepts.
But the result is always the same: I feel like an asshole. I feel like a college freshman who just started taking an economics class and has suddenly decided that he knows exactly how to fix the world economy.
These conversations make me feel like a pretentious bore who just wants to feel significant.
It doesn’t feel like I’m working toward legitimate solutions or that I would know how to implement them if any of my solutions were actually helpful.
Now, this doesn’t mean that everyone else has had a similar experience when trying to break down the big issues of our time, but I do think it signals how we’ve been conditioned to view these kinds of conversations.
Calling people pretentious may be accurate at times, but it’s also a way to avoid critical thought, and to make political and philosophical discourse decidedly uncool.
And ultimately that negative perception kills off a lot of important conversations. And when those conversations die out, it benefits those already in power.
And one of the reasons I’ve come to love movies, and specifically a lot of arthouse movies, is that certain films can pull off these conversations without seeming pretentious, haughty, or dull.
And that’s a miracle.
And if you’re interested in tackling the problems of class and class struggle in the world today, the kinds of movies listed below are a good starting point.
No, I don’t think that even the most powerful movies can actually affect change on their own, but we can talk more about that later.
Instead, I think they can be used as a trampoline to help you get up a little bit higher, only temporarily, so that you can see over the fence and gain a new perspective on things.
Alright, enough talk. Here are some of the best movies about class struggle that have been made so far. Check them out, maybe.
On the Waterfront
This is the kind of movie that movie geeks recommend to other movie geeks. On a surface level, it’s not exactly a stunning display of filmmaking. That phrase applies more accurately to another movie in this list.
Instead, it’s a pretty simple movie, an accessible movie about a city overrun by mob control. The mob decides who gets work, and as a result, everyone has to treat them like kings just to make a living.
And you’d better not say anything to the cops or you’ll get smoked in some back alley by some guy who looks like the Encyclopedia Britannica definition of the word ‘scumbag.’
Marlon Brando stars as some guy. He’s fine. I don’t quite understand why his performance here is held in such high regard.
Maybe it was revolutionary for its time, but without that historical context, I was really just waiting for him to say the big famous movie lines that we all know just through cultural osmosis.
In the end, it’s a movie about a group of people being mobilized to stand up against the untalented assholes running (and subsequently ruining) their lives.
It’s hard to ignore the immediate relevancy of that sentiment.
This movie is so big it needs its own full review. So I’ll do my best to give a quick overview and explain why it belongs on a list of movies about class struggle.
Lines of class are drawn very clearly in this movie. You don’t need a history lesson to understand the dynamic here.
Our protagonist, Cleo, may seem like a very passive character, one of the most passive in recent memory. And she is, but she also affects the story in incredibly subtle ways to may go unnoticed on the first watch.
This is a movie telling you to calm down, despite the many worries at hand and the very big trouble we’re in. It’s telling you to be true to yourself and your heritage and your beliefs and your life, as horribly tattered as it might be at the moment.
The literal instances of class struggle are mainly hidden from view, or are shown in brief spurts, or are shown via ingenious visual symbolism.
The forest fire scene alone portrays what the world is going through right now, who’s watching and who’s working to fix it, as well as the strange beauty present in all of it.
Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom is an Italian film released in 1975. It’s found a rewatch community among younger audiences in recent years, mostly thanks to the incredibly overt sexual content that covers a range of non-consensual and aberrant sex acts.
And it can be difficult to move past the sexual elements of this movie.
But there is indeed some deeper meaning here, I promise. The whole thing is actually a very heavy-handed metaphor for Italy’s fascist government during the mid-20th century and their treatment of the country’s average citizen.
Salo is notable for making the viewer experience pain and discomfort on a level not really seen in contemporary movies, outside of maybe the French Extreme movement and a few Eli Roth flicks.
Try to watch this movie, and try to get past the reflex feeling of disgust.
I don’t know if anyone else has had a similar experience, but I have a difficult time watching any pre-Strangelove Kubrick movies and believing that they’re Kubrick movies at all.
Why? Because they’re not stylish, and think that any real appreciation for the technical aspects of movies like Spartacus would have to be the result of formal film education.
Don’t get me wrong, Spartacus is a wonderful movie, and it definitely deserves its place on this list, but it’s also too long and moderately boring throughout.
It’s also a movie that deals with the issue of class on a very literal level. It’s Romans vs. Slaves, the Movie.
It’s a more blunt display of the power of groups of people who are on the same page in terms of their goals and how they’re going to accomplish those goals.
It also has that hard-hitting emotional impact of an old Hollywood movie whose characters have no real nuance. You want the good guy to win because he’s the good guy. End of story.
Growing up, I was a big fan of The Who, mainly because some of their music still sounded modern, decades after being cut to vinyl.
I also liked that Pete Townshend tended to veer toward high-concept work that made use of a basic storyline. Tommy, of course, would be the best example.
But the movie version of that famous rock opera just played out like a movie musical, and not a very good one.
Quadrophenia was another favorite album, and one that critics said was a record about being a teenager, plain and simple. So I listened to it as a teenager and related pretty hard to the inherent attempt to figure out your own identity.
Because that process can be pretty tricky, to say the least.
But it wasn’t until the last six months or so that I actually watched the movie adaptation of the album, in which The Who themselves were pretty heavily involved.
And since it recently got a fancy Criterion Collection release, it’s relatively easy to find. This was not the case 6 years ago.
Anyway, it is in fact a story about being a teenager, perhaps one of the most accurate ever made on the subject.
A bratty kid wants to be someone, and he doesn’t want to be like that guy, he wants to be like THAT GUY, with the hair and the face and the babes coming after him like they’ve got super-powered magnets in their pants.
At the same time, he’s one of a million kids that subscribes to the “mod” look. He’s incredibly unspecial.
And the world itself seems to be telling him again and again that there a huge number of things that he just can’t do because of where he was born or how much money he happens to have in his pockets at the time.
It makes me think of the modern-day equivalent: looking at Instagram and seeing the professionals at work, the people who apparently get to spend their days doing whatever the hell they want because enough people like to watch them doing it.
These are the people who seem to very casually find themselves in the hippest places on Earth. They go to the quiet, gorgeous beaches that regular folks haven’t even heard of yet and couldn’t afford to visit even if they had.
But not you, you need to work some awful job that drains your energy and joy faster than a crippling substance abuse habit.
Long story short, I think that’s why this movie still feels relevant: because there will always be people destined, whether by looks or wealth, to have a better life than you, at least when it comes to the superficial elements/activities.
Oh, and the music is great, too, but that’s kind of a given.
I, Daniel Blake
Maybe this is a movie more about bureaucracy and healthcare, but here’s the thing: if you happen to be a member of the upper class, bureaucracy and its failings don’t really affect you as much, or at least not to the extent where you’ll die for lack of treatment as a result.
This is a quiet movie, and one that will take your heartstrings and play a sad violin ballad on them for roughly 100 minutes.
Due to some pre-existing conditions, a regular guy can’t work and can’t get any government assistance, despite the fact that he’s not allowed to work.
This a movie you should watch, despite how terrible it will make you feel. I promise it’s worth it. And that’s a Glitterati Lobotomy guarantee.
I should make a graphic for that guarantee but I’ll probably forget.
Famous Last Words
I don’t really want to get into the nitty-gritty of ways to oppose classism and promote economic equality, mainly because I’m far from an expert on the subject.
But the reason for talking about class struggle at all and the movies that portray it in a moving, articulate way is just that the first step for all of us is to acknowledge what’s happening, and how unfairly so many people are being treated.
And it’s important to recognize that this is not the way things need to be.
This is not some kind of natural order; it’s the result of very real decisions that have been made by very real humans, millions and millions of little decisions that have culminated in a pretty rough situation.
And I think that confronting that reality is important, and that it could lead to legitimate action down the road.
Anybody else want a drink?