The Blame Game
There are lots of different ways to feel bad. There’s a very popular method that involves finding someone, or something, to blame for feeling bad.
Sometimes the blame is valid and sometimes it’s imagined, and both of those descriptors apply to criticism of ‘the system.’
‘The Man,’ ‘the system,’ ‘the Illuminati.’ These are all just ways to describe an incredibly vague Other that is in control.
It can refer to the government, religious institutions, the popular girls at a high school, or, for hate groups, it can refer to racial or religious groups that they have decided are evil.
But in Britain during the 60s and 70s, The Man was just everyone. Sure, it may have been capitalism itself that young people were raging against, but many of these creators probably didn’t see it that way at the time.
‘Cuz here’s the thing: trying to talk about big, societal issues in a movie can be a great premise, but it has to be handled well. And the execution of the story should speak to specific, relatable effects of living in the modern world.
We’re going to look at a few examples of this storyline so that we can try and figure out what makes it work and what doesn’t.
I’ve taken a weird little cross-section of British movies from the later part of the 20th century, one from the 60s, one from the 70s, and one from the 80s.
I think they serve as great examples of how good and bad and mediocre movies about ‘The Man’ can be.
Maybe we can learn something here, because we want these kinds of movies to be good. We want thoughtful critiques of the world around us, and explanations of how it can have negative effects.
Vague and Misguided: Pink Floyd – The Wall (1982)
If you’re already a Pink Floyd fan, then you know The Wall. It was one of the group’s biggest albums, especially thanks to its strong storyline.
And even if you’re not a Pink Floyd fan, you’ve heard the track, ‘Another Brick in the Wall, Pt. 2, a song I absolutely hate. Even the band hated it. They refused to record a second chorus, hence the insertion of the children’s choir singing the heavy-handed lyrics later in the song.
Anyway, I liked this album when I listened to it as a kid. I liked that there was so much to find in it. There was dialogue and screaming and clips of other songs. And the end of the last track fed seamlessly back into the first song of the album.
The storyline is loose. A guy grows up with a domineering mother, then finds his way into a successful musical career. But he never feels whole. He’s isolated, and it drives him crazy.
The movie itself is a blend of live-action footage and animation by Gerald Scarfe, a political cartoonist.
The characters are terrifying. The animated sequences are supremely uncomfortable.
But on the whole, the movie comes across as a parade of blame. The lead character, Pink, proceeds to blame just about everyone in his life for his problems. And yes, he did experience abuse, which can in turn influence someone to abuse others, but the character never feels like he has any real agency.
He’s often portrayed as a doll, getting thrown around by other characters.
It works in the context of the story, but it doesn’t make for a meaningful viewing experience. The criticism here feels childish and jaded.
There’s a famous image from one of the animated sequences that plays during my least favorite song, the one about how “we don’t need no education”: the teacher figure dumps children into a giant funnel on the roof of a school, and they come out ground meat.
Yeah, ok. So institutional education can encourage conformity and even be a form of indoctrination. I think a lot of people already know that. And yes, it can be bad.
But the movie doesn’t come close to offering a solution or pointing out specific examples of room for improvement.
In a way, it’s fitting that Scarfe was a political cartoonist. Political cartoons themselves don’t usually run very deep. They point out something fairly obvious, bait for like-minded people to snort and nod their heads.
I still like the music, and I like the ideas behind the movie, but the execution just doesn’t offer much to viewers outside of some visual spectacle.
And the ending is so bleak that I doubt it roused many people to affect change.
Realistic: Quadrophenia (1979)
Hey look, it’s another movie based on a rock album. What a weird coincidence. It’s almost like rock, as a genre, has long been preoccupied with its own self-importance and revolutionary tendencies.
The album of the same name that this movie is based on was another adolescent favorite of mine.
Even today, it’s a bit subversive. It’s about an Angry Young Man character who just hasn’t been able to find a satisfying place in society. He seems bound to be stuck in a bad job for the rest of his life. He drinks a lot and he takes a lot of drugs. And he’s a bit of a slave to fashion.
The movie adaptation is shockingly good. I don’t think it’s a great movie, but it’s definitely much much better than I expected.
It has a fantastic realism to it. It’s a brutal portrayal of being a teenager, specifically the kind of teenager who gets into gang fights and yells at his own friends when drunk on a street corner.
Style and confidence are the most important traits anyone can have in this subculture. And our main character has a little bit of each, but it’s just not enough.
He loses and will continue to lose. The world shuts the door on him and he pulls away from the world.
So what is this movie saying about ‘The Man’?
Well, it’s definitely much more subtle here. You have to look beyond the immediate events of the movie to get the whole picture.
As we’ll talk about with the next movie, Quadrophenia takes place during a time when there were a lot of expectations for the youth. And the youth, in response, sort of just collapsed.
It’s one of the reasons for the rise of punk. People not doing what were they supposed to do simply out of spite or some desire to evade expectations of any kind, forever.
Young Britons felt destined to become like their parents: experiencing various degrees of moderate success, getting married, living in a little row house and getting angry at the neighbors.
Buying things, having kids, and dying.
If we’re talking about targeted critiques of capitalism as a whole, then Quadrophenia is the best of the three.
The system, in a broad sense, isn’t offering anything to the youngins that they actually want, and their inevitable futures feel like a form of punishment, one that they can’t possibly escape.
Our characters here are also generally working-class, or just not in a position to succeed, at least not anytime soon, not without “selling out” on some level.
The system is not set up to help teenagers through tough soul-searching times. It’s also not set up to allow for upward mobility.
Somewhere, people are paying their bills no problem and finding steady relationships, but it isn’t here, and it isn’t these kids.
But, again, the movie doesn’t offer any real solutions, just rolls around in the misery of modern life and cuts to credits.
Genuine: The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962)
I don’t think this movie is all that popular, even among movie geeks. And it’s definitely not the most showy or elaborate movie you’ll ever see, but it is masterful.
It can be considered a Kitchen Sink Drama, which was a little subgenre in Britain in the 60s and 70s in film and theater.
These were stories about Angry Young Men, usually middle- or working-class, and they just don’t know what to do next. (Sound familiar? [cough-cough, the alt-right, cough-cough])
They feel trapped, for whatever reason, and they express this frustration in generally unhealthy ways.
And this Kitchen Sink Drama is about a kid who steals and gets caught. He gets sent to a kind of juvenile detention center that operates a bit like a boarding school.
The more interesting scenes show him in the boarding school/center/prison, where he is recognized for his long distance running skills.
He is groomed to compete against other boys’ schools. The authorities offer him perks to entice superior athletic performance.
I won’t talk about the ending, but I can say that it’s incredibly satisfying. It’s simple, quiet, and ultimately a tribute to the very first step of any revolution: recognizing that there is a problem and taking a stand against it.
And that’s all it takes to make this movie the best of the bunch. It doesn’t try to tackle anything all that big. It stays focused and vital.
It’s not even that great visually. I can’t imagine they had a very big budget, either. But it works. Everybody did their job very well, and the result is a movie that is effective and efficient and deeply moving.
Closing Words, I Guess
As we’ve talked about before, I don’t necessarily think that movies can incite positive social or political action, but they can definitely start conversations.
All of these movies have that potential. Every one of them succeeds in making us question a few things about the world we all live in.
It’s an effect that we see pretty often in the realm of art house movie, and much more rarely in mainstream movies.
Take a look at some of your favorites and ask yourself whether they’re trying to change your mind on something. Could be a lot more common than you’d think.