It’s the Economy Stupid: Recessionista Filmmaking

I’ve always been fascinated by how films reflect the era in which they’re made. As a student of history, I love attempting to make connections between the film world and the events surrounding the making of the film. To cite an easy example, Gone With the Wind is as much about the Great Depression, the era in which it was made, as it is the Civil War, the era in which the film takes place (that’s a much longer essay for another time). Because of this, I am very fascinated by narrative films that comment directly on current events. Due to the production cycles of film, only now are we starting to see films commenting on the economic recession we currently find ourselves in.

One of my favorite films from last year, Jason Reitman’s Up in the Air, was one of the first major films to comment on the recession directly. In it, George Clooney’s character Ryan Bingham works for a firm that is contracted by other companies to deliver layoff messages to their employees. The direct connection to the recession is a tad subtle, as the plot of the movie really only tangentially relates to it. Rather the commentary is provided through the use of imagery of mostly empty office floors and the startling use of twenty-two non-actors who answered an ad placed in papers in Detroit and St. Louis asking for volunteers for a documentary about job loss.

These non-actors are mixed with a few character actors like J. K. Simmons and Zack Galifianakis, and the effect is striking. It is a testament to the actors in the film that the use of real laid off employees feels just as earnest and real as the professional actors, and that helps give the entire experience more weight. However, because they are not acting, the raw emotions that they are sincerely expressing cut right through the narrative and hit you directly. This decision of Reitman’s was brave, and really put a human face on the job loss this country has experienced. While some of my friends have been laid off, most of them do not have families to support and mortgages to pay, so it is not as dire a situation for most of the people who appear in the film. This film really brought the human tragedy of job loss and recession to life for me.

The Other Guys: Elf and Marky Mark

Last week’s The Other Guys also address the current recession directly. Although the film itself only references it in passing, someone who worked on the production was obviously very angered while doing research for the film. The entire end credits are accompanied by a slick animated infographic that explains several things about the recession, from CEO salaries and golden parachutes to Bernie Madoff and retirement benefits set to a cover of Bob Dylan’s “Maggie’s Farm” by Rage Against the Machine. Video of it is online. Watch it, but I recommend putting to fullscreen to better read the accompanying text.

What is interesting about this is that this is a comedy aimed at people who enjoyed Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy and Step Brothers; it’s a low brow cop buddy film parody. Like Cop Out, but funny. Granted almost all of the editorializing happens during the end credits, but usually this brand of direct commentary is reserved only for prestige pictures.Honestly I’m not sure how I feel about it. It was entertaining, but it also made me feel bad for laughing so hard at the antics of Will Ferrell, Mark Wahlburg, and Michael Keaton.

Could we have a discussion about the economy in film and not talk about Wall Street? Oliver Stone decided to make a sequel to the 1987 film with Michael Douglas reprising his Academy Award-winning roll as Gordon Gekko. Finally scheduled for a September release, it was screened at Cannes this year to a generally positive reaction. I have not seen the film, and the original film is on my List of Shame, so I don’t really know what to expect other than that Oliver Stone has made a career of using fictionalized films to comment on current events. I’m more curious as to the general reaction to this film than about the film itself.

Most importantly, however, is what these films have to say about our current situation. A common theme through The Other Guys and Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps is exploitation of the middle classes by the financial elite– the idea that high powered investors are running the show, and deferring as much of the consequences of their actions off on those below them as possible. The Other Guys even depicts murder resulting from this motive. However, Up in the Air shows this in a different light, and one that resonates to the common understanding we seem to have about this recession. The cause and origins are difficult to understand for the people faced with losing their jobs, their retirement, or their livelihood. This is how many of us feel, either currently unemployed, or stuck in a job we don’t want because they’re aren’t enough other options. We’re not slackers, we’re recessionistas.

Did I miss any other films that comment on the current economic situation? Let me know in the comments!