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World-is-flat movies

by Dennis Lim

In the past decade, as our growing connectedness has gone from fact of modern life to airport-bestseller truism, movies have struggled to capture a shrinking world - often by telling several simultaneous stories that converge into a larger master narrative.

Cinema has drawn on the power of parallel storytelling at least since D.W. Griffith weaved together three color-coded narratives for his 1916 epic "Intolerance." But in recent years, a new breed of ensemble movie emerged, straining for seriousness and significance, using large casts, intersecting plots and aggressive cross-cutting to tackle Big Issues and illuminate Universal Truths.

Some have riffed on current affairs, including "Traffic" (2000), about the war on drugs, and "Syriana" (2005), about the thirst for oil. But even these seemed modest compared with the cosmic ambitions of Paul Haggis's "Crash" (2004), in which the loudly aired grievances of a hot-tempered multiethnic group of Los Angelenos supposedly reveal the universal roots of bigotry, and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarittu's "Babel" (2006), a globe-trotting connect-the-dots exercise that unites East and West, rich and poor, in a world of pain.

Both "Babel" and "Crash" were acclaimed ("Crash" won the Best Picture Oscar; "Babel" took a top prize at Cannes) and have inspired many imitators, such as "Crossing Over" (2009), a "Crash"-like tale of immigration in Southern California, and "Mammoth" (2009), a "Babel" knockoff juxtaposing First World privilege and Third World privation.

The outlook of these films evokes the premise of one of the decade's most influential books, Thomas Friedman's "The World Is Flat," which argued that the new global economy is defined by a level playing field (and more or less ignored wealth inequities, class immobility and other inconvenient factors that might weaken its argument). Filmmakers such as Inarittu and Haggis replaced Friedman's gung-ho optimism about new technologies and open markets with a knee-jerk pessimism in which connectedness goes hand in hand with alienation.

In terms of drama, flatness is exactly the problem with these films, which are as two-dimensional as a board game: The stories are diagrams and the characters pawns, arranged in a network of specious links and overdetermined ironies. The genre itself isn't fatally flawed; filmmakers from Robert Altman ("Nashville") to Paul Thomas Anderson ("Magnolia") have long worked wonders with the panoramic form. But the recent spate of multistrand movies are so busy advancing their self-satisfied theory of the human condition that they haven't bothered to create any recognizable human beings.

As works of social commentary, these movies are reductive to the point of absurdity. "Crash" hypothesizes that everyone is on some level a racist; "Babel" solemnly concludes that Californian yuppies are as likely to be miserable as Moroccan peasants or Japanese schoolgirls.

They share with Friedman's book a view of the world that depends on smug oversimplification and false equivalence. Despite its veneer of we-are-the-world humanism, the flat-world perspective is born of privilege and myopia: If you're observing from a sufficiently high vantage point, it could be that the terrain looks flat. And if you squint hard enough, it just might seem that everyone is connected.

Dennis Lim is a freelance writer and the editor of the online film magazine Moving Image Source.

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