Modern movies don't expect much from us. That's too bad. Complex storytelling is now often proxied by snazzy, snarky, snappy visual designs, fast edits, and technological muscle. Before the opening music ends we already know the narrative beats and tropes as if they were modern elements in a commedia dell ‘arte production.
For example, we know...
- There are three act structures.
- There are good guys and there are bad guys.
- There are sub-plots carried by supporting roles.
- There are moments of tension, comic relief, climax, and catharsis.
- There are brightly lit dialogue scenes, moody shadows in the monologues, and dynamic changes of brightness when plots turn corners.
We know the rules and even if we’re enjoying ourselves there often isn’t much to think about. More often than not movies try to take us on hot air balloon rides far away from reality, whether those departures take us to distant planets, unattainable love affairs, or come-from-behind sporting victories. With attention spans ever shrinking, the long-reigning influence of cinematic touchstones is quickly eroding against the abrasion of our ubiquitous “second screen”. To attract adequate audiences many big movies play it safe and simple, spending money on digital pyrotechnics and little on logic or literacy. Little movies struggle to see the light, relegated to niche markets and micro-budgets. The reductionist trend of contemporary moviemaking is sad, disappointing, even frustrating sometimes, especially for those who love movies.
For more than a century movies have been a great mainstream, middle-of-the-road art form. Movies are a democratic medium, perhaps even more than television with it’s nearly infinite fragmentation. But the past is always better in our memories than it was in reality, and this is certainly true of cinema. It’s only wistful nostalgia for an era that never happened that provokes considerations of more thoughtful cinema. Therefore, when a modern work dares to speak in a fresh and different voice, to say nothing of a daring one, it comes as something of a surprise and a moment that requires us to stop and consider.
This year one of the surprisingly big critical hits has been the multinationally financed, dystopic action movie called SNOWPIERCER. It's been a reviewer’s darling as well as a sleeper audience hit. It has also singlehandedly resuscitated the concept of allegory as a narrative means of presenting ideas about things more important than itself. Since movies are often reflective surfaces for contemporary culture, it's interesting to note that this unusual production lit up screens (of all sizes—another modern trend of questionable value) at precisely the same time as Thomas Piketty's surprising best seller Capital in the Twenty-first Century began to circle the globe. There's a reason for this. While these two media efforts could not be more different in tone, style, or format they are, in fact, siblings.
SNOWPIERCER is a strange whirligig of a movie. Its relevance is more about what it’s trying to say rather than how well it succeeds. Based on an obscure French graphic novel from the early 1980's, the story takes place on a train designed to circle the globe endlessly after a human-induced climate catastrophe. Filled with a surprisingly august array of talented actors, the movie immediately requires, insists, even demands that the audience suspend massive disbelief. It's important to draw a distinction here: this is a different demand than asking audiences to suspend disbelief when they see Iron Man fly. When the red and gold Avenger takes to the air we're asked to buy into a type of disbelief built of pure fantasy. SNOWPIERCER asks something different from us. It asks us not to look too closely at the details of its invented world. To look too closely will reveal its many layers of paper mache, misdirection, and implausibility and distract us from the greater whole. It asks us instead to see real-life analogues in the film’s architecture and events. In its patently artificial and stylized representations we are free to see allegorical examples of our own world shining brightly. By asking us to accept the fictitious world of the train and it’s various cultural rules we are free to connect its elements to our own life and times. We understand the allegorical depictions of the world it presents, and by extension we accept that those allegorical depictions require their own rules. Where Iron Man tries to make us believe, SNOWPIERCER asked us to simply accept. In language, action, character, and mis en scene, it’s a cardboard box diorama, more useful for making us understand the intention of its creators than in making us feel like we’re looking at a simulacrum of the real world. Unlike other modern fantasies like Star Trek (the world we hope to inhabit) or next year’s Terminator reboot (the world we seem to be creating instead), SNOWPIERCER does not pretend to be "real" at all. From first frame to last and in every moment in between, the biggest special effect of the movie is its reliance on allegory to say something substantial.
It’s also unapologetically violent and bloody and graphic in a way that mainstream media often avoids. Violence depicted is ugly, personal, and permanent. It is not cool. It's is not romantic. It is not cathartic.
Most modern movie characters are archetypes. Not here. Where Iron Man is a hero and Sauron is a villain, the characters of SNOWPIERCER represent various aspects of a broader humanity. The train’s all powerful engineer, superbly played by Ed Harris, in many ways represents a class of authority figures who control the world in corporations and governments. The engineer isn’t a character so much as he is the conceptually embodied driver of the train. He is engineer as embodiment of an institutionalized, historically replicated reality.
One of the overarching themes of the movie is the inherent fear of pursuing substantial change from both sides of the economic spectrum. Things are as they are; things always will be as they are. To change the order of things is to destabilize the universe, even if the corner of the universe in which we’re living is horrible. The implication of this challenges us: simply considering changes in class structure can be its own fearful experience.
Piketty's book carefully unpacks modern economic realities, too, but uses data instead of allegory. In a nutshell, Piketty describes how a growing gap between the wealthy and the masses of everyone else directly relates to overall economic output. He argues that when taken as a ratio, the growth of wealth will always outpace the growth of economic output because wealth accumulation concerns capital appreciation much more than it concerns increases in wages. In other words, status quo financial environments (that is, predictable systems designed to stay the course) will always move money towards the narrow wedge of the chart— to “the haves” in other words. “The haves” will see portfolios grow faster than slowly rising tides lifting boats for the great teaming masses. The rate of return on capital will always outpace the rate of overall economic growth, Piketty says. Those who start the game with more will inevitably control the sum for all. Have doubts? He presents stacks of historical data to back up his assertions.
On the world-circling train, with its completely closed ecosystem and economic stratifications, we experience the same thing. The masses of crud-encrusted proletariat at the crude end in the back have almost no way to advance in comparison to smaller number of wealthy leaders in the well-appointed front, driving the train forward.
The movie reminds us that we are not that far—all of us—from the asymmetrical gears that grind us down to mere statistics. Piketty’s book quantifies and qualifies endless data to prove as much. The movie sets up allegorical characters to show us ourselves in the modern world. The book refreshes our mutable memories to demonstrate that this is not just theory but historically proven fact.
Where SNOWPIERCER abstracts reality through fiction, Piketty’s book abstracts reality with fact. But movies and books, of course, can only reflect day-to-day life; they are not, in and of themselves, living, breathing events. That’s why here in the struggle-through-rush-hour “real” world tangible examples of the themes described in both movie and book are vital for us to notice. For Exhibit A, take Amazon’s relentless attack on Hachette, the ultimate 800 pound corporate gorilla (capital) squashing the smaller supplier (wages) without a care. (For a summary of this extraordinary story, check this out.) In the movie we experience the train’s engine and its engineer as the arbiter of all things, including life and death. In the battle between the online retailer and the publisher, circumstances are not so very different. Capital and its holders rule life. Labor and its affiliates beg at their pant legs.
SNOWPIERCER reminds us that we are all riders on the same train. It challenges us to consider what it would take to stop the train's endless forward trajectory, a path that promises stability in the short run but ultimate decline over time. Are there alternatives to the stratified cars on the train? Are there new, creative ideas about how to structure a society, on how to balance resources without quashing aspirational motivations? Perhaps. Throughout history people stay on the allegorical train because it’s all they know. They literally cannot imagine lives separate from the one they’ve been living, even if their dreams are often of some intangible “better place”. But like Piketty’s book suggests, capital imbalances have the potential not only to make populations mad but also to destabilize long-stable systems. It’s not that those systems have been just and fair; often they most certainly have not. But when the great cultural reflector of The Movies shines it’s digital lights on challenges to long established cultural norms, we should take it as a leading indicator. It may be time for everyone on the train to reconsider their destinations.