Occupy the Silver Screen? 10 Films to Get You Ready to Occupy Wall Street
The spirit of Occupy Wall Street is contagious, and may soon have its first large-scale appearance in pop culture: Christopher Nolan is filming The Dark Knight Rises, the third film in the Batman trilogy, in New York beginning October 29, and there is a rumor they'll be shooting down at Zuccotti Park. LA Times:
But using a real-life location like the Occupy Wall Street protests — particularly in the city nicknamed Gotham — would add an element of gritty authenticity to 'Rises." It also would fit with the franchise's preoccupation with themes of urban order and civil unrest, which "Dark Knight" explored at length.
It’s unclear how protesters would react if cameras for “The Dark Knight Rises” were nearby. A former independent-film director, Nolan wouldn’t seem to have much in common with Wall Street fat cats. But he is overseeing a $250-million production financed by one of the world's largest media conglomerates.
On the other hand, some demonstrators may find that the film accords with their mission. The casting call says that characters will inhabit "a city besieged by crime and corruption." That’s almost like a description you’d read on a, well, Occupy Wall Streeter's protest sign.
The financial crisis has already emerged as inspiration for films; with OWS potentially making it to the silver screen as early as 2012, what other movies may have predicted the movement's longevity and force? Here are 10 that have either direct or indirect influence on the current peoples' movement.
1. Margin Call
Okay, this one's a little cheater: I haven't seen it yet (it came out Friday). But by all accounts, the new film starring Zachary Quinto, Stanley Tucci and Demi Moore is uncanny in its release date. It is set at a large investment bank during the first 24 hours of a meltdown, very early in the financial crisis, when said bank realizes that its assets have about the same worth as the plastic dollar bills yuppies hand out to their toddlers. It is said to be morally ambiguous as a piece of art—while the deeds and realizations are of evil, apparently the character development brings in humanity you're not likely feeling for anybody in a Wall Street penthouse right now. But nuance is the best way to fully understand something, and ambiguity is, after all, the very reason Occupy Wall Street has thrived across so many types of people with so many different demands. I'll refrain from elaborating until I've gone to check it out, but suffice to say New York magazine's David Edelstein introduced his review of Margin Call with the kicker, "Movie night at Zuccotti Park!"
2. V for Vendetta
The Guy Fawkes masks adopted by members of hacker group Anonymous, and which populate the OWS protests, originate from V for Vendetta, a dystopian fantasy directed by James McTeigue, who had a hand in The Matrix as assistant director. Pedigree aside, V for Vendetta is widely considered to be a bad movie, but as eye candy and visual inspiration to protest goes, it's top-notch. (For a better go at the storyline, turn to the original comic by Alan Moore and David Lloyd, upon which the movie was based.) Besides, the concept is awesome: a Fawkes mask-wearing freedom fighter and an employee at a state broadcasting station unite against a fascist state that has taken over Great Britain, urging its citizens to rise up together on the fifth of November—the day the real Fawkes was foiled trying to blow up Westminster Palace in 1605. Despite being a horrible future dictatorship, though, Vendetta's Britain has a lot in common with our own situation, and imagines what life would be like if humanity's worst prejudices were taken to their worst logical ends. A comedian is executed for owning a copy of the Koran; a cure for a deadly virus is tested on political dissidents. It's just close enough to home to inspire preemptive protesting, before it gets that bad.
3. Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps
The first Wall Street, Oliver Stone's original meditation on the unchecked corporate greed rampant in 1980s financial culture, foreshadowed the 2008 crisis more than even conspiracy-hungry Stone could have predicted. (Without giving it away, let's just say the misdeeds of the main characters do not go unpunished.) For its sequel, Stone mined the 2008 crisis as the natural aftermath of gross deregulation of the Reagan era. With Wall Street's notorious greedmonster Gordon Gekko now a reformed, if broken, ex-con, the markets mastermind helps his future son-in-law save his green energy futures from junk bonds and garbage, anti-green buys. Or so we think! Though not as shrewd as the first Wall Street, Stone seems to be saying that even for the reformed, the draw of big money will leave anyone corrupt and willing to sacrifice their own blood. Of course, in another way Stone was doing what Margin Call purports to—give a level of humanity to the faceless Wall Street brokers who are easy to see as America's villains. But he also asks if hoarding is human nature, and whether bad people can actually change. As OWS might tell him: maybe not, but we can certainly change the system in which we're forced to operate.
4. La Chinoise
Jean-Luc Godard based his 1967 film about five young French revolutionaries on Dostoyevsky's The Possessed, but he was inspired by the discontent he saw transpiring around him, which eventually led to the 1968 civil unrest. Of course, the methods were quite opposite to the OWS tactics—in the film and the book, the characters were divided on whether to assassinate—but the ideologies are what's important. Godard was using the text to show the range of the New Left, and its interest in communism, which would eventually blow out into the largest general strike of all time. In that sense, it's not so much that La Chinoise was prescient but simply attuned to the culture, but it's an important touchstone for where we're at now with OWS—and it's a good record to try and break.
You want a massive nonviolent resistance movement? Gandhi will give you a nonviolent resistance movement. This 1982 Academy Award-winning film starring Ben Kingsley certainly paved the way for epic historical films raking in the Oscars. This one deserved it: a fairly faithful retelling of the life of Mohandas Gandhi and the movement he led to free India from the bloody rule of the British, and his later hopes to unite Pakistan and India, divided by religious strife in 1947. Watching the film, the huge crowds of joyous protesters swarming the streets are mimicked by the aerial views of Occupy Times Square and various Occupy movements across the world… and if you're feeling at all discouraged, it's these images and their inevitable, historical outcome that will bring back the heart. Like Indians of the early 20th century, we must make a movement that's too large to tell no.
6. The People vs. Larry Flynt
Based on the life of Hustler magazine publisher-cum-First Amendment crusader, part of this limited biopic involves watching Flynt's rise as a business mogul, and the nuances of his personal life, including the 1978 shooting that left him paralyzed. But as the title suggests, the meat of the film surrounds Flynt's vigorous defense of his First Amendment right to publish pornography, including several rousing speeches by both Flynt (played by Woody Harrelson, who is awesome) and his lawyer Alan Isaacman (equally awesome Edward Norton). It's a fascinating look at a now-strident activist who regularly makes the progressive pundit circuit—and Occupy Wall Street, where he has spoken against corporate bailouts at General Assemblies.
One of Sean Penn’s bravest roles as the San Francisco politician and gay rights hero, Milk was a compelling look at how what appears to be a small bit of activism can transform into world change. The film depicts Harvey Milk’s early activism, beginning with wheatpasted signs on the lampposts of the Castro, through mobilizing a crack team of ragtag campaigners who stand behind him until he finally wins a spot as a city supervisor–and one of the first-ever out gay politicians elected to public office in the United States. An unequivocal inspiration for change—as is Penn, whose on-the-ground activism is renowned and constant. As for Penn and OWS? He’s been down, of course, and told Piers Morgan that he is “prouder than ever to be an American” as a result of the actions.
8. Werckmeister Harmonies
This one’s for the artier (and more patient): a three-hour-long, abstract black-and-white picture by acclaimed Hungarian art director Bela Tarr, it’s a very intense allegory for the invasion of corporate behemoth (and/or political evil) into the natural world, and how it ultimately drives humankind to madness (at least, that’s one interpretation). Of course, the natural world is represented by a traveling whale carcass that eventually drives a provincial town to riots, but you get the idea. Film nerds only—difficult, but gorgeous. (For similar filmic revolution but slightly lighter fare, try Repentance, a surrealist critique of the Soviet Union that managed to make it through the Iron Wall from Georgia in 1984.)
After the dark allegories, Newsies is a great change of pace. One of the kickiest, most inspiring pictures about union organizing, this Disney (!) film follows cash-strapped young newsboys in 1899, who revolt after publishing giants Pulitzer and Hearst raise the distribution prices of their papers. General strikes and powerful speeches are one thing. But when a young Christian Bale, as Cowboy Kelly, breaks out into song about being an orphan and dreaming about a better life? Waterworks. A reminder that the industrial revolution wouldn’t have worked without unions—and some new anthems, perhaps, to sing while you’re down at OWS.
The Warren Beatty-penned script tells the story of John Reed, the author and sociologist who chronicled the Russian Revolution in his 1920 book Ten Days That Shook the World. At the turn of the century, Reed moved to the ever-magnetic liberal enclave that was the West Village, New York City, where he became a labor activist inspired by the American Communist Party, setting the stage for his eventual move to Russia. He’s there when it all goes down, and it’s the spirit—if not so much the politics—of the revolution he seeks to capture. A worthy feeling to aspire to.
Honorable Mention: You still haven’t seen Inside Job yet? You won’t be finished watching last year’s crucial analysis of the crisis before you start writing slogans on posterboard and packing a Zuccotti-ready tent.