Wednesday, May 29, 2013

A Cynical World

There’s a strong argument to be made that films reflect culture as it stands at the time. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t resonate with audiences. Thus, you can understand the values of a generation by watching their films. Nothing highlights this better than war films, which changed dramatically over the years as society changed. And watching Battle of the Bulge this weekend made me realize something interesting about the biggest problem facing the world today: cynicism.

There is a huge difference between skepticism and cynicism. Skepticism is a great thing. It is what allows us to change the world for the better because skeptics challenge all of our beliefs and demand proof to keep believing them. That allows us to unearth our mistakes and to improve our world. It was skepticism which got someone to doubt the conventional wisdom that the earth was flat or that no one would ever need a computer. In questioning these things that “everyone knew to be true,” these skeptics unearthed hidden truths that allowed society to take its next leap forward.

Cynicism is not skepticism, though its adherents think it is. Cynicism is bad faith. In its mildest form, it is negative desire looking for validation. In its worst form it is obstructionist and deceitful. Whereas the skeptic says, “I will not believe it until you can prove it,” and thereby creates a stronger belief or disproves a false one, the cynic says, “I will find a reason to disbelieve it,” and thereby establishes a false truth. What’s worse, modern cynicism has warped itself into a reflex which sours everything.

Indeed, cynicism infects everything today. Cynicism sits at the root of conspiracy theories and makes it impossible for people to enjoy life. For cynics, there are no accidents. Everything is by design and evil motive. Everyone lies. Everyone is always self-motivated in the worst possible way. Give to charity... you must want publicity. Do it secretly... you must be trying to atone for something evil. Want to work with kids... you must be a pedophile. Blow the whistle on some crime... you must be dirty too. Deny a crime... you must be lying. Refuse to deny a crime... you must have something to hide.

What cynicism has done is it assumes the worst in all instances. It also has taken minor points of logic, like discounting evidence provided by biased persons, and it has fetishized it by making it absolute. Hence, if you can find a personal motive (or just assume one) then you not only wipe out the evidence that biased person offered, but you wipe out the theory they supported even if there is independent evidence for it. This is logical crap, but cynics mistake it for wisdom.

Think about the effect on our political system. For one thing, this has destroyed political discourse. Nothing anyone says is relevant anymore because once the other side says it, it is automatically disbelieved, whether it’s true or not. It’s also created a form or paralysis by tautology: all ideas are bad because no one would suggest an idea unless it benefited them personally, and if it benefits them personally then it cannot be trusted, hence all ideas are bad. Moreover, to get any idea implemented requires both sides to approve of it, but the moment the other side agrees, then our side turns against it... after all, they wouldn’t agree unless it helped them! The result is a society of people who cannot agree on anything because they have made the very act of having ideas and reaching agreements suspect.

Ironically, these cynics think their cynicism protects them from “the powers that be,” but the truth is that it plays into the hands of the system. Basically, these cynics struggle to stop all change and, in the process, they work hard to preserve the very system they claim they are opposing. Seriously, Orwell and Huxley had nothing on the power of cynics to enslave themselves and yet think they are setting themselves free.

So what does this have to do with the Battle of the Bulge? Well, everyone thinks our cynicism is the result of Watergate. That is the moment we supposedly lost our innocence. Yet, films tell us that’s not true.

As I noted above, films reflect the mindset of the generation who made them. Whether they lead or follow the mindset is a question for debate, but either way, by the 1960s, films were deeply cynical. Battle of the Bulge is the perfect example. War films made in the 1950s often had ironic twists or characters who groused and felt a bit abused by the system. But nowhere in the 1950s war films will you find the likes of the characters in Bulge. In this film, every main character knows “the truth” which “the system” won’t admit. They know the Germans are coming even though Army intelligence refuses to see it and even though their commanders try to shut them up – at once point, Fonda is even threatened with being transferred away for sounding the alarm because he was making the commanders look bad. This is pure cynicism. Even worse, the German commander isn’t looking to win the battle so he can win the war. No. His goal is to allow the carnage to continue forever. Think about this. Somehow, it’s not bad enough that the Nazis were fighting to preserve an evil ideology. Instead, the film needed to invent a new motive, a villain who wanted perpetual war rather than victory. In each case, the film presents motives that only cynics would believe – personal desires masquerading as official policy.

Nor is this the only cynical film. The Guns of Navarone (1961) was about an American soldier who didn’t know why he was fighting, a British counterpart who was openly cynical and disloyal, and a Greek people who were rife with traitors and opportunists. Doctor Strangelove (1964) showed us generals who wanted war because it was good for their careers or their impotence. The spaghetti westerns told us there were no heroes, only self-interested murderers. Ocean’s Thirteen (1960) was the first film I could find where the bad guys were treated as the heroes and even the good guys were self-interested. Planet of the Apes was the ultimate slap in the face to religion and humanists, with the main character being a cynic who knew humans would blow themselves up because we’re all so self-interested and the apes were even more cynical. Interestingly, Apes purports to attack self-interest, but it’s really an ode to cynicism, which worships self-interest by demonizing other people’s self-interest.

Anyway, each of these movies and dozens more took place before Watergate. Many took place before Vietnam really took off or even Kennedy’s assassination. So clearly, the deep cynicism of today was already in place by that time. I see no evidence of it in the films of the 1930s, the 1940s and the 1950s however – if anything, those films held up naiveté as the American ideal. So somewhere in the late 1950s and early 1960s, we became cynical people.

Why does this matter? Well, if you want to cure something, you need to understand it first. Knowing that our cynicism is not what liberals claim, i.e. a response to Nixon and/or Vietnam, tells us to look elsewhere.

And why do we want to cure it? Because it’s bad for us. Cynics think they see some hidden truth, but all they’re really doing is inventing ways to justify their biases. All around us, truth is vanishing... worthwhile analysis is vanishing... and community is vanishing. We’ve created a dark world in our minds where we assume good people are secretly evil. And we’ve made it impossible to fix our system, which very much needs fixing. Also, on a personal level, cynicism isn’t healthy. It’s akin to paranoia and it would behoove us all to examine ourselves and see if the skepticism we think we have isn’t really cynicism. Losing your cynicism will probably make you happier and help you live longer. And no, the Anti-cynicism Council didn’t pay me to say that.

So tell me, what do you think caused this outbreak of cynicism and how do we cure it?

96 comments:

Tennessee Jed said...

It is a good question, and one that deserves more thought than I have right now. I'll sleep on it. One thing that happened with Vietnam is that we saw war up close and personal on the news every night. Couple that with several factors. One, we were not politically motivated to do what it took to win over there. Second, it was a draftee war. So folks felt like they were dying for a cause we were not fully committed to. Third, the notion was a high level conflict between the western democracies vs. communism, yet the Diem regime was horribly corrupt. (this latter notion showed up later with the Shah of Iran, and others.) Throw into this a cultural landscape that featured a lot of anti-war, Communist types such as Pete Seeger, Joan Baez and others, followed by the whole drug fueled Hippie movement, and a huge generation (the boomers) began to look at our government as something other than the vision of Ozzie & Harriet. It appeared to me that this was a gradual shift. On the other hand, Hollywood has been controlled by people that go back to McCarthy hearings. Hell, FDR had people in his inner circle who thought Lenin and Stalin had it all right. So they were ahead of that curve, and it shows in the films starting in the late 50's.

I doubt it is that simple, but it the recollection I have right now, anyway.

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, That's an interesting point. So you're leaning toward the idea that it was disillusionment with cynical government. And to that, you can add fighting to draw in Korea and abandoning the Cubans in the Bay of Pigs. We also supported any number of tinpot dictators around the Middle East.

So maybe it was the sense that our government had abandoned idealism and no longer represented only the good guys?

Tennessee Jed said...

Maybe, Andrew. At least that is the way it seems to me at the moment, but ... let me sleep on it. As I said, that may be a little over-simplistic. I'm in kind of a simplistic mood right now :)

AndrewPrice said...

No problem, Jed. It is a solid answer.

Tennessee Jed said...

I had one more thought I'll throw out before I turn in. Big government has been on a long steady rise since the great depression. WWII helped us out of that, but people have slowly watched their liberties disappear, and feel more like they have lost a lot of individual control over their own destiny. That is bound to raise the cynicism factor, don't you think. And today, we have agenda history in school, and nes that is tailored to help people hear only what they want to hear.

Commander Max said...

I think cynicism is a symptom of age and experience. Or the effect of the loss of youthful optimism, and being resentful of that loss.

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, I once discussed something similar, with a college professor and we started to wonder if the problem wasn't "BIG." Starting in the 1950s, most people began working for BIG corporations. If they didn't, they worked for BIG government. Workers were part of BIG unions. Most people had been part of the BIG army. They moved to BIG cities.

Everywhere you looked, Americans went from individualism and small towns to being locked in bureaucracies and impersonal surroundings. I wonder if that might not be a cause of it too. Nothing will make you more cynical than watching how bureaucracies work... or don't.

AndrewPrice said...

Max, On a personal level that's true, but on a societal level, that shouldn't be true. For one thing, that would only infect older people. For another, that would make it a constant part of human history and it clearly wasn't.

K said...

Cynicism occurs when an ideal or dream you have cherished or at least gotten used to turns out to be unattainable or meaningless.

To one set of people that might be limits of growth. To others, the failure of their utopian models. To me personally it means being disenfranchised by elected gangsters.

shawn said...

The Korean War? Not even a decade after WW2 and we are at war again.

Also there was the communist infiltration of the U.S. Many in Hollywood were sympathizers and so it creeped into their work. And despite their protestations that films are harmless and don't influence behavior, you'll notice that things they don't approve of are never shown in a positive light, or shown at all if they can't show it as a negative.

Also, Ocean's Thirteen in 1960? I think you meant Ocean's Eleven.

Anthony said...

Cynicism has always been around and will always be around. Sometimes its cloaked in the form of idealism (be they 'liberal' or 'conservative' ideals), but it has always been there.

However, the same is true of idealism. There are lots of causes being fought for nowadays in the US (think abortion activists on both sides and gay marriage activists on both sides).

Many times the detractors of said activists label them as obsessed, insane or cynical, but that has always been the case.

tryanmax said...

Whatever it was that made America cynical, I think it started with the WWII generation. Maybe it was the horrors seen "over there" but never talked about at home. Maybe it was the jarring realization that the War to End All Wars (WWI) wasn't. The Cold War that threatened to go hot and start it all over again. Surely it must have seemed that global conflict was shaping up to become a generational cycle.

But I really think did it is the rise of entitlement. The way to train a generation that everyone else is selfish is to teach them to be selfish themselves.

The War generation was basically told on V-Day that their job was done, they had done their part. That still resonates deeply w/ my grandparents and they've been bitter about every day of work they've put in since. And now, after a quarter-century of retirement (no joke!) they're bitter that the money has run out.

Theirs was the first generation to don the crown of entitlement. And they trained their children, the Boomers, in that vein. They trained them well. The next generation, Gen-X, not only got the upbringing, but the blame. For 30 years, the weekly news magazines have been publishing the same story about how lazy, selfish, and narcissistic the younger generation is. The Boomers have even moved on to their grandchildren, dubbing Millennials the "Me Me Me Generation" in an interesting riff on what their own generation was called in the 70s and 80s.

In short, entitlement is what made us cynical. The thing that is going to break the cycle of cynicism is a break in the sense of entitlement. And that will only come with a break in the entitlements themselves. It may already be happening. It's hard to maintain a sense that you're entitled to a long retirement when you can't even get a job out of college.

Anonymous said...

Two important things happened in the 1960s that made this shift possible. The first is that the blacklist was abandoned. The second is that the Hays Code was weakened and them dropped. Both of these have roots in the 1950s. Say whatever you want about free speech and censorship but it doesn't change the fact that many blacklisted writers were cynical and anti-establishment and tearing down the Hays Code, which had provisions making cynical movies very difficult to make, let cynicism run wild as something new and shocking.

rlaWTX said...

I think that the Commentarama folks have it right. A combo of the WWII experiences (both that WWI led to WWII and that WWII happened), going into Korea so soon after WWII, McCarthy-backlash within the film industry (how dare you tell us, the elite, the intelligentsia, that communism is bad! we know better!), with the icing of The Greatest Generation's ennui led to the movie cynicism and then political cynicism that we see then and now.

However, I don't know that "films reflect culture as it stands at the time" is exactly right. Sometimes I think that society is susceptible to the culture portrayed in film. Some of these symptoms were present in society in general post WWII, but I think that film showed them as incontrovertible truth often enough that they became cultural traits as society adopted the films' perspective as their own. And with the rise of the ever-present, and ever-more-global, media empire, society was more and more dredged in cynicism and celebrity and self-centeredness (through envy advertising - "I want what they have and I want it now", "It's not fair that they have 'fill-in-the-blank' and I don't").

AndrewPrice said...

K, True. But what do you think brought about the national cynicism?

AndrewPrice said...

Shawn, Ironically, I realized that mistake and I went to change it and got sidetracked and forget to change it. LOL!

You are right about Hollywood. I think it's interesting that they always claims films don't influence people when they don't want to change, but then they scream about a lack of black role models or sexism or whatever other "ism" they think films shouldn't be "promoting."

On Korea, I think that even worse than just another war is that this seemed to be our first "political war" in that politics trumped strategy, we didn't seem interested in winning, and there was a great deal of public infighting at the top of the power struggle.

Tennessee Jed said...

Andrew - I am pretty close to your professor. I surely am not a fan of "big" whether it be big business or big government. I'm not certain I could make a cogent argument that there is a causal relationship between bigness and cynicism. And, it is difficult for me to attack bigness in business per se, at least on a philosophical level. That smacks of punishing success. BUT, I am a firm believer that power corrupts. So when success plus size creates power, the natural tendency is to stack the deck in one's favor. So, we get this unholy alliance between politicians and the powerful. There was a time in the 80's when I got psyched up in the corporate world. Peter Demming had been a hit in Japan with the notion of continual process improvement. We actually began to see the rise of the small, innovative start-up. The notion of the old "blue chip" stock for the mega corporations began to falter (see GM, IBM, etc.) ah, I ramble, but you get the idea ...

AndrewPrice said...

Anthony, True. But I think this level of cynicism is something different. In fact, I can tell you that with each passing decade, it seems to get worse and even more pervasive.

When I grew up in the 1970s, people were cynical about government, but not business and not each other. You could let your kids trick or treat, you didn't assume their coach was a child molester, and you didn't think Pizza Hut was trying to poison you. By the 1980s, there was already a growing fear of the rest of the public, particularly as it related to protecting your kids from everyone else. This was when the day care scandals started to hit -- satanic cults, and the Atlanta child murders. By the 1990s, you had Amber alerts, the church molestation scandal, etc. By the 1990s, people also lost faith in business, which they saw as trying to cheat them and shipping their jobs overseas. Shock comics became wildly popular, and they are pure cynicism. By the 2000s, everything intensified again. I think it's gotten to the point that cynicism is not the normal response of most people to most things.

So while I agree that there has always been cynicism, the intensity level changes and in my lifetime at least, I've seen a steady increase. I thought that started after Watergate because that's what the media tells me, but these films tell me that's not accurate -- that it was already there by the early 1960s.

K said...

The end of growth. No more frontiers.

Consider the space program. When it was started, there were no limits (the final frontier). Idealistic people worked their butts off to achieve the goal of man on the moon. Then mission accomplished - what do we do with all this infrastructure and manpower and subsequent non-productive investment? 650000 people were laid off. The Shuttle instituted as a works program and falsely sold as "cheap access to space". Rather like building the transcon railroad so it could run 100 times and then tearing it down.

What if there had been real frontiers to explore? Real vistas to open up? That would have engendered optimism. You can't be cynical on a frontier because a clear vision is necessary or your dead.

We got to feel the afterglow of a prior national optimism based on nearly unlimited expansion which ended about when I was born. The Star Trek/Star Wars thing is popular, IMO because of the underlying assumption of frontier freedom, which is why I hate STNG - which represents the Mothers Against Drunk Driving version of space exploration. In a real frontier those Carrie Nation types get carried off by the natives to much more exciting lives.

= The Wild Bunch

ScottDS said...

Hmm...

I think I'm outgunned here. :-) There's nothing wrong with cynicism done well and it's telling that the most successful movies of all time (for better or worse) are some of the least cynical movies ever made.

I do, however, see cynicism in other aspects of the industry: specifically the development and marketing phases of a film's production:

a.) the idea that people will only flock to movies that are known entities (remakes, sequels, etc.), underestimating the audience, going for the lowest common denominator, etc.

b.) creating trailers, ads, etc. that spell out entire movies, lest the audience feel confused and unsure (as if that's always a bad thing when it comes to entertainment); resorting to the same bullshit cliches that movie ads have been using for my entire lifetime; trying to make all the money in the first week; etc.

If I've gotten it wrong and this isn't cynicism, lemme know!

For me, the bigger problem is irony and ironic detachment: movies with characters we're given no reason to sympathize with. Not every movie needs a moral but this blogger says it best:

"I think that they’re a part of this new-wave, hipster group of comics who think that as long there is “no learning, no hugging”, all is well in art. There is no need to actually create characters who have the capacity to change, to heal, or to offer something redemptive to the world—and if they do, they are sent up as fodder for contempt or mockery. And this isn’t just happening in the occasional indie flick—it’s endemic. It seems to be the Hip New Thing in prevailing comedies—this idea that somehow being a complete waste of skin is funny!! It’s hilarious! Look how horrendous everyone is! Look at how we courageously demand nothing of our characters! Look at how morally inept and un-redeemable they all are! Isn’t it, like so subversive us to ask nothing of ourselves? Isn’t it great how there’s no plot and no narrative and we’re just, like, totally mind-fucking the audience with our total assholery? Aren’t death, old-people-caretaking, and Hitler jokes like, so underground? Cue ironic, hipster yuk-yuks here."

At least on Seinfeld, karma came back to bite them in the ass! :-)

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, Huh. Wow. Well said. That is both a real strong explanation, but it fits all the societal evidence since. Nicely done!

That would also explain why cynicism is growing as more people end up on entitlements. Not to mention, those of us who aren't getting money from Uncle Sam feel cynical about those who do.

Very insightful!

AndrewPrice said...

Anon, That's true, and it definitely might make Hollywood an opinion leader on cynicism rather than simply a reflector of the culture, but don't forget that society embraced these cynical films. So the cynicism had to speak to the rest of society as well.

AndrewPrice said...

rlaWTX, So you would argue that films lead society to new values rather than merely reflecting existing values?

I can see that, but I would add that if a film that doesn't appeal to society in some way, the public won't watch it and its values will never be adopted. In fact, let me give a great example on non-adoption. In the 1990s, you will find several films that tried to get men to wear shorts with business suits. Schwarzenegger did it and a couple others. The whole media empire tried to get behind this. Yet, society flipped them the bird and it never happened. I would say that feminism suffers the same fate in films. Films with strong feminist messages get a lot of media attention, but few dollars and no actual influence. Hence, they remain rare.

It's an interesting question if society leads or follows. Could be both?

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, On bigness being bad, I don't think it's a matter of attacking success, it's more a matter of bureaucracy. By and large, the bigger an organization becomes, the less ability it has to see its people as individuals. They become numbers and decisions get made for them by people they never meet -- like the CEO who lives in some other country or the HR people who work in some other city. It gives you a sense that you don't matter to them. And when you feel like the people controlling your life don't care about your interests, it's easy to become cynical about them.

That's the point really. And I think that's why some big companies have happier workers than other, because it's all about how much people feel like they can shape their lives.

AndrewPrice said...

K, which is why I hate STNG - which represents the Mothers Against Drunk Driving version of space exploration

I couldn't agree with that more! Excellent description!

You make a really good point. A lot of the things the public was told would be true, weren't true. Space was boring and wasn't coming to us any time soon. WWII didn't stop war. FDR and LBJ didn't stop poverty.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, What that blogger describes is cynicism personified on film.

In terms of cynicism being good, it can be entertaining on film... but in real life it's highly destructive. Cynicism is what causes the idea, "well, everyone else is bad, so I might as well get mine while I can too."

Tennessee Jed said...

Tryanmax - While I share your thoughts on entitlement having had a tremendously negative impact on our society (including a probable role in the rise of cynicism,) I completely disagree with your assessment of the WWII generation being the cynical generation who felt their job was done. Au contraire, that was the last idealistic generation, a generation that lived through the depression, believed in America, AND were willing to sacrifice to make life "better" for their kids. That they were so successful gave rise to a truly prosperous generation where the ugly roots of "entitlement" took hold. I'm not certain any of it is so well defined to permit an easy answer, but there is no question that big business, big government, and entitlement have been on the march here for some 75 years. The feeling of creeping cynicism does seem to mirror that march.

Tennessee Jed said...

Andrew - perhaps bureaucracy is a form of arteriosclerosis that is a natural result of a successful business; e.g. growth

Koshcat said...

I think I might be a minority here, but I don't think cynism is neither new nor any worse than it has ever been. As long as there are people (or groups of people) in power, there have been those out of power who have been cynical. It waxes and wanes but I don't think it has ever gone away.

Interesting to think about though.

AndrewPrice said...

Koshcat, if that is your real name, I'm sure you were paid to say that! LOL! :P

Actually, it isn't cynicism in politics that bothers me, it's the nearly-automatic assumption that I see everywhere now that people have evil motives. There seems to be little good faith and little ability for people to accept the world at face value anymore and I find that depressing.

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, I suspect that's the case. Growth brings with it a need for more structure and structure tends to build upon itself. Soon, structure takes on its own purpose and it takes over and creativity becomes nothing more than a highly-constrained branch of structure. That's how creative and nimble business, agencies, or even militaries fall apart.

tryanmax said...

Jed,

I'm just going off of what I have observed and been told by my grandparents and folks from that generation. If I've heard it once, I've heard it a thousand times that they sacrificed much and now are owed. My parents and their brothers and sisters say they've heard it their whole lives, too.

There's no doubt that they were an idealistic generation in their prime. History attests plainly to it. But they changed. There's no rule that says a generation's attitude can't be changed and, in fact, it seems most plausible that the generation with the highest ideals would be most prone to falling into cynicism.

Koshcat said...

I understand what you are saying. Last night I watched a video on 3D printing. Really cool. I was thinking though that the world would be awesome if we wouldn't stand in our own way. But perhaps that is a defensive mechanism keeping us in check and grounded.

As for whether it is worse, it is hard to beat the cynicism of the French Revolution, The Inquisition, heck the crucification of Christ is a pretty cynical move.

Commander Max said...

There will always be youthful optimism, as long as there are youths.
On a societal level, that's a different case. People get cynical when they feel things are hopeless. Like the current political situation. There is nothing we can do, the bad guys will do whatever, where's the remote?

But we have seen periods of true optimism, back in the space age. It was believed that anything was possible. Then time set in and anything didn't happen. Then the culture set in, was Hollywood pushing the idea of a wonderful future. No, we got a dark hopeless future. The biggest sci-fi films Star Wars, Alien/s, Blade Runner, Terminator, Road Warrior, etc(I could on all day). Then we have the panicky press, we are all gong to die because of nukes, weather, paper-cuts, drugs, breathing, etc. We are bombarded with all of this nonsense our entire lives. It's no surprise we are a society of cynics.
Out entertainment isn't pushing the positives, they disdain men like Walt Disney, who was always positive. Who was always saying, "look how neat this is", as opposed to "you stupid people don't have a clue".

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, I will skillfully avoid yet another inter-generational fight! Look! Russian paratroopers!

AndrewPrice said...

Koshcat, That is true. We are nowhere near as bloodthirsty as those time periods. And that is always something to remember. But I do think we're trending in the wrong directions. We're kind of at a point right now where we can't enjoy anything.

AndrewPrice said...

Max, Our culture machine definitely stresses the negative and is huge on destruction:

... we're all going to die.
... out leaders are corrupt and helpless.
... everything is rotten.
... why can't we find that one guy who looks suspiciously like Tom Cruise to save us all!

Our culture is also heavily into deconstruction or perhaps vulturism isn't the right word. It seems obsessed with debunking fairy tales, throwing doubt on anything positive, tearing down heroes, and find the bad side of anything and making it ugly. No circle is perfect enough for them not to try to prove it's really oval.

Koshcat said...

Well it doesn't help that the government keeps trying to take away my guns and butter. Cutting my reimbursement and telling me to suck it up. Crying about how the sequester is killing the poor as they climb onto private jets for a jaunt to Martha's Vineyard. Michelle "Let them eat cake" Obama and her court spending our money as fast as they can tax it. Then you have these people who fly into town on private jets, climb into their Toyota Pius that they had flown or trucked in and then get on their soapbox complaining how we are destroying the environment. You have a government you keeps taxing and spending but what do I see from it? We still have outdated bridges that fall apart when hit by a truck. And if that isn't enough, why do the poor need cell phones? To complain about how poor they are to other poor people? Then I go home and try to watch local news and their are children being decapitated and multiple shootings. If that isn't enough, the Avs sucked this year, the Nuggets and Broncos both blew it in the playoffs, and who knows which Rockies team might show up.

I could go on but I now need to overly document my patients so I can prove to some computer that I actually saw the patient and deserve to be paid for my time. AND this damn blog keeps making me sign in over and over again and it is hard to read the stupid made up words that are written as if by a 3 year old. GRRRRRRRRRRRRR

AndrewPrice said...

Sorry about that. I turned off the word verification thing. I don't know it makes you keep signing in? It shouldn't do that.

AndrewPrice said...

Koshcat, I can't disagree with any of that. I think our government absolutely feeds cynicism. They are hypocrites who want to force us to do things we don't want just so they can pat themselves on the back for "helping" us. They lie through their teeth, even in official statements, even when they are caught. The media covers their butts. And the people opposed to them seem to be the same people as them, just wearing different color name tags. And you're right, there is a lot of ugliness in the world. It is depressing, no doubt.

As for the Broncos... yeah, well, sadly both Manning and Fox are teases. Both have long histories of failing in the clutch. So that won't change.

As for why poor people need cell phones, well, I'm not sure. Perhaps the same reason God needs a spaceship? ;P

Koshcat said...

I would have never connected cell phones/poor with Sha Ka Ree.

I'm actually a pretty optomistic person in general, at least I think so. But they do make it challanging at times.

AndrewPrice said...

Koshcat, I'm not sure there is a connection either. That question was just the first thing to pop into my head when I read your question. :)

And they do both have the same answer... "They don't."

I'm pretty optimistic too and I get more so every year. Not sure what's causing it. Perhaps I live on top of a lithium mine or something, but I'll take it. :)

T-Rav said...

Strange, I get more pessimistic every year. I don't think it's lithium, people just keep letting me down.

Anyway, as far as cynicism and the movies are concerned, I think it's important to remember that the '50s and early '60s were not a time of universal idealism. The Beatniks and others had their thing going, which was basically rejection of mainstream society and "the system" as self-serving and corrupt. They were already cynics, but with an agenda. Add into that a lot of widespread fear over nuclear war and such, and it's not hard to imagine some disillusionment going on.

WWII and its horrors could have something to do with it, too, but I'm not sure. The literature from the period doesn't talk about the Holocaust so much, for example, or at least not without setting it next to Nazi militarism in general. So I don't know if that such an enormous impact on the popular or elite mindset. Probably Beatnik- and Bomb-inspired cynicism more than anything.

Commander Max said...

Andrew, you forgot. Everything will all be great in the last two minutes. There is a happy ending after all.

But do not talk about the years of therapy, it's going to take to get over what you just saw.

Reminds me or reading Alien comics back in the nineties. If you felt good before you started, afterward that was gone with any optimism you had. Those left me in a state that being depressed was a step up.
Why mention that? Simple it's one piece of a larger picture. It's amazing how much they throw at us, so many of us keep standing. It must really piss them off.

AndrewPrice said...

T-Rav, Have you considered moving near a lithium mine? :)

I suspect that the prospect of nuclear war brought with it a definite degree of cynicism or possibly nihilism. I never particularly bought into the idea that it would happen, but I know other people did in the 1980s and they let it affect them a good deal.

On the horrors of WWII, I agree that I'm not really sure that's the cause. Few Americans actually saw them first hand and we had defeated them. So you would think that would be cause for optimism.

AndrewPrice said...

Max, I've talked about that before and I definitely think that television and films set unreal expectations which set people up for disappointment.

Maybe that's the other angle we're missing, which is that we are constantly being shown "normal" in terms of wealth, number of friends, greatness of mating opportunities, wittiness of ourselves, fun of parties/vacations/daily lives, etc.... all of which is out of our reach?

tryanmax said...

There are certainly no shortage of reasons to be cynical. I don't discount any of the reasons presented as contributing. I do think that, to some degree as a culture--maybe even as organisms--we are still learning to cope with mass 24/7 media. And from the liberal perspective, the rules are always changing as we frequently talk about. What's good one day is bad the next. So definitely the rise of liberalism and its nonsense and constantly shifting rules of political correctness are a part of it.

tryanmax said...

Oh, and those weren't Russian paratroopers. They were CIA agents jumping from the black helicopters. I've been disappeared now. You are not reading this.

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, There used to be a t-shirt I really liked which read:

Witness Relocation Program
You don't know me.

:)

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, I think the rise of the media culture, beginning with the advent of television right up through the present definitely depersonalized the world. And that may be a big part of it too.

T-Rav said...

I don't know, Andrew, they may have been more nearly right than they knew.

And ignore tryanmax, he's just being ridiculous. I checked the scanners twenty minutes ago, and the black helicopters were still on the ground. There is absolutely no chance that they're about to gra

AndrewPrice said...

Sadly, yeah, I could see a mistake starting things, though it didn't. I guess my point was more that I didn't see either side starting it intentionally because there was nothing to be gained.

tryanmax said...

T-Rav wants you all to know that his captors do not beat him or treat him badly. They give him clean water and nutritious food and he is allowed to exercise daily.

He would type this himself, but his fingers have been broken. Because he accidentally slammed them in a drawer. Thirty-seven times. On each hand. But he is getting better.

ScottDS said...

Hmm...

With regards to positive/negative futures in the movies, I suppose it all comes down to choice. Yeah, our politicians are tools and the media might make it appear as if the world is coming to an end... but filmmakers don't necessarily have to go on that tack.

One filmmaker might choose to make a movie reflecting that reality (like, say, Star Trek Into Darkness)... while another might choose to make a movie showing us a more positive future to shoot for (like, say, previous Trek movies). :-)

In the end, they both have their pros and cons but right now, the money and prestige are in the "negative" area.

Of course, a dark movie could still end on an optimistic note but that kind of thing takes, ya know, skill!

Kit said...

I think this is why I like the Tom Selleck show Blue Bloods. Very little cynicism. A bit romanticized in its handling of the NYPD, perhaps, but its message is simple: Do whats right, no matter what.

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax and T-Rav, Just don't tell them where you hid the... oops, said too much.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, True. One movie that is surprisingly positive, despite it not appearing that way at first glance is Fifth Element.

AndrewPrice said...

Kit, I haven't seen that. I'm kind of done with cop shows.

Anonymous said...

Andrew, this was a great post,and very thought provoking. I just got home and I'm too tired to read 52 comments so I don't know if anybody else has addressed this or not but I just wanted to get my two cents worth in.
On the surface the spaghetti westerns did seem to be about opportunistic killers with no deeper motivation than to trade human lives for money.The reason that they have lasted as long as they have,though,is that they were multilayered films with more than going on.
(Continued below)
GypsyTyger

Kit said...

Andrew, Its pretty good. Why are you "done with cop shows"?

They-Who-Have-No-Name said...

The individual known as T-Rav wishes it to be known that he has seen the error of his ways and has found happiness in conformity and obedience. He is well taken care of, and will flourish in the new utopia.

AndrewPrice said...

Kit, They just don't interest me anymore. It's the same story over and over, just done by different characters. I know all the tricks. Most of it is pure fantasy. So I lost interest about a decade ago and I never went back.

Kit said...

Blue Bloods is about a family of cops. I'll send you an email on it.

AndrewPrice said...

GypsyTyger, Thanks! I'm glad you enjoyed it. :)

On the spaghetti westerns, I think the Big Three add a lot of layers and make for a really great set of films, though they are cynical. But once you get away from those, wow do the spaghetti westerns get bad... really bad. I've been debating reviewing a couple -- Sabata I, II, & III.

AndrewPrice said...

Kit, I know what it is, I just don't really have an interest in it. The last cop show that really held my interest was The Shield, which was excellent, or Dexter which is... uh, different.

Kit said...

This cynicism may be why superhero movies are so big right now: Many are going against the cynical grain. In the early 00s, aside from Spiderman and X-Men, most were dark and cynical (Blade, Daredevil, Hulk) now many are more hopeful or at least a rebuttal to cynicism.

The Iron Man movies (and Avengers) feature Tony Stark going from a jaded, cynical hipster with daddy issues to a guy who is willing to believe in things bigger than himself.
Captain America is pretty much the old-style hero. Heck, the movie is about as 1940s nostalgic as you can get. Even down to the Copland-esque music!
And the Amazing Spiderman has the "Crane scene", about as anti-cynical as you can get.
And the Dark Knight Saga is about a man making a tough stand against a system of injustice -and succeeding!

Anonymous said...

While the Eastwood character started A Fistful Of Dollars as a cynical opportunist,he was redeemed through the course of the film.He gave all the money that he made to the little family because "I knew someone like you once and there was noone there to help." He endured a terrible beating because he refused to reveal the direction the family had fled in when all he had to do to make it stop was tell.Once he was out of town and had healed up in the cave he could have just left. He returned to town and confronted Ramone partly for revenge,yes,but also to save the old man.He voluntarily left town as poor as when he came in.
At the end of For A Few Dollars More we find out that Lee Van Cleef went through that whole thing to avenge his murdered sister.We learn that when he turns down all of the reward money and rides off,satisfied to have killed Gian Maria Volonte's character. At the end of The Good,The Bad,And The Ugly,Eastwood spares Tuco and leaves him half the gold.I would suggest that redemption was the theme that Leone was going for,and he used the cynicism of his characters to show the journey to redemption that they made.
Respectfully,
GypsyTyger

tryanmax said...

Oh, now I know "They-Who-Have-No-Name" is a sockpuppet because he gave a tacit acknowledgement of individuality. Everyone knows there are no individuals in the new utopia. Only members of the body united. Sheesh!

AndrewPrice said...

Kit, I can't say for sure if those things are cynical or not. The heroes aren't, but often everything else in the film is.

Right now, I'm just not sure that anti-cynicism really sells. The few times people try it, everyone seems to dismiss the film as 'childish' or simplistic or even 'goody-goody.' People seem to want 'complex' heroes now, which typically means lots of cynicism.

Kit said...

Maybe people want noble heroes in a cynical world. To show that even if the world is rotten and corrupt, you can still stick by your principles.

Kit said...

Or as Joss Whedon's Angel put it: "Maybe they're not meant to be beat, maybe they're meant to be fought. Maybe fighting them is

Even Tolkien's Lord of the Rings has a rather dark ending. Frodo and the hobbits destroy the one ring and come home only to find that it has been industrialized and ravaged by Saruman (sorry if I spoiled the ending).

Its message: You can fight evil, you can even win victories against it, but it will never be defeated.

AndrewPrice said...

GypsyTyger, It's definitely possible the ultimate theme of the film is redemption, but think about how 90% of the film projects -- three cold blooded killers cheat each other and leave each other for dead in the pursuit of stolen money, the location of which had to be taken from a man from whom they withheld water to get his secret. The soldiers are deeply cynical (especially regarding the bridge and the camp). The characters they meet are deeply cynical. There isn't really a moment of decency. Even the way Eastwood leave Tucco in the end is sadistic.

I'm not saying there isn't ultimately a question of redemption, but most of what the audience is likely to come away with is "it's a horrible cynical world, but this guy turned out to be ok at the last second." And I think that seeing this as part of a wave of films that were awash in cynicism, I think it all fits the same picture that something in the culture was already deeply cynical at that point.

Kit said...

It seems we got SPAM!

AndrewPrice said...

Kit, You're looking too narrowly. You're looking at single characters or plot points in isolation. I'm talking about the whole package.

Messages in films include not only the ultimate moral of the hero, but all the other little lessons throughout. And those lessons combine with the lessons of thousands of other films. If they all start saying the same things, then you get a projection of culture. If they don't, then you don't.

What I'm talking about with films projecting cynicism is that they all (or most all) play by cynical rules throughout. A few may ultimately have a good moral for the hero's frame, but everything else in the film reinforces the cynical view of the world: friends are disloyal, everyone lies, corporations cheat customers, abuse employees and steal from competitors, government does evil things rather than good things, religious leaders are sexual perverts/hypocrites, Scout leaders are child molesters, parents are failures who want to dominate their children to get a second chance, the cops will harass you, etc. etc.

Against that kind of wave of messages, shown in film after film, having one final moment of redemption for the hero not only doesn't counter anything, it just confirms that to escape the modern world requires superpowers.

Kit said...

Good point.

But there is one show that I've found generally averts most of those...

Downton freakin' Abbey!

Kit said...

Downton Abbey has a radical chauffer and a conservative matriarch who are both generally nice.

I wonder if that plays into its appeal.

tryanmax said...

Andrew, that last comment is why I believe the future belongs to those who study, understand, and use media and communications. Your analysis is a nutshell example of the way media imparts messages that people don't even realize they are receiving. If you really want a message to resonate, to embed itself into people's minds, you don't put it out front, you place it in the background, among the noise and static. You put it there and you keep it repeating over and over and over again.

This is why bias in the media is no matter to pooh-pooh. (And I assure you, those pulling levers in the media know this.) Even if the guy asking the questions and reporting the facts means to be fair, his bias is going to always slip through in the words he chooses, the tone he imparts, expressions on his face. These all become part of the background. So even if he is trying to be fair, he's going to exude an air of bias that people will subconsciously pick up on and, depending on whether they like the guy or not, they'll either adopt or reject that same bias. Because bias is unavoidable, I favor openly biased media.

Kit said...

Also, the 1930s crime films were generally cynical as well.

I guess could be summed up by Andrew Klavan "I'm not mad about the movies Hollywood made, I'm made about the movies Hollywood did not make."

You had some cynical films in the old days in the 1930s pre-code and the 1940s film noir but they were always balanced out by Capra movies and Andy Hardy flicks and musicals.

Kit said...

"I guess could be summed up by Andrew Klavan"

I meant "I guess the problem could be summed up by Andrew Klavan"

Kit said...

Andrew,

Now you are making me want to take up drinking!

Damn you!

;-)

AndrewPrice said...

Kit, I haven't seen it. I don't have a lot of time for television at the moment.

Most of the 1930s crime films I've seen (like the Cagney stuff) aren't cynical. Good people get hurt by the villain and then the villain immediately regrets it. You see the people suffer, but persevere, proving they are better than the criminal. The villain learns his lesson and tries to go straight, but fails and gets himself killed or pulls it off and saves the people from his former gang.

Kit said...

I hate losing arguments. :)

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, The art of persuasion, particularly in stories is much more complex than so many people want to believe. Most people think, "I look at what the hero says and what the bad guy says and I look at who wins... message delivered."

They have no idea that the real messages are all the things happening in the background you don't noticed because you were focused on the main point. Keep in mind, the hero is a special person who is different from the real world. The "real world" is the one presented in the background. So while you are busy judging the hero, you just take in and accept the background as fact.

Trial lawyers know this too. If you tell a jury, "X is true!" the jurors take it with a grain of salt because they know you are biased because that is what you want them to believe. BUT if you tell them X and Y are true, now I'm going to prove Z... then they accept X and Y and they save their skepticism for Z because they wrongly believe that is the part where you are advocating. It's the same in films -- you can run all kinds of messages in the background and people will believe them, which they never would have done if you'd highlighted them through the main character.

It's all about knowing what people will resist mentally and what they will simply accept.

Commander Max said...

Thus is the basis of cynicism, unreal expectations.
Not that people can't do great things. Some place the bar to high, in example some women I've dated. They wanted perfection, but I don't think God is available.

rlaWTX said...

Commander - reality vs expectation keeps counselors in business (yay for me!) seriously, though, that is a huge part of people's dissatisfaction with others and themselves...

Andrew, I think that there was some cynicism in society - I think there always is. But I think that the cultural arbiters emphasized it more and more in their choices in the 50-70s. Eventually, that message is assimilated as a major cultural perspective instead of staying in its place as a low level characteristic. I'm not saying that cynicism was totally unfamiliar in society and created by media, but it was strong in the media types and over-represented until society matched media. (I think that makes sense) I think that's why there were still feel-good films/TV shows, because cynicism wasn't as rampant across the board.

AndrewPrice said...

rlaWTX, I think that's very likely true and I agree.

AndrewPrice said...

Max, What I've found in listening to people on the dating scene is that many really are comparing their dates to the things they see on television and it never occurs to them just how fake television dates are -- pre-written "witty" dialog for both parties, unrealistic settings, silicon people, actions that work on film but which get you arrested in real life.

El Gordo said...

I have watched a lot of classic film noir recently. These movies are supposed to be dark but there is very little cynicism by modern standards. Compare any classic with dreck like Killing Them Softly or Boardwalk Empire. Billy Wilder was supposed to be a cynic but he would have hated this stuff.

This made me think of Martin Scorsese´s A Personal Journey Through American Movies, a documentary in which he talks about movies that touched him. On one level it is wonderful to see Scorsese´s love for movies. Great clips. It´s like watching a cooking show and getting hungry.

But you also notice that Marty is really obsessed with getting into the dirt. Genre by genre, he gets really excited about the point when the movies lost their innocence. The prmise of the West is corrupted! The cops have become as bad as the criminals! The nuclear family is a nightmare! The facade is ripped away! The dream is dead! The evil ... it´s in US. And on and on ... you all know the drill.

This is what he is really interested in. This is what he thinks is deep and significant and meaningful. In cooking terms, this is his salt. It made me understand why some of Scorsese´s movies fail so badly despite his obvious talent. Oversalted. But he is hardly the worst offender. The salt content in many movies and shows is way past unhealthy now. But I doubt Scorsese recognizes it.

It is not just political cynicism. There is an evident contempt for humanity that cripples the art. There is no sympathy for characters, no interest in even pretending they are real humans in a real world. In fact, many celebrated A-grade shows and movies have no recognizable human beings in them (there are countless examples, but take Prometheus, recently reviewed here).

The filmmakers cannot imagine people from a different time or different circumstances, except on their own narrow terms, so movies are either full of characters from other movies or caricatures from 1960 z-grade shlock. And no, the fact that some filmmakers claim to do this intentionally doesn´t make it better when the result has all the humanity of a stag film.

El Gordo said...

By the way, I´m really intrigued by the latest Man of Steel trailer. They are doing something interesting and possible non-cynical here.

AndrewPrice said...

El Gordo, I agree. I've noticed that about so many filmmakers, that they believe that the only interesting part of humanity is the ugly side and many have reached a point where that's all they can see now. They no longer recognize the good.

I agree too that this might be the reason that so many of their films fail even though the directors have talent -- because they refuse to deal with the part of the story that makes the story worthwhile. And you're right, so many modern characters are nothing more than caricatures based on 1960s liberalism or stolen from other films. It's rare that you see believable film characters who would inhabit the real world.

I'm cautiously optimistic about the new Superman film. But as always, I'll wait to see what it really becomes because I've learned never to trust the marketing.

ScottDS said...

I say this totally in jest (the story is true) but it looks like things are about to get more cynical:

Click here

:-D

AndrewPrice said...

Oh joy.

rlaWTX said...

O.M.G.
Cat (my avatar): I am horrified that Grumpy Cat would allow such a thing - Oh wait, she lives where? and eats what? Where's my movie deal???? and Merchandise? She has merchandise?

Me: Great, now I am in the doghouse.

Commander Max said...

I had an ex-girlfriend that thought Jerry Springer was real. I wasn't there for her brains(but isn't that usually the case, I married for brains and found that package superior).

There is a reason they call it the boob tube. That's a post for you, how people let TV run/ruin their lives.

I'm sure Grumpy Cat's owners are much less cynical.

Anonymous said...

If people commenting in this haven't actually read the Hays Code, you should. Several of the things it prohibits (such as presenting crime sympathetically) make it very difficult to make a cynical movie. It wasn't that the writers were naturally not cynical. They were writing under a code that made it very difficult to tell a cynical story.

AndrewPrice said...

Anon, Very true. I tend to think that Hollywood reflects culture more than leads it, but it's definitely true that the Hays Code changed everything in entertainment.

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