The Retreat of Cynicism

Colm Wilkinson and Hugh Jackman in Universal Pictures’ _Les Miserables_.

Perhaps it’s a fluke. Perhaps it’s a perfect storm. But I was very interested to see so many of the most popular films this year (and many of them Oscar contenders!)  to be so earnest, so lacking in snark, so… here comes that controversial word… uplifting. Les Miserables. Lincoln. The Hobbit. Even Argo. I adored all of these films, partially because they were inspiring films, hopeful films, even (dare I drop another controversial word?) moral films. Now I’m not talking some sort of Disney aesthetic or CleanFlix standard where film can’t delve into controversy or conflict or complexity or subtlety. But, not unlike Jessie Christensen’s recent post here, “A Mormon Goes to the Movies,” I, too, have observed this pattern of moral stories lately and her post and my own observations have made me dwell on it more and more.

After all, Les Miserables deals with prostitution, class wars, and rebellion (and that’s not even including the crass Thenadiers!). Lincoln shows Abraham Lincoln and Secretary of State Seward engage in some rather shady political deals to pass the 13th amendment. The Hobbit is quite violent. And Argo certainly has some “mature” language. But after watching each of these films, there was definitely a sense of uplift… a sense of a moral core. Whether or not the “content” was “clean” or not, there was no denying that these films championed the better part of our natures and were refreshingly spare on cynicism. And it hasn’t been just this year. Other recent Academy Award winners, such as The King’s Speech, have that same sensibility.

That moral sense, more than anything, is the common denominator in my favorite films and plays. Whether the show is ultimately tragic or has a happy ending, whether the film is rated G or rated R, whether the film is historical or fantastical, political or universal…I want to feel like the film wants me to be a better person for having watched it. I don’t particularly care for nihilism or cynicism, and I don’t want it to be shallow, even if it’s a comedy or a relaxing piece of escapism.

When asked at a theatre conference what our favorite plays were by the presenter, I mentioned A Man For All Seasons, Shadowlands, and The Glass Menagerie. The speaker looked pleasantly stunned. “Those are all very moral plays,” he said. Yes. Yes, they are. That is my taste, that is my style, that is my what I dig. Unapologetically so.

And after decades of post-modernism, cynicism, and snark, I’m glad to see a rise again in the kind of story I’m naturally attracted to. I’m glad to see that the mood might be changing.

About Mahonri Stewart

Mahonri Stewart is a Kennedy Center award winning playwright and screenwriter who resides in Arizona with his wife Anne and their two children. Mahonri recently graduated with an MFA in Dramatic Writing from Arizona State University, and received his bachelors in Theatre Arts from Utah Valley University. Mahonri has had over a dozen of his plays produced by theatre venues and organizations such as Utah Valley University, the Edinburgh Festival in Scotland, Arizona State University, the FEATS Theatre Festival in Switzerland, Zion Theatre Company, the Echo Theatre, BYU Experimental Theatre Company, Art City Playhouse, the Little Brown Theatre, the Binary Theatre, and the Off Broadway Theatre in Salt Lake City. Mahonri also loves superheroes, literature, film, board games, lasagna (with cottage cheese, not ricotta!), and considers himself an amateur Church Historian. He is also a tireless advocate for Mormon Drama.
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20 Responses to The Retreat of Cynicism

  1. By the way, I’m also very interested in seeing Silver Linings Playbook and Zero Dark Thirty, to round out my Oscar interest. People who know me, do you think I would like them?

    • Jessie says:

      I just saw Zero Dark Thirty this afternoon and it was better than I expected it to be. I probably need more time to think about it before really writing about it. It is not really uplifting, but not necessarily cynical either. It asks big, moral questions in subtle, complex ways. It is disturbing not for the explicitness of the violence (honestly the Hobbit is more bloody and graphic), but because of the questions it asks and doesn’t answer. A lot has been written about the ‘neutral’ tone of the movie, and while I don’t think any work of art is without a viewpoint, this one gets closer than many I have seen.

      • Saw Zero Dark Thirty tonight. Agree a lot with what you said here. A lot to think about, and showed the pivotal real life contributions of a very strong woman in the CIA. Excellent film. Kathryn Bigelow deserved a nomination for the Best Director Oscar and I’m wondering whether the snub was political or not, like folks have been wondering. Jessica Chastain was also good, especially for her first time in a feature like this. Oscar good, I don’t know, but she’s got a good career ahead of her. I definitely thought it was a strong performance.

        • Jessie says:

          Yeah, I wasn’t bothered as much by the torture scenes as I was by some of the stuff that happened in the raid at the end. That to me was the more morally ambigous part of the movie. I was left wondering whether it was worth it or not, especially coupled with the very last scene of the movie. I’ve been really impressed with Kathryn Bigelow so far, and Jessica Chastain has been great in everything I’ve seen her in.

        • What else has Jessica Chastain been in? I could only find Zero Dark Thirty under her name in IMDB.

          I agree with your assessment of the ambiguity it portrays… all of the circumstances surrounding the torture and those killed in the raid, etc. are definitely problematic, if nothing else. It raises some very important ethical conundrums which are not easily solved and take some ponderous thinking.

        • Jessica Chastain was in THE DEBT, THE HELP, and THE TREE OF LIFE, to name a few. Currently in THE HEIRESS with Dan Stevens on Broadway. Oscar nom for THE HELP.

        • Thanks, Mel! I thought she looked familiar, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. It was The Help that I had seen her in (I still really need to see Tree of Life).

          And I re-checked her on IMDB and it DID have her older films. I don’t know what I was looking at before on the site that only had Zero Dark Thirty.

  2. Scott Hales says:

    First of all: I felt the same way about Lincoln and Les Miserables. I came out of both experiences feeling like I could try a little harder to live up to my personal convictions. I think that is what all moral storytelling should do. Lately, fiction that tries to do the opposite has bored me.

    Second of all: I think this may be your shortest post ever, Mahonri. ;)

  3. I was thrilled that they left all the religious (not just portraying religious people, but truly spiritual) messages in Les Mis, and even frequently included visual Christ-symbols throughout. And I found the Hobbit thrillingly uplifting as well. Gandolf is my favorite. Bilbo is my second favorite.

  4. Jonathan Langford says:

    I need to watch The Hobbit movie. I have strong opinions about what I see as the moral theme of the book…

  5. And I totally agree, Sarah, about the inclusion (even highlighting) of the religious in Les Miserables.

  6. Scott Parkin says:

    I’m not sure much is changing, so much as the natural rhythm of counter-cultural response that’s been in full view for a long time. Right now hopeful is underrepresented, so anyone who wants to get attention just has to buck the trend.

    Not to be cynical or anything, but I think it says less about cultural movement than about product marketing and attempts at market differentiation–when times are hard, artistify about hope; when times are good, artistify about despair.

    • Wm says:

      That’s the beauty and horror of capitalism combined with modern advertising: any artistic/aesthetic mood, form, genre, technique can be appropriated and pressed into the service of creating consumer demand and/or political energy.

      • Scott Parkin says:

        Which is not to say that there aren’t legitimate movements—I’ve been evangelizing a literature of hope for most of twenty years now.

        To be fair, that evangelism has two elements. One is a basic belief in a hopeful cosmology (see Eric’s post after this one), and a belief that literature can expand our view into the minds of others. But the other is an innate passive-aggressiveness that wants to buck whatever the trend of the moment is.

        They’re not necessarily incompatible views.

  7. Mark Penny says:

    It’s fashion. Moral hemlines rise and fall.

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