The State of the Race: Duplicity in the Best Films of the Year So Far
The best films of the year so far tell two stories. The story and the story within the story. Many of the year’s most powerful, resonant messages involve unmasking characters to reveal more about who they are than what they do. Why this year is this theme so prevalent? It might be every year that this kind of story resonates. Or it might be that so many of us live double lives — balancing who we are online versus who we are in the world, defined by the way our culture has divided us more than united us. There is no question that these are troubled times and how we interface with art has a lot to do with what kind of world we wake up to face every day.
Whether it’s a world we create for ourselves or one that we must adapt to, the characters in these films are searching for something that they can’t find in the story written around them, but must instead dive deeper, under the layers, to get to the truth within them.
It was 12 years after Rody Roy Moore’s Dolemite before its tropes were distant enough to be satirized in Hollywood Shuffle, made by the brilliant Robert Townsend. Although that arc from the genre’s creation to its outright caricature seems lengthy, it took almost no time at all before Dolemite itself did a comedic spin on the freshly minted soul cinema first seen in grittier films like Shaft and Superfly. As soon as the commercial potential of blacksploitation movies were proven, the stereotypes required to get them made were already ripe for laid-back takeoffs. In Dolemite Is My Name, Moore fashioned a flamboyant pimp in charge of brassy hoes, but part of the fun is the way it winks at the way white audiences of the era saw black characters and black culture, in a movie made for black audiences who got the joke. Even in 1975 this was a fine line to walk, so it’s all the more impressive that director Craig Brewer does such a great job of tapping into that tonal complexity today, translating it back to white and black audiences alike. In the play within a play, Dolemite/Moore is the playa within the playa — a street hero who’s supposedly the toughest badass in town, a man who has his choice of women, riding high on the size of his own ego — but of course he doesn’t take any of it all that seriously. One of the fascinating aspects Dolemite’s depiction of black culture, then and now, and is the fact that blaxploitation movies were so boldly unconcerned with well-worn formulas, they’re not hindered by negative stereotypes; they cash in on them.
That we get to know the real Moore, his deep friendship with Lady Reed (that isn’t sexual), and his burning desire to make something of himself is in conflict with the myth he has created for himself on screen. Dolemite is about so many things, and manages to be universal in its telling of how someone with a burning creative impulse and no outlet handed to him by a culture that rejected him, carves his own path through concrete barriers, to tell a different kind of story for people hungry to see it.
In Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story, the main character played by Adam Driver is a playwright and and Scarlett Johansson acts in his plays. We don’t see a lot of what it is that he does, but we know that his wife is always game for anything and in fact, functions as sort of a muse. The play within a play here is completely abstract. All it says is that he works in terms of symbols rather than straight-up narratives. One could imagine Neil Simon making a movie called Marriage Story and the play within a play would be very Neil Simon-ish, tell its own story, but in Baumbach’s version, his work is deliberately opaque so that the audience knows not to read into it, but instead to focus on the story going on around it. Inevitably, Marriage Story must peel back the layers of pretense to discover a marriage of self-deception. In its own way, their marriage was the play within a play — the fiction that eventually broke down to find the truth.
The layers of story in Taika Waititi’s masterful Jojo Rabbit starts first with the story of the Nazis, which everyone already knows, and the monstrous rise of Hitler and fascism but then adds the layer of a story told close to the end of the war which itself was based on a fiction — a despicable fiction that Jewish people were the parasites that needed to be exterminated. The film tells both of these stories through the eyes of an imaginative 10-year-old boy. His mother is hiding a Jewish girl in the attic and thus, is pretending to be a good German, while her son is also pretending back to her that he doesn’t spend his days getting to know the girl. They both must pretend to the Nazis that nothing is out of the ordinary. The Sam Rockwell character is also pretending to be a Nazi, while also pretending to be heterosexual. Through darkly brilliant satire, Jojo Rabbit is a beautiful story about one of the worst moments in human history.
Among this set of films, Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite has probably the most inventive structure for illustrating artifice and nothing being quite as it seems. One family is wealthy, living well, in a showplace house, with a nice life, able to hire servants to cook and clean and tutor the children and drive them around town. They idyllic existence is infiltrated by another family, one that survives by hook or crook, dwelling beneath street-level in the city, underground in more ways than one — they live paycheck to paycheck with no prospects or any way out of poverty. They play roles as the servants for the rich family who have no idea that the people in their employ are all related to each other. Both families have the symmetry of a father, a mother, a sister, and a brother, but they could not be more different. The thing that divides them is money and class. Of course, there is yet another layer of a different story, the real story — the hidden truth about how they manage to live and function, but to talk about that would be too much of a spoiler for anyone who hasn’t yet seen it.
Bong Joon Ho’s films are often about two layers of a story — you are in one level for the film’s first half, then you are thrust into an entirely different realm for the film’s second half. He is an expert at opening a secret door — a portal out of one world and into another. He knows that often we live our lives believing in one myth we’ve told ourselves to get through it — but that there is another story to be told once you peel back the layer of pretense. He is most interested in getting to that truth. Parasite is one of the best films of the year because of the exacting structure, but also because once the whole truth is revealed it is heartbreaking.
Todd Phillips’ Joker has much in common with Parasite in that it also explodes in violence at the end, and is about someone rejected from a culture that walks right over him, or worse, deliberately torments him. Joker must involuntarily laugh at his circumstances which sends the wrong message to anyone he meets. He lives in a fantasy world of his own making, out of necessity, because the truth about who he really is keeps changing. Every time he discovers something more of himself, the rug is pulled out from under him yet again. While a similar thing happens in Parasite, Joker is not so much about an economic system that abandons its diligent drones so much as it is about how isolated and alienated some people feel in a world full of indifference. The character of Joker itself is artifice — he puts on a happy face to mask his rage and pain.
Ultimately, as in Parasite, the murderous climax feels almost justified because of society’s treatment of damaged individuals. The difference between the two is likely cultural. Where Joker rises up as a super villain and happily dances away after his last fresh kill, the murderer in Parasite is condemned to a lifetime of suffering and, in fact, shows remorse for his crime.
In Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood there are once again multiple layers of reality and pretense, beginning with the one we all know — that the Manson family murdered Sharon Tate, the LaBiancas, and others in August of 1969. It starts with that premise but then extends to tell the story of Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), the movies he makes, which are not unlike those Rudy Ray Moore made — inflated heroic versions of themselves. Brad Pitt’s is Cliff Booth, Rick’s stunt man, which is yet another layer. From the outset we see that the hero isn’t actually that tough because he needs another guy to do his stunts.
In Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman, the layer of artifice is in the fake family life De Niro’s character sustains, all the while being a hit man and all-around bad guy for the mob and Jimmy Hoffa. How he comes to terms with these two realities is what ultimately makes this the great film it is. This is the inherent contradiction in both the real life mafia and in the romanticized versions in the films so many of us love. The Irishman strips down the myth that Scorsese himself helped to build. It is, in that way and in many ways, a slow reveal of the human soul.
Bombshell is a film about the false reality put forth by Fox News, both in terms of its extremely partisan coverage and in how it portrays women as a “certain kind” of woman Fox puts on a pedestal, and how those women were knocked off that pedestal behind the scenes. Bombshell is very much about what is put out there to be consumed vs. the real truth that’s never even on the menu. In that way it betrays the ultimate weakness of Fox. It postures itself as truth-teller but is anything but. Roger Ailes spent his life as an icon of political manipulation and skulduggery. His empire lives on long after he was taken down, keeping the lying machine alive.
For all of these tales that deal in artifice, there are many others this year that tell a story more directly, like The Two Popes, Ford v Ferarri, Waves, Uncut Gems, The Farewell, Rocketman, Motherless Brooklyn, the upcoming 1917, and Little Women. Their writers and directors tell these stories because they need to be told. Their truth is more compelling than their fiction.
Considering what sort of fraudulent creature we have for a president, and how many of us spend time alternating in and out of our own reality and perceived reality, it isn’t surprising that so many films about duplicity, involving layers of denial or self-deceit are resonating as strongly as they are right now.