The Virtues of Parochialism: Film, Globalization, and its Discontents

t2 trainspottingThe mean-spirited nationalist challenge to globalism that has taken hold in the United States and Europe—elevating Donald Trump and the alt-right as well as the Brexiteers, Marine Le Pen, and European cognates—has cried out for more leavened and sympathetic cinematic interpretation than real life has often afforded it. Filmmakers are obliging.

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Perhaps improbably, Danny Boyle’s T2 Trainspotting, released here last month, is one of the more prominent examples. A very good sequel to boot, it picks up Irvine Welsh’s four wayward junkie bad boys 20 years on, back in Edinburgh. They have all failed to varying degrees, undone by vices seen earlier. Grudges and affections compete, and neither completely wins, but there’s acceptable resolution and qualified redemption—even for Robert Carlyle’s still-psychopathic Francis Begbie. In the movie’s most politically resonant storyline, Mark “Rent Boy” Renton, having been fired from his job in Amsterdam, finagles a European Union business loan to upgrade a run-down pub owned by Simon “Sick Boy” Williamson (Jonny Lee Miller)—they actually plan to turn it into a brothel—to make amends for having ripped off Sick Boy 20 years earlier. But, with help from forger-savant Spud Murphy (Ewen Bremner), Sick Boy’s Bulgarian sex-worker girlfriend steals the proceeds to finance her return to Sofia, where she hopes to reunite with her son, Rent Boy moves back to his parents’ flat, and Spud writes a tell-all novel—presumably adapted into the screenplay for the film—about their bygone heroin days. Here the EU’s primary virtue, however convoluted, is not to expand its citizens’ horizons but rather to keep them at home.

From Ken Loach, veteran champion of the British working class, comes I, Daniel Blake, an irrepressibly winning film (in fact, it won the Palme d’Or at Cannes) about the benign strain of Old Labour populism that seeks real social democracy. Set in Newcastle, the story focuses on the eponymous elderly carpenter’s Kafka-esque efforts to get the state benefits to which he is entitled after suffering a heart attack on the job. In the benefits office, Daniel (the endearing Dave Johns) encounters Katie (Hayley Squires, equally affecting), a determined but desperate single mother displaced from London, and their friendship blossoms from shared strife and frustration. For months he is Job-like, but eventually takes an angry stand. Loach knows hard times are coming, but there’s no trace of race-baiting, Brexit jingoism, or EU-bashing in this film. It’s a parable about the need for people to help one another in this life, and the fact that the basic impulse to do so comes not from soaring globalist visions of seamless markets but rather from day-to-day human contact on the street where you live.

Among recent movies, the German black comedy Toni Erdmann undertakes the most explicit confrontation of the globalist technocracy. Winfried Conradi (an inspired Peter Simonischek), a restless but playful old man who has named his trickster, snaggle-toothed, and bewigged alter-ego “Toni Erdmann,” decides to pay an unannounced visit on his icy, workaholic daughter Ines (Sandra Hüller, just right), an ambitious management consultant working in Bucharest where she resides in a sterile corporate apartment building completely aloof from native Romanians. What ensues over the film’s nearly three-hour span—none of it dull—is a series of outrageous practical jokes he designs to get her to loosen up and enjoy life on the ground and in the moment. Writer-director Maren Ade seamlessly takes down blind globalization and corporate careerism while extolling local color, old-school hospitality, zany spontaneity, and the cornball humor of an older generation.

Harmonious solutions come harder in movies about America. As in T2 Trainspotting, creative dishonesty is key to white working-class salvation in David Mackenzie’s Hell or High Water, but it’s not nearly as quaint. Toby and Tanner Howard are brothers (nicely played by Chris Pine and Ben Foster), one a reluctant, brooding solid citizen, and the other a gung-ho, devil-may-care habitual criminal. They endeavor to rob just enough from branches of the larcenous bank that holds the reverse mortgage on the family farm to pay it off. The plan unravels, and gruff and knowing Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (a perfectly honed Jeff Bridges) and his jaded half-Mexican, half-Native American partner Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham) are forced to step in despite their growing sympathy with the perps. The movie provides a subtle and heartfelt illustration of the plight of hardscrabble white Americans, their sense of dislocation and submerged entitlement, and their defiant provincial default. Lives are lost, and even if some sense of vindication emerges, Hamilton knows that it will haunt him and Toby for the rest of their days. There’s that.

In Donald Cried, set in Rhode Island, querulous 40-year-old New York banker Peter (Jesse Wakeman) returns to bury his grandmother in his depleted home town, where he runs into Donald, one of his best friends from high school. Still living at home with his mother, Donald is thrilled and importunes Peter to hang out. Peter is dismayed to learn that nothing has changed—the same heavy-metal posters and autographed pictures of naked porn stars adorn the walls of Donald’s cramped attic room; he works in a bowling alley. Think the Farrelly Brothers’ Dumb & Dumber (also centered in Rhode Island) meets Kelly Reichardt’s Old Joy, with a whiff of Mike White’s Chuck and Buck. The acting is brilliantly naturalistic, and though the film is discomfitingly funny frame by frame, its insights leave you sad and moved about the way people in small places with few options just stop in their tracks and are forgotten. But in writer-director (and star) Kris Avedisian’s vision, despite their lack of sophistication and an outsize sense of injury, the locals possess greater humanity by virtue of their sense of loyalty.

In all of these movies, it’s not so much that globalism is flatly bad as that it’s abstract, impersonal, and heedless of the past. Some people are simply in the wind, but others have to go home—or stay home—to get tangible comfort.

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