It has become fashionable at Academy Award ceremonies to speak of the Best Picture protagonists as if they are all characters in one big movie; thinking about the cultural dominance of fear in our time, I thought I’d get ahead of the game by speculating over just what it is that frightens this year’s crop. Before we get there, though, as it has also become fashionable for the Academy Awards to pompously overstate their value to the world, allow me to propose a consideration of perhaps the most important thing that any of us could be paying attention to right now.
Stop. Sit down. Breathe. Maybe close your eyes. And think for a minute. Or ten. If you need justification for such a useful waste of time, you could invoke the 17th century mystic mathematician Blaise Pascal’s assertion that all the problems in the world stem from a person’s inability to sit still and think for just that long. Palms up or down, it doesn’t really matter. Whatever your posture, pay attention. Ask yourself the defining characteristics of our culture, and I imagine our lists will intersect. And the place where we find mutual recognition is in the shadow of fear. We’re both afraid, you and I, though not always sure of what it is that’s frightening us.
We’ve been living for over a decade now – though it feels like much longer – in a world whose most powerful (or most convinced of their own power) leaders, consciously or otherwise, worked to reverse one of the wisest lessons of history: that we have nothing to fear except our own capacity to be paralyzed by fear itself.
We’ve been repeatedly told that we face existential threats to our very existence, and the loudest cultural voices seem to back that up. Human beings predict the probability of something happening based on the ease with which we can recall examples of similar things: so if your mind is filled with examples of murder or bombings or war or pandemic viruses, you’ll be more likely to predict that these things will happen both more often to the general population, and to you yourself. This way, a British journalist told me recently, seniors in the UK predict that they have a 1 in 4 chance of being the victim of violence in their remaining years, when crime statistics show that it’s closer to 1 in 100. Thus a 1% chance becomes a 25% prediction; fantasy is twenty-five times reality.
That’s just the tip of the iceberg (which, by the way, your cruise ship is not going to crash into): there’s loads of evidence that we over-predict fearful things, failing to recognize from the myopic standpoint to which our media culture seems addicted that there may never have been a better time to be alive. “Break-ins are rising,” say the ads for home security systems, which, as Daniel Gardner, author of The Science of Fear says, is true only if by “rising” you mean “significantly decreasing.”
You have more chance of being killed in a lightning strike than in a terrorist attack. Cancer was responsible for 15% of US deaths in the 1960s compared to 4% in 1900 not because of an increase in the power of cancer but because so many other diseases had been eradicated, and general health advances were increasing longevity, with the unintended and unavoidable consequence of increasing the incidence of cancer, given that the biggest risk factor for cancer is age. Devote even a small fraction of the billions of dollars spent on “terrorism prevention,” “homeland security,” and war to malaria and polio vaccination, or car safety, or urban renewal and you’ll save exponentially more lives. Devote your attention to fear, and you’ll perpetuate war. Our most frightening daydreams are lies we’re telling ourselves because we have mislaid or willingly given up the self-control – for starters, sitting still for ten minutes – that discernment requires.
If our false predictions of probable catastrophe are rooted in the loudest and most colorful stories we tell about the world, then the circus of self-congratulation and overstatement that will likely occur at the Oscars warrants a sociological inquiry. Nine films nominated for Best Picture, nine more or less good nights at the movies, nine lenses through which we may see our own fear in a new light.
Captain Phillips is scared of pirates – and Tom Hanks does a wonderful job of almost matching Barkhad Abdi’s towering performance as his vulnerable nemesis. Hanks’ post-conflagration scene is a heart-rending and morally credible portrayal of immediate trauma; the 33 year sentence given to the misguided kid who began the day in oppressed circumstances nearly unimaginable to Western audiences is at least partly a manifestation of our own fear of the exotic other, and refusal to reflect on the complicity of our own commercial super-structures in why the risks of piracy are considered desirable in the first place.
Such self-reflection is harder to ignore when watching 12 Years a Slave, because the dividing line between good guys and bad guys broaches no subtlety. We may see that these are the (tortured and raped) hands that built America, but the examen that results may go no further than mere regret for the behavior of white supremacist forebears, among those of us who have them; the prospect of asking how we benefit today from living in houses built on genocidal foundations – and what should be done about it – may be too frightening to consider.
Gravity is scary from start to finish – but in the manner of the most exciting roller coaster ride you’ve never taken; it glories in visual and sonic artistry, and its ending is such a magical evocation of how every act of creation must also make a friend of fear that I wondered if Terrence Malick had sat on Alfonso Cuaron’s shoulder the day he shot it. Sandra Bullock’s first tentative steps as Steven Price’s score (for my money, the best of the year) crescendoes are explicit echoes of the evolution of human life. She has been through a kind of death and resurrection, which of course is what every birth is. The fear in Gravity begins as terror of the unknown, but matures into the wisdom that can coincide with acknowledging your own power.
“The Wolf of Wall Street” is terrified of not having enough – he’s the personification of the scarcity trap; Joaquin Phoenix is scared of being alone in Her; Philomena has reasons to fear religious power; Bruce Dern traverses Nebraska because he is burdened by the notion that human connection isn’t enough to equate to honorable fatherhood; Ron Woodroof creates the Dallas Buyer’s Club out of the entirely healthy, entirely natural fear of that which is attacking his body; and the happy-sad foursome at the heart of American Hustle all end up behaving stupidly because they are afraid – some of the authorities, some of their bank balances, some of not having the status they believe they need to be happy. There’s so much fear at the Oscars this year, perhaps the Best Picture award should be renamed Best Picture of Terror in an Unpredictable World.
There’s a story told of an enlightened court that sentenced rogues to spend a night in a cell with a poisonous snake. If the convict was alive in the morning, they would be released. The unfortunates who found themselves in this position would squeeze themselves as far into the corner as they could go, and stay alert until dawn, terrorized at the prospect of a visit from Slinky’s teeth. When light broke through the cell window, they saw that the snake was actually a piece of old rope, curled up, immoveable, and certainly no threat. Except, of course, that which existed in the eye of the beholder.
Fear in good proportion, fear in healthy doses, the kind of fear that looks like wisdom – that’s nothing to be afraid of. We should welcome it, for it will help keep us safe, and grow us up into something a little more human. As for fear that paralyses, fear based on lies or myopia, fear rooted in commercial or industrial or imperial concerns? At best, that fear is its own reward; at worst it’s more dangerous than any of the distorted threats with which it is obsessed, because it can lead you to exchange your own inimitable, miraculous, transcendent life for someone else’s death.
The dominant forms of storytelling in our time – the web, cinema, television, video games, the “news” – are resourced by an economic complex that partly depends on terrorizing us. This cultural curse calls for a resistance movement, so here’s a modest proposal: just before Ellen does her opening monologue at the Oscars, and we prepare for another night of rewarding the stakeholders of those fear-based storytelling levers, sit still for ten minutes and be thankful that contrary to the misinterpretations of reality that pass for information, it really is a wonderful life.
Gareth Higgins is a writer and activist from Northern Ireland currently living in the United States. If you enjoy his writing here, you should really check out his two books on cinema an despecially his latest, Cinematic States, in which he travels throughout his adopted homeland considering what makes America America through the lens of its movies.