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New Sincerity and its Discontents


With Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom being condemned as “the whitest movie ever made” and Behn Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild being dismissed as a palliative for white guilt, why are the supposed merits of these otherwise acclaimed films obscured by charges of social misrepresentation?  Is there value in these films despite these charges? I don’t so much have a stake in these debates of taste, race, social responsibility as I am interested in how they shape reception (especially among academics).

Both films, it seems, are faulted with placing fantasy dangerously close to sensitive historical realities. Beasts actually dabbles in Fantasy proper (the eponymous “beasts” are frozen prehistoric creatures newly-thawed and revived by a cataclysmic heat wave), but its setting and plot also recall the Katrina disaster, inventing an (implausibly?) idyllic, close-knit community forced to survive after a storm of mythic proportions. The fantasy of Moonrise is a bit less magical; it takes place on an enchanted island in 1965, conveniently untouched by the racial politics of the times (Jeffrey Sconce reminds us that the hurricane in Moonrise hits just two weeks after the Watts riots), and just as conveniently uninhabited by anyone who is neither white nor privileged. The problem here isn’t that such homogeneous places didn’t exist; it’s just that nobody today should be nostalgic for them.

The politics of these films is indeed questionable. Wes Anderson could have avoided a lot of this hot water if only he didn’t set his film so precisely in 1965[1] (his films are characteristically insular, and generally ambiguous in chronological setting). The director of Beasts maybe could have avoided his own hot water if he weren’t white or middle class (the way angry critics talk about him, one imagines he might have grown up on Anderson’s fictional island, braiding lanyards and listening to symphonies–but no evidence confirms this).

Both films have indeed garnered some negative attention for their representations of race (albeit for inverse reasons), but they’re also widely acclaimed films, both admired for their aesthetics–these are well-composed films–and their film-festival allure. Most critics finds these films beautiful, even if excess has been invoked a few times: Moonrise because it looks too much like a Wes Anderson film, and Beasts because it looks like a feature-length Levi’s ad or Arcade Fire music video.

And as I see it, it’s really a kind of excess that makes these films likely targets for ideological critique. Both films are, in spirit at least, unwitting participants in what some critics in the 90s have identified as the New Sincerity (alternatively, post-post modernism or post-irony; take your pick), and it’s this “sincerity”–loosely defined as a reaction against postmodern irony that also incorporates that very irony–that partly allows these films to get into hot water.

Of course, the films in question take on radically different definitions of New Sincerity that happen to reflect the fraught history of the term. Beasts, as its detractors suggest, fetishizes belief and optimism to a fault. The film’s sincere investment in the power of the human spirit necessarily distracts us from the systemic racism responsible for the Katrina disaster (similar critiques were leveled against Schindler’s List). Its sincerity isn’t all that new, but this is precisely the kind of “new sincerity” that Jim Collins identified when he coined the term in 1993, citing films like Dances with Wolves, Hook, and Field of Dreams.[2] Amidst the “media-saturated landscape of contemporary American culture,” says Collins, new sincerity “rejects any form of irony in its sanctimonious pursuit of lost purity” instead of trying to master the proliferation of images through ironic pastiche–think Dances with Wolves vs. Back to the Future 3.  Moonrise’s new sincerity, on the other hand, is more precisely new in that it incorporates ironic detachment: consider Anderson’s distanced and artificially composed style and his “quirky” characters (“quirkiness” in Anderson’s films, at least according to James MacDowell, is a tonal combination of irony and sincerity[3]) as the means by which Anderson delivers sincere personal nostalgia–for childhood, for simplicity, or even for a storybook escapist fantasy that only cinema can offer. It’s vaguely similar to what critics saw in the contemporary American fiction of David Foster Wallace and like-minded writers–a reclamation of human sentimentality through a new kind of self-reflexive irony.[4] In other words, instead of using irony to expose the hypocrisy of sentiment, irony is used to expose the emptiness of irony, bringing us closer to what Wallace called “what it means to be a fucking human being.”[5] In Moonrise, what it means to be human is found in the melancholic nostalgia for childlike optimism; in Beasts, it’s found in the aura of community that magically binds man and nature.

Many reviews are devoted to praising these risks of sentimentality; critics of Moonrise hail its “warmth,” “humanity,” and “emotional center” so much so that critic Jon Niccum said Anderson may “one day shed the collegiate hipster aura that infuses his work.” Many critics make similar assessments of Beasts; Michelle Orange goes so far as to praise the film’s ability to portray “actual, unforgettable emotion” as opposed to mere “sentiment.” It doesn’t quite matter whether or not these films attain these “emotions;” after all, it’s the apparentness of their yearning that makes them so vulnerable. Certainly, each film’s respective ambitions and aesthetic accomplishments warrants attention,  but what I keep hearing about are the films’ respective social sins, and the guilt that conscious spectators should feel in order to wash themselves of the belletristic indulgence that these films invite.

There’s more to these charges than mere cynicism–they’re important ideological critiques. But I can’t help but wonder that the respective ambition of these two films has something to do with these critiques. The trailer for Beasts certainly makes it look important; its particular place and time, the portentousness of the voice-over, the pretty shots of nature evocative of a Malick film, and of course the quoted critical praise peppered throughout. Moonrise doesn’t quite carry such weight of self-importance, but it’s the film’s seductive world, so immersive and idyllic, that almost begs us to find fault in such delight.

Let’s consider, then, a much smaller film,  Colin Trevorrow’s Safety Not Guaranteed, that also ostensibly belongs to the new sincerity, but doesn’t incur any charges of misrepresentation or over-earnestness. It tells the story of three journalists who investigate a seemingly bogus classified ad soliciting a partner for time travel. Aubrey Plaza (she has eyes like Bette Davis, but uses them exclusively for rolling and glaring) plays Darius, the jaded college graduate and magazine intern who somehow convinces the deluded time-traveler, Kenneth, that she’s a worthy candidate for the trip. An unlikely romance ensues:  her mask of cynicism falls away, her barren sentiments are kindled, her cold heart is warmed.

This is a film that is as sincere in its sentiment as it is about taking the risk to be sincere. Here, sincerity/naivete is embodied as much by the aspiring time traveler as it is by science fiction as a genre; part of the fun of the film is how it teeters on the edge of cynicism and naivete by exposing its own confused generic identity–is it a comedy about time travel or a humorous sci-fi? Plaza, who has already perfected the art of dead-pan monotone in Scott Pilgrim Vs the World and Parks and Recreation, has firmly established herself as the sardonic twenty-something who can deflate the enthusiasm out of any situation. She’s cynicism personified, and in this film, she wields the superpower of the cynic–an all-knowing mastery over mainstream cultures, or at least the pretension to such mastery. Thus, in arguably the film’s best scene, when Plaza has to convince Kenneth of her worthiness, she affects a hardened intensity that comes off as parody but nonetheless fools the time traveler. The resulting exchange is a competition of earnestness, but whereas Plaza is playing a character (something between Dwight Schrute and Flash Gordon), Kenneth, either because he believes in or knows the plausibility of his endeavors, is embarrassingly sincere.

The film’s most compelling moments come from this dynamic, and the film relies on the movement toward sincerity–the conversion of the cynic–as its main narrative drive. Plaza’s transformation from cynic to believer reflects the film’s burgeoning belief in the imagined worlds of fantasy and sci-fi. When the time-traveler ceases to be an anachronism, a caricature from the wrong movie, and starts to demand our sentimental interest, we lose our mastery over his world and start to lose ourselves in it. Like Moonrise Kingdom and Beasts of the Southern Wild, Safety Not Guaranteed invests in its own imaginative possibilities, and it’s as much about that investment as it is about its sentimental themes of regret and nostalgia. Perhaps there’s no need to find fault with a film of such modest ambitions, of such simple and honest storytelling. One could conceivably launch a social critique against the film: the entire majority of the cast is characters are white and middle class except for the Indian-American intern, an all-work-no-play virgin with oversized glasses and flame stickers on his gaming laptop (he’s only interning at a magazine because “diversity looks good” on grad school apps). Such stereotypes are far too insidious to find fault with all the filmmakers who proliferate them; bigger battles, I’d imagine, need to be fought elsewhere.

It’s not that the charming sincerity of this film beguiles socially sensitive critics, but rather that it doesn’t veer into historical reality; the film only tries to create sincerity from the stuff of storytelling rather than mine history for reserves of sentiment. If earnestness necessarily creates vulnerability, that is, if sincerity is still a major risk, then films like Safety Not Guaranteed remind us that sincerity is still a risk worth taking. It reminds us that the bigger risk-takers, those films that have more to lose by virtue of their ambition, are at least pushing us to feel. Why should they have to conceal their efforts to do so?

{Update: Thanks to those who reminded me that Aubrey Plaza is not white. It wasn’t my intention to suggest that Plaza is white, but rather that the character she plays is coded as white. This, at least, was my initial thought, as Darius’s father is played by a white actor. But upon re-watching the film, one could make the argument that Darius’s deceased mother is coded as Hispanic, which could potentially open up the film’s racial politics for further discussion.}

[1] This is really only stated in a title card at the beginning of the film; the rest of the narrative has very few chronological markers, except for its fetishization of analog electronics.

[2] Collins, JIm. “Genericity in the Nineties: Eclectic Irony and the New Sincerity.” Film Theory Goes to the Movies. ed. Jim Collins. New York: Routledge, 1993.

[3] Macdowell, James. “Wes Anderson, Tone, and the Quirky Sensibility.” The New Review of Film and Television Studies. Volume 10, Issue 1. 2012.

[4] See A.O. Scott’s article on Wallace for a good example of this.

[5] Originally cited in Larry McCaffery’s interview with Wallace.

  • nicole

    Interesting article. But Aubrey Plaza is not white.

    • Jordan Schonig

      Thanks for the comment, Nicole. This is an important point, and I’ve tried to address it in my revision.