Modern Social Problem Film

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Modern Social Problem Film

Modern Social Problem Film


Justin Rosenberg famously stated: “'Globalization' was the Zeitgeist of the 1990s”. While debates continue to rage surrounding the concept of globalization and globalization theory, it is undeniable that we now live in a much more “globalized” world than we did fifty, twenty, even ten years ago. In typical Hollywood style, it took some time for mainstream cinema to embody characteristics of this sweeping socio-politico-economic change, but its effects have now most certainly arrived. Hollywood has, of course, always been a global institution. But like globalization itself, the transformation is not so much a matter of innovation, but degree.

My case studies in elucidating the global social problem film (the GSP) will be Steven Soderbergh's Traffic (2000), with its three intersecting plot lines exploring the illegal Mexican-American drug trade from the perspective of user, enforcer, politician and trafficker, and Stephen Gaghan's Syriana (2005), a geopolitical thriller that explores the political, military, economic, legal and social aspects of the global oil industry. Another recent example of the GSP is Fast Food Nation (Linklater, 2006), the fictional interpretation of Eric Schlosser's expose of the same name detailing the economic, environmental and social consequences of the fast food industry, weaving stories from across the United States and Mexico. Babel (Iñárritu, 2006) is another: this multi-language, globe-spanning mediation on communication follows a chain of events linking an American tourist couple, a Japanese father and daughter, two Morrocan boys, and a Mexican nanny's cross-border trip with two American children. Blood Diamond (Zwick, 2006) tackles conflict diamonds in war zones, The Constant Gardener (Meirelles, 2005) takes on the global pharmaceutical industry, Munich (Spielberg, 2005) explicates international terrorism, and Lord of War (Niccol, 2005) satirizes global arms distribution.The GSP is a result of postmodern genre hybridity, an integral characteristic of New Hollywood. As seminal genre theorist Steve Neale notes, “New Hollywood can be distinguished from the old by the hybridity of its genres and films… this hybridity is governed by the multi-media synergies characteristic of the New Hollywood, by the mixing and recycling of new and old and low art and high art media products in the modern (or post-modern) world”.


Documentary filmmaking - and its offshoot, docudrama - is the second key influence for the global social problem film. As the primary focus of the GSP is shedding light on a real-world problem, the effort to achieve a sense of realism is vital. Stylistically, the use of ostentatious cinematography is rare, but if used, serves a utilitarian function. Traffic, for example, uses distinctive colour palettes to clearly distinguish its three plotlines: the East Coast scenes are shot in bright daylight to produce icy blue, monochromatic tones; the Mexican scenes are overexposed and use 'tobacco' filters for grainy, bleached-out sepia tones; and the San Diego scenes use the risky technique of 'flashing' the negative for a halo effect to complement the vibrant hues. Documentary-invoking handheld camerawork often compliments this realist, utilitarian ...
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