Three hours is a long time to be shouted at by an orchestra. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good instrumental soundtrack – a rising crescendo here, a plucky staccato there, maybe the punch of a trumpet or a drum every now and again to remind me I’m alive. I don’t even mind when said crescendo, staccato, trumpet and/or drum are there with the obvious and express intent to make me feel one specific thing. You want me to cry? Smash those piano keys. Need me to be afraid? Let's go, cello. You’re after happy and relieved that the peril at the centre of the story has been resolved by a lazy, convenient and yet ultimately unsatisfying deus ex machina? Stick on a trumpet, Hans Zimmer, I can probably squeeze out a contented sigh.
In this sense, soundtracks have the ability to shape and carve a film – to elevate and transform it. Christopher Nolan’s Summer blockbuster Oppenheimer is certainly no exception. The soundtrack, by Ludwig Göransson, is phenomenal and, along with incredible acting performances, manages to inject suspense and tension and anxiety into a story that we all know the ending to.
Going into the film, it is impossible to be ignorant of many of the key beats. During the war, the US developed, successfully tested and then dropped atomic weapons on two Japanese cities – Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Despite this, some two hours in as the testing sequence reached its climax, I could feel the muscles in my shoulders and neck tense up. The tell tale patter of my heart as my anxiety rose with the music and the metaphorical button was pushed. Will it work? I could feel myself asking, despite already knowing the answer.
At its heart, Oppenheimer is a story of a modern day Prometheus, grappling with the hell fire he’d unleashed and attempting to put it back in a box. Despite the acting and the heavily indicative soundtrack the morality tale felt lacking. It fell flat somehow.
I walked out of the cinema after watching it on release weekend and couldn’t shake the feeling that something was amiss. Something remained unexplored (which is quite a feat for a film that long). It’s a fate that is shared with its release date sister film, Barbie.
Like many others, I decided to do a double bill, watching Oppenheimer first in the early afternoon and then following up, after a number of ‘what the fuck did we just watch pints’, with the Barbie movie. In the run up to its release much had been made of the latter. The Guardian called it a “riotous, candy-coloured feminist fable” whilst the Independent said it was “a testament to what can be achieved within even the deepest bowels of capitalism.” There have been a truly inordinate number of think pieces, reviews, hit tweets and sassy put downs all hung from the same bright pink hook.
I went into the screen, with tinned cocktails in my pockets, ready for nonsense. I wanted silliness. I wanted camp, big, broad brushstrokes and colours. In so many ways, once again with the help of its soundtrack, the film delivered. The big dance numbers, the garish sets, the stupid jokes, weird Barbie and Alan, all made for a two hour spectacle of absurdity.
In amongst it though, there were some uncomfortable and, at points, fairly ham-fisted attempts to do politics™. We see Barbie Land, its functions and structures mimicking that of the real world except with a ‘gender flip’ (In Barbie Land it’s always girls night!), thrown into chaos when Ken discovers patriarchy and decides to implement it whilst Barbie is off on some schemes in the real world. The film spends an hour trying to overthrow Kendomland and the tyranny of the Mojo Dojo Casa House and restore the world to its natural balance (with Barbies in charge and Kens doing beach). Things are brought to a shuddering finale when Barbie apologises to Ken for rebuffing his advances (though Ken manages to avoid having to say sorry for doing a whole hostile takeover, enslavement of a gender class, stealing of all property bit). A Billie Eilish-tracked montage haphazardly ties it all together and that’s that.
As I walked home, I turned both films over in my head, trying to make sense of what was irking me so much about them. Both films, in their own ways, attempted to shine a light on the American psyche and society of their relative times. Both attempted to provide commentary and, to a certain extent, a solution to the ills they’d revealed. For Oppenheimer, it’s the birth of the nuclear-industrial complex and the seemingly futile struggle between scientific development and arms control. For Barbie, the solution was to throw off the shackles of patriarchy by girlbossing their way through it.
They are both perfect examples of Audre Lorde’s maxim that the master's tools can never be used to dismantle the master’s house. In each film the titular character tried to dismantle the house, and then rebuild it, in the exact same shape, with a few of the bricks in different places. In Oppenheimer, Cillian Murphy’s character tries to utilise the very same structures and institutions that unleashed the horrors of atomic warfare to curtail its excesses. In Barbie, the Barbies attempt to break the subjugation of women by rebuilding the exact conditions which led to it, except with them in charge – with the opportunity for one Ken to sit as a circuit judge.
They are perfect illustrations of the lack of ambition and vision for a different settlement that sits at the heart of Liberalism. So much has been made of both offerings, so much weight attributed to the progressive, transgressive or liberationary merits of the films – a weight that neither can bear.
These films do not, and arguably cannot, tell real stories. The grinding machinery of monolithic capital that is Hollywood is not a revolutionary force, no matter how pink and sparkly or dark and brooding the product is. To have milquetoast politics segued into them as an attempt to (safely) poke fun at their own monopoly is not to be celebrated as a route to salvation from the subjugation it thrives upon.
Ultimately, and most importantly, these are films. They are an entertainment vehicle designed to challenge and educate to a point, but ultimately to make money and not rock the boat. And that is ok! To try and piece together scraps of cogent analysis, or the seeds of revolution from blockbusters, telling the stories of ‘Murica, the imperialist power or capitalist giant Mattel, is an exercise in futility. It’s only when we start to tell the true stories of community, resistance and change that these art forms become something worthy of the discourse and the power to craft that has been granted to them. Until then, at least we have “I’m just Ken” to see us through.
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