Monday, December 23, 2013
Strained Analogies Between Recently Released Films and Current Events: The Desolation of Smaug and The Cessation of Unemployment Insurance
by Matt McKenna
It is tempting to read The Desolation of Smaug, Peter Jackson's second installment in the Hobbit film trilogy, as a sweeping metaphor for the most grandiose concepts and topics currently under discussion on the cable news networks in the United States.
For example, Thorin Oakenshield's company of thirteen dwarves, a wizard, and a hobbit does bear surface similarities to what could reasonably be seen as a fantasy rendition of Occupy. After all, both groups consist of idealistic outsiders who attempt to reclaim once public land. However, this reading is undercut by the fact that Bilbo Baggins, the protagonist and titular hero, has joined the quest explicitly to render his services as the company's "burglar." It is fair to say that Occupy activists don't see themselves as burglars, and there is certainly no sense that Bilbo nor anyone else employed on the quest is attempting to reclaim the word from the lexicon of their oppressors. Furthermore, the social structure of the dwarves is anything but flat, and their decision-making processes are completely at odds with the typical methodologies of Occupy. Arguments comparing the film's heroes to members of the Tea Party movement can be made and summarily dismissed along similar lines.
Another tantalizing interpretation of the film is to see it as an allegory for the implosion of capitalism in an era of unsustainable equality. Indeed, the economically disadvantaged villagers of Laketown who aid the dwarves during their travels to Erebor refer to the arrival of our heroes as the fulfillment of an ancient prophecy. But which ancient prophecy? While the townspeople are literally referring to the diegetic prognostication that posits Dwarves will one day reclaim the Lonely Mountain, the audience is compelled to wonder if these characters are metaphorically referring to Karl Marx's prediction that capitalism--Smaug, the fire-breathing dragon--will collapse under the weight of its own success. But this reading quickly falls apart once the viewer realizes that Smaug the Terrible doesn't actually adhere to the tenants capitalism. In fact, Smaug is a textbook mercantilist, what with the hoarding of gold and the extraction of wealth from foreign lands. Now, if Smaug were to reinvest his ill-gained gold into fixing the missing scale absent over his left breast--a womp-rat sized hole which one assumes will cause him some discomfort in the third film--then this capitalism metaphor might have some legs.
Thus, the film is not a fantasy retelling of major political movements in the early 21st century, nor is it a critique of the world's dominant economic system. What, then, is it? Could it be that The Desolation of Smaug is a film that can only be coherently enjoyed as a literal tale of diminutive creatures with British accents attempting to liberate treasure from within a hollow and tritely named geological structure?
Of course not.
To understand The Desolation of Smaug, we must first step down from the lofty perch highfalutin philosophy and read the film as a metaphor for more pragmatic matters, the way Peter Jackson intended. To understand The Desolation of Smaug, we must examine how the United States is handling its unemployment situation.
The plot of Desolation of Smaug picks up after the events of the previous film (An Unexpected Journey): the unemployed dwarves continue their hike towards the Lonely Mountain (the unemployment office) in the hopes of bringing home their promised gold (their unemployment benefits). After having been besieged by orcs (bureaucracy), trolls (negative media representation of the unemployed), and unhelpful elves (wealthy libertarians), the company has finally reached the vicinity of the mountain. While the entire film is a thinly veiled metaphor for unemployment in America, there are two scenes that particularly capture the essence of the comparison: the barrel scene and Bilbo's first encounter the dragon, Smaug.
Like the chariot scene in Ben-Hur and the Odessa Steps scene in Battleship Potemkin, the barrel scene in the Desolation of Smaug is destined to become a classic film moment. While audiences will be thrilled by the intensity of the action and cinematography, they will also be struck by its cutting criticism of 112th United States Congress. Having been imprisoned by the empathy-deprived wood-elves for violating the race's engorged sense of property rights, Thorin and his company are forced to escape the kingdom by riding in wine barrels down a frothy and rapid-laden river where they are once again set upon by marauding orcs. The wood-elves provide no coordinated assistance to the party as they tumble down the river, avoiding the arrows and swords of their merciless enemies. Clearly, Jackson is comparing the wood-elves to the libertarian sect of Congress that sees the trespasses of non-privileged classes as crimes that can only be rectified via tough love. And just as one wonders how the wood-elves plan to confer their particular brand of values to the dwarves by jailing and abandoning them as they careen down the river, so too does one wonder how the disappearance of financial lifelines could possibly improve an unemployed person's career prospects. The fact that the wood-elves, upon realizing the dwarves have escaped, decide the best course of action is to secure their borders and cut themselves off from the rest of the Middle Earth mirrors the they-got-themselves-into-this-mess/not-my-problem mentality of these particular members in Congress. This disconnect between the privileged wood-elves and the beleaguered adventurers sets the stage for Bilbo and the dwarves' eventual confrontation with the equally self-centered Smaug.
If the barrel scene demonstrates Congress' callous attitude towards the unemployed, Bilbo's introduction to Smaug highlights the film's dire prediction for the American economy if this attitude doesn't change. When Bilbo Baggins first meets Smaug, the dragon is literally sleeping on its money, a reference to Congress' austerity that is so blatant as to render itself hardly worth mentioning. Naturally, Smaug is annoyed by the interruption of its sleep and responds, not by working with Bilbo to find an equitable solution to their conflict, but by flying off towards impoverished Laketown with a belly full of fire and destruction on its mind. With Congress flying off to their own recess without hammering out a plan to assist the long term unemployed, it is the United States' economy that will be set ablaze as millions of Americans will slide further into debt and permanent unemployment. Jackson's point is so succinctly made in this scene, it is impossible to watch Smaug fly into the night without also imagining a reptilian hybrid Nancy Pelosi/John Boehner flapping its dragon wings en route to lay siege to the American economy.
Like most good fantasies, there is hope at the end of the The Desolation of Smaug--hope that Bilbo, the dwarves, and the people of Middle Earth will be able to overcome the wrath that seeks vengeance against them. Likewise, there is hope that after members of Congress return to their offices in January, they will retroactively reinstate emergency unemployment compensation for another year. This extension would of course be a boon to millions of unemployed Americans--at least for the short term. If the job market doesn't improve dramatically over the next twelve months, this potential extension would set up another Congressional conflict around the release date of the final Hobbit film next December. Considering the subtitle of the last film will be "There and Back Again," it seems Peter Jackson doesn't have much confidence in Congress.
Posted by Matt McKenna at 12:15 AM | Permalink