Such is the enduring capacity for drama in Hollywood – the place, as much as its films – that it is able to deliver things no screenwriter would have the nerve to dream up. I was musing over the content of this piece a couple of Thursdays ago when I checked the morning news, only to find that Debbie Reynolds had died. Cue the ensuing mental double-take: I was still processing the news that her daughter, Carrie Fisher, had died the day before following a heart-attack suffered over Christmas. Like E.M. Forster’s exemplary Queen, her mother had died, according to the headlines, of grief. Heaven knows what Carrie – a sharp comic writer and novelist and, less well known, a courted Hollywood script doctor – would have made of it.
Ms Reynold’s uncanny sense of Hollywood timing (with all the appropriate respect to a great lady and her doubly-bereaved family, this was some way to bow out) pulled some of the rug from my own musings on the serendipities and poignant coincidences between Hollywood’s real and imaginary worlds. It was her daughter I was thinking about that Thursday morning, realising as I just had that her face – more precisely, a convincing-enough digital reworking of its younger form – was the last face I would see on the big screen in 2016, appearing as it had at the end of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. But also, that she had delivered in that now fateful final appearance, an important concluding word: ‘Hope’.
Okay, okay. I know this final word was there to create an associative link between the end of Rogue One and the full, re-branded title of the film that chronologically follows it (and it’s one of the marvels of Gareth Edwards’ film that it is so painstaking in its efforts to fill every narrative gap between it and Episode IV’s in media res opening: I’ve no doubt overlooked several decades of fan speculation here, but I was never much concerned where the ‘stolen data tapes’ of A New Hope had come from). But it also seemed more than apt at the conclusion to a year in which hope felt to many in such scarce supply, for both opponents and proponents of the Trump-Brexit axis, to take just the Anglo-American example, which – we ought to recall – profited from a wider disenfranchisement from the political and economic status quo.
But the ideology of this triumphant (Trumpant?) politics by its own nature undermines hope, based as it is on isolationism and the imposition of figurative and literal barriers. As the now outgoing US president identified in the title of his second book, hope is audacious: to be hopeful in contemporary times, and not merely to retrench in fear, requires boldness and courage, in order to face what is difficult, and indeed, fearful. With the modern world starting to feel unnervingly close to the imagined 2027 of Children of Men, rather than the 2019 of Blade Runner (choose your dystopia!), the sort of hope called for by the young Princess Leia, in the context of Rogue One’s showing, hardly feels like the airy Hollywood sentiment it might otherwise have evoked.
Like most dystopian cinema, Children of Men, which celebrated (if that’s the right word) its tenth birthday at the end of last year, exacerbates the most negative aspects of contemporary society as its own call to hope, showing a refracted image of our own present in the potential future. Not for nothing was the documentary that accompanied Cuarón’s film called The Possibility of Hope, in which various environmentalists and/or stars of the intellectual left (James Lovelock, Slavoj Žižek, Naomi Klein) dissect the contemporary world’s ills and suggest some potential remedies. It’s telling that in the film, loosely adapted from P.D. James’s novel, the world’s apparently chronic demise stems, in a Gaia-style form of earthly recalibration, to a global lack of fertility that has left the planet entirely childless, until a young pregnant woman is found. This is a bit of a ruse, of course; the film isn’t remotely concerned with why this happened, or whether there’s some scientific fix. It’s rather what happens, emotionally, socially and environmentally, once you remove the young from the equation, with which the film is concerned; the abrupt answer being that everything goes to shit. A similar thing, it’s worth pointing out, seems to have happened in Blade Runner, the all-permeating jadedness of which owes a lot to the lack of children in its rain-lashed urban sprawl (and it’s here left to the ‘infant’ replicants to re-imagine childhood for everyone else’s benefit).
The absence of children, then, is literally the absence of a future, but it is also symbolic of the absence of hope; and conversely hope, even in the face of an uncertain future, still exists in the presence of a child. Children of Men, a modern-day secular nativity (it was released in the US on Christmas Day: some festive outing, that one), consequently saves its most potentially mawkish but actually quite moving sequence for the moment when the newly-born baby, guarded by its mother and Clive Owen’s faded activist, is carried out to safety through a militarised zone of armed confrontation – and the clusters of brutalised squaddies stop, dumbstruck and goggle-eyed at the sight.
It’s for similar reasons that we invest so much in the young in films, for the simple reason that a) they’re trying to find out who and what they can be, b) they’re finding their way in a cynical and destructive adult world, and c) they offer the fragile possibility that they won’t fuck it up (the possibility of hope, in other words). The appeal of The Hunger Games and its many imitators is not merely the dramatic context of the games/trials etc. as events, but the fact that the competitors are just kids, for God’s sake. Not that they need to be pitched against each other in a literal arena of death: teen(age) films like The Breakfast Club or Entre les murs or Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows seem more potent the further away I get from them in age, not through nostalgia (I love John Hughes movies, but never really watched them at the ‘appropriate’ age), but rather because, as Catherine Driscoll writes in her book Teen Films, such films enable a viewer like myself to ‘restag[e] and recross… the fantastic line between childhood and adulthood’, allowing one to (re)invest in the emotional and existential dilemmas of youth from the reflective vantage point of adulthood (or in my case middle age, to be more specific).
All of which brings me back round to Debbie and Carrie, both of them, remarkably, enjoying their defining moment of screen success at the age of nineteen, in Singin’ in the Rain and then Star Wars. As children nurtured by and within Hollywood, needless to say, the pair were only ‘normal’ nineteen-year olds in the same sense that, say, Andy Murray or Lionel Messi were ever normal teenage boys. But what verve, what lack of fear! Anyone who knows the history of Star Wars’ production, or who has sat through any of the prequel trilogy, will know that humour was never George Lucas’s gift to the world; and in turn, that much of the screwball banter that leaves the 1977 film still so vigorous owes most to the old-school class and wit of Fisher and Harrison Ford. And if you ever needed an object lesson in the grace of filmmaking and of the human body, or how song and dance might seem enough on which to build hope, look no further than Singin’ in the Rain: it’s all there! May their Force be with us in 2017.