It’s the era of “social distancing.”
In health care, of course, as a method to mitigate the coronavirus pandemic.
But social distancing has already been happening in American politics, economics and demographics.
And it’s often amplified culturally — especially in instantly inflammatory films such as “The Hunt,” which burst onto the radar late last summer and will now burst on screens this weekend after a half-year postponement.
TV viewers bombarded by the movie’s marketing may be familiar with the basic premise: Nearly a dozen dazed people wake up in a field only to find out that they are prey in a human hunt.
What’s left out of the trailer is that the hunters are labeled liberal “elites,” while the hunted are conservative “deplorables.”
This premise prompted understandable revulsion when the film was set for an initial September 2019 release. From some people of all political persuasions, to be sure, but especially among talk radio and Fox News hosts, whose audience often includes President Donald Trump (who in the film is not named but alluded to, using an expletive).
As is the president’s practice, Trump took to Twitter to attack the film and “Liberal Hollywood,” which he wrote, “create their own violence, and then try to blame others.” Later, Trump told reporters that “What Hollywood is doing is a tremendous disturbance to our country.”
A disturbance, maybe. At minimum a distraction. And minimum is an apt characterization of “The Hunt” as a film, or even as a satire, which is what the director, Craig Zobel, claims it is.
“Right now, it feels like what maybe the healthiest thing we could do would be to start to laugh at this stuff a little bit,” Zobel told the Wall Street Journal.
Zobel’s attempt at satire seems bipartisan, as blue- and red-state tropes like political correctness, cultural appropriation, climate change, NPR, “deep state,” “refugee-crisis actors” and other fraught phrases are deployed (often while characters are killing each other). And while Zobel makes a “deplorable” the heroine (and the elites deplorable) it’s all about as subtle as a high heel to the eye, one of the movie’s many brutally violent images that go well beyond people getting shot.
Real-life violence is part of “The Hunt’s” back story as well. The film was shelved in response to two mass shootings that claimed 31 lives in El Paso and Dayton that tragically transpired right before the original release date.
“We understand that now is not the right time to release this film,” Universal Studios said in part in a statement explaining its delay.
So is now the right time?
Have mass shootings ended? Has the enduring hurt ebbed?
Or does Universal now just see a relative respite as an opportunity to roil an already socially distanced America?
“The most talked about movie of the year is one that no one’s actually seen,” the movie’s new marketing campaign urges. “Decide for yourself.”
The few who will see it — and the vast majority who will just hear about it — will indeed decide. And most will judge it as not an exploration, but an exploitation of the nation’s divisions.
And it might just return the term “Hollywood values” to the never-ending culture wars. Yet “Hollywood” is but a sliver of the silver screen nowadays, as proven by a preview of the Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival that occurred a day after “The Hunt” screening. On Friday, the festival was postponed for the right kind of social distancing. But based on past festivals, world cinema’s take on universal values transcends Universal Picture’s “Hunt” misfire.
The theme for the postponed festival is “Adjust Your View,” and movies from around the world can do just that, said Susan Smoluchowski, the executive director of the MSP Film Society.
“We can get stuck in the mire of our own perspectives too easily,” Smoluchowski said in an interview. “Filmmaking is about storytelling, but it’s also about engaging the world in a better understanding of other people.”
This doesn’t mean that international filmmakers ignore the deep divisions in their respective countries; on the contrary, they lean into them, but with more humanity than “The Hunt.”
“The best films never ignore those things,” Smoluchowski said. “The best films address those things head on.” And in doing so, these films build bridges within and across countries.
“We find when we’re looking at politics or issues that are global that there are some moments in our collective lives as human beings where we think we are living in isolated events when in fact events that are similar in scope and direction are happening in other parts of the world,” Smoluchowski said. “They can help us understand our own plight by giving us that perspective.”
Getting that perspective instead of the divisive vision presented in cynical films like “The Hunt” just may be a small step toward ending the political and cultural social distancing defining our times.
It’s a role the greatest filmmakers recognized. Including an Italian immigrant who came to best embody, and understand, his adopted America.
“Mankind needed dramatizations of the truth that man is essentially good, a living atom of divinity; that compassion for others, friend or foe, is the noblest of all virtues,” wrote Frank Capra in his 1971 autobiography.
Capra recognized and reflected the divisions of his time. And while most movies won’t be as ennobling as “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” or “It’s a Wonderful Life,” they can aspire higher.
“Films must be made to say these things,” Capra continued, “To counteract the violence and meanness, to buy time to demobilize the hatreds.”
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:10 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.