Monday, February 5, 2007

The Weight of Money

Jens Lekman photographed in Athens, Greece

It's lucky for Jens Lekman that his native Sweden's currency rhymes with Barcelona. The title of "I Don't Know If She's Worth 900 kr," a light pop ditty built around coo-ing girl group backing vocals and a Jens' trademark lazy-electric-rhythm-guitar, is wonderfully casual in its mention of economic realities: the truth is, can Lekman spare the money to visit a girl in Spain? He starts the song by admitting that he falls in love too easily--that the gap of social reality (money) and social fantasy (a love affair) forces him to confront the validity of the latter. It's a natural though process we engage in daily; we greatly underestimate the role economics, or the concept of value in general, plays in the way we analyze our surroundings. We guage how much we liked a film by whether we'd pay to see it again, how much we enjoy the book we're reading by whether we'd buy it, how much we liked the song we heard based on whether we'd buy the CD.
It's the weight of money on our everyday decision making, and its a weight largely absent from the cinema and television of the United States. It's taboo to discuss exact sums in films unless they're unrealistically large heist takes--you're more likely to hear about hundreds of millions in a duffel bag than $67.50 for the electric bill. It's opposite of a noir film, where the world always felt so hopeless because the numbers were so exact. Sitting in the darkened theatre, we wondered whether a person's life was really worth the $200,000 (even after we adjusted it mentally for inflation) in Nightfall, or the few thousand dollars in Thieves' Highway.
Even poverty is a rootless conception, a vague state, the opposite of Chaplin, when we were constantly reminded of hunger, of running away from police and petty stealing just to get a bite to eat; instead, we just have the image of Chaplin, as though the tramp costume is enough for us to understand what it's like to be poor (or, for that matter, rich, as wealth is equally vague in American films). Poor people live in exaggerated squalor now in American films (David Fincher, after all, made decay art design fashionable), but this "hyper-reality" is only connected to social reality by a few choice buzzwords (Welfare, Medicaid), in the same way Casino Royale's James Bond is modernized with the invocation of 9/11.
By denying this social reality, we create a social fantasy that will define the American mindset as well as exact figures would: a desire to portray problems without describing their causes, a post-Left liberalism of gestures that are not as much empty as disconnected. It is the lie that will eventually tell the truth, for cinema has a capacity for history that exceeds that of the written word--a writer, after all, can only write down what he or she knows or notices, but in a movie, there are so many outside factors; an absence is as informative as a presence. We'll go down in history as the Imaginary Generation, using our sense of history to create a pre-historicized present that pretends to exist as a commentator outside of the American (and international) narrative rather than the latest episode of it. Or perhaps that is how every generation has been.

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