Out of Scope

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Written by

Alec Grossman

Out of Scope

Doubt’s Growing Role in Movies – and What It Says About Us

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is a great movie - that’s no surprise, given the creative talent involved. But the scene that stuck with me most was probably the worst in the entire film: the chase scene when Margot Robbie and America Ferrera try to escape from Will Ferrell. They enter their getaway car –  a Chevy – that looks like it just received a fresh coat of wax as it swoops into the scene, perfectly framed. Barbie, who had never been in a real car before, immediately knew how to put on her seatbelt. The scene’s final cut deliberately shows her clipping in.

Some people in my theater chuckled. Others groaned. Because all of a sudden, Barbie didn’t feel like a movie. It felt like a commercial – because it was a Chevy commercial, tucked inside a two-hour Barbie commercial. My fellow theater-goers and I weren’t the only ones that felt that way, either.

I don’t mean to pick on Barbie. But it’s just one of the many examples of entertainment and broader American life over the past year that has perpetuated a culture of doubt and simultaneously made me wonder: what am I really looking at?

A very different kind of doubt is the foundation, if not the very point, of Martin Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon, a movie about white settlers’ brutal attempts to claim the Osage Nation’s valuable Oklahoma land through murder. At the end of the film, Scorsese depicts a radio play similar to an actual broadcast that aired at the time, designed to reframe horrific acts of terrorism as entertainment. At the end of the radio play, Scorsese himself comes onto the screen and breaks the fourth wall. He openly criticizes how popular history has whitewashed native experiences, saying: “There was no mention of the murders.”

In this scene, there’s no clear indication of whether the radio play directly replicates something that happened in the 1930s or whether it was simply an artistic embellishment on Scorcese’s part. Of course, this kind of tension will always exist in a movie based on history, but by depicting something as specific as a radio play while featuring a famous, modern-day figure like Scorsese in the same scene, Killers creates a sort of cognitive dissonance and makes the questioning of truth vs. fiction central to the audiences’ experience.

Essentially, Scorcese is causing audiences to question – question our history textbooks, question how Killers itself portrayed the story of the Osage people, and question history’s depiction in popular media.

Barbie and Killers are two very different examples of doubt’s supporting role in recent movies, but I could go on. The films that won Best Adapted and Original Screenplay at the Oscars, American Fiction and Anatomy of a Fall, both asked audiences to question whether the scenes happening in front of them are truly occurring or are just a figment of the main character’s imagination. May December, starring Natalie Portman and Julianne Moore, also directly questioned the blurry lines between authenticity and performance.

Okay – so what?

Consciously or not, movies often reflect shifting cultural values. Westerns in the 1950s demonstrated Americans’ imperialist confidence after World War Two. The rise in psychological drama and horror movies in the 1970s reflects Vietnam War tensions. The popularity of “multiversal” storytelling in recent Marvel Movies, or even the Oscar-winning Everything Everywhere All At Once, echoes growing dissatisfaction with our current social, political, and ecological climates.

The fact that so many contemporary movies focus on doubt isn’t a coincidence. It reflects a growing skepticism in today’s society and a reluctance to believe in the things that are right in front of our eyes.

In the age of AI, who can blame us?

It’s worth considering that AI’s emergence is central to this shift we’re seeing on the big screen and, of course, in our culture broadly. Because AI has the power to make the fake indiscernible from the real, it will undoubtedly continue to cast doubt on everything from celebrity cameos to this year’s presidential election.

Working in the communications industry, my colleagues and I are challenged to engage audiences in an environment where doubt is increasingly the default. Doing so successfully means leaning into individuality and authenticity and pushing away from the overly conventional. In this landscape, earnest originality is our most powerful weapon.

At a time when seemingly everyone is excited to generate AI content, it’s important to remember that not many people are excited to read AI-generated content. Audiences want to spend their valuable time on authentic, creative content –  whether that content is calling attention to our current cultural moment or not. I mean, I don't think AI-generated versions of Barbie – product placement and all – or Killers of the Flower Moon would have done so well at the box office, for example. But what do I know? I’m just a PR Ken.