03/16/2012 02:44 pm ET Updated May 16, 2012

The Empire's Pretentious New Clothes

This past year has seen the blossoming of a new genre: the end-of-empire-anxiety-film.

It lurks just beneath the surface in The Descendants, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, and War Horse. Some messy feelings crawl into the collective subconscious and are represented on the screen and beyond. The angst is understated and behind-the-scenes, but fully apparent set against its obverse: the mirror-image stories of a romanticized and gauzy nostalgia for happier times like The Artist -- "Let's forget that the empire is ending, or what it was really like for its victims."

But Lars von Trier's Melancholia, best film of the year according to the National Society of Film Critics, and Tree of Life, winner of the best director Academy Award for Terrence Malick, are the leading examples of end-of-empire-anxiety-films.

It's one of those things -- no one wants to talk about it openly, no one can quite put a finger on it -- it's everywhere and nowhere at all.

There's an uneasy and unmistakable feeling that the American empire is on a collision course with reality. Broken glass and twisted steel, fire and chaos just ahead. As Randy Newman has said, "The end of an empire is messy at best, and this empire's ending like all the rest." If the nutty right of the Republican culture conjures apocalyptic fantasies of God's wrath, the liberal intelligentsia presents its own version. But they both agree that there is no way to contemplate the end of U.S. domination of the world except to imagine that the entire world is simply coming to an end.

In Melancholia we are treated to the actual end of life on the Earth, brought about by the collision with another planet. Unfortunately we view this epic event through the lives of some over-wealthy twits, some members of the 1% who we don't really care much about. Justine is a self-involved depressive. Kirsten Dunst's bouts of depression are so cold that about halfway through the film I found myself urging, "Come on, rogue planet, hit the earth already." Her brother-in-law John is a squire who looks like he was just transported from Downton Abbey. And her nephew Leo qualifies as the most unrealistic child character ever invented. Imagine all the stories, all the heroic and tragic and crucial moments that would be happening in different communities on Earth if these were the final days. But we get none of that. Just the pain and sorrow of those who have suffered the least in this final century. Ho hum.

Tree of Life is even sillier. Again we have characters who are hard to identify with or care about. Somehow the trials and tribulations of an unhappy middle class white family in Texas in the 1950s is supposed to be the vehicle for us to contemplate the ultimate questions of existence -- from the beginning of the universe through a montage of Darwinian speculation (really the best part of the film, the Discovery Channel sequences). There is nothing quite so imposing as the banality of the learned.

A number of literary fads have paved the way for this kind of despairing narrative. A good example is the postmortem reputation boost for Chilean-Mexican author Roberto Bolaño, a kind of post modern nihilist who seems to have replaced the revolutionary Pablo Neruda and Gabriel Garcia Marquez as the latest thing in Latin American letters. No one really enjoys Bolaño. Read the reviews. Everyone pretty much feels they should appreciate him, they must try to understand him, after all everyone says he is awesome. But there is no real enthusiasm. His reputation is like the emperor's new clothes. For the cognoscenti, it's important to appear to be on the inside. And the one thing he cannot imagine is social movements, social transformation and liberatory possibilities.

As an educator, I find myself blaming our schools. Yes, our education system has failed and attacked the poor, the black and brown, the marginalized. But schools have also screwed up the kids in the AP track, given them too much training in reducing art to obvious and simplistic Symbols and Messages. The form and content complement each other: in content, these works project despair over the demise of the old order and an inability to connect with lived lives of black, brown, and working class people. In form, the self-conscious artiness of the opening sequence in Melancholia, the meaningful cutaways to the interstices in Tree of Life, make me embarrassed for our culture. You can just picture here the analysis paper of the hardworking private school eleventh grader. These films seem to come with their Cliff's Notes stapled to the front of the screen.

What passes for profound in the dominant culture, the despair and demoralization of the privileged who are seeing it all slip away, is, I suppose, something that should make us sad. Those who cannot imagine the hopeful narratives engendered by Occupy Wall Street, who care not for the resilience of a thousand acts of resistance in a thousands corners of the world, are feeling lost.

Today, bad writing and bad film-making pass muster as profound because no one wants to announce that the emperor has no clothes. We need to dig beneath these works to reflect on the world view they represent.