“It’s tough to be alive now. I think societal collapse is in the air, it smells like it, and without being pretentious, I hope that’s why these movies matter because that’s the role of the artist is to shine a light on what’s going on.” That’s Timothée Chalamet, an up-and-coming American actor musing on Bones & All, the latest film by the Italian director Luca Guadagnino.
The movie was wildly popular at the Venice Film Festival. The audience gave it a ten-minute standing ovation, chanting, “Luca! Luca!” Critics on Rotten Tomatoes ranked it 98 out of 100. One reviewer described it as: “an imperfect but effortlessly charming film, one that feels lived-in and loved … and speaks to the human desire to love and be loved, in spite of our flaws.”
Trouble is, the film is about cannibalism: “star-crossed lovers ravenous for human flesh”, in the words of another reviewer.
Bones & All is not a one-off, as Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal was a one-off in the 18th century. Cannibalism is A Thing in contemporary literary culture. The New York Times recently reviewed a clutch of novels, films and TV series about it.
If we are talking about societal collapse, perhaps we can begin with the image of the film’s young audience giving it rapturous applause. “I think there’s a young adult audience out there, all those alienated kids,” said another critic.
To bring talk about “alienated kids” closer to home, consider these three news items from the Australian media in the last week or so.
- Last week Anna Paul’s in-store appearance in Perth was cancelled by police when thousands mobbed the venue. Fans had arrived at 10.30pm the night before to catch a glimpse of her. Never heard of Anna Paul? The 23-year-old is Australia’s seventh most important social media influencer, with 7.1 million followers on TikTok, Instagram and YouTube. What sort of influence does she have? She’s a sex worker—one of the most popular stars on OnlyFans, a site for uploading home-made pornography.
- Last week police were called in to investigate Year 9 boys at one of Sydney’s most prestigious private high schools. They had created an on-line chat room featuring putrid child abuse, racist, sexist and homophobic comments. “Imagine paying $35,000 a year to talk about Nazi propaganda and the denigration of women,” commented one politician who called for a government investigation.
- From today’s paper: “Investigators say they have discovered Australian children as young as 6 making their own [pornographic] content, with growing concerns that popular influencer-promoted websites such as OnlyFans are normalising making pornography for cash … no one had coerced or forced the children into making the content. Instead, the children believed it was normal behaviour.”
None of these incidents is conclusive evidence of “societal collapse”. But there is something deeply disturbing about crowds of young people idolising representatives of dehumanising practices like cannibalism or pornography. They have become alienated from traditional moral values – from their parents’ moral values.
We can’t be naïve about the consistency of the moral values of 35 to 55-year-old parents. But to judge from comments on talk-back radio, all of them were disgusted with incidents like these. But many of them haven’t managed to pass on their own values to their kids. What will our society look like 30 years from now when Anna Paul’s fans are running the show?
There’s a common thread in stories like this: parents are clueless.
“Parents are beside themselves and ripping their hair out trying to avoid [the smutty chatrooms] happening,” said Carrie McCormack, of the Australian Family Association. “It’s soul-destroying for parents.”
The Sydney Morning Herald report that “police were now having tough conversations with parents after knocking on doors thinking they’re preventing children from harm, only to find the child was authoring their own exploitation material.”
And again, a child psychologist said that parents had no idea why Anna Paul was so famous. “That lack of awareness from parents makes kids vulnerable,” she said. “Talk to your kids.”
Gloomy intellectuals often talk about a civilizational crisis, but they differ wildly about its causes. Is it a climate catastrophe, or an economic meltdown, or food insecurity, or the fracturing of the international order? Is it out-of-control consumerism, or the sexual revolution, or political polarisation, or democratic failure, or post-modernist hostility to truth?
All of the above have some truth. But perhaps the most decisive is a crisis in parenting. If parents fail to pass on traditional virtues to their children, society will inevitably be affected. Kids with screwy ideas about sexuality are unlikely to make a success of marriage or parenting. That’s why government policies have to be aimed squarely at strengthening strong, intact, traditional families. These are the bedrock of society.
Parents have the most important job in the world. If they fail, we all fail.