Movie Reviews: Class and Habitus in “Café Society”

What I like about Woody Allen’s films is that I know beforehand that Allen will bombard me with so many ideas, which I will later spend time slowly deconstructing. Indeed, not only does Allen pack so many ideas in his latest film Café Society, he also complements those with a beautiful cinematography which makes the movie so irresistible that one could hardly blink while watching.

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I do not claim to have seen that many Woody Allen movies (in fact, there’s still so many more I’d like to watch), but Allen is the type of director who trademarks his movies with his personal style; similar directors include, Steven Spielberg, Quentin Tarantino…(apologies for the generic, mainstream names – all I could think of now). All that is well and fine (and quite awesome too), but what is it about Café Society which makes it particularly fascinating?

Pierre Bourdieu is a prominent French sociologist who extensively studied class down to its core; he mainly classified class into two components: how it is presented physically and practiced mentally. Now Bourdieu is not the easiest person to understand; he is definitely up there in, what I dub complex academics as, the ‘Ultimate Confusion League’ with Michel Foucault, Karl Marx, and many others. However, his works keep being cited in all other works relating to class, class performance, etc…so he definitely monopolizes the authority there.

Café Society prominently tackles the issue of class, in relation to Bourdieu’s work. Habitus, as a term, has existed for a while but it was Bourdieu who popularized the term’s usage in the field of sociology. It is indeed an elusive term, but it can simply means practices which take part of the social nature in order to present the self [1]. It is noticeable that characters are distinguishable by their class as well as habitus. In the beginning, Bobby [Jesse Eisenberg] is an awkward New-Yorker trying to make it in LA. He appears to be so out of place, that in one scene this is physically prominent: at a lavish party, everyone around Bobby is dressed in beige as he wears a drab brown suit. Such a, seemingly, subtle detail could consist as a practice of habitus.

Later, when Bobby joins the ranks of the elite, he is seen to be at ease with navigating the field around him. Yet, despite that ease, something tugs at him – a feeling that he does not truly belong – and that surfaces as soon as he his past comes back haunting him. Bobby seems puzzled how people are able to carry themselves effortlessly in this café society they had constructed around them. Everything seems so banal. Once he’d had a taste of his true passion, he, probably, ponders how he would be able to return to that life…

It is intriguing to enter this movie in a little cinema called ‘Zawya’, tucked in the depths of Cairo’s Downtown allies, then come out and face the open, securitized streets which constitute an entirely different field on their own. Furthermore, the people who attend ‘Zawya’ are in the ranks of a different class and habitus than those who attend its adjoining neighbor, ‘Odeon’ – showcasing popular and blockbuster movies, rather than its former counterpart which typically shows independent, ‘indie’, or foreign films. It’s an unusual encounter between high and popular culture in an intriguing place of proximity.

Perhaps life solely constitutes of different fields which we are supposed to not only navigate but adapt to them depending on where we were; but, how can we be the same people after going through all these fields? How can we easily morph and change our habitus, accordingly, yet still come out sane, one way or another…? How can we play the class game without being crushed under class disparities?

[1] Calhoun, Craig, and Pierre Bourdieu. Contemporary Sociological Theory, edited by Craig Calhoun, Joseph Gerteis, James Moody, Steven Pfaff, and Indermohan Virk, 259-305. 2nd ed. New Jersey: Wiley Blackwell, 2007.

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