A Democratic victory would not change the world, but it would at least slow the momentum of the bombs-and-Jesus crowd. Those people have had their way long enough. Not even the Book of Revelation threatens a plague of vengeful yahoos. We all need a rest from this pogrom. Ronald Reagan is an old man. It will be the rest of us who will face Armageddon.
--Hunter S. Thompson (1986) (1)
A range of contemporary American films including American Beauty (Sam Mendes, 1999), American Psycho (Mary Heron, 2000), American Splendor (Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, 2003) and even the Reagan-era documentary American Dream (Barbara Kopple, 1989) reflect something of the shift in filmmaking practice that is symptomatic of late capitalism, from the counter-culture ethos of 1970s New Hollywood through to the era of the blockbuster and corresponding intensification of neo-conservative hegemony. The films I choose to discuss, acknowledging that the selection is idiosyncratic rather than historically comprehensive, emerge in an era where the direct influence of European art cinema movements has passed, and after the triumphalist ascendancy of Reagan-era backlash against progressive social initiatives on such issues as race and gender equality and worker rights. While the disaster of the American economy and the crime of the war in Iraw suggests the failure of the imperial project The Project for a New American Century, (2) the massive increase in the concentration of wealth and power in contemporary American suggests otherwise, as Naomi Klein's trenchant and carefully researched study of free-market disaster capitalism demonstrates. (3) These "American" titles, as well as important related films such as To Die For (Gus Van Sant, 1995), High Fidelity (Stephen Frears, 2000), The King of Comedy (Martin Scorsese 1983), Bamboozled (Spike Lee, 2000), Do the Right Thing (Spike Lee, 1989), and Sex, Lies and Videotape (Stephen Soderbergh, 1989), to name a few, are particularly interesting for the expression of the shifts in hegemonic tendencies as a function of the consolidation of dominant culture around a pervasive neo-conservative mass media.
This list of exceptional films from the era demonstrates Stephen Prince's point, against the dominant critical rhetoric, that the art of cinema has not been entirely washed away by the tidal wave of the blockbuster. As he says: "Bad films (however one conceives them--as blockbusters, special effects showcases, teen comedies) did not drive out good films. Special effects extravaganzas did not vitiate good writing. While there is much irrationality, crassness, and timidity in the business, the market did what it does best--it insured that a wide range of films were available for the nation's movie-goers." (4) This populist defense of the laissez-faire market serves the good purpose of testing rhetorical claims against the actual practices of filmmakers and audiences; however, the claim of free market choice elides the broader ideological influence of the schema of the blockbuster in the narrative flow even in independent cinema. What Prince describes in his excellent history of 1980s American cinema is a systemic contradiction between the economic and control-based backlash against the excesses of auteurism, culminating in the fallout from Heaven's Gate (Michael Cimino, 1980) at the start of the decade along with the spectacular rise of the home video market which created a huge demand and corresponding opportunities for independent producers and distributors.(5) In fact, this shortage of Hollywood product mirrors similar marketplace conditions that provided opportunities for the distribution of European art cinema in North America in the 1960s, in turn stimulating the rise of American indie filmmaking and the popular acceptability of the idea of film as art form, not to mention contributing to the legitimization of Film Studies. Yet these similarities and the persistence of intelligent filmmaking, if always under siege, obscures the important transformation from the heyday of art cinema to the indie era--a shift reflected in economic conditions of production, the increasingly global and digital domain of marketing, and in the ideological thrust of narrative. What we have today are no longer to be called art films, but films which trade on the currency of the idea of art and are symptomatic of the marginalized concept of artists in contemporary popular culture.
Sex, Lies and Videotape and Do the Right Thing
To put the American films in context, let us first consider Sex, Lies and Videotape along with Do the Right Thing, two films which represent competing tendencies in independent production between narratives evoking material reality versus the more common tendency to examine the inner life and subjectivity of individual characters. The antagonistic positions of the two filmmakers at the time of release has interfered with an analysis oftheir films from a perspective of inter-relatedness. In brief, when Steven Soderbergh's Sex, Lies, and Videotape won the Golden Palm award at the 1989 Cannes Film Festival, Spike Lee made public his outrage that his film was shut out by the white jury's (as lead by art film icon Wim Wenders) preference for a masturbation fantasy movie about white narcissism (John Pierson details this history and Spike Lee's response in his book Spike, Mike, Slackers, and Dykes.)(6) In retrospect, Lee's film is clearly more interesting for its innovative engagement of form and content in the expression of racism and rage in America. In Lee's film, character and identity are explicitly produced through the nexus of economic conditions and material reality. The class divide, and corresponding backlash has, arguably, intensified since the film's release, with the further decline of inner cities, attacks on affirmative action policies, not to mention the intensified recruitment of black Americans into the military. But what the jury no doubt found important in the Soderbergh film is the pervasive presence of technologies of mass communication, namely video, in the expression of straight-boy desire. More to the point, in this film the mediated image of desire is internalized, providing the main character with a sexual outlet while his physical body is important.
Soderbergh's film fits well with Susan Hayward's useful definition of art cinema as "intentionally distanc[ing] spectators to create a reflective space for them to assume their own critical space or subjectivity."(7) Hayward goes on to remind us that since the 1920s, art cinema has been associated with eroticism. It is the representation of sexuality that probably did more to make art film distribution profitable, and facilitate the subsequent indie boom of the 1980-90s, than all the great thematic existential explorations of meaning. In this way, Soderbergh's film expresses something of the nostalgia for the New Wave era, perhaps unconsciously guiding the Cannes jury, insofar as it positions desire in the image along the lines of how, for New Wave filmmakers, as much as they privileged the gritty materiality of the streets, life is cinema and cinema, resolutely, is life.
Spike Lee's films are, however, populated by characters asserting a claim to the fullness of life in the world. As much as the character Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn) may seem, for some white audience members, threatening in Do the Right Thing his presence is an assertion of the right to public space and, while he is largely silent, he speaks through the dynamic energy of amplified rap coming from his boom box. His murder at the hands of the police at once expresses the sad truth of a culture of segregation, state-sanctioned violence, and lynching. The live on-air execution of Manray/Mantan (Savion Glover) a decade later in Lee's Bamboozled can be read as a continuity of expressed outrage at the systemic racism and violence in American society that can be traced back in Lee's oeuvre to the murder of Radio Raheem.
In the later film, the character is executed by the Mau Maus, a group of black activists outraged by Manray's star performance in the gross-stereotype (and overwhelmingly popular) TV show: 'Mantan: The New Millennium Minstrel Show,' based on a litany of references from the embarrassingly racist history of American film and television. The end credits of the film provide a montage of archive footage of blackface representation, serving as a documentary point of reference for the fictional narrative. Manray's execution at the hands of militants outraged over the history of disenfranchisement and the participation of black Americans in the reproduction of racial stereotypes (the show is played in blackface and set in a watermelon patch) sadly becomes self-destructive rather than transformative. That too becomes a media commodity as the murder is staged on-line but also picked up for television broadcast. The film posits the central role of film and television in the production of hateful stereotypes and the setting of limits over black expression and social transformation--the literal limit being the murder of the black body. The media is not internalized in the expression of desire and identity, as in Soderbergh's film, but instead becomes the social field for cultural articulation at the expense of action in the public sphere.
Sex, Lies, and Videotape, on the other hand, follows the dominant tendency, identified by Robert Ray, of American art cinema as drawing upon formal innovations to express a superficial rad-icality while, by and large, reconciling to ideological conservativism of classical narrative and dominant culture. Ray describes how Hollywood has borrowed from New Wave innovations,(8) but that these tend to function as inserts within conventional narrative, in turn reflecting ambiguous impulses in a culture that is, after all, founded by a particularly violent puritanism: "Like the counterculture with its western imagery, Hollywood mobilized renovated versions of its traditional genres and heroes to satisfy the audience's schizophrenic impulses toward irony and nostalgia." (9) In contrast, Spike Lee is the quintessential independent filmmaker insofar as he refuses, in spite of his celebrity profile and studio relationships (Bamboozled was produced by New Line) to accede to the reconciliatory practices of dominant hegemony which typically seeks to negate opposition under the guise of liberal individualism--what from a Frankfurt School perspective is systematic mass deception.
Bamboozled directly confronts this production apparatus by depicting how even racism can be produced as a saleable commodity. The main character Pierre Delacroix (Damon Wayans) is a television writer frustrated by the under representation of blacks on screen, save for stereotype roles. In response, he writes the scenario for a minstrel show which goes on to become a huge success, generating a new popular affection for blackface and demonstrating that an audience is produced for a black television show so long as the black body is an object of derision--race hatred is after all just another product, as the film makes clear with analogies to hula-hoops and pet rocks. While Delacroix begins this project with the intention of exposing the limits of media representation through satire, he too ends up in blackface as he becomes consumed by a system of representation over which black Americans exercise little effective control. His opportunistic white boss Dunwitty (Michael Rapaport) states the power relationship clearly: "I probably know niggers better than you. And don't go getting offended by my use of the quote unquote N word. ... I don't give a goddam what that prick Spike Lee says. Tarantino was right. Nigger is just a word." When Manray/Mantan finally rejects the stereotype role in which he has been cast, ironically right before he is kidnapped by the Mau Maus, Dunwitty lets go of the veneer of liberal tolerance and the playful pretense of irony, telling Manray: "Niggers like you are a dime a dozen...Get him out of the building. Ungrateful motherfucker." He voices the same self-satisfied racist rage as Sal, the pizza parlor owner in Do the Right Thing whose actions lead to the murder of Radio Raheem. Racism functions in collusion with capitalist relations of power to exercise control over the black body and punish all challenges to white control over the terms of production.
The context of capitalist relations of production is signified in the film's opening, set in Delacroix's expensive apartment, inside an ornate clock tower, with the gaze outside framed through the clock face set over top of the window. The arms of the clock loom large in the background as Delacroix provides, in direct address to the camera, a definition of irony, doubly made ironic by the speaker's implication in the temporal regimentation of the body. The image, in a film so clearly informed by film history, suggests reference to Chaplin's Modern Times (1936), the great satire of the encroachment of capitalism upon the very rhythms of the worker body. Delacroix, author of the minstrel satire, is himself fully caught up in this regime of time-production. His real name is Peerless Dothan, but he assumes a more pretentious name and demeanor to signal class ascendancy and a degree of power which is granted only at the expense of a larger exercise of solidarity, and with the ever-present fear of displacement. In a later scene, Manray and his partner Womack are seen fleeing from a squat raided by the police announcing the attack by order of Mayor Giuliani. Given the expressed link between the social context of race and class inequity and the ideological project of television, it is not surprising that Delacroix's television show makes great use of tap dancing, that particularly unique form of American dance itself referential of a Fordist regime of production. In a discussion of this film in the context of the uses of tap in film history, Jodi Brooks draws upon Kracauer's observation that certain forms of mass culture make capitalist modes of production explicitly visible:
For Kracauer, the rhythm that the tapping chorus line beats out is the exemplary sound of American modernity, and racing fingers [on a typewriter] and racing feet tapped out a similar beat, from office to matinee movie to supper club. ...In this respect, tapping and typing exemplify a form of temporal experience seen as central to twentieth-century modernity--the peculiar erotics of the clock in Taylorist-Fordist culture-- and as such can be considered one of its key time signatures (and a distinctly aural time signature). (10)
This form of performance is contained within the slick veneer of television, and these sequences are filmed in super 16mm format while the rest of the movie is shot on digital video. While budget constraints make the use of video an appealing format, it likewise signifies the pervasiveness of mass media as well as the sense of gritty urgency associated with documentary. Once the show is broadcast, we see a brief scene of protest outside the television studio starring Rev. Al Sharpton and Johnny Cochrain, drawing attention to the urgency of social protest while also proving Lee's point of the degree to which opposition is co-opted in the production of capital and celebrity (in this case functioning to mark the TV show as radical while allowing for the persistence of a meta-narrative of conservativism).
The King of Comedy
The dark satire of mass media in Martin Scorsese's The King of Comedy expresses a desperation to belong, that is, to become a TV personality, leading the main character, Rupert Pupkin (Robert DeNiro) to kidnap Jerry Lewis, who plays a Johnny Carson-like late night TV talk show host, in order to secure himself a slot on the air. When we see Rupert rehearsing his lines, it is difficult not to recall the menacing fascism of this actor's role as Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver (1976), John Hinckley's hero. As one reviewer commented in defending this often derided Scorsese film, "King is Scorsese's answer to the politicians and cultural critics who blamed Taxi Driver for "causing" the Reagan assassination attempt. " (11) The film's brilliance is in the dark moment of Rupert's appearance on the talk show, where his monologue is banal enough to perfectly replicate the mindless chatter of TV. He becomes an insider while remaining forever on the outside in a strange way analogous to the appeal Reaganite neo-conserva-tive economic and policies sold under the guise of populism. Reagan enacted social and economic policies explicitly against the best interests of working-class Americans, yet managed to maintain a populist public iconography, especially evident in the gushing tributes published in mainstream media at the time of his death in 2004 (these tributes generally omitted mention of Iran-contra, funding of the Taliban while neglecting Aids funding, support for Apartheid, etc.). It is perhaps indicative of the cynicism of the era that this image can persist in the face of its own campiness, as Ray points out:
For whatever else Reagan may represent to his supporters (a return to traditional values, a refusal of modernity), he remains, even for them, vaguely a figure of camp, a poor man's cowboy most often associated with movies in which he shared billing with a chimpanzee. Reagan's ambivalent image only offers another sign of American culture's growing mythological self-consciousness. Indeed, perhaps only a former movie star could satisfy an age that is at once so nostalgic for and so cynical about, clear-cut action and straightforward heroes. (12)
Ray goes on to note how television provides a sincere version of nostalgia while the movies do so with ironic inflection. These modes of nostalgia are especially evident in movies where TV is explicitly invoked, as in King of Comedy, which has it's irony and eats it too. What is the Jerry Lewis character if not Reagan in another guise--warm and likeable on screen, but mean-spirited and humorless the rest of the time (recall such great policy statements as: homelessness is a personal choice, trees cause pollution and ketchup is a vegetable). indie cinema in post-Reagan America is distinct from the earlier generation of art cinema in part due to the social and economic changes characteristic of the Reagan era. That earlier era of art cinema is linked with the counter-culture movement in spirit if not necessarily in form, but the neo-conservative counter-revolution also begins with Reagan who, as California governor, literally called for a "bloodbath" in response to student radicalism at Berkeley. (13)
Cultural Currency and Reagan's Bones
During the media spectacle of the 2004 and current 2008 U.S. presidential elections, Republicans battled over the bones of Reagan in asserting the cultural currency of the neo-con patriarch. At the same time, fundamentalist retrenchment brought a rejection of stem-cell research which would contribute to understanding of Alzheimer's Disease, the degenerative brain disorder he suffered from in his later years (before that, his memory loss was more a product of political convenience, as in the case of the Iran-Contra swindle). Reagan's presidency brought into public consciousness the integral relation between the entertainment industry and the political sphere, while facilitating a twin ideological consciousness of resignation over the possibility of substantial social change along with an entrenched cynicism about politics and social life. Movies made in this context symp-tomatize this ethos, substituting style and irony for engagement. At the same time, there does remain traces of resistance to dominant hegemony in the contemporary independent film.
When I refer to contemporary cinema I am talking about the last 30 or so years, the rise of the contemporary blockbuster with such films as jaws (1975) and the first retail outlet of the Star Wars (1977) franchise. A key transition film is an auteurist favorite, Francis Ford Coppola's Godfather (1972) which, as Biskind points out, initiates blockbuster distribution practices of mass releasing while also foreshadowing Reagan-era conservativism.(14) The ethos of neo-conservative retrenchment is consolidated in narrative terms by the time of Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), Reagan's election in 1980, and in industry practice through the increased emphasis on marketing via a global media marketplace across multiple platforms such as merchandising and theme parks. Where art cinema is typically understood by the critical convention of singularity in authorship, the blockbuster is experienced as a key event in the tidal wave marketing of cultural products. The point of marketing is to encourage viewers to consume the latest blockbuster, not a specific cultural narrative, and if not this blockbuster then another from the showroom floor. Fred Wasser explains this economic model, "Culture industries operate by creating a surplus of products in order to increase the probability that one of the products will become a breakout hit that will boost corporate profits."(15) The challenge for contemporary filmmakers is to make a claim for singularity within this broader cultural field.
Likewise, the shift away from art cinema as it developed in America under the intoxicating influence of the European New Wave is a shift away from a more realist inflected emphasis on the rhythms of the everyday, and a shift back to a narrative trajectory privileging clearly defined heroes and villains in a form generally referred to as "Indie" film. This is not to say that progressive political films are no longer made in the 1980s, Matewan (John Sayles, 1987) is a great example, but the general tendency is toward irony and detachment--a trend consistent with industry preferences and marketing exigencies that began the 1970s. Again, as Ray points out: "By covertly minimizing the distinctions between the Left and Right films, Hollywood encouraged its audience to attend both cycles."(16) In this way, New Wave innovations become conflated into a continuation of classical style precisely because they function primarily on the level of style. I would argue that this is clearly the case in contemporary indie film, especially in the work of Quentin Tarantino. Where then do we find the rhythms of the everyday, rhythms which likewise invoke something of the specter of art cinema; that is, the urgency of cinema as a public art which today lies in ruins along with so many public entities.
We need to understand how the real is articulated in cultural images, but to do so we have to dig through these many layers of representation. One way of understanding the postmodern condition is as the cultural and aesthetic form of globalization--the destabilization of authorship and modernist concepts of meaning and value as parallel to the displacement of locations of production from that of consumption. This shift needs to be understood in economic as well as in cultural terms. In the case of the movies, the rise of the director as artist in 1970s American cinema has been undermined in the 1980s by the rise of the independent distributor, niche marketing, and the development of home video. Wasser describes the hierarchy of control in these terms: "The earnings that the distributor can put together determine the overall allocation of production resources. It is only as secondary players that the writers, directors, set designers, et. al. can make their operation decisions in terms of actual filmmaking." (17) Rather than produce radical cinema, indie film fills the void in Hollywood production by creating an anti-establishment aura while remaining politically ambiguous.
Michael Rogin, in his book Ronald Reagan, the Movie, describes how this B-movie actor (and McCarthy-era proponent of the blacklist) who became president was scheduled to speak to the Academy at the 1981 Oscars. The video playback of his speech about how the movies inspire America was delayed by a day due to the inconvenience of his being shot by John Hinckley, in an assassination attempt inspired by Taxi Driver. As Rogin describes it: "The television audience watching a screen saw a Hollywood audience watch another screen. One audience saw another applaud a taped image of a healthy Reagan, while the literal president lay in a hospital bed. Reagan was president because of film, hospitalized because of film, and present as an undamaged image because of film." (18) Cultural texts such as the movies likewise provide a legitimacy of dominant ideology and in the case cited by Rogin appear to demonstrate the consolidation of politics and media culture, but these texts can also articulate moments of rupture. While the structural limits to feature filmmaking can be understood as regulating political dissent, that by no means is to say that films are not political. Indeed, as Steven Prince effectively argues, Reagan-era films are explicitly political, and that this is consistent with both the extremism of policy and efforts of image-management. As he indicates: "With the Reagan political agenda at the center of public discussion and debate, and with the administration's own need to promote and consolidate that agenda, ideological production and dispute were especially acute during the period."(19) He goes on to make the important point that Reaganite media interventions are not simply about the maintenance of image, but about intervening to control resources and markets, and in these interventions real people suffer.
Hardt and Negri describe the transformation of empire into a global economic frontier in relation to the legacy of open space, metaphor for expansionist U.S. culture. (20) This metaphor brings to mind American Dream, the academy award winning documentary directed by Barbara Kopple, about the labour struggles in the meat-packing industry at the ascendancy of the Reagan era. Kopple's film is important for the post-Fordist discord between prevailing cultural assumptions of the uses of space and global shifts in labour, and the dislocation between sites of production and of consumption. The film forcefully reveals the decline of the post-war compromise of labour peace in return for a modicum of middle-class affluence on the part of workers, along with the entrenchment of food processing as a central industry in the wide-open spaces of the midwest. A key aspect of the reorganization of production under globalization is the dislocation of production from processing and consumption. If Kopple's documentary is a tragedy in dramatic terms, it is because we witness the worker's painful realization that their collective work and contribution to community no longer has commodity-exchange value.
The documentary concentrates on the lived experiences of workers caught up in the global shifts of production over which they have little control. Members of the community are turned against each other in acts of desperation to earn a bare living. Of course, the underlying irony is that they are slaughterhouse workers themselves brought to economic and emotional slaughter, and the film opens with explicit images of assembly-fine butchery. This is the iconic image of the everyday posited in this film, the brutal efficiency of assembly-line meat processing and its relation to the privileged emotional moments through which striking workers express hardship and the breakdown of community. American Dream is a key film for examining the dawn of the Reagan era and the film begins with explicit reference to the discourse of Reaganomics and the anti-union backlash that dominates the era. Immediately following the slaughter-house image, we see a montage of television news clips detailing setbacks for organized labour, including the direct assault on the collective bargaining rights of air-traffic controllers, one of Reagan's first major actions when coming into office. De-regulation follows the de-regulation of capital across borders. The film deals with the struggle to express solidarity in the face of a reconstitution of labour-management relations, but it does not really examine the logic of power which gives rise to a remapping of spatial divisions of labour. The filmmaker-observer is positioned, like the meat-packers, as outside the discourse, seeking to hold onto fragments of meaning in a context where the spatial relations giving shape to meaning have been altered.
In the mean-spirited 1980s popular narrative texts shift from lament to the glorification of power and wealth. Based on the controversial novel by Brett Easton Ellis--controversial because of the intellectually sloppy assumption that the representation of violence is equivalent to advocacy, American Psycho, released in 2000 but explicitly set in the 1980s, satirizes the persistent contempt for humanity that characterizes politics during this period. The main character, Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale) is a Wall Street stockbroker, someone at the centre of the shifts in capital that define the era. Indeed he is the image of pure fascism--physically beautiful and fit, with an encyclopedic knowledge of consumer goods and in complete control of his fully corporatized environment--and he is ruthlessly violent. Patrick is defined entirely as image and his speech alternates between well-rehearsed and convincing articulations of progressive social positions along with a nauseating litany of references to 1980s pop music. The film is a wry counterpoint to the period's increased production of films with a strong music tie-in, catering to the youth market. (21) American Psycho both reflects this market condition but also provides critical intervention in the association of the routinized rhythms of mundane pop with violence. In his spare time Patrick is a serial killer and his victims are those targeted by neo-conservative policies from Reagan to Bush )r.: the poor and homeless, homosexuals and women, all to a background soundtrack of Phil Collins and Huey Lewis and the News, among other icons of pop shallowness. This background soundtrack is the structuring force of the everyday.
American Psycho takes aim at the crass materialism and systemic inequality which produces monsters, and is an intensification of its Hitchcock namesake. While the earlier film, Psycho (1960), can be understood as positing psychosis as formed in the individual in relation to society, the latter situates society itself as monstrous, or points to the monster as inevitable outcome. It is a monster that continually consumes itself, as in Gus Van Sant's To Die For. In Van Sant's film, the main character Suzanne (Nicole Kidman) constructs a video monologue demotape as audition material for a job as an on-air TV personality. Her experience of living in the everyday requires the construction of a personality because the presence of self cannot be taken for granted outside of the system of reproduction. The tape is also a rationale for the murder of her husband who stood in the way of her career. She describes him as a nice guy but someone who just does not know anything about TV. As in American Beauty, and like the neo-conservative ethos, the career woman is cast as beautiful but cold, vapid, and threatening.
Henry Giroux and Imre Szeman locate To Die For, American Beauty and American Psycho along with Fight Club and a range of other contemporary films as offering the appearance of critique without substantial challenge to the prevailing social and economic structure.
Rather than turning a critical light on important social issues, such films often trivialize them within a stylized aesthetics that revels in irony, cynicism, and excessive violence. ...It is never imagined that a whole culture could or should change how it organizes the lives of members. These films attempt to reinforce the individualism of neoliberal capitalism by allowing each of us to identify ourselves with their exceptional protagonists, those true individuals who are able to separate themselves out of the mass fantasy of contemporary consumerism and who can thus live out a genuine life in spite of the anxieties and dissatisfactions of the present moment. (22)
In narrative terms, To Die For, American Beauty, and American Psycho make interesting use of an interior monologue--a technique explicitly at odds with the codes of commercial cinema, which prefers that filmmakers show rather than tell. Likewise, in a global media marketplace action is privileged insofar as it does not have to be subtitled. However, the interiority of these films is consistent with Giroux and Szeman's critique insofar as it provides a retreat from the world outside. This inward gaze is also consistent with neo-conservative response strategy to the progressive gains of the 1960s and 70s, a strategy aimed at diminishing the public sphere. As Daniel Marcus describes the policy outlined by the Trilateral Commission's influential book The Crisis of Democracy (1975), where the crisis for the elites is a problem of too much democracy:
The book argued that contemporary democracies were overloaded by new demands from citizens, and it called for a reduction in democratic activism by the new social movements in order to preserve business profit margins and military strength. The conservative attempts to roll back the Sixties sought to reprivatize social concerns, to once more identify the family and privatized production and consumption as the proper sphere of individuals' attention. (23)
Marcus goes on to describe how the counter-culture era came to be characterized by neo-conservatives as violent and unruly rather than being guided by a, however flawed, utopian impulse. This characterization serves as a veil to the real bloodshed of contemporary policy while privileging cultural narratives of introspection rather than engagement.
Patrick Bateman self-consciously narrates his own affectless persona, where greed and disgust are identified as his only emotions. He can get away with murder, literally, because he is dressed for success--his body and clothing are armor, a beautiful machine covering-over his contempt. In turn, his interior monologue is not an exploration of meaning; rather, it is about the value of the surface image. In his self-introduction, he says: "There is an idea of Patrick Bateman, some kind of abstraction. But there is no real me. Only an entity, something illusory." Similarly, in High Fidelity the main character Rob Gordon (John Cusak) explicitly situates identity as formed through consumerism: "It's not what you're like. It's what you like." Near the end of American Psycho, Patrick begins to break down and confesses over the phone to his lawyer, but the lawyer not only assumes the call is a prank but mistakes Patrick for someone else. He says at the end: "This confession has meant nothing." Patrick can continue killing, because his identity has entirely dissolved into the media air, while his actions, like the history of the Reagan era, remain written in blood.
American Beauty provides us with the glib surfaces of suburban America as structured by routinized consumption disconnected from real human needs. It fits well within the characteristics of middle-class angst in what Jeffrey Sconce calls the American "smart film." Rather than focus on the familiar trope of alienation, Sconce suggests that this and similar films be considered more broadly as symptomatic of an ethos which is less characterized by apathy than by a rejection of the prevailing culture. As he says, "More interesting than this explicity agenda of dissecting the white middle class as a crucible of emotional dysfunction, many of these films also engage, either explicitly or at the margins, in a more subtle critique of the politics of identity within consumer culture." (24) My concern here is whether irony and disaffection is a political dead-end that functions to legitimize contemporary social conditions and the privation of experience. While the soundtrack of American Psycho is 1980s apolitical pop, in American Beauty it is the aggressive white hetero guitar-oriented rock of the 1970s. This is the beat to which the main character Lester (Kevin Spacey) engages with his idea of social protest.
If American film of the 1970s can be generally characterized as more socially mature, what one sees on screen in the era of the blockbuster is an increasingly infantilized narrative. The reverse coming-of-age plot of American Beauty, where the main character transforms from adult to teenager, is indicative of this shift. The tone of the film as established in the opening sequence recalls Badlands (1973), Terrence Malick's iconic American art film. But where Malick's film situates teen angst in relation to the corruption of adulthood, in the latter film it is the adult who chooses teen nihilism over more productive social engagement. There is no examination of social structure except in familiar Willy Loman-esque references to the banality of work. In turn, Lester morphs into a teenager after leaving his white-collar career and gets a job flipping hamburgers, while spending his free time pumping iron, stroking his muscle-car, and smoking dope. If there is a critical moment in this film, it is in the rejection of the glib surfaces of middle-class affluence, the manicured lawns and expensive furniture which demonstrate status but provide no source of real pleasure except as dead icons of the market. But the critical moment is left dormant in exchange for narcissistic individualism and Lester is not moving downtown; he simply wants to put his feet up on the furniture while expecting wife/mommy to pay the bills. In this narrative trajectory we see the persistence of the 1980s in the present era. Like many contemporary movies, film history serves as a vast storehouse from which to borrow significations of meaning. The narrative begins with an echo of Sunset Boulevard (Billy Wilder, 1950) through the use of a voice-over narration from a character that is already dead. Wilder's film is about the decline of the aura of the studio era--glamour and social importance--while American Beauty is a glib narrative privileging fate over social intervention--what change can we hope for when the main character Lester is, after all, already dead?
Society is monstrous and a literal monster lives next door to Lester in the form of a hyper-authoritarian marine colonial father-figure who eventually pulls the trigger on his neighbor after suspecting that he is seducing his teenage son Ricky. The monster is a closet homosexual whose repression explodes in violence, but he is a cartoon character, a metaphoric rather than metonymic manifestation of dominant culture. He is the flipside to Lester's predictable desire for the beautiful friend of his teenage daughter. Stereotypes of gender and sexuality are one of the ways the film signals its unwillingness to examine the ideological assumptions running through American society. In an insightful article detailing the film's incest motifi as co-extensive with it's feminist backlash, Kathleen Rowe Karlyn suggests that the incest theme "ideologically inverts the social realities of white male privilege. This structure redirects sympathy toward beleaguered midlife heroes by portraying them as victims of unhinged and vengeful wives, seductive and manipulative daughters, or both." (25) Similarly, the boy next door, Ricky, is glorified as an outsider who rejects the hypocritical surfaces of dominant culture. But it is no longer the counter-culture era, he is not simply going to turn-on and drop-out; instead, he earns a tremendous amount of money dealing very high grade dope and surrounds himself with high-tech electronics, the narcotic of media culture. He is nominally an artist, framing ephemeral moments of beauty with his video camera. While these images of the everyday are gestures toward a resistance to commodity logic, they are also banal and voyeuristic--surveillance shots of Lester's teenage daughter, and self-absorbed images of garbage blowing in the wind. The camera becomes a commodity to hide behind while positing a resistance to commodity logic through formal idealization rather than critical connection with material reality.
American Splendor; or, buying the bones of Reagan
Finally, American Splendor, based on the work of underground comic book artist Harvey Pekar, attempts to move beyond self-indulgent metaphor and toward the metonymic. Pekar's comics evoke a kind of grubby realism, resistant to the cliche expectations of the comic book "superhero" form and rejection of narrative trajectory. He writes about the mundane and ephemeral moments of experience where the profound moment of insight may be found--or not. In any case, these are the experiences through which life is lived, though we should not over simplify the first person narrative of the comics with the assumption that the Harvey Pekar drawn on the page is the real Pekar in the flesh. The filmmakers, with great admiration for Pekar's art, do however describe the adaptation process with an assumption of index-ical realism: "We have a documentary film background, so we approached the comic books as if they were raw footage." (26) While his material is adopted into a conventional cinematic narrative form with a recognizable story are not found in the original comics, what is interesting is the way that form is ruptured with intrusions of the everyday. Where 7b Die For, American Beauty and American Psycho provide a blank gaze at the material emptiness of post-Reagan American and a turn away from social reality, American Splendor is a return to the realist gestures of 1970s American film, but inflected through a destabilization of genre categories and a rejection of the blank gaze of irony. It brings us back to the dilemma of American Dream, the question of what is left in the ruins of post-Fordism.
In his American Splendor comic serial, Pekar's approach is observational, with an affinity to documentary, and his world is populated by marginal working-class characters who are granted brief moments of dignity in a voice that is not co-opted into the media monologue. But these are not traditional objective documentaries; rather, the process of making the comic, of transcending the limits of the everyday in art-making, is integrated in the text. The stories are rooted in the situations of conflict and boredom structuring Pekar's everyday life. As Amy Taubin describes the work: "His compulsion to flaunt the failures of the flesh and his own dirty laundry (literally) in his comics is balanced by his gallant belief in creativity as a means of redemption."(27) There is no singular master narrative outside of this broad trajectory of redemption and failure. While the writing is autobiographical, different artists are employed to illustrate different stories, creating multiple encounters with the real. The film reflects this sensibility by using Pekar himself as narrator, while casting the actor Paul Giametti in the lead role of the character called Harvey Pekar, and integrating documentary elements (with commentary by Pekar) within the fictional narrative to provide metonymic referents to the everyday and to destabilize the ideological coherence of narrative. In turn, animated backgrounds are incorporated into various narrative monologues, bringing this realism back into the constructed comic realm.
The genre borders entirely blur when Giametti as Harvey appears in the same frame as the so-called "real" Harvey in one of many meta-commentary scenes. These are recurring episodes where Harvey, with his wife and collaborator joyce Brabner, comment on the film and on comic art. The setting for these scenes is visually flat, an aesthetic further emphasized by recording these scenes on HD rather than on celluloid--looking like the pages of a comic book--while the "realist" cinematography of the narrative sequences depict a stark and rusting post-fordist Cleveland, where Pekar lives. The tonal quality of these Cleveland sequences recalls, for me at least, the landscape of post-Vietnam despair in The Deer Hunter (Michael Cimino, 1978).(28) While there is no real narrative or genre link between these films, the tonal quality is a kind of specter of an earlier generation of American cinema, while the characters populating Pekar's comics are, implicitly at least, haunted by the specter of Vietnam. Pekar himself was employed for most of his working days until retirement as a file clerk at a Cleveland Veteran's Administration Hospital, many of his characters are the walking wounded of a war-bound society, and his 2003 edition of American Splendor was entirely devoted to the story of a Vietnam combat veteran named Robert MacNeill.
The interlacing of narrative and documentary is exemplified in the "jelly bean" sequence (Reagan's favorite snack). The character Harvey stands amidst the hospital patient files and is sharing some jelly beans with his friend and co-worker Toby (who frequently appears in the comic, proudly self-identified as a "nerd"). We see a close up of jelly beans in hand and then a wide shot on a studio soundstage where we see the camera and crew completing the shot. It is this soundstage space that is designed to suggest the flat panels of a comic book. When the director calls "cut" the actors playing Harvey and Toby step to the background (but remain in the frame) and observe as the "real" Harvey and Toby move to the craft services table to help themselves to snacks and discuss the flavors of the various jelly beans. The conversation is banal and yet exemplifies the quotidian bond between these individuals. What we see in the frame is a kind of mis-en-abime of representation with the actors watching the people they play on screen "act" as themselves within the artifice of the soundstage.
It is important to consider the contrast between the effort to articulate the dignity and poetry of the everyday (as well as the indignity and noise) in American Splendor and the faux quotidian form of Reality TV where the staging of reality is overdeter-mined by stereotype characters and melodramatic and/or game-show genre conventions. While this form of popular entertainment denotes the everyday, it also buries it under the media spectacle. Similarly, Matthew Pustz describes the stylistic approach of alternative comics providing critical saliency that is at odds with mainstream fare: "Stories about average, everyday people In alternative comics...emphasize the silliness of mainstream comic book stories about overly muscled men and women in impossibly skintight costumes saving the universe from other similarly garbed individuals."(29) This critique is also expressed in the series of television appearances Pekar made on the David Letterman Show throughout the 1980s, which he documented in his comics and are referenced in the film. Like all television talk shows, Letterman is broadcast to provide a venue for the promotion of celebrity culture, but the specific niche in the case of the Letterman show is to contrast celebrity gloss with a mocking (and typically mean-spirited) gaze at the ordinary in recurring segments such as "Stupid Pet Tricks" and "Stupid Human Tricks," as well as with decidedly non-celebrity guests such as Pekar. In this way, and in contrast with American Splendor, viewers are positioned at a distance from the everyday rather than drawn into the quotidian rhythms.
The film uses reconstructions of Pekar's appearances on Letterman in such a way as to both blur the distinction between drama and documentary as well as to facilitate a critique of dominant media. We see Paul Giametti as Pekar backstage before his TV appearance and in a matched cut we see footage of the "real" Harvey step on stage. But given the staged unreality of television, is this footage any more authentic? In one of his appearances used in the film, Pekar says to Letterman: "It's your world, I'm just living in It." The line points to the hegemonic function of dominant media and suggests the determinant relation between media, wealth, and power. It is Pekar's final Letterman show appearance that had to be staged as the "real" footage was not made available to the filmmakers. Here, Pekar entirely rejects the format of television glibness and aggressively raises the critical issue of the political economy of the media. He wants to talk about the NBC Network's corporate owners, General Electric, and their very profitable role in the munitions and nuclear industries. This shift in topic is seen as unwelcome and Pekar is no longer invited onto the show, though the film squanders the opportunity to further develop critical political inquiry by instead emphasizing Pekar as an angry and uncompromising individual.
Nonetheless, the representation of these media representations in the film sets up a critical resistance to the commodity-logic flow of mainstream media, and is consistent with the film's blurring of distinctions between forms of expression--a blurring which contributes to a rethinking of the dominant ethos through which culture and expression are organized. Moreover, the experience becomes a part of Pekar's comic and is, in turn, re-represented (and altered) in the film. As one commentator describes the documentary form of this style of artmaking: "art filters into life, alerting us to our own participation in the author's self-construction."(30) The high point of art cinema often took the form of self-referentiality and emerged at a time of reenergized national cinema movements, and in many cases with subsidies for innovative work. In turn, these nationalist cultural products were distributed internationally. In the contemporary era we see an intensification of American culture through the dominance of media (corresponding with a decline in state subsidies for art cinema) as an export commodity and that is matched in aesthetic approaches where, in the words of Stuart Hall, postmodernism is "how the world dreams itself to be 'American'." (31)
The films I have discussed emerge in a context of intensified globalization and the rise of a global media industry whereby national culture movements have become less relevant. This condition does not eradicate difference in cultural expression but does significantly influence form and determine the condition of expression. The function of the media industries in this context is to produce not only a product that can be exported internationally and play in multiple commodity forms, but also, and perhaps more importantly, in the words of Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, to produce "a feeling of ease, well-being, [and] satisfaction."(32) Harvey Pekar, in the pages of his comic book and in the film, seeks to destabilize this impulse. He is a crank like Hunter S. Thompson, pointing out that the emperor is only clothed in the greed and hysteria of the bombs and Jesus crowd. In contrast, in contemporary independent film, with notable exceptions, the narrative typically takes as given the spectacle function of politics and the overdetermination of media culture within the public sphere--functioning to produce not the shock of the new but the narcotic of the commodity image.
Darrell Varga is Canada Research Chair in Contemporary Film and Media Studies at NSCAD University (Nova Scotia College of Art and Design) and is co-editor of Working on Screen: Representations of the Working Class in Canadian Cinema (University of Toronto Press) and editor of Rain/Drizzle/Fog: Essays on Cinema and Television in Atlantic Canada (University of Calgary Press).
(1) Hunter S. Thompson, Generation of Swine: Conzo Papers Vol. 2: Tales of Shame and Degradation in the 80s (New York: Vintage-Random House, 1988), p. 18. At the time of his death (by suicide) in 2005 many media commentators suggested that his perspective and approach to journalism, while initially innovative, had become increasingly irrelevant. The trenchant quote I use at the beginning of this essay gives the lie to this self-righteousness. Thompson is as relevant today as it was two decades ago, his work can best be characterized as an intense foraging through the remains of the counter-culture era.
(2) As of May 2008, the Project's web page is no longer functional. For an overview of the PNAC, see this article by William Rivers Pitt: http://www.informationclearinghouse.info/article1665.htm
(3) Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (Toronto: Knopf, 2007).
(4) Stephen Prince, A New Pot of Gold: Hollywood Under the Electronic Rainbow, 1980-1989 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000), p. xvi.
(5) Ibid., p. 117.
(6) John Pierson, Spike, Mike, Slackers, and Dykes (New York: Hyperion-Mirimax, 1995), see especially page 129.
(7) Susan Hayward, Key Concepts in Cinema Studies (London and New York: Routledge, 1996), p. 10.
(8) Robert B. Ray, A Certain Tendency of the Hollywood Cinema, 1930-1980 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985), p. 294.
(9) Ibid., p. 296.
(10) Jodi Brooks, "Ghosting the Machine: the Sounds of Tap and the Sounds of Film," Screen 44:4 (Winter 2003): 360.
(11) Joyce Millman, "The King of Comedy (review)," Salon (March 1997), accessed on-line, June 12, 2007:
(12) Ray, p. 366.
(13) In a speech responding to the rise of student radicals at Berkeley. See: San Francisco Chronicle, early morning edition, 15 May 1969; echoed by Bush Jr. in his 2003 "bring 'em on" schoolyard taunt directed at resistance fighters in Iraq and elsewhere. Peter Biskind has claimed the art cinema credential for American film by suggesting that Bonnie and Clyde (Arthur Penn, 1967) is the American Breathless (Jean-tuc Codard, 1960) because the film corresponds with the violence of the time: Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and-Rock 'n' Roll Generation Saved Hollywood (New York: Touchstone-Simon and Shuster, 1998), p. 35.
(14) Biskind, p. 164.
(15) Frederick Wasser, Veni, Vidi, Video: The Hollywood Empire and the VCR (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2001), 89.
(16) Ray, p. 326.
(17) Wasser, p. 15.
(18) Michael Rogin, Ronald Reagan: the Movie and Other Episodes in Political Demonology (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987), p. 4.
(19) Steven Prince, Visions of Empire: Political Imagery in Contemporary American film (New York: Praeger, 1992), p. 4.
(20) Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000), p. 182.
(21) Prince, Pot of Gold, p. 133.
(22) Henry A. Giroux, and Imre Szeman, "Ikea Boy Fights Back: Fight Club, Consumerism, and the Political Limits of Nineties Cinema," in The End of Cinema as We Know It: American Film in the Nineties. Ed. Jon Lewis (New York: New York University Press, 2001), p. 96. For a counterpoint that examines the critical, if contradictory, impulse of Fight Club, see John McCullough, "Tedium and Torture: Fight Club, Globalization and Professionals in Crisis," Cineaction 65 (2004): 44-53. McCullough says: "The film's perspective is that contemporary capitalism is enough to make you want to kill yourself. More precisely, the film represents life in capitalism as already a version of death, to the extent that it is regimented by an ethic which denigrates the authentic and the real, in favor of the copy and simulations" (p53).
(23) Daniel Marcus, Happy Days and Wonder Years: The Fifties and the Sixties in Contemporary Cultural Politics (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2004), p. 76.
(24) Jeffrey Sconce, "Irony, Nihilism and the New American 'Smart Film," Screen 43:4 (Winter 2002): 364.
(25) Kathleen Rowe Karlyn, ""Too Close for Comfort": American Beauty and the Incest Motif," Cinema journal 44:1 (Fall 2004): 71.
(26) Dennis West and Joan M. West with Anne Gilbert, "Splendid Misery: An Interview with Robert Pulcini and Shari Springer Berman, Cineaste (Fall 2003): 41.
(27) "Cleveland Heights: Amy Taubin on American Splendor." Artforum (Summer 2003): 59.
(28) This stylistic influence is confirmed by the filmmakers in the Cineaste interview, p. 41.
(29) Matthew Pustz, Comic Book Culture: Fanboys and True Believers (Jackson Ml: Mississippi University Press, 1999), p. 91.
(30) Charles Hatfield, Alternative Comics: An Emerging Literature (Jackson Ml: Mississippi University Press, 2005), p, 126. The author makes the case for comics as a form of literature and reiterates a distinction of this kind of serious comic art from the movies, p. 33.
(31) "On Postmodernism and Articulation: An Interview With Stuart Hall," edited by Lawrence Grossberg in Stuart Hall: Critical Dialogues in Cultural Studies, eds. David Morley and Kuan-Hsing Chen (London and New York: Routledge, 1996), p 132.
(32) Hardt and Negri, p. 293.…