Academic journal article Americana : The Journal of American Popular Culture, 1900 to Present; Hollywood

The Hyperreal Theme in 1990s American Cinema

Academic journal article Americana : The Journal of American Popular Culture, 1900 to Present; Hollywood

The Hyperreal Theme in 1990s American Cinema

Article excerpt

The dominant mood of mainstream American cinema in the 1980s has come to be associated with Robin Wood's critique in his influential essay, "Papering the Cracks: Fantasy and Ideology in the Reagan Era." In that seminal work, Wood described "Reaganite cinema" as functioning to reassure an infantilized populace that technology was benign, magical thinking can solve all of our problems, and that Father knows best. Reacting against the anxiety, disillusion, and self-doubt that characterized the cultural mood in the wake of Vietnam and Watergate, the wish-fulfillment spectacles of Star Wars (1977), Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), and E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982) dazzle their audiences with vividly dream-like narratives of good prevailing over evil through the power of the hero's untroubled faith in the justice of his cause. The values of "Reaganite entertainment" are embodied in what Susan Jeffords has called the "hard body" image of Stallone, Schwarzenegger, and their many clones: "These hard bodies came to stand not only for a type of character - heroic, aggressive, and determined - but for the nation itself" (25). The father figure these Reaganite fantasies elevates to godlike priority symbolizes not only the integrity of the United States itself as a world power or Reagan himself as a benevolent patriarch, but also an entire metaphysical condition of stability and coherence. Along with the triumphalist celebration of America's clear sense of purpose within a Cold War narrative, Reaganite cinema affirms a less tangible but more pervasive faith in the clarity of moral distinctions and the constancy of reality itself. If an emerging climate of globalism, multiculturalism, and feminism had threatened the white male's cultural supremacy, the Cold War provides a metanarrative that consolidates power in the hands of the father while simultaneously anchoring reality itself to a stable set of familiar coordinates.

But with the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989, the United States suddenly discovered itself in a new political and psychological landscape. The moment quickly came to symbolize the complete collapse of the Soviet empire and, with it, the entire grand narrative of what has come to be known as the short twentieth century (1914-1989). Francis Fukayama famously declared that the Berlin Wall's collapse signified the "end of history." No longer in the twentieth century, but not yet in the twenty-first, the 1990s or, more precisely, the period between November 9, 1989, and September 11, 2001, has been called "the modern interwar years." More colorfully, George Will has referred to the period as "a holiday from history," Frank Rich has described it as "a frivolous if not decadent decade-long dream," David Halberstam has called it "a time of trivial pursuits," and even bedfellows as unlikely as Newt Gingrich and Ralph Nader have both referred to the nineties as a "lost decade." The collapse of the Berlin Wall ends one period of history without inaugurating any apparent narrative to take its place. Politically, following the spectacular but somehow hollow victory the United States-led coalition achieved in the Gulf War, Clinton-era foreign policy drifted around from crisis to crisis - Bosnia, Somalia, Haiti - without any grand design to lend America's role in the world coherence or direction. Madeleine Albright has said, "It was an era that was hard to explain to people. It was like being set loose on an ocean and there wasn't really any charted course" (Chollet and Goldgeiger 69-70). The cultural effect of this strange post-mortem moment is best captured in the definitive literary masterpiece of the decade, Don DeLillo's Underworld, in which a character explains that Americans "need the leaders of both sides to keep the cold war going. It's the one constant thing. It's honest, it's dependable. Because when the tension and rivalry come to an end, that's when your worst nightmares begin. All the power and intimidation of the state will seep out of your bloodstream. …

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