The shift in American Cinema


[…] with the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989, the United States suddenly discovered itself in a new political and psychological landscape and shortly after, when Clinton took the office, his defense secretary Les Aspin announced that it was “the end of the Star Wars era” (Chollet and Goldgeiger 236-7). Les Aspin was referring primarily to the fact that the collapse of the Soviet Union had eliminated any reason to pursue space-based missile defense technology, but he might just as well have been referring to the post-Reagan mood of popular cinema. In his study of the cultural impact of movies in America, Robert Sklar observes that the eighties Reaganite aesthetic had become outmoded by 1990, a shift which he attributes to the cyclical nature of popular trends: “The ‘hard body’ quickly proved unstable as a human (or even superhuman) quality…The bottom line (in every sense) for Hollywood’s link to Reagan-era politics is that even ideology gives way before the demands of film cycles and marketplace logic” (346-7). The mainstream cinema of the 1990s (Clinton era) represents a distinct break with the unapologetic triumphalism of the 1980s. A cinema of reassurance and optimism epitomized by such transcendent dreams as E.T. and Return of the Jedi, the two top-grossing films of the eighties, had become replaced by a cinema of apocalyptic nightmares, including the top grossing films of the nineties: Titanic (1997) and Jurassic Park (1993). If the auteur cinema of the pre-Reagan era aimed for realism (The Godfather (1972), Taxi Driver (1976)) and the most prominent feature of “Reaganite cinema” is its fantastic unrealism, cinema of the 1990s is characterized by the mood of hyperrealism, communicated in various ways by such films as The Player (1992), Pulp Fiction (1994), Fight Club (1999) and The Matrix (1999).

At the industry level, 1980s were marked with the new political climate that allowed “the Hollywood studios to lobby for the relaxation of the so-called Paramount Decision of 1948, which forbade them to show as well as make films” (Cousins 397). They were successful and, by the end of the decade, for the first time in forty years audience was seeing films that were owned by the people who made them. On the other hand, at the beginning of the decade (in 1981), a new television channel, Music Television (MTV) broadcasted its first music video.  MTV’s “twenty-four-hour-a-day screenings created a huge market for young video-directors, who were not only trying out jazzy new techniques but were getting ahead only according to how new their approach to editing and imagery could be” (Cousins 397). Two years later MTV premiered a fourteen-minute long video for Michael Jackson’s song Thriller directed by John Landis. This marked the beginning of a new era where not only did film and pop music begin to intertwine, but also the style of filmmaking, influenced by the digital revolution on the rise, started changing its face considerably. Films “across the spectrum attempted to marry such nostalgia of the pre-1980s humanism with some of the formalism of the video age” (Cousins 448).

The early 1990s saw the rise of the “video generation” – a generation of film directors and video artists who grew up with a video player and a video store around the corner. This change in cinematic apparatus, the fact that one could now watch a film not only in cinema and at specific times, but also at home on a video player and at any given moment, was directly responsible for the vast amount of talent that emerged by the mid of this decade because not only were they able to watch films at any given moment, they were also able to, more importantly, stop the film at will, freeze it, fast-forward it, rewind it, which enabled frame by frame analysis. A whole new generation of filmmakers was thus educated not in school but in video. Self-educated David Fincher, Mark Romanek, Paul Thomas Anderson, Michel Gondry and Spike Jonze started their carriers directing music videos and commercials or just working on television. Quentin Tarantino worked in a video store watching everything he could get his hands on. Some of them enrolled with a film school (most notably Paul Thomas Anderson who dropped out from NYU after only two days) but none of them finished it. Their formal school was the work of Robert Altman, Stanley Kubrick, Orson Welles, Francis Ford Coppola, Alfred Hitchcock, Alan J. Pakula, Hal Ashby, Francois Truffaut, Jean-Pierre Melville, Terence Malick, Sergio Leone, Howard Hawks and Martin Scorsese. Therefore it comes as no surprise that they were all obsessed with the cinema’s past and regardless of how different their styles in filmmaking are this is just one of the things they all share. Another thing they share are the themes that frequently run throughout their work: the illusion of a model family, the masculinity shift, the identity crisis, the imprisonment of the body, social alienation and loneliness, the consumerism, violence and the question of religion.

Almost all of the films P. T. Anderson has made thus far put the family, as an institution, into question. His lead characters, usually male, are either abandoned sons who are looking for the (surrogate) fathers or vice versa. In Sydney/Hard Eight (1996) an older gambler, Sydney Brown (Philip Baker Hill), takes John Finnegan (John C. Reilly) under the wing, as his protégé, offering to teach him how to earn money and survive. In Boogie Nights (1997) the rising porn star Dirk Diggler (Mark Wahlberg) finds the father figure in Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds) and a new family in pornographic film industry people. In There Will be Blood (2007) the oil prospector, Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) adopts an orphan boy by the name of H.W. (Dillon Freasier) whose father died in a drilling accident only so he would later reveal that he was merely using the boy in order to gain sympathy and trust from the investors. David Fincher, on the other hand, takes somewhat different approach. His characters are both the center and the reason of family destruction like in the case of Se7en (1995), The Game (1997) and Zodiac (2007) or they are the center and the reason for surrogate family construction like in the case of Fight Club (1999) or The Social Network (2010). However, the main character of almost all Fincher’s films is the city itself epitomized in the characters that inhabit it. He subtly examines the existing one-way relationship between the city and the body. The body is not able to locate itself within the physical space of the city if the space serves as a reference to the past. Like the narrator of Magnolia (1999) says: “You may be done with the past but the past ain’t done with you”. The space (of the city, of the house, of the computer screen, of the body), understood as a keeper of one’s memory, thus becomes a trap. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that most of his characters are in fact just restless souls trapped in between. In this sense Se7en, The Game as well as Zodiac can be regarded as a maze that is closing in on their characters. Panic Room (2002) for instance becomes a very literal translation of this notion.

In addition, these characters are also going through some form of identity crisis whether it be the very literal split, a detachment from your past self or a self-identification with a popular image, another body, part of your own body or inability to identify with your own body. In Fight Club, the narrator Jack (Edward Norton) creates his binary opposition, Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt), his alter ego without whom Jack is nothing but a spineless, emotionless and flaccid half-man. Jack’s creation of Tyler therefore allows him to reclaim his masculinity amidst a culture of post-feminist, cathartic, self-help groups. On the other hand, the best example of self-identification with a popular image can be found in Spike Jonze’s film Being John Malkovich (1999). A puppeteer Craig Swartz (John Cusack) who wishes to become famous and successful discovers a portal that enables him to enter the body of John Malkovich and subsequently adopt the identity of the famous actor while simultaneously preserving his own, authentic one. In this instance, Craig Swartz, in a very literal sense, gets to experience Andy Worhol’s 15 minutes of fame, which, in this film is the exact amount of time you can spend inside the actor’s body before you find yourself thrown out somewhere on a highway in the New Jersey. In Boogie Nights for instance, Buck Swope (Don Cheadle) is unable to embody the black, masculine ideal. A stereo salesman by day, Swope’s music of choice is not the funky sounds of Earth, Wind, and Fire but rather, a pure country. His trajectory throughout the film is one of looking for identity. However, by the end, Buck finds a way to deal with his outcast status and he embraces who he really is after a violent encounter in a doughnut shop. His tale stands as a contrast to protagonist Dirk Diggler (Mark Wahlberg) a rising porn star whose self-identification with his genitalia becomes in a way his own demise. The identity crisis is also related to the masculinity shift that occurred during this period. The image of “the hard body” epitomized in such character as Rambo (Silvester Stalone), the soldier who single-handedly wins the war, was replaced with Private Witt (James Caviezel) who instead questions the morality of his actions when confronted with the war and his enemy:

We were a family. How’d it break up and come apart, so that now we’re turned against each other? Each standing in the other’s light…. This great evil. Where does it come from? How’d it steal into the world? What seed, what root did it grow from? Who’s doin’ this? Who’s killin’ us? Robbing us of life and light. Mockin’ us with the sight of what we might’ve known. Does our ruin benefit the earth? Does it help the grass to grow, the sun to shine? Is this darkness in you, too? Have you passed through this night? (Malick, Thin Red Line (1998))

Fourteen years later, in Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master (2012) one of these soldiers who, unlike Witt, managed to survive the war have found himself back home, lost in the struggle to find a place in the post-war society. His name is Freddie Quell and he is a nomadic, sex-obsessed, alcoholic World War II veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress. As such he becomes, only seemingly, an easy target of Lancaster Dodd, the pseudo-scientific thinker and the charismatic leader of an emerging cult called “The Cause”. What makes him an easy target is first and foremost his inability to define for himself who he really is – is he Freddie the sailor, the seaman masturbating on the beach or is he Freddie the magic-potion maker or Freddie the department store photographer, Freddie the orphan, Freddie the former soldier, Freddie the bum? Or does it really matter? What makes things even more interesting is that he is the opposite of Dodd, seen as the animal that needs to be tamed so consequently Dodd begins the series of bizarre exercises called ‘Processing’, a flurry of disturbing questioning aimed at conquering Freddie’s traumatic past. But Freddie is wiser than Dodd; Freddie has certain innocence, something that cannot be easily seduced. Furthermore, he realizes that the relationship he is developing with Dodd is the effect of his personal heartbreak, the missed chances he had in a lifetime of regret and therefore he knows that time has come, the time to sail away, yet again.

The America portrayed in The Master, although set in the 1950s (Eisenhower era), is nothing like the romanticized image of George Lucas’ American Graffiti (1976), which despite being set in the 1962 was in fact depicting the Eisenhower time. Paul Thomas Anderson’s America seems like some other planet that just oddly resembles ours. This notion is primarily epitomized in the character of Freddie Quell. There’s something about Freddie that keeps him from fitting in to Paul Thomas Anderson’s postwar world. Although he resembles many of the noir figures that populated postwar films – from Orson Welles as Michael O’Hara, climbing on board in The Lady From Shanghai to Frank Chambers, the drifter in The Postman Only Rings Twice – namely because he too is disconnected from the new America and is looking for trouble, the life Freddie lives is the life led in a different moral universe than these characters. Furthermore, in the great postwar noirs, the hero chooses his fate. But Freddie is a drifter, a creature of instinct and the more you look at him the more he seems to belong to an earlier pre-war world of migrant workers. His time spent as worker on the cabbage plantation, seems as time spent right in the heart of Steinbeck country. The characters he meets on his Odyssey-like journey all look like they stepped out of a Dorothea Lange photographs. He at the same time can be, both Anderson’s father[1] or Neal Cassady/Dean Moriarty from Kerouac’s On the Road, but he can be just Freddie too, a vagabond, the sand sculptor who is mimicking sex with his sculpted woman on the beach, which oddly resembles now famous Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr beach scene in From Here to Eternity (1953). The appearance of other texts, the intertextuality, as wells as reflexivity and mixing of film genres is symptomatic of films made by Video Generation film directors. Paul Thomas Anderson, in comparison to his contemporaries, although more subtle, is no exception.

Next, almost all of these films show how contemporary life and contemporary cinema depict the certain erosion of old-fashioned moral principles. In other words, what was morally unacceptable in film or television in mid of 20th century today became almost an imperative. Events are told from the perspective of an antihero. Crimes go unpunished. Criminals and murderers are portrayed as likeable villains. This altogether then leads to relativism of morality. For example, some of Tarantino’s characters that carry out gratuitous violence are usually perceived as amusing when in stead they should be perceived as morally inadequate. Moreover to show something like – excessive unjustifiable violence against a police officer (Reservoir Dogs); a detective brutally killing defenseless, handcuffed prisoner (Se7en); thoroughly planned and elaborated terrorist attack devised by a protagonist with a split personality and executed by his army of devoted followers (Fight Club); or the unbeliever, embodied in unscrupulous oilman, a plain-speaking prophet after profit, aptly named Daniel Plainview,[2] who after deliverance of his now famous speech: “I drink your milkshake! I drink it up!” brutally kills a priest with a bowling pin (There Will be Blood) – well, to show these things some fifty years ago would be, at best, inconceivable. However, these characters (Plainview, Joker, Tyler Durden etc.) are today widely accepted and their actions are embraced and celebrated.

In contemporary society that is now changing faster than ever before, frames of moral behavior, frames upon which we cast our judgment are to such extent inconstant and volatile that the changes in moral behavior and reasoning become visible at the level of a single generation. The films of the last two decades clearly confirm this. Furthermore, they show that the cultural environment we live in is the one of hyperreal aesthetics where even the most realistic films become potentially carriers of this threat (both morally and ontologically). The hyper-realistic representation of pseudo-historical events distorts our understanding about the chronology of actual events taking place in history. What creates the confusion is the re-contextualization of the actual events, that is, the existence of actual historical characters that are doing the things they didn’t do in reality or the existence of fictional characters that are placed in the realms of actual historical event. Once you are confronted with a postmodern text you ought to forget about the history and immerse yourself into the world of fiction. This is actually what entails the problem Baudrillard and Jameson are talking about – the loss of historicity. This loss is reflected in media culture that offers only an illusion of a long lost history, in other words, the production of simulacrum.

[1] Anderson’s own father served in the Pacific, and he has said that afterwards he “was restless his whole life.” The identification between the two is strengthened when you notice that Freddie comes from Lynn, Massachusetts, Anderson’s father’s hometown.

[2] Daniel – in Hebrew it means prophet. Prophet with a simple view (plain view) onto the world.

text written by: Monika Ponjavic (excerpt from my PhD proposal)


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