February 27, 2001
When Everett and I were at grad school together, we often tossed about the idea of working on a paper comparing the parallel evolution of American Science Fiction movies and the prevailing political attitudes of the day.
The argument was pretty obvious, but we hadn't seen anybody address it in the academic press, and we thought it might be fun. Here's the obvious:
Fear of nuclear bomb testing was obvious in such cheesy grade-B movies as They!, Godzilla, Attack of the 50 Foot Woman!, and so on.
Worried about communist perversion of the American ideal? There were scores of invasion flicks that highlighted that theme, but the best by far had to be Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
For fear of nuclear war, look no further than the parable in The Day the Earth Stood Still or the more literal Fail Safe and Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove.
We began to feel a little bit more optimistic at the power of our ingenuity in 2001: A Space Odessey, as well as the Star Wars and Star Trek sagas that came a decade later.
Concurrently in the 70's and 80's, the popular sci-fi movies presented growing concerns about technology getting us in over our heads in Alien, Logan's Run, and Mad Max -- and, later, Terminator and its many rip-offs.
My thesis stopped there; this was, after all, 1991 at the time I contemplated writing this scholarly work.
I've been reminded of this little idea, though, as I've been preparing to host a get together of some friends to watch a movie. This group gets together on a monthly basis with the members taking turns hosting. The host can assign homework that pertains to the movie that the host intends to show.
I decided, for various reasons (mostly pertaining to the fact that certain members of the group are big into conspiracy theories), to show The Parallax View. I assigned as homework for the members of the group to watch either The Conversation or Three Days of the Condor.
These three movies came out in 1974 and 1975, and each are about conspiracies and the use of very plausible, very real technology in carrying out those conspiracies. Having now seen all three quite recently, I have to confess that I don't think Parallax holds up as well as I remembered. It feels a little dated, and the conspiracy is simply too far fetched... but, then, that's quite possibly the point. Alas, all three films have their flaws. In the end, though, I think Conversation holds up the best. Francis Ford Coppola is expert at making every scene count.
The fact that all three films came out at the same time is no coincidence. The assassinations of JFK, King, and RFK had started to take their toll on the American psyche, and the revelations of Watergate fueled a national mood of distrust -- both of the government and of technology.
This distrust was echoed again and again in the mid-70's, in mainstream films like All the President's Men as well as in the science fiction of the day. Aside from Logan's Run and others, there was the remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. This one is particularly telling. In the original, 1956 version, the G-men save the day at the very last minute. In the 1978 version, the government has already been co-opted. Authority can not be trusted. In the end, no one can save us.
Getting back to my three conspiracy movies of 1974 and '75: it's been fun for the past week to watch these movies and pick apart their similarities and their differences. But, in the interrim, I happened to catch up on a movie I've been meaning to see for some time: The 13th Floor.
Interestingly, this movie came out at around the same time as three other movies with the exact same theme. If The Conversation, Three Days of the Condor, and The Parallax View are all representative of a culture that is increasingly paranoid about conspiracies, what should one make of the period of 1998 and 1999 producing four movies that focus on the idea that our reality is merely a construct by some outside power?
I maintain that The Truman Show, The Matrix, eXistenZ (written and directed by the same man who brought us the 1978 version of Body Snatchers), and The 13th Floor are representative of a new undercurrent in American political thought. As a nation, we are in the midst of an incredible identity crisis, completely uncertain about what is real -- what is true. In Truman and Matrix, the message seems to be that we are at least partly culpable for our part in confusing reality with make-believe... willingly participating in, if not actively encouraging, the deception.
Do these movies resonate with the public because they ultimately forgive the pop culture for its lack of moral conviction? I'm inclined to think not. Rather, I'm inclined to believe that these movies have tapped into a growing ennui that must, eventually, lead to an awakening. We laugh at the conceit of The Truman Show even though we know the joke is on us. But as the nation contemplates, in its own politicorganic way, the nature of reality, I have a sneaking suspicion that the wake-up call is not too far behind.Posted by on February 27, 2001 03:59 AM in the following Department(s): Books/Movies/Music , Essays , Tidbits III
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