World watches unfolding tragedy as the US technicolour dream fades to black
Hollywood’s domination over our cultural lives shows few signs of wilting, even as it evinces an exhaustion with reality, increasingly churning out tiresome fantasies about vampires, superheroes and serial killers.
Yet we continue to watch, perhaps transfixed by an unfolding tragedy, a really real reality show in which a superpower dissolves into unreality, week by week, fading to black on our TV screens, culturally if not economically and militarily … yet.
The history of the US has been tracked by and reflected in the country’s movies and TV programmes that have become the modes of leisure in every country around the globe. In broad strokes, the changes in form, mood and content of Hollywood productions since their peak in the 1970s tell us much about the country.
Heroic Westerns and biblical epics from the 1950s and 60s, produced as the US approached the apogee of its reign, gave way in the late 1970s and 80s to small-time heroes like Rocky (1976) and John Travolta’s disco dancing idiot in Saturday Night Fever – just a few years after that serious study of American alienation, Bob Rafelson’s Five Easy Pieces (1970), resonated with the art crowd.
The 1970s saw Woody Allen increasingly unable to do comedy, switching to Bergmanesque alienation with Annie Hall (1977), another study of nothingness in everyday American life.
The decade also gave us movies considered the greatest produced in Hollywood, The Godfather (1972) and its sequel Godfather Part II (1974). Reflecting the maturation of an America forged by Al Capone and Dillinger, Francis Ford Coppola’s masterpieces showed us how Sicilians carved a niche in the fabled melting pot.
Star Wars (1977) fed on notions of a good empire battling an evil one, implicitly referring to the USSR’s rivalry with the US, not only reflecting reality in sci-fi mode but shaping it by giving president Ronald Reagan a fantastic idea for destroying the Soviet regime.
The 1980s prefigured an intensification of fantasy as comic-book heroes flew on to the screen. Superman (1978) and Batman (1989) led to the plethora of superhero movies we endure today, evidence of a deep disinclination to look into the cracked mirror that Five Easy Pieces held up to gringos, Yankees and ageing white men who more and less presided over the military industrial complex. In this fake world, Rambo was the hero, symbolically reversing the US’s humiliation on celluloid, rushing into Vietnam to wreak the rough justice the generals were unable to realise.
Dr Strangelove and Darth Vader came to life as serial killers. The chilling bravado of Donald Rumsfeld and the horrific machinations of Dick Cheney were given free rein
The 1990s began with Quentin Tarantino’s hallucinations such as Reservoir Dogs (1992) and Pulp Fiction (in 1994, as SA celebrated freedom), presenting a criminal world that shocked and delighted viewers everywhere. A near-defeated Mafia was replaced by a thousand smaller criminal tribes, ruled by Latinos, blacks or KKK types. Criminals controlled the streets, with police fighting losing battles against bad guys.
In 1999, The Sopranos began airing, presenting the Mafia in radically diminished fashion, with bosses killing off cousins and nephews for a few dollars more, suffering anxiety attacks and confessing to shrinks.
By the time the new millennium arrived, a decade after the end of the Cold War, TV had attained dominance over film, and World Wide Wrestling and a plethora of programmes about survival, singing and cooking competitions – reality TV – revolutionised the world. This was the new form of American hegemony, the imbecilic abolishing of authorship, making way for democratic access to universal idiocy.
Then there was The Apprentice (2004), whose popularity should have warned Americans that something was wrong.
By the end of the first decade of the 21st century, a new kind of brute realism was increasingly becoming the only way to represent new modes of life in the domain of the sole superpower.
So-called horror films could have been mistaken for snuff movies, while reality TV revelled in nastiness, its "winners" often sociopaths. Yet, movies with haunting soundtracks – reverberating single piano notes colouring tragic stories of miscommunication, breakdown, death, loss and madness – almost became clichés. Shameless (2011), the tragicomic TV series was the real deal. It’s about a family not so much dysfunctional as inventive of a criminal functionalism in a society radically antithetical to the American Dream. The viewer is immersed in the minutiae of decay in a dis-United States.
There have been many notions put forth about the waning of the US as a superpower, but what is striking about Shameless is the extent of the dissolution not only of hegemonic power but of the moral fabric of American life.
The traditional US family, in Shameless, is fast becoming an anachronism. The father leeches off his kids, no-one has what used to be called a proper job and everyone is breaking centuries-old moral codes, norms and habits to survive in a post-modern jungle.
The characters engage in scams to extract tiny sums of money from each other; some maim themselves to qualify for state disability schemes, and rob their neighbours of milk from their doorsteps. All this happens in and around a dilapidated house built 80 years ago, on streets ridden with potholes and piss, lined with crummy fast-food joints and drug dens.
Crumbling infrastructure speaks of a failure to reindustrialise. It is another series that reveals the place of drugs and escape from reality in mainstream America.
The 1950s and '60s preceded the transition from hardworking middle-class families that held down jobs – with pension schemes, unemployment insurance and dinner at the table presided over by a patriarch – to rebellious hippies who discovered alternative realities, civic power and the first moves towards flexitime, an arrangement that would be used by a neoliberal regime to cut costs decades later.
The decline of the US began in the 1970s and 80s, according to systems theorist Immanuel Wallerstein, who argued that the West reached its peak in the 1970s. After a sustained rise in living standards, the Oil Crisis of 1973 depleted the industrial machine, necessitating a reordering of geopolitical power.
For the US, the later 1970s meant defeat in Vietnam, recession, union profligacy and Watergate, when president Richard Nixon pleaded he was not a crook.
When Reagan and Margaret Thatcher came to power, the West imagined it had to cut back on every programme that took care of those that could not take care of themselves. It was privatisation, cutbacks in welfare, the end of the traditional job – a shift to a new unregulated form of capitalism driven by financial speculation and nonproductive profit-making. It was the era of Wall Street – of "greed is good".
The 1990s were the Bill Clinton years, the Third Way between the welfare state and the reign of rampant multinational corporations. But when it failed, turning chunks of the middle classes into a precariat, a new savagery was needed to survive, and Tarantino’s world demonstrated how it worked.
George W Bush was delivered the excuse for a US pushback: 9/11. A declining empire took desperate measures to renew American power by beefing up its military, backed by the rabid ideology of the Public Enterprise Institute.
Dr Strangelove and Darth Vader came to life as serial killers. The chilling bravado of Donald Rumsfeld and the horrific machinations of Dick Cheney were given free rein. When the War on Terror began Hollywood found its new bad guys: "terrorists" – the word a floating signifier for anyone critical of US drones and collateral damage.
Barack Obama wanted to be the good guy, but his soul was possessed by the imperial machine. His attempts at moderation were bedevilled by a catch-22: damned if you do and damned if you don’t. His drones and the Arab Spring gave birth to the Egyptian crisis, the Libyan crisis, the Syrian crisis, and finally to the Islamic State.
Donald Trump’s short walk to dictatorship was not only quick, but easy. Half of America was on his side, give or take three million. They believed his fantasies when he pledged to reinstate the American Dream, repair the country, make it the most powerful and come down on Muslims. Superman, apparently, had come to life.
Today, the most accurate consideration of the state of affairs in the US happens on TV, on Saturday Night Live.
Watching CNN is like watching The Apprentice.