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Congratulations American, we’ve elected a president that
isn’t a total monster. Politically speaking we should be in for a whole lot of
healing over the next four years, though I’m a glass half empty guy when it
comes to this kind of stuff. Still, I honestly have hope for my country’s
future. It can’t possibly get any worse, right? Right? But that four-letter
word that followed Barack Obama all along the campaign trail is often a bad one
for art, and I fear the effect all this ‘hope’ will have on future graphic
arts, music, writing, and most importantly to this Blog, film.


I’m far from the first person to notice or write about the
relationship between political strife and potent art. Actually, it’s more or
less common knowledge these days. There have been plenty of wonderful works of
art created out of joy, admiration, and even hope, but since the advent of the
motion picture, bad times have almost always bred big chances. The darkness of
a political climate will often also open mainstream audiences to darker
entertainment, meaning that expensive art, like film, sees a definitive boost
in odd and subversive behavior. When the general public is happy, films about
happy times sell their best, but when the general public is flustered, angst
ridden, or even angry, studios are often more willing to chance complicated
characters, dark and personal violence, and even bleak endings.


George W. Bush and his administration may have been bad for
the country, even the world, but during their reign mainstream film took on a
tone as dark as the seminal silver age that started with Bonnie and Clyde and the Vietnam War. The late ‘60s through the ‘70s
saw the rebirth of the Western thanks to Sam Peckinpah’s revisionist’s look at
violence, and Italian filmmakers’ left-leaning spaghetti westerns. Later strife
saw the rebirth of American horror as led by George Romero’s Night of the
Living Dead, and taken to extremes by grindhouse filmmakers like Wes Craven,
Sean Cunningham, and Tobe Hooper. Gory newsreels led to a more open acceptance
of the Cinema Verite style, and the increasing reality of the outcome in Vietnam let to
more open acceptance of unhappy endings. Tonally there was nowhere darker to go
with mainstream Americans.


Of course, the terrorist attacks of September 11th
had a big effect on the general public’s sense of hope long before they had a
chance to truly appreciate how bad things were going to get, and the year 2001
was definitely a turning point for Hollywood.
At first the problem was ignored, as the Twin Towers
were digitally excised from big-budget epics, and any film featuring terrorist
activity was either pushed back, or eased from the release schedule all
together. The next year or so was defined by a strange mix of increasing
acceptance of more graphic violence (the PG-13 rating awarded to [i]Lord of the
Rings[/i] has permanently changed the rating), and the massive popularity of
feel-good blockbusters like the Spider-Man, which would define the brief period
with its final image of the web-slinger perched beside the American flag.


Soon though, the previously ignored terrorists found avatars
in onscreen murderers, and the American and European horror industries saw a
potent rebirth. In the relatively strife free1990s mainstream horror was
practically defined by Wes Craven’s Scream, which was a great movie, but would
place the future of the genre in the totally incapable hands of the Weinstein
Brothers and their Disney subsidiary Dimension Films. (Quick side note: Scream
was actually given an NC-17 for a gut shot when it was released. Compare the
shot, which is on most DVD versions, to any scene of violence in the R-rated
Hostel) Horror fans had to look to the past (or Asia)
for genuinely horrifying motion pictures. Then, when the genre had all but
disappeared from the scene, unresolved feelings about 9/11 continued to stew
(due in no small part to the Bush administration’s mishandling of the
situation). Soon cute post-modern horrors, and even the slasher antiheroes of
the 1980s looked positively quaint compared to the real life terror that had
killed more than 3000 Americans. Not to mention the ever evolving war in Iraq.


The situation called for realism and catharsis, realism and
catharsis that hadn’t been seen by mainstream audiences since images of dying
American soldiers infiltrated their homes in the days of Last House on the
Left, Night of the Living Dead, and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The themes of
the grindhouse classics were recycled in the form of homage (Wolf Creek,
The Descent, Haute Tension), and direct remakes (Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Dawn
of the Dead, Hills Have Eyes). Bloody, painful violence was again popular, and soon
the ‘torture porn’ craze (which was nothing new, as any fan of the ‘70s
Nazisploitation craze will tell you) was infuriating parent groups the world
over. The Saw series, which was a mix of the dirty pain of the 1970s, and the
brand name slashers of the 1980, took Hollywood by storm, and despite
continuous quality deterioration, almost pushed the NC-17 rating into
mainstream acceptability (parts 3, 4, and 5 were all apparently considered for
uncut releases, and likely would’ve brought in just as much money).


There was a bit of a lull in aggressive cinema during the Carter
administration, likely due to fatigue following the Nixon administration, but
soon Reagan was in office, and violence was again in vogue. This time the
bloodlust came from somewhere different, mostly a mix of renewed fear of
nuclear apocalypse, and a renewed faith in capitalism (the ‘rah-rah effect’),
which led to a mix of ultra-violent action films, and the rise of the
rollercoaster slasher films. The entire era can practically be defined by a
single line in the sequel to First Blood, Rambo: First Blood Part 2. First
Blood was a leftist vehicle concerning the sadness of the Vietnam War, but its
sequel was a bloody opposition to the belief that the war was a failure. When
John Rambo is offered the chance to return to ‘Nam he poses the question: “Do we
get to win this time?”. Indeed.


Both ultra-violent action films and slasher films also saw a
re-emergence during the Bush II administration. After the elections of 2004 it
was clear that the nation was divided, leaving room for both the dystopian
violent cinema, and violent political thrillers, where American soldiers (or
their stand-ins) got to win (even Rambo made a comeback). Soon enough, however,
the events of Hurricane Katrina officially tipped the scales, and the evil
terrorist avatars began to become evil corporate and government avatars. Despondent
pro-war youth found temporary solace in the silly excesses of Zack Snyder’s
[i]300[/i], but it mostly too little too late.


Blockbuster machine Steven Spielberg may be the best
measurement of the increased adult nature of popular film in the Dubya era.
Spielberg has often been accused of being an emotional sap, and even his
adult-aimed films feature their share of oversimplification. The Color Purple,
Empire of the Sun, Schindler’s List, and Saving Private Ryan are all ultimately
stories of overcoming odds, and really can’t be accused of being downers. In
2001 the Beard made A.I., one of the most emotionally bleak mainstream Sci-Fi
films ever made. This was quickly followed by Minority Report, which added
physical bleakness to the pallet, though the director would find himself once
again slagged for defaulting to a supposedly happy ending (my disagreement with
that statement is besides the point).


Then, in 2005, Spielberg finally found it in him to make not
one, but two direct statements on the post-9/11 era. War of the Worlds was not
only physically violent for a PG-13 actioneer, but it featured troubling themes
about the nature of war, and the sacrifices necessary in such crisis
situations. The film had another (arguably) happy ending, but was a brilliant
comment on the original story and film, which had both been used as metaphors
for real life fears. Later in the same year Spielberg finally found the nerve
to make his long gestating Munich Olympics project, which doesn’t only stand as
the director’s darkest film, but it was a topical subject, and probably the
most controversial films in his oeuvre.


Equally beard-endowed popcorn filmmaker George Lucas also released
the final Star Wars prequel in 2005. Though the story had apparently been
finished since the ‘70s, and the plot was apparently in reference to the
downfall of Greece,
audiences couldn’t help but notice the apparent comparisons between the evil
Sith and the evil Republicans. One also can’t help but wonder if Lucas would’ve
released a hard PG-13 Star Wars movie had he finished them in the ‘90s. But the
most telling sign is perhaps what both Lucas and Spielberg did with the last
year of the Bush administration – they made a new and fluffy Indiana Jones
film. Could this be a sign of times to come, or just a coincidence.


This cycle peaked in 2007, which is arguably the best year
for film in the closing decade. No Country For Old Men taking the Best Picture
Oscar was the cherry on the cake for both superficial and analytical reasons
(though There Will Be Blood would’ve had the same effect). 2008 was the year we
all knew change was coming, but it still held one big surprise, that of The
Dark Knight, which is my last example of this theory.


Batman, it turns out, is a great measure of public
acceptance of darkness is popular film. In the ‘60s he was a fun loving clown,
and the ‘70s had no use for him, but at the tale end of the Regan era, when the
country was still so in love with the president that they elected his Vice
President hoping for more of the same, Batman found a popular place as a very
grim masked hero. Tim Burton’s version of the character wasn’t the darkest the
character ever got on the page, but up to that point it was a huge change-up
for a public weaned on Adam West. The film was a phenomenon, so Burton came back for a
second Batman, and he made it even darker. But by that time the year was 1992,
and the public was aiming to turn on George Bush Sr. Parent groups complained
about the film’s violence and tone, leading Warner Bros. to seeking out Joel
Schumacher for their next two follow-ups.


With Bush’s even more conservative son in office the studio
was open to another dark take on the character, leading to Batman Begins.
Begins pulled in a solid cash flow, and produced critical interest in the
character the public had left for dead following Batman and Robin. Logically,
there had been a sequel, and as had happened with Burton, director Chris Nolan was encouraged
to do more of the same, just more. And this time, instead of diminished
returns, and letters from angry parents, Warner Bros. saw more money than
they’d seen since The Exorcist (which when inflation is adjusted, is still the
studio’s number one money maker).


If it had been released a few years later would The Dark
Knight still be the phenomenon it became? Was the public genuinely that geared
up for a sequel to Batman Begins? Was Heath Ledger’s death really that big of
an event? Was the movie really that good? When considering the tastes and whims
of the public at large it’s tempting to answer all three questions with a ‘no’.
There has to be something more visceral about the reaction. Something about the
film appealed to the base entertainment needs of a large cross-section of the
American population, a population that likely had sons and daughters at war, or
was on their way to war, or had just come back from war, or was still
emotionally damaged from the 9/11 attacks, or was about to lose their job, or
had lost their jobs, or had lost their house to the market, or had lost their
house to flooding when the levies broke, or had simply found themselves
disillusioned with their way of life. Does a nation have to be reeling from depression
to make The Dark Knight the number one money maker of an entire two term
presidency? Absolutely not, but do consider the box office king of the Clinton era.


I wonder if Warner Bros. isn’t perhaps releasing The
Watchmen a year too late. I have a feeling the film is going to be pretty big,
but also have a feeling it would’ve been bigger if we didn’t have all this hope
floating around. Now, the good news for real, hard core film fans is that
documentaries will likely become more interesting, now that every theatrical
documentary release won’t have to be an indictment of Bush, his administration,
or September 11th. And following the success of stuff like
Fahrenheit 9/11 we might actually get to see these films in major theaters. Do
you remember seeing any documentaries in theaters in the 1990s?


Do note that I’m not a Dark Knight ‘hater’ or a Clinton lover before
sending me angry E-mails, they simply represent my logic in very broad, and
easy to explain strokes.