October 14, 2017

Is dystopia bright, lush, & harmonious or dark, bleak, & fractured?

The Blade Runner sequel may not live up to the visuals of the original from 1982, but that's not because they didn't try. The original was one of the first to establish the visual code for dystopian environments that remains to this day -- dark, bleak, and socially fractured.



Original director Ridley Scott laid the foundations for this aesthetic a few years earlier in Alien, although that movie did not rely on a fragmented social atmosphere; all the characters knew and trusted one another, and were part of an organized team.

Mad Max, also from a few years earlier, had the bleak and fractured atmosphere, but not dark.

It was Escape From New York and Blade Runner in the early '80s that really cemented the contemporary look-and-feel of dystopian environments. That continued through The Terminator, RoboCop, Total Recall, right up to today's re-boots and sequels like Tron: Legacy and Blade Runner 2049.

What did dystopia look like before Alien and Blade Runner? Bright rather than dark, lush vibrant and life-supporting rather than barren decaying and life-sapping, and suffering from an excess of social harmony rather than an excess of everyone looking out for Number One.

Here is a whirlwind tour through dystopian environments circa the 1970s:

Star Trek, 1968

Planet of the Apes, 1968

2001: A Space Odyssey, 1969

A Clockwork Orange, 1971

Zardoz, 1974

The Stepford Wives, 1975

Logan's Run, 1976

Logan's Run

The brightness is self-evident, and so is the lush and thriving state of nature -- or if it takes place in an urban setting, the clean orderly and well-maintained structures as opposed to more contemporary urban scenes of filthy crumbling ruins.

You might object that the social atmosphere was still atomized back then -- it would seem to contradict the premise of it being a dystopia if everyone got along happily. But it was the source of atomization that differed -- back then, the creators of these scenes pushed the idea that individuals lost their authentic connections to one another by mindlessly following the herd, going through social rituals whether each individual wanted to or not, and in general having social harmony enforced and regulated by some higher council rather than organically emerging from relations that were freely entered into by the individuals concerned.

In short, they were the libertarians' view of dystopia, where some council had gone too far in enforcing social harmony. Pushing these scenes as nightmarish came right as Western societies were moving out of the Great Compression, where the mindset was reining in your individual ambitions in order to maximize harmony, and into the New Gilded Age, where the mindset is letting individuals do whatever they want, whether or not that destabilized the larger groups that these egocentrists belong to.

The Seventies was the time of the Me Generation -- the Silents and the emerging Boomers who had grown up under Midcentury conformity, taken social harmony for granted, and begun to "liberate" their individual desires in ways that would break down social bonds and societal cohesion. The dystopias from the tail end of the Great Compression reflect that bristling at a moral order that they viewed as "conformity uber alles".

It did not take very long to see where this re-birth of the laissez-faire moral order would lead to -- a new Gilded Age, a new inequality, and a new ethos of Social Darwinism to rationalize the new material conditions.

If everyone is looking out for Number One, group-level structures will crumble as public goods are no longer paid for or maintained, and individuals will become isolated from one another due to the "use or be used" morality. As stewardship vanishes, so will environmental conservation and maintenance -- there goes all that lush and vibrant greenery.

The darkness not only suggests the hopelessness of a dog-eat-dog world, it heightens the sense of nobody is supervising what anyone is doing, as the very first step toward any degree of social regulation. If anyone gets to do anything they want, it is as if they are all acting under the cloak of night.

Contrast that with the libertarians' view of dystopia, where the overly bright spaces give an almost painful sense of being supervised under the spotlight of a council in charge of a Panopticon. You would feel more obligated to rein in your selfish tendencies if you felt you were being watched so powerfully by a group of norm-enforcers.

The sole exception that comes to mind of post-'70s dystopias is Demolition Man from 1993, which juxtaposes both sets of environments -- the bright lush overworld where councils go too far in enforcing harmony and prosperity, and the dark decaying underworld where urchins do their own thing in atomized poverty.



Of course the intended message from the creators was that the well-fed and bubble-wrapped dwellers of the overworld were cruelly oppressing the starving and vulnerable denizens of the underworld. But it can be just as easily understood the other way around -- that their own choice of moral framework determines the material conditions of the two worlds, not that one is imposing its will upon the other. You can either choose to rein in individual desires and be prosperous and safe, or you can choose to let people do whatever feels good and be poor and vulnerable.

Although not the intended message, this movie still shows a deeper awareness of the trade-off than the dystopias of the Seventies, where the bright lush harmonious world was uniformly loathsome and oppressive. They believed that a society could have both the prosperous and safe world of the Midcentury, while also allowing individuals to liberate their desires. They were libertarian utopians who denied the inherent trade-off between liberty and prosperity.

Later entries of Me Gen libertarianism at least admitted that the two conflicted, and that they would choose liberty over prosperity anyway. Here's the classic Dennis Leary rant from the underworld of Demolition Man, where he concedes that doing whatever you feel like at any given moment means choosing an environment where you "maybe starve to death":



Generally speaking, though, the contemporary dystopias have come not from apologists for laissez-faire but from Me Gen members who did not cast their vote for "do whatever" along with their cohorts back in the Seventies. Ridley Scott, John Carpenter, David Lynch, Paul Verhoeven.

They have more of an anti-yuppie attitude and long for a world with more order rather than more chaos, as exciting as chaos can sometimes be, because they value the group's well-being over the sum total of hedonism over all individuals. They come off more as New Deal Democrats than Reagan Republicans or Clintonian neoliberals. And whether they would admit it or not, they would agree more with the vision of how the world looks as delivered by Trump-the-candidate and Lou Dobbs than by Crooked Hillary and Rachel Maddow (being liberals, they would probably agree most with the view delivered by Bernie).

A future post will look at Surrealism, which shares a lot with the Seventies dystopias and also hailed from the Great Compression.

30 comments:

  1. Post Alley Crackpot10/14/17, 7:35 PM

    America had its own "1984", which you might have missed ...

    David Karp's "One"

    It's back in print as an e-book, and you can also find copies of earlier printings from such places as AbeBooks.

    If this were to be made into a film, it would more closely resemble the light-and-dark that you've described for "Demolition Man", but perhaps with more colour detailing of environments that's like what you find in "The International".

    The initial scenes of home life and life in an academic setting would be well-lit in a film version of "One", but as the protagonist finds his way into the machinery of the State, the settings would trend toward darkness.

    What's interesting about the State as it ideally exists in "One" is that it's meant to produce a maximum level of happiness, although in a form that's familiar to people of the 1950s when "One" first came out. Perhaps today the arches and buildings would have to be labelled "Work Makes Us Free" and so on for everyone to understand the actual working rationale.

    Some reviewers missed the point that Karp was making with an anti-technological bent: the presence of "dictaphones" and retro-technology would today amplify the concept Karp put forth that technology was subservient to the equalitarian programme of the State. These reviewers expected they would see future romanticism, not a grim extension of acceptable levels of technology for everyday needs. "Atomic guns" may be in the arsenals, but inventories and spreadsheets are maintained on chalk boards, excess productivity in the workplace having been deemed not only unnecessary but also counter-productive in other social realms.

    The grand utopian programme of the State was, of course, an implicit agreement to maintain universal employment, and so I'd expect to see patriotic posters for the Church of State and such forth to have wartime slogans such as "DO YOUR PART" and "JOIN US IN THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE STATE" in a film version.

    Oddly enough, as much as present-day Liberals might think they'd protest at such things, they'd probably find a way to agree with it: the State promises equality and suppresses individuality, offering fellowship among everyone, which is why this book is called "One" ...

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  2. This reminds me of Steve Sailer's observation that no genre dates faster than Sci-Fi; apropos to your post, the post 1976 (?) entries you mention and stuff like The Terminator have aged a lot better, since they have virtually no connection to the mid-century, a period that X-ers and Millennials have no memory of.

    I heard Micheal Crichton talk about movie pacing, and he said that when he was making a movie in 1977 or so, things already seemed to be speeding up. In the 1978 Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the conceit of the movie is that Americans, in particular the then-incipient yuppies, were becoming so self-absorbed and alienated from each other that it makes it difficult for people to discern when or if a loved one has been taken over.

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  3. I have to disagree about John Carpenter.
    On the final choice, between techno-order and far-west, his heroe, Snake Plissken, choosed two time the last one. In escape from NY and in escape from LA (escape from LA have probably the most orgasmic end of any movie ever).

    the recent (and excellent) movie "the circle" show us too the nightmare of techno-order, in the saint rules of SJW values.

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  4. Cool stuff. James Cameron develops the idea of inequality more overtly in "Titanic", more subtly in the first Terminator movie.

    In that movie, we're shown a flashback where a soldier from the future is forced to flee from predatory robots in the dark, while humans lived huddled in burrows. But in the present scenes set in the 1980s, the zeitgeist is shown to be surprisingly similar - Sarah Connor's friends live in a small hovel-like apartment in what looks like a not so good area, and humans still hide away in underground burrows like a scummy nightclub, while powerless to protect themselves against murderers and crazies.

    One of the themes of the movie is how little protection most people have against criminals, at least in a time of rising inequality. The Terminator goes on a killing spree, killing random suburban mothers, committing a mass shooting in a nightclub, and eventually gunning down the police force. When Sarah tells the policeman that the guy broke a glass window with his first without flinching, the policeman says "Yeah, someone on PCP can do that", as if its not that unusual for that time period.

    Slasher flicks in general correlate with rising inequality. The emphasis is on the powerlessness of a dis-unified community to stop or eject the bad apples.

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  5. Albionic American10/15/17, 9:32 AM

    The mass immigration of low-quality, nonwhite people has complicated the dystopian situation by reaching a demographic critical mass in recent years. Hispanic children have become the majority in most of Tulsa's public schools, for example; and that means that the city I grew up in will become an unrecognizable, Latin-Americanish place over the next generation.

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  6. Albionic American10/15/17, 9:38 AM

    You might want to add to your list of bright and shining utopias the 1980 made-for-TV adaptation of Brave New World. For some reason this film hasn't gotten the notice that it deserves:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wlb1bdU-G7o

    As for Aldous Huxley's novel, and for George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, both have aged remarkably well, and they remain readable and relevant to the problems in the early 21st Century. Huxley and Orwell, respectively, developed into serious and well-read thinkers who understood the difference between writing for the age versus writing for the ages. They chose to do the latter.

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  7. Albionic American10/15/17, 10:38 AM

    Linda Hamilton's character in Terminator also develops as the movie progresses. At the beginning she comes across as a thoughtless Valley Girl without goals in life. At the end she has turned into a reflective woman with a grim purpose and a commitment to acquiring the skills she needs to survive.

    This portrayal contrasts with much women's entertainment where the female characters seem to lack an inner life, and they stay pretty much the same throughout their lives, regardless of what contrived drama they find themselves in or they generate for themselves.

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  8. "Linda Hamilton's character in Terminator also develops as the movie progresses. At the beginning she comes across as a thoughtless Valley Girl without goals in life. At the end she has turned into a reflective woman with a grim purpose and a commitment to acquiring the skills she needs to survive. "

    Yes, though I didn't like how in the sequel, Terminator II, they made Linda Hamilton a butt-kicking babe. But you're absolutely right about how Cameron is saying that people need to become more self-reflective take responsibility without relying too much on authorities. The police are shown as being well-meaning and competent, but totally overwhelmed by the enormity of the problems they're facing. they're no match the multitude of PCP-using psychos they have to deal with.

    In the scene where the Terminator shoots up the police department, I don't think the police ever get one shot in on him. The implication is that someone could actually do that in real life. This underlines Cameron's theme about how dangerous the zeitgeist was becoming - when we see the future-world scenes of humans hiding in tunnels as they're hunted down by cyborgs, its shown as a natural progression from where the zeitgeist was already headed in the 80s.

    In movies made during the time, there's a theme of criminals becoming dangerous and psychotic to the point of almost being mutant-like. The combo of inequality + rising crime produced some real nasties.

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  9. Linda Hamilton said that she played the character as crazy; not sure how Cameron feels, but if he disagreed I don't think it made a difference as to how she acts in the movie. I saw T2 in the theater recently and the movie still keeps up some of the scary horror movie vibe of the first movie. What does detract are some attempts at broad humor that fell flat to the audience which I saw the movie with and early 90's gender politics rearing their unwanted head.

    The "modern" butt kicking babe, which I associated mainly with post-2000 dreck, is cool (in the emotional and aesthetic sense) and asexual. In T2, we see clear conflict within Sarah, in terms of who she is protecting and how she protects; she wants to protect her son and indeed mankind in general, but when she tries to go the most desperate route to achieve that (killing Dyson) she ends up breaking down after seeing how horrified the Dyson family is. There's nothing like this in comic book movies these days; the current flavor of PC demands that women in action movies ought to be portrayed as composed and self-reliant (note that in T2, Sarah breaks down and not only does Arnie have to take control of the situation, but even her 12 year old kid demonstrates greater maturity and self-control).

    It's also interesting to compare how the issue of role models/guardians is handled in T2 vs modern movies. In T2, James Cameron (being a Boomer) notes how many failed fathers John had, how many of these losers were abusive drunks; Boomers hated their fathers, and sensed that many would-be Boomer fathers and husbands weren't making the grade. While it was too late to help early X-ers by the early 90's, cultural warriors like Cameron believed that late 70's and 80's born kids were still young enough to benefit from more disciplined and loving parents. Note also that Boomers and early X-ers did not believe that they needed parental guidance or protection, even if they benefited from it (as most Boomers did). By the early 90's, Boomers seemed to sense that the generation born after the mid 70's was crying out for competent and strong fathers.

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  10. "no genre dates faster than Sci-Fi"

    Dystopia has looked fairly consistent over the past 40 years, and "the future" (whether you were pro or con) looked fairly consistent for the 40 years before that -- from the "World of Tomorrow" exhibit at the 1939 World's Fair through the Jetsons and Logan's Run.

    Maybe the types of technology they're imagining become dated fast, but that's not the point of the genre. Not movies or books that become popular, anyway. That only appeals to nerds trying to get an early-release trailer for what gadgets are going to come out next year.

    Sci-fi also looks less dated because it can cut against the broader aesthetic of its time. The Seventies are famous for their dark grittiness outside of sci-fi, in stark contrast to what sci-fi was doing. In the Eighties, the other genres looked less dark and gritty, and sci-fi more dark and gritty.

    The tropes may also go through fad cycles, but that's mostly the niche-oriented books and their nerd fanbases, rather than popular movies.

    Old post of mine on why it's comedy that doesn't age well:

    http://akinokure.blogspot.com/2010/04/why-dont-comedies-age-well.html

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  11. "The Blade Runner sequel may not live up to the visuals of the original from 1982, but that's not because they didn't try."

    Interesting, I thought the visuals were the one area where the sequel held its own. They were clearly trying to show the dystopia of the original had deteriorated even further (like how the music sounds similar but is now harsh and off-key), and IMO they pull it off pretty well. Like the original, the stuff about "are robots people?" is pretty dumb and meaningless, but the setting itself IS the theme: the portrayal of what multiculturalism, dehumanizing urbanization, and corporate rape of the commons do to a society when taken to their extremes.

    That said, I still give far more credit to the original considering that the visuals of the sequel are ultimately just derivative. This was the mother of all unnecessary sequels, and I'll admit to having some schadenfreude for how the producers learned the hard way that "Blade Runner" is not a big enough brand to become a new Star Wars-style franchise (if only that one wasn't either).

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  12. "Dystopia has looked fairly consistent over the past 40 years, and "the future" (whether you were pro or con) looked fairly consistent for the 40 years before that -- from the "World of Tomorrow" exhibit at the 1939 World's Fair through the Jetsons and Logan's Run."

    Everything is a product of it's time; Micheal York in Logan's run and Micheal Bein in Terminator both have hair cuts that are extremely fashionable for their respective eras (the mid 70's and mid 80's). So thematically dated sci-fi often is; Planet of the Apes, Soylent Green etc. are all thuddingly obvious in their subtext (or just plain text), in terms of how many 60's and 70's buttons they push. Non sci-fi dramas (even action movies) often don't have any particular thing to say about an era or big issue; in that sense they can age well. Whereas Sci-fi is often used as an arena for grandstanding, which may have seemed momentous and creative at that time but subsequently can feel very hamfisted and hokey ("human see, human do"). Horror relies on inherently threatening and sinister situations, and as such, when done well, can hold up decades later. As soon as we leave behind the striving era of the last 40 years, I'm sure that stuff like Blade Runner will seem as dated at that point as 1960's Star Trek was by the mid 80's.

    The ships and vehicles in the "original" star wars had a lot of right angles. The prequels went for a more dorky (if scientifically sensible) streamlined/curvy look.

    Rollerball ('75) mostly fits with the anti-collectivist bent of the earlier movies. Corporate behemoths run every country and favor a sport designed to crush individualism; everyone who plays will eventually get maimed or killed before any particular player emerges as a star worthy of a big contract or lasting fame. James Caan is a stolid jock who learns that institutions are suppressing individual freedom and glory in the name of keeping poverty, disease, and violence at bay. The movie is brightly lit, has several natural looking outdoor scenes, and characters dress in that high concept mid-century fashion that Star Wars, Mad Max, and Alien discredited (lots of tight polyester, few pockets). That being all said, some of the movie does seem to sense the decadence around the corner, and doesn't seem too thrilled about it. A group of yuppies, basically, party for a while and then gather outside to goof off via shooting and burning several large trees. It's made clear at one point that a lot the people in this world are knowingly numbing themselves with drugs, rather than contemplate the terrible truths that have been festering for decades (not unlike what many people have been doing for the last 40 years). Lastly, the director has said that the savagery of the sport was inspired by the NHL trying to market the violence of hockey to American audiences, which fits more into critiquing decadent excess than it does complaining about institutions suppressing hedonism.

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  13. Comedy seems very generational; Most G.I.s would never relate to Cheech and Chong (70's), most Boomers would never relate to Half-baked (1998).

    I heard a podcaster say that a Millennial nephew of his walked in on him watching The Running Man, and said, "this looks so old" and didn't watch more than a few minutes of it. I've heard a lot of Gen X people say that movies that used to be considered "modern" standards, from the 70's and 80's, are often unheard of to people born in the 90's and thereafter. I've been considering something recently, the idea that we've all got a a tolerance for the past that only goes back about 10 years before we were born. So as for me, I generally find a lot of TV and Movies made before circa 1975 to be mildy interesting at best, and at worst stodgy and very difficult to relate to. Funny thing is, I've found Silent and even some GI actors to be compelling in stuff made after the early 70's, but I can't imagine wading through their earlier filmography. I think later Gen X-ers and Millennials just find the mid-century to be this strange and inscrutable world. You watch Stand by Me, and you wouldn't think the early 60's would be that hard to get into; but that was made in the mid 80's. I highly doubt that I'd find almost any movie from the actual 60's to be as entertaining.

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  14. "Generally speaking, though, the contemporary dystopias have come not from apologists for laissez-faire but from Me Gen members who did not cast their vote for "do whatever" along with their cohorts back in the Seventies. Ridley Scott, John Carpenter, David Lynch, Paul Verhoeven."

    Hmmm, it seems that in the low striving era it was liberals (or libertarians?) who used Sci-fi to piss and moan about The Man. When institutions (and their proscriptions) began to crumble in the late 70's, conservatives (or tradionalists?) started to lament the decline in order, safety, and optimism. E.g., some of the moments that ring true in the first 2 Terminators are when Sarah says in '84 "I can't even balance my check book". Cameron is basically admitting that his generation fucked up, and many of them were not as yet ready to be leaders, or "doers" of anything positive. John in T2 talks about his mom drifting around, never really finding any one place to stay; and he never does believe his mom until Arnold shows up. So many Boomers looked, and ran, and searched....rather than sticking to a person or even a place, and gutting things out.

    In Aliens, Cameron paints the aliens as the worst pest ever, worthy of nothing less than extermination. He still yearns for the days when we all agreed that the British/Indians/Nazis/Soviets were no-good scum. By the 80's, the good guys ability to win is not only reduced by incompetent leadership (shades of 'Nam), but by corporate corruption and a traitor in their midst (not generally important in 'Nam, but definitely in the public conscience by the 80's) . The sense of betrayal is vivid and convincing. Evidently Cameron, as you'd expect from a relatively wholesome guy disgusted by modernism, really hates treason. One of the more sardonic and poignant moments is when Ripley admits that the Aliens at least have an old-school code, to protect their tribe with valor, whereas yuppie scum like Burke will succumb to anything to get more contractual points to better line their pockets.

    And in the Cameron co-written Rambo 2, Rambo is set up and betrayed by gutless bureaucrats eager to wash away things that embarrass a by then very corrupt elite with ever fewer GIs to hold the fort (the bureaucrat villain in Rambo 2 is played by a Silent; the bullying sheriff in Rambo 1 was also played by a Silent. A theme in the original Rambo book is that the Sheriff is a Korean war veteran, who feels dissed over the Korean war being forgotten).

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  15. Albionic American10/17/17, 10:37 AM

    I Love Lucy still works as comedy after 60-some years, because it portrays morally defective characters and the classic conflicts:

    Men versus women

    Husbands versus wives

    Immigrant versus native

    Landlord versus tenant

    Young versus old

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  16. Your post about comedies got me thinking: do the popularity of comedies go in cycles, related to upbeat vs. angsty music?

    By studying the top 10 grossing movies for each year on Wikipedia, you can roughly gauge how popular comedies are - by how many comedies were in the top 10.

    What I discovered is that, if you're talking about live-action comedies, it does seem to go in cycles - being more popular when the culture is more cynical and angsty. There were a whole cluster of top grossing live-action comdedies in the late 80s and early 90s(peak for cynicism), and became less frequent into the 90s.

    In the 2000s, there were many more top-grossing animated comedies, like Finding Nemo and Shrek, much less live-action comedies. Not sure what's going on there, could be the intensification of cocooning.

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  17. Remember, Hollywood is always 2-4 years behind the times. Horror and action with usually broad attempts at comedy were huge in the late 80's and the early 90's, to the point that it took Tarantino and Scream to finally get rid of all the damn one-liners that by 1991 had way overstayed their welcome (yeah, it was cute in 1985 but even as early as 1987 it was getting distracting). Though of course, the mid 90's brought tons of meta-humor (itself something that appeared in the late 80's, but didn't catch on til later) which got old pretty fast too. I tend to think of 1996 as the year when a lot of dour movies started coming out, some better than others. As usual, this more reflected the zeitgeist of 1991-1995 than it did 1996-2001).

    Similarly, punk shows up a lot in a lot of movies and TV made from about 1983-1985, even though American hardcore peaked culturally and artistically in 1979-1981. It can take several years to write a movie and get it produced and released, and there's only so much that can be done to change the tone and subject matter of the script, which let's not forget is usually liked by the director who chose to use it and probably wants to honor the nature of the script.

    Horror movies in particular were decimated by poorly calculated sequels and rip-offs of popular films, as the public groaned about seeing Jason/Freddy/Chucky (and the me-too rip off characters) for the umpteenth time as the nineties drew near and eventually dawned. Candyman was the only horror icon (new or old) to really gain traction in the nineties, and that can be put down to him being a dour character in a nasty setting, which fit the down cast nature of 1991-1995. Another problem is that Boomers and Silents rode so high on the zeitgeist of Regean's second term that many of them didn't want to relinquish it for quite some time. These people were starting families too, and wanted to make stuff their kids could watch. I think that's why so many movies from the first half of the 90's were way off-target, often coming across as red headed step-children of late 80's movies. X-ers in the early 90's were done with Boomer culture, and the often garish extremes it was going to in the late 80's and 90's.

    The Big Lebowski astutely set itself in 1993 or so, about 4 years before the movie was made. Maybe every movie should do that, so that long-gestating movies made by middle-aged people don't run the risk itself of being out-dated as soon as they're released.

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  18. There's a scene in the 1986 Star Trek, that is pretty funny, but woefully out-dated even back then. It's got a punk with a boom box playing a phony punk song that's indistinguishable from most god-awful 2nd or lower tier 80's punk, and Spock has to peacefully get the punk to turn the music done. Thing is, by 1986 Gen X edge lords were playing thrash metal, not punk. I heard one 80's metal guitarist who said that all the kids in the punk scene immediately started trying to imitate Metallica after Master of Puppets came out. Hell, by '86 most current or former punks were growing out their hair again.

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  19. Strange Days (1995, never seen it) evidently is a "sci-fi" movie (set in 1999) that flopped big time. I guess it's got a lot of "edgy" and nihilistic weird crap, and some PC stuff involving black people and the cops. It may have had a chance in the peak year of 90's angst (1992), but evidently by the fall of '95 people were already moving on from their grunge phase.

    Edgy movies to place in the top 20 of 1995: Seven (at 10) and Dangerous Minds (13). Dangerous minds on IMDB only has bout 1 page of reviews from the last 5 years, which ought to tell you that nobody cares anymore about the movie. Which I've seen, and yes, it stinks. Michelle Pfeiffer as an ex-marine who knows karate (!), and teaches mid 90's ghetto teens to admire Bob Dylan (ah, remember the 70's and 80's when movies lived in the present,and didn't shove musty old over-rated Boomer horse-shit down our throats?)

    PC didn't go too quietly into the night, as 1996 managed to pump out A Time to kill to the top 10. The other possibly edgy hit movie was Ransom, though I don't remember a thing about it other than the poster.

    1997 gave us Conspiracy theory (another Mel Gibson movie, man he needed to lighten up) which just barely made it into the top 20.

    Still, its says a lot no PC movie or faux-edgelord crap made it to the top 9 from 1995-1997.

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  20. "In the 2000s, there were many more top-grossing animated comedies, like Finding Nemo and Shrek, much less live-action comedies."

    I forgot about the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, which have strong comedic elements, and were extremely popular in the 2000s. And there were more live-action ones also - like Night at the Museum, Cars, etc.

    In 2012-2013, the years you give as the peak for upbeat happiness, there are dearth of live-action comedies. In 2012, there was only one top 10 comedy - "Ted". In 2013, there were no live-action comedies in the top 10, though there were two comedic kids' cartoon movies, "Monsters University" and "Despicable Me II".

    "Remember, Hollywood is always 2-4 years behind the times."

    Even so, a movie that is out-of-step with the zeitgeist will do poorly at the box office.

    "Horror movies in particular were decimated by poorly calculated sequels and rip-offs of popular films, as the public groaned about seeing Jason/Freddy/Chucky (and the me-too rip off characters) for the umpteenth time as the nineties drew near and eventually dawned."

    Zeitgeist change also contributed with things becoming more upbeat in the 90s. I haven't looked it up yet, but I think that the garish sequels were probably much more popular than the original movies, which had been released when the culture was more upbeat. Jason didn't even put his hockey mask on until Part III! A Nightmare on Elm Street was the 40th grossing movie in 1984, far down the list, when culture was still positive.



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  21. Friday the 13th, in 1980, outgrossed The Shining. The sequels made progressively less money (as sequels tended to do in the 70's and 80's). In the 80's, movies started to focus on having big openings, which necessitated bigger marketing campaigns. Friday the 13th had Paramount's muscle behind it. A Nightmare on Elm Street was distributed by New Line, and just didn't have the marketing that was required for bigger success. Not unlike what happened with the essentially independent Terminator. Genre movies need powerful marketing campaigns and/or brand (an established series, or established director) value to do well. Dramas, Action, and Comedies can bank on the faces and names on the posters and trailers; no such luck with horror/fantasy/sci-fi. Particularly after 1980, marketing became extremely important with many bitter directors and actors saying that a lackluster poster, or trailer, or not enough ads in the right places was the reason a movie didn't do better.

    Lastly, it looks like a Nightmare on Elm Street had horrible timing. It was released in November at the same time as a Christmas themed slasher movie which the Christian Right/parents groups picketed after that movie opened pretty well. TriStar yanked Silent Night Deadly Night out of the theater within a couple weeks. And the Terminator had already opened a couple weeks previously. After scary movies like Friday part 4, the Terminator, and Silent Night had proven popular to viewers and/or offensive to pressure groups, it's pretty impressive that A Nightmare on Elm Street was able to achieve moderate success. Had it been released in September or October, I'm sure it would've done better.

    Theater count, opening:
    Friday the 13th 4: 1,600
    A Nightmare on Elm Street: 360
    The Terminator: 1,112

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  22. Oh, and I left out how those other movies placed. The Terminator was 21st, Friday 4 was 26. These movies didn't have the immediate general impact that say, The Exorcist did, but the 70's were weird, man. Silents and Boomers were lining up to taste forbidden fruit (remember, when most of them were kids or young adults in the late 50's, Elvis' pelvis was scandalous), and by 1984 most Silents and Boomers were learning to strenuously deny that they were personally responsible for the most sick crap to happen in the 70's; hey, most of us are good, it's not our fault that a few whackos and sickos got carried away. Picketing a mid-80's slasher movie for these folks is like saying, "hey look over there, as squirrel!"

    In the 70's, horror movies routinely made it to the top 10; in previous and future decades, horror movies would mostly be cop a feel fodder for teens. Not the case in the 70's, where Silents and very early Boomers (briefly) made going to hardcore porn theaters trendy.

    And for the record, I find the Exorcist to be an ice-cold, unpleasant, and anti-septic movie. It really is the product of a Silent(s) having a trademark mid-life freakout. Both the Sorcerer ('77) and To live and Die in L.A. ('85) are much more entertaining and have more to say. The Sorcerer is also quite bleak, but it's got great action scenes and suspense. With the Exorcist, so much of it relies on shock value, which just isn't going to hold up and never has emotional resonance. Envelope pushing would eventually give us Canibal Holocaust ('80), which for PC reasons is never going to be topped by any future theatrically released movie.

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  23. This is heavily OT,but I wanted to post a link to the New Yorker article on Pence, which is at least not as much of a hit piece as you would expect, given the publication:

    https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/10/23/the-danger-of-president-pence

    Towards the end, the article gets into how the Trump administration got staffed the way it did, which aligns with what this blog has been covering.

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  24. The movie discussion is interesting, but the problem is that there are so many movies made every year, that you can make any point you want to make by cherry-picking the ones that support your point. More useful is tracking top x lists on things like IMBD and Wikipedia to show trends, like some commentators have tried with comedies.

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  25. I'm going to go back and delete some of these that are de-rails.

    Reminder to stay roughly on-topic.

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  26. "What I discovered is that, if you're talking about live-action comedies, it does seem to go in cycles - being more popular when the culture is more cynical and angsty. There were a whole cluster of top grossing live-action comdedies in the late 80s and early 90s(peak for cynicism), and became less frequent into the 90s. "

    Something bouncing around my head today about cycles. Goes a little like this.....Is the vibe Earnest, flippant, or pretentious?

    1967-1974: Pretentious (Lotsa "message" movies)

    1975-1984: Earnest (If a sit-com is watchable, odds are it was made during this time)

    1985-1990: Flippant (80's action one-liners, "I'm here to kick ass and chew bubble-gum")

    1991-1996: Pretentious ('member all those glum "hood" movies, and all that "introspective" rock music?

    1997-2004: Flippant (I was in high school back then, and nobody took anything that seriously; yeah I know, teenagers are teenagers but it sure seemed like just a couple years before everyone had a stick up their butt, even kids). See also: the Offspring's Pretty Fly for a white guy.

    2005-2012: Earnest (cocooning being what it is, a lot of this era is a like a poor man's version of the late 70's/earlier 80's; anecdotally, a lot of early Millennials seem to be goofing on this period, not unlike how early X-ers often goof on the Disco/New wave era).

    2013-present: Pretentious (PC comes back with a vengeance, nobody seems to be having fun anymore)

    Cocooning and personal taste accounts for a lot; many (liberal) people claim to this day that the late 60's and early 70's were a cultural high point for America.

    It looks like 7-8 years is how far a mood can be taken before people get burned out. By 2020, we ought to be due for a flippant cycle, since everything's been increasingly humorless since the later 2000's.

    I certainly pity anyone who went to high school and/or college during a pretention cycle; that's supposed to be a big party phase of your life, before you "grow up" and settle down. How much fun exactly could you have on a campus in 1970, or 1992, or 2016?

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  27. It looks like most decades can be roughly divided into two distinct periods defined by mood; a lot can happen from one end of a cycle to another; Neither the 70's nor 2010's had any overlap with a flippant phase; so I'd expect intellectual snobs and edge lords to celebrate these decades for eons to come; remember, high culture and "meaningful" art=no fun.

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  28. Yes, I'd describe the angsty/angry phase of culture as being pretentious or self-serious. This is not the same thing as being too self-conscious, which trends with cocooning. But you can be self-serious without being self-conscious or insincere - for instance, Prince's song "When Doves Cry", which is very self-serious but in a sincere, self-unaware way.

    "Cocooning and personal taste accounts for a lot; many (liberal) people claim to this day that the late 60's and early 70's were a cultural high point for America."

    I think Agnostic said the late 60s were a peak for the lighthearted, bubblegum type culture, and I'm pretty sure he said disco was more of a downer.

    Its a shame people don't recognize the late 70s/early 80s as being a separate cultural period apart from the 70s and 80s, since this was a highpoint for happiness and optimism.

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  29. The late 50's-early 60's were a flippant phase (all the "pop-art", the Batman TV show, the rampant frivolity of early rock music) that nobody gets bent out of shape about, except for joyless Leftists. Now because of lingering cocooning, the art and culture of this period ain't that much to write home about; compare the flippant early 60's to the flippant late 80's. By the late 80's Silents, Boomers, and early X-ers all had 20-30 years of an outgoing phase to build up their populist crowd pleasing instincts, which is why so much late 80's culture is fun and effervescent, even though it's markedly more snide and campy than 70's and early 80's culture.

    The cultural quality of the late 90's is abysmal, but at the same time, it's certainly goes down easier, from a tonal standpoint, than the sturm and drang of the early 70's and early 90's. Or God help us all, the apocalypse porn of the last 4-5 years. And in terms of people's day to day lives, the early 60's, the late 80's, and the late 90's were all times of stability and (relative) good cheer, in comparison to thesurly surrounding eras (the heavy late 60's, the gangsta rap early 90's).

    WRT the late 60's, it's very dependent on your sources and maybe your tastes; arguments between friends and relatives were common on all number of topics (pollution, Vietnam, race-relations, etc.). By 1967, I think it's pretty definitive that everything was getting "heavier"; the bright pop art that gave us stuff like primary colored Star Trek was on it's way out; just look at Star Trek compared to the dingy colors of Planet of the Apes. The full revival of hyper-color would happen in the late 80's, another flippant phase. Similary, watching late 90's music videos and movies, people sure started wearing a lot more bright colors back then, in comparison to the grunge aesthetic of 1992-1996 when brown and olive came roaring back with a vengeance, after being left for dead in the mid-80's.

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  30. "I think Agnostic said the late 60s were a peak for the lighthearted, bubblegum type culture, and I'm pretty sure he said disco was more of a downer. "

    The vibe of disco (and most "classic" rock) in the 70's was pretty hedonistic, but at least it was entertaining. And (most) pop culture in the late 70's lacked any self-awareness or smugness. These periods of earnestness aren't really up or down; they're kind of just there. Whereas pretentious periods are about clashes and preachers, with no clear sense of who's winning or losing . And flippant periods are pressure release valves, which start to seem awfully useful after 10-15 years of periods of squabbling (pretension) and sobriety (earnest)

    To bring up Friedkin again, his movies reflect these cycles. The Exorcist ('73) is prententious, with "heavy" themes about religion, faith, and history. Nothing light, or even particularly entertaining, here. The Sorcerer ('77) is more (tonally) modest, with a narrative about a diverse group of criminals desperately signing up for a dangerous truck transport job in South America. While dark and gritty, the movie has a kind of a sleepy naturalistic quality, where at times you might forget that you're watching a movie. The acting isn't show-offey. By the late70's, audiences and creators no longer wanted preachy "message" movies. In to Live and Die in L.A. ('85), we again get another gritty story, but this time, the characters and the places they inhabit have a certain verve, an electricity to them. And the main characters all seem a little....smooth, slick. Audiences by now didn't mind a little glibness, even a little wisecracking in their entertainment. An early scene in the movie has the main cop character bungee-jumping.....Off a city bridge, in street clothes. People by the late 80's wanted to blow off some steam, wanted fast talkers and witty comebacks. And maybe a little bit of gloss and style ain't such a bad thing.

    It seems that the popularity of the 80's and 50's (among normies) can be put down to neither decade having a pretension cycle, where everything and everyone can seem like a such a pain in the ass. The early 50's were earnest, the late 50's flippant (Wiki says that camp peaked in the late 50's-mid 60's). The pretension cycle would obviously be the later 30's-early 40's, what with WW2 being the matter at hand. Cerebral types love basically styleless and humorless decades (like the 70's and 2010's), maybe because they don't ever understand why some people need to have something to smile about, and something "easy" to look at and to listen to. It's anti-populist, basically, what with even some of these curmudgeons looking down on the late 70's for promoting political apathy and personal reflection at the expense of being able to change the world, and reviving the "hero" narrative which requires a good guy and a bad guy (only in pretentious periods does anyone give a shit about attempts to advance moral relativism or nihilism).

    It would seem that Boomer liberals are always trying to relive 1968, while Gen X liberals want 1992 back. For Millennial liberals, their '68 or '92 is probably going to be 2016. It's difficult to imagine that we'll see that hysteria repeat itself again for some time; I can sense already that people are getting tired of the oppressive tenor of this era that's draining the joy and camaraderie that most people need. Hollywood had one of it's worst months ever recently, being that most movies these days are miserable. The new Star Wars characters are not selling on the toy shelves these days after the initial hype in 2015 died down; whereas even the Star Wars prequels (which mostly were a phenomenon of the flippant late 90's/early 2000's) had popular merch. Pretentious eras just don't produce populist and fun entertainment.

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