You might have seen advertisements or read reviews about a new film called ‘Seeking a Friend for the End of the World‘. The overall story line goes something like this-
As an asteroid nears Earth, a man finds himself alone after his wife leaves in a panic. He decides to take a road trip to reunite with his high school sweetheart. Accompanying him is a neighbor who inadvertently puts a wrench in his plan.
One of the somewhat ignored part of the plots is that human (specifically American) efforts to divert or breakup an asteroid fail- repeatedly. Did you catch that? Now compare this outcome to movies from the late 1990s such as Deep Impact and Armageddon.
How did Hollywood disaster movies go from the triumphant but unrealistic tone of ‘Deep Impact’ to the depressing but realistic one in ‘Seeking a Friend for the End of the World’?
There are those who say that such apocalypse/disaster movies are feeding into a public fascination with Mayan end time prophecies. While this explanation has some merit, it cannot explain why many of the recent popular and not so popular creations of Hollywood have a less than optimistic view of the world. For a longest time, Hollywood movies were soaked, then infused and finally pumped full of optimism such that even films on fairly dark and morbid subjects had a happy or happy-ish ending. The monster always dies, disaster is always averted, evil is always defeated, the officials are always competent or lucky, the guy always gets his girl. So why have the last 7 years seen so many films with less than happy endings? The same can be said about TV. Shows such as “Weeds”, “Dexter”, “Girls” or even “The Sopranos” would have been unthinkable in the mid-1990s.
So what changed? What happened to American exceptionalism and optimism?
I believe that the strong belief in exceptionalism and forced optimism that dominated the American psyche and popular culture is dying. There are many reasons behind this shift in attitudes ranging from general trends such as the lack of economic mobility, poor job security and working conditions, the rapidly increasing use of legislation and force to pauperize/abuse well-meaning people, the very obvious drop in social cohesion etc. There is however one another reason that we rarely talk about, even now.
It is now obvious, if only on a subconscious level, to most non-retarded americans under a certain age that all important public and private institutions have been damaged beyond repair or resurrection.
The key words in my claim are ‘damaged beyond repair or resurrection’. Most Americans still tell each other, and themselves, that these institutions can be cleansed, repaired and rehabilitated. However, deep down, they know that institutions from schools, universities, the health care system, police, judiciary to banks, corporations and all levels of government have been compromised beyond repair. They are aware that these institutions can no longer be expected to perform at the expected and necessary level of competence.
People are beginning to see that they are trapped in a once impressive, but now decaying, building that is not being repaired or maintained inspite of repeated promises to do so. Those who are supposed to keep it in top shape are still collecting the payments and pretending to work (replacing a few light bulbs here and there, repainting a room) but it now becoming obvious that they are far closer to slumlords than competent professionals. Furthermore, unfragmented mass media, which was the main psychological weapon of these slumlords has lost its near monopoly and more importantly- its credibility.
That is why popular entertainment today is dominated by morally ambiguous ‘anti-hero’ characters, dystopic fiction, depictions of institutional incompetence, greed and cruelty and a overwhelming sense that “trusted” professionals are lying or cannot deliver what they had promised.
What do you think? Comments?