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Winter 2008, Volume 24.2

FilmFocus

 

Andreas StröhlPhoto of Andreas Ströhl.

On the Threat to American Bodies: The View From Abroad Inside a Movie Theater


Andreas Max Ströhl is the former head of the Cultural Program Department at the Goethe-Institut Prague, Czech Republic, the former director of the Film Department at the Head Office of the Goethe-Institut in Munich, as well as the former director of the Department of Film, Film Production, TV and Radio of the Goethe-Institut Inter Nationes. He is the founding director of Days of European Film in Prague and Brno, Czech Republic, and has served as a guest lecturer on media theory at the University of Innsbruck, Austria. Since 2003/04, he has been serving as the executive director of Internationale Münchner Filmwochen GmbH (International Munich Film Weeks), as director of Filmfest München (Munich Filmfest), and as managing director of Internationales Festival der Filmhochschulen (International Festival of Film Schools) Munich. He as published widely on critical theory and film, including the edited collection, Vilém Flusser: Writings (Univ. of Minnesota Press, 2002). The URL for the Munich Filmfest is http://www.filmfest-muenchen.de/. "On the Threat to American Bodies" is based on a talk given at the Amerikahaus München in fall of 2006.

 

Historians of culture take it for granted that popular culture and the entertainment industry react to moods and trends among broad sections of the population in immediate and seismographically precise ways. Cinema is often considered to directly mirror the anxieties of entire societies and the way they imagine threat. The German expressionist cinema of the 1920s, for example, is often seen to show the feeling of insecurity caused by the instability of the post-war era. Japanese Godzilla movies, similarly, are said to digest the trauma of nuclear bombings and radioactive contamination.

Is it an anthropological and psychological constant to play with imagined fears in a pleasure-orientated way by projecting evil onto the external world? Can this become the basis of politics? Are these imagined fears inherent in the medium of film and thus the same for all time? Do different genres merely cross different borders, or does American cinema reflect specific, topical fears with instinctive sureness? Does it portray the mental situation of our age? Does Hollywood accompany, support, or perhaps even stir up the threat to America as claimed by the Bush Administration through well-directed and dramatized visualizations?

I will not try to answer these questions in this essay. Instead, I will take a look at some randomly chosen American feature films, mainly from the last ten years, and offer some observations on their striking commonalities, which in turn will allow us to recognize some shared constants. While my sample is admittedly small, and thus not truly representative, I invite readers to draw their own conclusions with regard to the correspondences between a more general collective consciousness and a nation’s mentality. I will bypass numerous conceivable thematic variations and historical genres of film, such as film noir, hardboiled detective movies, Western movies, cold war spy films or slasher movies. Instead, I have chosen to focus on science-fiction thrillers in which the threat originates from as far away as possible: outer space.

Before pointing out the common features of some more famous science fiction thrillers, however, let me take a moment to touch upon some other genres, particularly those exemplary films often cited to actually shed light on a collective psyche by looking at its image production—similar to the way psychiatrists or psychoanalysts give crayons and paper to their patients because their drawings bear witness of what moves or ails them.

Around 1920 the German cinema suffered from a loss of the feeling of realism. The trauma experienced by most people during the Great War had been so violent that the world was often perceived as dead and extinct. Humankind felt absolutely small and naked, suffered from a feeling of dislocation and consequently created powers and ghosts that were beyond its control. Expressionist German silent film is widely interpreted as a reaction to the breakdown of the Old World and its rigid, secure structure, and to the horrors of World War I.

The German sentimental films in idealized regional settings (Heimatfilm) and the Western movie are related genres. Their topic is the correction and removal of a disturbance within a semantic space, a social system or a topographic area that is to a large extent closed to the outside world. Usually in a Heimatfilm, the disturbance originates on the outside and the solution is mastered by the community’s own efforts from within. In Western movies, however, both the initial disturbance and the figure of the savior tend to come from outside the closed off community. The entrance of the cavalry as a deus ex machina shows a profound trust and faith in the authority of the state, which could by and large no longer be summoned after the end of the period of the classic Western movie—or, to put it differently, since the Vietnam War.

In contrast, science fiction movies and thrillers with extraterrestrial protagonists always present the distant—and thus the other or alien—as incomprehensible, different and negative. They take up the topology of evil. It is no coincidence that the characters personifying sinister and evil qualities now are strangers, while those overcoming evil have become locals.

Among the filmic examples one could enlist to illustrate the topic of a direct threat are Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens (Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau, 1922), Dracula (Tod Browning, 1931), The Thing From Another World (Christian Nyby, 1951), The Exorcist (William Friedkin, 1973), Star Wars (George Lucas, 1977), Alien (Ridley Scott, 1979), Independence Day (Roland Emmerich, 1996), Armageddon (Michael Bay, 1998), Deep Impact (Mimi Leder, 1998), Enemy of the State (Tony Scott, 1998) and The Siege (Edward Zwick, 1998), among many others. Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) plays a special role, in this regard. It is the only (or one of the few) alien-focused films that portrays extraterrestrials as friendly and as a potential complement and contribution to life on earth. With his 1982 release E.T. Steven Spielberg continues this exceptional attitude of appreciation of the alien. Later this will be the basis of a biting parody in Tom Burton’s Mars Attacks! (1996).

Invasion films of this kind often feature the following commonalities:

The threat comes from the outside. (However, because the resident often incubates the alien evil on the inside, the relationship between host and threat suggests an obvious parallel to the motif of exorcisms). Examples of this feature include The Thing From Another World, Alien, Independence Day, Armageddon, Deep Impact, The Siege. In Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the mother barricades the house, while a record needle gets stuck and replays the telling line again and again: "the moment you come into view." In Alien, the evil comes from the outside but hatches from inside human bodies and on the inside of the narrated world, a motif familiar from realistic narrative texts of the nineteenth century.

Children, naVve adults, and more generally childlike and innocent characters are the ones to welcome the foreign power; they are responsive to the other and feel attracted to it; the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as them. Examples of this type of response include Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Independence Day.

Notwithstanding this general responsiveness to the other, it is children or adolescents who best know how to deal with the challenge. They are the ones to save the world, as in Enemy of the State. The kids in Independence Day have obviously learned from the film Alien. When Dylan is asked what he has been up to, the boy answers, "Shooting aliens."

In spite of all the know-it-alls and apostles of peace, immediate destruction of the aliens turns out to be the best response to their appearance, or "invasion." The doomsayers and the voices of mistrust prove to be right. In The Thing From Another World, the obviously intelligent alien being is just called a, well, "thing." However, since that "thing" turns out to be more powerful than humans, humans are legitimised in their fear of it. In Alien, the one to insist on following the rules of quarantine—"if we let it in, the ship could be infected"—later finds herself the only survivor. Independence Day and The Siege also fall into this category.

Aliens are typically portrayed as malicious parasites in the system/body or as plundering predators, often appearing like giant insects or locusts. Their repulsive look is always monster-like, as in Independence Day.

Aliens are always technologically (and sometimes biologically) sophisticated and superior to humans, as in The Thing From Another World, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Alien and Independence Day. As Ash (Ian Holm) in Alien puts it, "The alien is a perfect organism. Superbly structured, cunning, quintessentially violent. With your limited capabilities you have no chance against it." The Siege sports a similar description to identify an Islamic terror group, telling the viewer twice that "in this game, the most committed wins."

It is always Americans who coordinate the worldwide struggle against the alien invader, and often they fight it all alone. Significantly, while sci-fi thrillers often present images of exotic people in other countries before and/or after America’s global rescue operation, such people are typically absent during action sequences. The fate of the world lies in America‘s hands, as it does in Armageddon, Deep Impact and Independence Day. The latter, in particular, best exemplifies the idea of manifest destiny that is already encoded in the film’s very title. July 4th turns into the global national holiday, with the US president mutating into a fighter pilot and reaching the final stage of this metamorphosis to coincide with Independence Day. Ever since, George W. Bush has tried to re-enact this enigmatic image as a variant of himself, visiting aircraft carriers, wearing a pilot’s overall and carrying a helmet under his arm. Again, the big exception to this rule is Close Encounters of the Third Kind, which features none other than François Truffaut as a French UFO expert.

It is the simple man, the redneck of the Midwest who is able to help himself – not the institutions or authorities or the state. He is the one that wins the battle. Following American revolutionary traditions and in accordance with the American Way of Life and the American Dream, it is often the educational failures and dropouts, with their high-carb diet, that make it in the end, as in Independence Day and Armageddon.

In principle, the fighters have lots of fun doing battle, even if combat with the monster often culminates in self-sacrifice. (In this respect, the soldiers of the cause exceed most propaganda films of the Third Reich). Along with acknowledgement within the family, self-sacrifice is in itself the highest virtue. Suicide assassins for the cause are shown to be patriotic, heroic solutions to the problem, as in Independence Day, Armageddon, Deep Impact, and The Siege.

Millions of intelligent beings (often suggested to be more intelligent than their human counterparts) get killed. However, these life forms are deemed unimportant, because they are positioned as invading strangers, as in Independence Day.

These films foreground the thrill of destroying the American and European civilization by invading outsiders. Symbolic landmarks, such as the Eiffel Tower, go up in flames, as in Independence Day or Deep Impact. Armageddon shows the towering inferno of the burning World Trade Center (in 1998).

Notwithstanding heavy losses on a global scale, humanity regroups and is reborn from a new nucleus family (very much like Noah‘s, and often, animals join in, too), as in Independence Day, Armageddon and Deep Impact.

Edward Zwick’s 1998 release The Siege stands out from the rest of these invasion scenarios. The film anticipates the attacks of September 11, 2001, with astonishing exactness, and it portrays with amazing accuracy the hysterical anxieties, mass panic and situations of threat that are able to totally paralyze an entire city or lead it into chaos. After the abduction of an Islamic religious leader by the US military, New York City becomes the target of escalating terrorist attacks. As the FBI and CIA hunt down the terrorist cells responsible for the attacks, the bombings continue, and the US government responds by declaring martial law. A breathtakingly precise prophecy of the background and consequences of an attack, the film features sheik Ahmed bin Talal, who looks like the spitting image of Osama bin Laden and uncannily anticipates the rhetoric of the so-called War on Terror three years before the actual attack on the World Trade Center: "the worst kind of reaction is a reaction that’s based on fear"; "either we answer this threat quickly and convincingly, or next week, there will be a hundred more all over the world"; "they’re attacking our way of life"; "what if what they really want is for us to... bend the law, shred the Constitution just a little bit? Because if we… do that… everything we have bled and fought and died for is over, and they’ve won." This last line, in particular is the most accurate and most eerie prediction of the way the Bush Administration has, just three years later, indeed fallen into the terrorists’ trap and gambled away the United States’ reputation as a law-abiding country. Or, as we can read from the lips of a terrorist: "So now you have to learn the consequences of trying to tell to the world how to live." The film even features a frank discussion among government officials about the efficiency of different kinds of torture methods (which is echoed in the current release of Rendition), and suspects are locked up in cages like the ones we have gotten to know from Guantánamo Bay for reasons less than vague.

Of course, Hollywood’s obvious strain to arouse fear of the unknown among audiences has long been a provocation to more intellectual filmmakers and created some suggestive and entertaining samples of counter-reaction and biting humor. Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) is actually a parodic reversal more than a ridiculing of a catastrophic nuclear scenario, because it emanates from a home-grown commie-hating general gone postal; similarly, the Coen brothers’ The Big Lebowski (1998) features a clash of two different Americas when, by mistake, several prototypes of defeatist elderly hippies and losers get drawn into a complicated and unclear crime scheme. Basically, the film’s protagonist, The Dude, and his neurotic friend, Walter, become the playthings of a rich, conservative paraplegic, his young artist wife, a bunch of pathetic German nihilist wannabe kidnappers, the Malibu Police, and a big shot in the porn entertainment industry. The Dude has two confused but significant dreams of castration related to evil scissors-wielding Germans and/or Saddam Hussein. However, the culmination of the comedy of The Big Lebowski is the way The Dude parodies a statement of the President—in this instance, George Bush, Sr.—echoing his 1991 announcement on TV that "This will not stand. This will not stand, this aggression against Kuwait." The Dude uses the same phrase in a most petty context, when thugs invade his house and urinate on his rug: "This will not stand, you know. This aggression will not stand, man."

Virtually everything that should be said about the construction of the threat in the films I am discussing here can be also found in a comical mise en abyme in Tim Burton’s masterpiece Mars Attacks! (1996). This highly concentrated parody is not only a brilliant, cynical pamphlet on the do-gooders’ attitude toward intercultural understanding. The film also summarizes with encyclopaedic completeness and accuracy everything you need to know about the movies under scrutiny here, as well as the more generalized features of their genre: the threat comes from the outside; a naVve crowd welcomes it joyfully ("Please come to Earth. Please. We need you"); children are the best shooters; and an adolescent failure saves the world. Contrary to initial appearances, an immediate strike turns out to be the best response (the First Lady suggests to "kick the crap out of them"). The Martians are ugly and technologically superior. The audience bears witness to the destruction of other countries and cultures. However, it is Americans who save the world, in this case, rednecks from the Midwest with their eclectic country music. The destruction of numerous symbols of Western civilization is presented with joy and enthusiasm. The extraterrestrials have fun playing with humankind. They are more intelligent than human beings, but are in the end nevertheless butchered without mercy. Thereupon, a young nuclear family calls for reconstruction: "Now we just have to... start over and start rebuilding everything, like our houses. But I was thinking, maybe instead of houses we could live in tepees. Because it’s better in many ways."

A long time before the US President asks the rhetorical question, "Why can’t we work out our differences? Why can’t we all just get along?," it has become clear that "our world will never feel quite the same again." This pronouncement accurately anticipates the phrase buzzing in the media five years later: "Nothing will ever be the same."

Of course, the question remains to what extent these observations are universally valid—whether they are anthropological constants, so to speak—or if, on the contrary, they suggest something like a characteristically American mentality or frame of mind. All human beings have fantasies of anxiety that are culturally coded. In the American tradition, the meanings of the body and of physicality differ from those in Europe. Europeans tend to consider their bodies simply as themselves, as the I. It seems strange to them when they hear Americans referring to their bodies as systems in an objectifying, functionalist sort of way—perhaps similar to the abstract way an endocrinologist might talk about the human organism, or the way a car mechanic might refer to an engine. Americans also put more emphasis on minimal distances between bodies in the public sphere. In Europe or Asia, by contrast, you can walk past other people in the street, in a shopping mall or in other public places at a much closer distance; you can even touch them—if it is not done intentionally—without having to apologize for the fleeting intrusion of their private sphere.

In the light of this different attitude towards physical presence, intimacy and body functions, it does not seem surprising to Europeans that Americans tend to associate their anxieties with alien powers invading American bodies—as well as their country of immigration. One could of course object that the horror portrayed in blockbuster movies is or was not characteristically "American"; Hollywood, after all, has long become thoroughly internationalised. However, foreign-born film directors working there shoot films other than the ones made by American directors. Ang Lee and Roland Emmerich, for example, do not portray the danger as coming from the outside (partly because these directors are not part of that danger themselves), but as a freezing of the interior, as in The Ice Storm (1997) and The Day After Tomorrow (2004). America’s inner coldness or heat death becomes its own threat, rather than the immigration of legal aliens importing such viral coldness. In Emmerich’s vision, US-Americans need to flee from their own icy cold and seek refuge in Mexico. America itself is the danger. This perspective, however, tends to be restricted to immigrants and foreigners and has a didactic quality, with the aftertaste of a consciously designed educational program.

If there is anything like a distillation of such visual scenarios of threat, it is in the work of the American photographer Gregory Crewdson. In the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung, Holger Liebs characterized Crewdson’s photographs as follows: "However strange Crewdson’s scenes may seem in detail, their visual tradition is very familiar. Actually, we have seen them dozens of times, just like this or perhaps differently. We have seen them in Hollywood movies that keep telling us since the 50s how a foreign presence in the shape of malicious aliens is going to haunt the planet or, more specifically, the suburbs of the American Midwest. The evil other is of course driven off, so that the core of the state system, the All American Family, is saved in the end. On occasion, an extraterrestrial intelligence—whatever it may signify within the American mythology of late modernism, such as the Red Scare, the danger of terrorism, or simply chauvinist xenophobia—may also feel disposed to be friendly. Steven Spielberg’s gentle E.T., for example, is just mistakenly stranded in an urban wasteland, or The Close Encounter of the Third Kind is portrayed as a rescue operation of missing world war pilots enhanced by a disco light show. Spielberg’s exceptions to the rule are based on the same, fundamentally American, primeval fear that the arrival of the other is inevitable and we are not prepared for it" (13 September 2005).

Such a characterization may help explain why the attacks of September 11, 2001, have been perceived as such an extraordinary turning-point in the United States. From a European perspective, this looks very different, if one can distance oneself from the emotionalism the American media have produced and conveyed in their coverage of the event. Within the American popular mythology, however, the other is always already defined as evil; it has arrived and people were indeed not prepared for it. The very titles of films like Alien or Armageddon make it clear that this fear predates the year 2001 by a number of years.

So why is the other equated with evil? More than that: Why can this equation occur in a country of immigrants of all places, in the very country of immigration and refuge per se? A look at the history of American culture—or simply at Martin Scorcese’s Gangs of New York—may suggest as a speculative but plausible answer that it is always the preceding generation of immigrants, who see the succeeding generation of newly-arrived, hungry and ambitious strangers as a threat to their own modest living standard for which they had struggled so hard. If such mechanisms continue over several centuries, it may well lead to the general feeling that strangers, the new, the other, are impostors and a social threat. For Western Europeans, whose countries were not, until recently, faced with immigration issues, such ways of thinking may be difficult to comprehend.

The year 2001, once again, was declared as the end of history. Once again, people sought to extract meaning from meaninglessness. "Nothing will ever be the same." This sentence, probably the most frequently cited quote in the context of the attacks on the World Trade Center, testifies not only to an enormous stupidity but also, and more importantly, to a deep yearning: Now, finally, everything will be different; now banality and mediocrity are given meaning. Dan Fried, Assistant Secretary of State in charge of European Affairs at the State Department, never tires of explaining to his European counterparts what they seem to have problems seeing: We are, Fried maintained, facing an "unheard-of threat." Of course, such a phrasing involves issues of medial manipulation, the abuse of political power and the legitimization of military crimes. However, that is not my subject here.

Nevertheless, I would like to quote the contemporary Czech philosopher Václav Bělohradský to make my point: "The famous Slowenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek," Bělohradský observed, "noted that in the 1970s and 80s everywhere a potential future was debated—a post-industrial capitalism, the return of fascism, new forms of paternalism, democratic socialism—everything seemed possible. Today everybody accepts global capitalism as the final stage of history." The End of History is, indeed, a topos that has spread successfully from Hegel via Vilém Flusser and Karel Kosík to Francis Fukuyama, in the process changing its meaning to the point of unrecognizablility. "The media," Bělohradský continued, "most of all the Hollywood factory for instant dreams and nightmares, are obsessed with a possible cosmic catastrophe and the extinction of life on earth—by a lethal virus, a new ice age or an asteroid colliding with our planet. For humankind today it is easier to imagine a cosmic catastrophe than changing the system of global capitalism" (Interview in Právo, 12 August 2006).

The first Godzilla movie (directed by Inoshiro Honda, 1954) is often interpreted as a Japanese attempt at coming to terms with the lost war and the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. However, while this film portrays Godzilla, the symbol of the bomb, as an evil monster, its meaning mutates in the course of the series. In films like the 1965 Kaiju daisenso (Monster Zero) Godzilla turns into the protector of Japan (and the entire world, in fact) in its fight against extraterrestrial invaders.

I now anticipate Hollywood reacting accordingly. Will the extraterrestrials finally turn into protectors of the American Way of Life against an Islamic threat, or, on the contrary, will it be committed Islamic suicide bombers fighting aliens to save the world? My personal guess for the most likely scenario is that the insides of the evil fanatics with the explosive belts really harbor little green Martians.

The computer games market typically reacts more quickly than the film industry. American McGee, the influential games developer and the creator of Doom, has already commented on his approach to the situation: "The Americans are frightened. Very frightened. Of terrorism, natural catastrophes, illegal immigrants. The nation is kept in a state of permanent panic by frequent new warnings." McGee’s most recent work Bad Day L.A. satirized—and cashed in on—the raging American paranoia. I am looking forward to similar reactions from Hollywood.

 

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