Introduction: Political Memory and Popular Media

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Levi Fox Page 3/7/2016

Introduction: Political Memory and Popular Media

Rebellious long haired youths decked out in psychedelic blouses and bell bottoms smoking pot, dropping acid, and plotting to overthrow the government (or even American society itself) through whatever means necessary in the name of power to the people. A dangerous, uncertain time when tried and true national values were challenged by emergent groups who consciously perceived themselves as operating counter to the dominant culture. Long hot summers populated by enraged urban rioters, bourgeoisie babies who unexplainedly rejected daddy’s law firm for the streets of San Francisco, and idealistic hipsters out to save the world through free love and rock music.

Such are the popular images of the people and period of the 1960’s which are most quickly and vividly conceived of by the contemporary American mind as representative of that generation. Moreover, as is the case with all memories, these public and contested recollections of times just recently past cannot be remembered in a moral vacuum. Instead they are shaded by contemporary if persistent socio-political concerns over issues ranging from illicit drug use to ‘overly’ liberal social policies and cultural mores to the goodness and righteousness of the American nation-state. Our perceived memories of this politically usable past can often have very real consequences for the present day, especially in cases where the era of the 1960’s has been portrayed as equal parts destructive and anomalous in direct opposition to more pleasantly remembered times of peace, prosperity, and ‘traditional’ values viewed as bookending this memorially problematic period. In the years since Vietnam, racial strife, and fundamental value contestation polarized the nation, culturally attuned politicians ranging from Richard Nixon to Ronald Reagan to Newt Gingrich have made careers, captured national attention, and garnered high office by rhetorically constructing this period (and the myriad of different protest strands which engaged in such conflict with the mainstream) as wholly negative, unredeemable, and above all not to be repeated. These politicians often play upon popular nostalgic notions of a happier, safer, friendlier, and generally better prior period of American history, contrasting the perceived social ills of the Sixties (and especially those of today which are painted as dire legacies of that dark era) with this idealistically imagined past in order to condemn the counterculture.

For much of the twentieth century Americans have had a kind of love affair with the notion of cultural decline, even in the midst of unprecedented material advancements, persistently providing savvy politicians with exploitable images of the past. While the experience and recognition of feelings of nostalgia “had been commonplace among soldiers who served in the Revolution and the Civil War,” according to Michael Kammen, it was the drive for “normalcy” in the 1920’s which “marked the genesis of nostalgia” as popularly understood today, as a yearning “for some earlier time sentimentalized as a golden age.”1 For the late 20th century American mainstream that perceived golden age is the period of the 1950’s, remembered as a time of social cohesion and fulfilling family life in contrast to an ongoing degeneration of culture and home that began in the Sixties. Often phrased in the politically potent terminology of a “decline of the family,” this line of argument suggests that very real current social problems such as poverty, drug addiction, and teen pregnancy are fundamentally the result of a breakdown of ‘traditional’ nuclear family structures prompted, in large part, by the women’s movement and the Sixties counterculture generally. As Stephanie Coontz points out, this nostalgic model of traditional families is in reality “an ahistorical amalgam of structures, values, and behaviors that never coexisted,” and thus the purported movement downward from this high ideal little more than a politically useful memorial construction.2 Yet if American families, culture, and life of the pre-Sixties era never truly approximated the idealized state in which they have been remembered, the question remains as to why this image of a Paradise Lost remains so powerful within the contemporary culture.

In a media saturated society in which the collective culture most shared and most public is that which appears on screen, one answer lies in cinematic and televised representations of this idealized time which function largely as a mythology of the recent American past. Whereas Fifties era self-representations, especially television programs such as “Father Knows Best” and “Leave It To Beaver,” helped to first establish this vision, it has mostly been through continuing contemporary representations of just such a past (in which, by way of the narrative, an idealized Fifties era often can be easily and immediately contrasted to the subsequent turmoil of the 1960’s) that the modern mainstream garners its mental framework concerning these issues. This should come as little surprise if, as Bruce Chadwick suggests, within modern American society it is film which holds “the power to generate myths that will affect the collective memory”3 of the general public. Indeed, while personal memories of real lived experiences during the 1960’s doubtless continue to inform popular perceptions of that era, for those born after this period (as well as many who lived through it themselves) the central repository of public memory regarding the Sixties era is that ever enlarging body of historical film depicting, interpreting, and critiquing this period. Moreover, aside from OAH forums, graduate seminars, and History Channel exposes, the question of ‘accuracy’ concerning the portrayal of the past in these films is generally ignored, let alone the complex, reciprocal relationship between modern day socio-political concerns and popular on-screen historical representations of the post-war period. Starting from the premise that Hollywood filmmakers’ primary concern is always with constructing a popular and thus profitable picture of the past, regardless of how this portrayal may distort historical reality in the interests of contemporary sensibilities, one can begin to discern how so many Americans retain such an idealized image of their recent history.

Films get made for all sorts of reasons, and succeed or fail for just as many. Sometimes money making potential but slightly affects an artistic director out to tell a good story well, regardless of the economic opinions of his corporate studio higher-ups. More often then not, though, compromises are made between storytellers and cinema backers that result in the crafting of tales at least hoped to be both stylish and successful. Much like Roland Marchand demonstrated for advertisers who must meld “their selling messages with the values and attitudes already held by their audiences,”4 in order to be economically successful a Hollywood historical film must craft visions of American history in line with the predominant memorial desires of the consuming culture. They must “provide a level of content which will guarantee the widest possible acceptance by the largest possible audience” who “will simply not go to see a movie that it has heard is ‘difficult’ or that deals with unpopular themes.”5 Moreover, and perhaps most importantly in the specific case of mass media reconstructions of the 1960’s era, movie going audiences tend to shun films that portray familiar themes or events from this period in potentially problematic ways.6 By this logic, those films that are most successful at the box office should be those whose historical imagination of recent America most closely matches that of the mainstream public.7 Yet the specific messages being taken away by movie going audiences can never be known for certain,8 nor whether there exists any correlation between public approval and ideological internalization. All that can be reasonably stated is that films both shape and are shaped by popular opinion, and that the more successful the film the more likely it in some way mirrors the public mind.

A similar reciprocal relationship between politicians and the public has long been recognized by historians, political scientists, and other scholars of society, though the degree to which powerfully placed individuals shape rather than merely tap into the public mind remains open to debate. What can be perhaps said for certain is that politicians often pay close attention to public opinion, casting votes, crafting messages, and generally operating as a representative of their constituencies, if sometimes only to ensure re-election. At the same time, by ‘making an issue’ out of what are sometimes deep underlying social concerns (some of which, like persistent apprehensions regarding race, can be fruitfully cultivated only if done so with great rhetorical care) politicians can often direct public focus and, through the use of ever more mass media, articulate these shared concerns, and their conceived solutions, in particular and often consequential ways. This is especially true in the case of certain rhetorical representations of the Sixties era by conservative politicians which single out selected strands of the counterculture, most especially illicit drug use, for outright condemnation on contemporary cultural grounds.

In addition to firmly placing the blame for current social problems (including but not limited to AIDS, crack and other drug pandemics, persistent inner city poverty, teenage pregnancy, and the ‘breakdown of the family’) on these collective past transgressions, such modes of political argument also function to discredit the radical political and cultural messages of the movement by collapsing distinctions between multi-varied aspects of a complicated counterculture. This uniformly drugged-out counterculture also tends to corrupt ‘The Sixties’ as whole as well as the Great Society programs of the Johnson administration, which are tied together under the banner of the misguided liberalism with whose dire legacy we are still collectively dealing. Indeed, as Republican rhetoricians have made careful note and political use of, though mainstream late 20th century Americans may not be wholly willing to discount appealing ideas about individual identity, social responsibility, and power to the people, they will work and vote to overthrow policies of a liberal past that can be effectively blamed for the problems of the present. Yet this collapsing of distinctions between counterculture elements enabling the condemnation of an entire body of alternative socio-political thought and action through consensus contemporary disapproval of certain specific, ‘immoral’ actions does not take place only during campaign seasons or on Sunday morning political roundtables. It occurs just as often, with perhaps more significant consequences for mainstream public memory, in the medium of historical cinema.

Leaving aside, for the moment, the issue of what relationship and influences might exist between these publicly expressed contemporary political concerns and historical cinematic remembrances of the Sixties era, let us briefly examine those aspects of popular cinematic convention which might work to encourage such a politically consequential representation of the past. The fact that the form, perhaps even more than the content, of these constructions is predicated on the consuming tastes of a mass public seeking primarily to be entertained dictates that on screen remembrances of the past be presented in the form of a coherent narrative. It is precisely this need for narrative coherence as a general prerequisite for commercial cinematic success that prompts the collapsing of countercultural distinctions in these films, since the sort of subtle sub-cultural analysis of the Sixties era one might expect to find in scholarly monographs just doesn’t make good viewing.9 The image of one coherent counterculture, whose members uniformly called for social revolt, burned their draft cards or bras, and enjoyed innumerable consequence-free sexual encounters while stoned out of their minds is simply easier to present on screen, and, perhaps, easier for a memorially politicized public to accept. This collective vision also allows for blanket if often implicit condemnation of the entire counterculture through representations of personal ruin and cultural collapse caused by illicit drug use cum, inevitably, abuse.

This proposed link between political concerns about and media representations of drugs serves as the final leg of a “Silver Triangle” of historical memory outlining the process of interaction among current political concerns and conceptions regarding drugs and the counterculture, historical media representations of the 1960’s, and mainstream public opinion about that much debated decade which underlies and generates this form of politicized mass memory in contemporary American culture.10 While few films ever achieve the degree of political recognition necessary to fully complete the triangle, those that do may be taken as uniquely reflective of the underlying culture. The majority Sixties depicting historical films, which succeed or fail to varying degrees in part because of their drug content, need not be ignored though neither their impact nor their cultural resonance should be overstated. Yet regardless of their overall popularity nearly all films which portray the Sixties era itself, or simply begin in a counterculturally marked setting to contemplate its legacy, tend to present subtle variations on certain specific drug messages reflecting the views of the contemporary culture. Moreover, there exists at least one precise means by which political media messages regarding drugs can infiltrate popular cinematic historical remembrances of the counterculture.

While no secret cabal of anti-drug propagandists forces Hollywood directors at gunpoint to represent the past in politically consequential ways, there remain very good reasons why popular historical cinemas should ‘choose’ to do so. In the first place, any depiction of drug use in contemporary cinema (even those set in an historical past which shared very different views on such matters) must not overtly challenge the contemporary socio-political consensus on this hot-button issue. From the mid 1970’s onward this mainstream conception prefigured drugs as a uniquely dire threat to the next generation and, most importantly, in the wake of the “Just Say No” campaign of the 1980’s, an issue on which only one viewpoint could be considered legitimate. To produce any alternative depiction was to risk public condemnation for presenting ‘mixed messages’ to children.

Positive economic motivations also encourages such politicized popular portrayals of the past. While the degree of success of the Reagan-Bush anti-drug media campaign in keeping youngsters off illicit substances remains open to debate, it seems likely that the parents of those children at whom the blitz was aimed (who themselves comprised the cultural consensus of concerned citizens pushing for such preventative measures) took to heart the distinctly unmixed media messages being presented on video screens in arcades, stadiums, and living rooms across America. Through its role as mass consumer demanding images in line with its own preconceived notions concerning drugs, this politicized public in turn encouraged Hollywood to create similar such representations on the silver screen. These cinematic representations of contemporary society themselves served to further reinforce the extent mainstream message about drugs while simultaneously establishing the precise contemporary terms and categories in which the drug-filled countercultural past would soon be cinematically represented.

Chapters One and Two of this thesis will lay the historical, political, and cinematic groundwork for the specific case studies of politicized Hollywood portrayals of the past that follow. Chapter One briefly surveys the cultural conflict of the Sixties era, paying careful attention to those distinctions among different elements of the counterculture which would become so consequentially collapsed in later political rhetoric and media representations regarding that period. Then, starting with Richard Nixon’s effective mobilization of the “silent majority” at the very height of the movement in 1968, it explores how the counterculture and the Sixties era generally have been politically remembered in the years since. Focusing especially on the rhetorical reconstructions of Ronald Reagan and the 1994 “Contract with America” Republicans, this section examines how the perceived sins of the countercultural past could come to be so effectively blamed by contemporary conservatives for precipitating the problems of the present. Temporarily turning away from the politics of memory surrounding the Sixties, Chapter Two traces changing Hollywood cinematic depictions of drugs from that period to the present, with an eye towards establishing competing thematic paradigms (of the 1960’s and 1990’s eras) to which the Hollywood historical films can be constructively compared. Interspersed with this narrative is another that examines governmental policies concerning drugs during the same period with special emphasis on the anti-drug political media messages of the Reagan-Bush era. In so doing this chapter suggests a process by which consciously political and publicly paid-for anti-drug messages of the 1980’s could come to permeate market driven media representations of contemporary society (and then of recent history) in the 1990’s.

Having laid out the necessary media and memorial backgrounds, Chapters Three and Four focus on specific cases of drug-related cinematic historical revisionism in an effort to understand the thematic trends, underlying cultural messages, and possible consequences of these representations. Chapter Three examines three major thematic sub-genre types prevalent among 1990’s era historical representations of the Sixties, Utilizing close textual analysis of one representative cinematic myth from each category. In general these films either romanticize the past itself while downplaying and explicitly condemning drug use (as in Almost Famous), create a clear distinction between the users and consequences of marijuana and other drugs (as in Dazed and Confused), or tell tales of inevitable personal ruin (as in Blow) precipitated by, at first always more or less innocent and usually counterculturally motivated, experimentation with drugs.

Chapter 4 examines the cultural meaning of Forrest Gump, analyzing the historical cinematic phenomena that swept America by storm in the summer of 1994, garnering multiple Academy Awards and cashing in to become the third highest grossing film of all time. Following a race and gender focused survey of the extent literature on this film, I contrast it to two alternative pictures of the past; the book of the same name on which it is ostensibly based and the structurally similar but politically antithetical Oliver Stone film Born on the 4th of July. This chapter concludes with an in depth exploration into the thematic treatment of drugs and the counterculture in a film whose incredible box office success and appearance amidst a heated campaign season that often centered around politicized memories of the counterculture suggest it as a uniquely useful and insightful reflection of contemporary American mainstream cultural attitudes toward, and understandings, of the recent past. It concludes with a short epilogue similarly examining the political messages, cultural meanings, and possible policy consequences of the most recent spate of televised anti-drug propaganda that has appeared in the months since the 2002 Super Bowl.

What follows should properly be read as a collection of essays intended to build upon one another in multiple ways while suggesting several arguments concerning the relationships between politics, media, and public memory. These essays are also meant to be reflective of different avenues of cultural inquiry and disciplinary techniques, including history, anthropology, media and literary scholarship, and all falling under the overall rubric of American Studies. The first two chapters serve as comparisons of differing techniques of historical storytelling, a critical review of existing arguments on the one hand and a straightforward narrative on the other. This second history is also meant to suggest some of consequences, including the streamlining of cultural complication, of the kind of narrative presentation utilized in the films analyzed in the last two chapters. The final two chapters each build upon the ‘Histories’ in different ways, and are meant to compliment rather than compete with one another in advancing their own argumentative agendas. In examining individual texts whose varying popularity of these films problematizes the degree to which they may be read as indicative of broader public memory, Chapter Three attempts to show some of the ways in which drugs and the legacy of the counterculture have been dealt with in post-Reagan era historical cinema. It is only in Chapter Four, which serves as the culmination of my overall argument, that I attempt to read broader cultural attitudes towards drugs and the Sixties back from the textual evidence. This chapter also attempts to move beyond drugs to the larger legacy of the counterculture as it has been recently remembered on-screen.

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