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 (sometimes heavily) 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. At the same time 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 opposition to more pleasantly remembered times of peace, prosperity, and ‘traditional’ values which bookend this memorially problematic period. In the years since Vietnam, racial strife, and fundamental value contestation polarized the nation, culturally sensitive 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 fostered such conflict with the mainstream) as wholly negative, unredeemable, and (for the sake of our children) something which must never be repeated. At the same time 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 mainstream late 20th century American culture 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 the current and 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 (a favorite among modern conservative value pundits) 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. Yet, 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 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 (false?) image of a Paradise Lost remains so prominent and 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, the answer lies in cinematic and television 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 is mostly 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 turmoil of the 1960’s) that the modern mainstream receives its (mis)information 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 cinemas depicting, interpreting, and (often implicitly) judging this period. Moreover, while television doubtless serves a similar function, certain consequences of the consumer character of contemporary cinema (as well as peculiarities of form and structure) tend to make it both more suitable for analysis and more significant for the way in which present day Americans remember and make political use of that period.

In the first place market pressures dictate that the prime directive underlying the production of all Hollywood films is ultimately the profit motive. 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. Indeed, starting from the premise that Hollywood filmmakers’ primary concern is always with constructing a 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 while simultaneously glimpsing a method of utilizing these economic aspects of cinematic mythology to better explore the meanings and motivations of the underlying culture. .

It is no subtle insight that consumers tend to purchase products they enjoy over those which they find distasteful. Moreover, basic economic logic suggests that over time producers will learn the tastes and habits of their consuming public and better adapt their products to suite the needs of the mass market. Indeed, it is by just such a process that historical cinema representations of the past are crafted in order to satiate the cultural pangs of the mainstream. Above all else, in order to be economically successful, a Hollywood film must please its viewers, which in this case necessitates the crafting of 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.”4

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 (like, for example, Born on the 4th of July, which was a simultaneous critical success and commercial failure) that portray familiar themes or events from this period in potentially problematic ways. At the same time that it partially explains the cultural logic behind cinematic historical misrepresentation, the unabashedly consumer character of such films makes it possible to close read such films as a means of discerning how the consuming culture construes its recent history. Indeed (though one should not fully discount those films whose Hollywood ‘buzz,’ mass publicized critical successes, or underground ‘cult’ status have cemented them as cultural icons), 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. Thus perhaps even more than being a potential shaper of public opinion regarding the past, popular Hollywood cinema (especially those box office blockbusters whose vision of history has received widespread public validation) can act as a mirror of broader societal self-conceptions.


A similar reciprocal relationship between politicians and the public has long been recognized by historians, political scientists, and other scientists of society, though the question of to what degree powerfully placed individuals shape rather than merely tap into the public mind remains open to debate (*** find a reference****). 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 sometimes consequential ways. This is especially true in the case of certain rhetorical representations of the Sixties era by conservative politicians which single out certain strands of the counterculture (most often free love and 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 aspects the movement by collapsing distinctions between multi-varied aspects of a complicated counterculture. Moreover, as Republican rhetoricians have made careful note (and opportunistic political use) of, though mainstream late 20th century American society as a whole may not be wholly willing to discount appealing ideas about individual identity 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 personal, ‘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 the popular cinematic convention which function to encourage such a 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. 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. Indeed, in this thesis I will argue that depictions of illegal drug use in 1990’s era historical cinematic representations of the recent past fall into recognizable categories corresponding to mainstream contemporary societal viewpoints, and media portrayals, of drug use while functioning to implicitly discredit the political and cultural contributions of the counterculture through explicit moralistic condemnation of illicit substances and their patrons. Moreover, I will attempt to show that this process is inextricably, if indirectly, linked to contemporary political images and arguments about drugs, resulting in a cinematic rewriting of the American past largely in terms of present day politicized drug prevention visual media messages.

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, historical media representations of the 1960’s, and mainstream public opinion about that much debated decade which generates and supports this form of politicized mass memory in contemporary American culture. Arguments concerning the reciprocal if asymmetrical relations comprising the first two legs (those existing between historical media and the mainstream cultural conception of the past on one hand, and this public mental image and present day political rhetoric about social issues prefigured as legacies of the counterculture on the other) of this triangle being extent in the social science literature, and already briefly summarized earlier in this section, we shall now briefly turn to explore the precise means by which political media messages regarding drugs infiltrate popular cinematic historical remembrances of the counterculture. While no secret cabal of anti-drug propagandists forces Hollywood directors by gunpoint to represent the past in certain 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 issues) must not overtly challenge the contemporary socio-political consensus on this hot button issue. This mainstream conception prefigures drugs as a uniquely dire threat to the (always politically useful) 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 is considered legitimate. To present any alternative depiction (even one set thirty years in the past) is to risk public condemnation for presenting ‘mixed messages’ to children. Positive economic motivations also work alongside these possible negative consequences to encourage 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 collective consumer demanding images in line with its own (now) preconceived notions concerning drugs, this politicized public in turn prompted Hollywood to create similar such representations on the silver screen. These cinematic representations of contemporary society 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. Indeed, as we shall see, post-Reagan era historical film representations of the Sixties tend to create images, themes, and morals about drugs which mirror those appearing in 1990’s contemporary societal depictions while diverging sharply from the cinematic constructions of the counterculture which appeared on-screen at the time.

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. In chapter one we will briefly survey the cultural conflict of the Sixties era, paying careful attention to those distinctions among different elements of the counterculture which will 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, we will survey how the counterculture and the Sixties era generally have been politically remembered and utilized in the years since. Focusing especially on the rhetorical reconstructions of Ronald Reagan and the 1994 “Contract with America” Republicans this chapter shall examine 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 will trace changing Hollywood cinematic depictions of drugs from that period to the present, with an eye towards establishing competing thematic types (of the 1960’s and 1990’s eras) to which the Hollywood historical films can be constructively compared. Alongside this narrative (and interacting with it at appropriate points of mass mediated convergence) shall run another examining 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 shall examine the precise process by which consciously political and publicly paid-for anti-drug messages of the 1980’s came 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 shall 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 will examine three major thematic sub-genre types prevalent among 1990’s era historical representations of the Sixties (which, as might be expected, closely correspond to certain contemporary cinematic drug categorizations), supplementing close textual analysis of one representative film from each category with supporting examples from a broader range of historical cinema. In general these films either romanticize the past itself while downplaying or 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, experimentation with drugs.

The final chapter shall examine 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 an in depth exploration into the thematic treatment of drugs and the counterculture within this film, and the possible underlying political and cultural consequences of such a representation, we shall compare it to two alternative pictures of the past; the book of the same name on which it is ostensibly based (but which paints a very different portrait concerning drugs) and the structurally similar but politically antithetical Oliver Stone film Born on the 4th of July which offers a divergent interpretation of the recent past. The incredible box office success of this film (along with its appearance in the midst of a heated campaign season that often centered around politicized memories of the counterculture) suggests it as a uniquely insightful (and useful) reflection of contemporary American mainstream cultural attitudes toward and understandings of the recent (and, for many, best forgotten) past. This work will conclude with a short epilogue examining the political messages and cultural meanings of the most recent spate of televised anti-drug propaganda which has appeared in the months since the 2002 Super Bowl.

While the question of validity remains omnipresent any time an historian attempts to read broader culture from individual texts it is perhaps never more pressing than in the case of television, film, and other visual mass media. Yet perhaps no other body of modern technology impacts our lives more on a daily basis then the video screens which provide countless hours of consumer choice and entertainment to hundreds of millions of Americans everday. Moreover, while the degree of influence the images appearing on these screens hold over those that view them remains open to debate, it seems likely that nearly everyone in the contempoary United States is influenced by some of the media some of the time. Yet in the case of public discourse concerning drugs and the counterculture, where only one form of messsage is considered culturally legitimate, this influence (whatever it’s degree) can only hope to shape views in one particular and politically consequential style. Establishing exactly how this process works, what precisely these consensus conceptions are, and what their continueing socio-political results might be remains the paramount goal of the pages to follow.



1 Michael Kammen. Mystic Chords of Memory: The Transformation of Tradition in American Culture (Vintage Books, New York 1991), 533.

2 Stephanie Coontz. The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap (Basic Books, New York 1992), 9.

3 Bruce Chadwick. The Reel Civil War: Mythmaking in American Film (Alfred A. Knopf, New York 2001), 5.

4 Garth Jowett and James M. Linton. Movies as Mass Communication (Sage Publications, London 1980), 74.



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