The Ramblings of a Gen Xer

Monday, April 25, 2016

The End of Civilization for Your Viewing Pleasure

Civilizations has been around for as long as Homo Sapiens decided to stop roaming the Earth and settle into nice two-room mud huts then create a code of civics that did not include eating their children. Unfortunately many early civilizations met their demise through disease, barbaric hordes or saber-tooth tigers eating all their children while others hung-on, flourished then advanced to become great civilizations with conquering armies that ruled large portions of the world. Good things don't always last as even these historic societies collapsed under the weight of various circumstances and those damn barbaric hordes. 
This Ain't No Party. This Ain't No Disco. This Ain't No Foolin' Around
If you were born sometime past the mid-point of 20th century America, you most likely had front-row seats in watching the declining glory of this once powerful civilization. Don't get me wrong, we are nowhere near the final days of the Mayans before the Spaniards arrived or in Rome with the Visigoths camped outside the gates, but, undoubtedly, over the past 40 years there has been a noticeable steady slide to this precipice. 

Much of American civilization's decline can be attributed to several factors including an ongoing 30+ year civil war between pragmatic and dogmatic political views, obsession with materialism married with unchecked consumerism resulting in the birth of class warfare, the structural dismantling of the nuclear-family, technology (ironically because that's the one thing that advances civilizations), and desensitizing 24/7 media sources which has led to apathy, cynicism, intolerance, and socio-pathetic behavior among Americans. 

Yet up against Roman bath-house orgies, fiddling emperors, or vomitoriums for over-indulgence, our decline is rather lame. Instead our thrill of decline comes through the circuses of Presidential campaigns, the bread of fast-food restaurants and fiddlers like Kim Kardashian who have more nobility than Noble Peace Prize recipients. 

The only other sense of fun we can derived from being in the Great Decline is the projection of what America will look like after this nation slips off the precipice and into a state of dystopia. We took in literature detailing dystopia filled with authoritarian governments, Punk music filled with songs about society's breakdown and films that painted a bleak future comprised of revolting androids, milk-bars, devolution and mutants fighting over gasoline. 

But being a generation brought up in the age of TV and cinema, these two latter mediums effectively seared the images of a future dystopian world into our minds. Not diminishing the impact of Orwell's books or the anti-establishment songs of The Ramones, but seeing Charlton Heston's infected world in Omega Man or watching James Caan fight the corporate government in Rollerball was far-more compelling and realistic for us.

Party With Me, Punkers
Besides the building of cynicism, and lack of faith in the future of American society in our young adulthood aside, why did these types of films capture our imaginations. Art imitates future life? Or that their concepts, stories, action, characters and the director's film-making skills made them really great movies to watch? Well, both, so the ultimate question then becomes which film fitted the best end of civilization viewing pleasure?

Since there are over 100-plus films spanning over six-decades that features stories of democratic societies plunged into dystopian or post-apocalyptic worlds, there has to be some sort of formula built into determining which could be considered the top ones for this blog. The top criteria is futuristic plausibility or realism of story. Other factors include originality of story, film direction, concept and the "Love It"  factor. This combination of all of the above went into determining what are the top five end-of-civilization films. 

5.) Videodrome (1983) 
Dubbed as a "disturbing techno-surrealist" this film, written and directed by David Cronenberg, makes it to the list of top dystopian/end-of-civilization movies based on the originality and plausibility of story. Cronenberg said he got the idea when as a child growing up in Toronto, after local TV stations went off the air, he was able to watch programs from nearby Buffalo. The plot from Videodrome was hatched when the young Cronenberg felt in there may have been TV programming not suited for public viewing. 

In an modern-age of reality TV, virtual reality, and TV influencing our daily lives, the concept of Videodrome becomes a real possibility in the Great Decline. Cronenberg tells a story in which a TV producer, brilliantly played by James Wood, is looking for more opportunities to build sensationalism into his station's programming. He finds it after watching the remotely broadcasted and clandestine Videodrome with programs featuring what Wood's finds to be the future of TV.  Subliminal messaging, media desensitization, both reality and virtual TV all come into play as Woods succumbs to influence of Videodrome and the powers that operate it. 

An argument could be made that Videodrome is more of futuristic thriller and from a film viewing perspective this may be true, but the surreptitious mind-control (instead of tumors use imbedded micro-chips) element of the film and the paralleling of America's deteriorating taste in entertainment is what ranks the film as a dystopian/end-of-civilization movie. 

4.) THX-1138 (1971)
Long before the mythology of a galaxy "far far away" was created, an unknown director teamed up with Francis Ford Coppola and writer Walter Murch (The Godfather trilogy, Apocalypse Now!) to produced this dystopian film about a world without sexual intercourse. George Lucas' student film THX-1138 depicts a Fritz Lang Metropolis dystopian society in which reproduction is outlawed and denizens are required to take state-regulated prescription drugs to insure they are obedient and remain compliant in the tasks they are assigned to. If things ain't bad enough, overseeing them is a central police force comprised of androids and a zealous group of monks who remind workers "You are a true believer, blessings of the State, blessings of the masses. Work hard, increase production, prevent accidents and be happy". 
Its Another Saturday Night And I Ain't Got Nobody
For a movie made in 1971, a dehumanized police force, mandatory prescription drugs that keep the masses controlled, sex becoming taboo and religion used as to tow the company line are dire visions of the future. Fast-forwarding to 2016, much of these concepts are now integrated into aspects of American society. We see on a near daily basis random videos of cops gunning down unarmed individuals, witnessed the rise of the pharmaceutical industry with easily obtainable prescriptions, undergone changes in cultural views of sex in a post-AIDS world, and have forgotten the First Amendment clause of the separation between church and state. 

Perhaps the message in Lucas' THX-1138 isn't as compelling as a bunch of cute droids, Han Solo or a "Luke, I am your father" reveal, but with a visionary outlook of a future dystopia, THX-1138 is a chillingly accurate view of a 21st century America worth viewing. 

3.) Soylent Green (1973)
A movie that launched one of the most idiomatic phrases, this film was based on Harry Harrison's 1966 novel Make Room, Make Room. Directed by Richard Fleischer (also known for his directing Mandigo) and featuring both Charlton Heston and Edward G Robinson (his last movie before his death), Soylent Green is a story featuring a 2022 dystopian America suffering from over-population, a green-house effected climate and the reliance of a processed food source in which the movie title is based upon. 

The themes of over-population and climate change were finding themselves in late-20th century dystopian/end-of-civilization films. Logan's Run provided a world in which domed communities executed those over the age of 30 to maintain resources while Silent Running is about the preservation of now extinct Earth plant-life. Of all these environmental themed movies, Soylent Green is one of the most horrifying yet potentially realistic films of this genre. 

Although the concept of what it is made of and the mass consumption of Soylent Green goes against every grain of civilization, compared to what Chicken McNuggets are made of one wonders which may be a healthier choice. Not condoning stewin' gramps up and servin' him over a bed of rice but when modern fast foods contain ingredients used in Silly Putty and roof sealant what does that say about the "food" we are being fed. 
Subway's Egg Sandwich is Made of...Dimethylpolysiloxane!
2.) Rollerball (1975)
Being born in the latter half of the 20th century, one was able to watch the Golden Age of professional sports filled with integrity, code, history as well as an intelligent fanbase loyal to the game and teams. Admittedly, I have been a fan of the NFL as long as I can remember and love the game of American football at all levels. Moving through the decades into the 21st century, we have witnessed the deterioration of professional football eroded by money, corporations, and an disloyal and dumbified fan base. The game has changed because millionaires play the game, billionaire owners with corporate sponsors have reshaped how the game is played, and company media sources seeking high ratings are constantly attempting to simplify the game for disengaged viewers. Unfortunately, this can be applied to most professional sports in the Great Decline. 

The movie's tagline "In the future, there will be no more wars. There will only be Rollerball." set the dystopian tone for this film. In the distant future of 2018, governments are replaced by corporations who control all food, fuel and communications. These global entities replaced all forms of sports with one that is a combination of roller derby, hockey and Hell's Angels. The protagonist and super-star Rollerballer, Jonathan E (brilliantly played by James Caan) rise to popularity concerns the corporations, as they frown upon the celebration of individuality, and they try to force his retirement. He refuses then all hell breaks out. 

What director Norman Jewison and screenwriter William Harrison (who adapted the story from his own Roller Ball Murder) did with Rollerball is give a glimpse of a America after the Great Decline is completed. The film's concept in which corporations replace governments is not as fictitious as hallucination generating TV programs or people being processed into food. In our lifetime we have seen democracy slowly replaced by PAC's and Corporate Personhood, we are seeing professional sports molded into what sponsors and billionaires want us to cheer for, and the ability to express our individuality is becoming repressed by the elimination of arts in schools and public forums. 

In the end of Rollerball, a bloodied, bruised individual scores the winning goal and the chant of "Jonathan, Jonathan, Johnathan" begins to swell to a unified shout. This defiant act provides hope that against all oppressors individuality can win. Almost the same hope one gets when hearing the chant "Bernie, Bernie, Bernie", or, yes, "Trump, Trump, Trump".
1.) Mad Max 2 or The Road Warrior (1981) In the encyclopedia of post-apocalyptic/dystopian/end-of-civilization films, this legendary sequel has every aspect of this genre. Marauding bands of punk-rockers, limited resources everyone is fighting for, Mel Gibson, last-gasping of civilization, mayhem and tricked-out road machines are all brilliant aspects of this movie. We WANT this type of dystopia. 

Directed by George Miller, The Road Warrior, sequels the 1979 film Mad Max, and features the journey of "Mad" Max Rockatansky (played by Gibson) in the post-apocalyptic outback of Australia. As our anti-hero leads hopeful settlers to a promise land, Mad Max battles villainous vandals including the shoulderpadded, mohawker Wez, The Toadie (who doesn't understand the principle of a boomerang) and Lord Humungus. Again, the story of an anti-hero battling a hockey-masked bad guy is WHAT WE WANT in a world following the Great Decline. 

Is the dystopian concept of The Road Warrior plausible? Sure, but one would think folks would be fighting over things like water or food (and not an oil refinery) in the Australian Outback. What we see in the film, and echoed in contemporary end-of-the-world stories like The Walking Dead, is that people are at their worst when trying to obtain what others have in an post-apocalyptic world. In our cynical encrusted minds, we doubt society and civilization could rebuild itself simply because we've seen a society turn away from humanity and civility in our lifetimes. A film like The Road Warrior ultimately makes us choose a side we want to be on at the end of civilization, the anti-hero who fights for society or the Lord Humungus and his understanding of Darwinian principles. That's why we LOVE this movie. 

Ultimately, all five of these movies as well as several other great dystopian films that did not make the list offer some sort of optimism in the end. The exception to this rule is the bizarre 1985 film Brazil  (written by Terry Gilliam and Tom Stoppard). Perhaps this is the main reason why the generation born in the latter part of the 20th century have made these movies part of their film lexicon. We are seeing the decline with little faith the country will ever reverse this slide, so, through the anti-heroes we see in these movies, we find hope in a renewal of society. Extreme as it may well be, a renewal nonetheless. 

That's the hope we find in the Great Decline.
Shoulder Pads. Harpoon Guns. Mohawks. The Boy Wonder. What a Movie!