Friday, 24 October 2014

Context, conspiracies and subtext creep (part 2)

Some time ago I read an article about vampire movies and why they are so successful among teenagers now. The answer, according to the article, is that the vampire movies allow the teenagers to process their fear of terrorists, and that the vampire craze is a result of 9/11.

I was reminded of this the other day when I spoke to a film scholar friend who had had an article about recent developments in TV genres rejected because the article did not contextualise contemporary TV genres with references to 9/11 (or words to that effect). I remembered also when Down With Love (Peyton Reed 2003) came out and I was asked the question "Why is this coming now?" meaning, what does it say about contemporary gender roles that Down With Love is being released now. (My non-too serious reply was something about "feminism light")

That was three examples of the attempts to "explain" why something is popular and what something is "really" about that are so popular among film scholars and journalists. But these arguments are rarely substantiated by anything solid. It was not the case that teenagers who liked vampire movies had been interviewed about how they felt about terrorists. It was just taken for granted, as such things so often are. Teenagers might like vampire movies for any number of reasons, it might be because they are scary, or sexy, or thrilling, or whatever. You could just as well argue that the reason teenagers like any kind of films is because they are afraid of terrorists and the films provide an escape from this fear. But then again, are teenagers actually that concerned about terrorists at all?

9/11 is a very popular reference point, but it was 13 years ago now. A lot of things have happened since then. The horrific tsunamis that have taken place in Thailand, Indonesia and Japan, the financial mayhem of recent years, the rise of Putinism and European fascism, and so on and so forth. To take one event and use that as some kind of benchmark for discussing culture is more often than not just laziness.

Sometimes articles and books that try to explain why something is popular reminds me of conspiracy theories, with the thinking being that there has to be a large force that explains things, something must be blamed, I suppose in both cases it is an example of human's dislike of randomness and chance. It is not that I am against contextualisations as such, only against the often sloppy ways it is done. (X came after Y, therefore X can only be understood as a reflection of Y.) But, as they say, correlation is not causation.

Speaking of conspiracy theories, when people discuss science fiction films from the 1950s it is often with the understanding that they are "really" about the fear of communists. But why? For one thing there is not always a subtext; sometimes a film about an alien invasion is just a film about an alien invasion. I am a bit suspicious about subtext thinking in general (see an earlier post about it here) but even when there are subtexts in these films, it can be about a number of things other than communists. It can be about a fear of nuclear war, or nuclear waste. It can be about fears of diseases. It can be a critique of conformity and/or racism. Of course, some of these films are about the fear of communists, but there is a lot more to it than that and there are many possible interpretations. When H.G. Wells wrote War of the Worlds in the 1890s he was not afraid of the communists taking over so why assume that a film based on it must be about such a fear.

On the other hand there is Susan Sontag's argument that there is "absolutely no social criticism, of even the most implicit kind, in science fiction films." A statement that is impossible to understand since it is so obviously wrong. (She wrote that in her 1967 essay The Imagination of Disaster.)

There is a film called Invasion U.S.A. (Alfred E. Green 1952) which tells the story about a Soviet attack on the USA. Maybe it is an allegory, and really about the fear of an invasion of aliens from outer space.


  1. While I agree with and like the main body of your post, I don't think your quote of Sontag is at all fair. What you consider social criticism seems to be much different from what Sontag considers social criticism. She seems to place emphasis on the criticism aspect of social criticism i.e. allusion to social situations is not sufficient to qualify as social criticism. For reference here is the complete paragraph where your quote is taken:

    "There is absolutely no social criticism, of even the most implicit kind, in science fiction films. No criticism, for example, of the conditions of our society which create the impersonality and dehumanization which science fiction fantasies displace onto the influence of an alien It. Also, the notion of science as a social activity, interlocking with social and political interests, is unacknowledged. Science is simply either adventure (for good or evil) or a technical response to danger. And, typically, when the fear of science is paramount-when science is conceived of as black magic rather than white-the evil has no attribution beyond that of the perverse will of an individual scientist. In science fiction films the antithesis of black magic and white is drawn as a split between technology, which is beneficent, and the errant individual will of a lone intellectual."

    She spends much of The Imagination of Disaster talking at length about how science fiction films are often about real world fears displaced onto other-worldly creatures. It is clear that she does not consider this simple type of reference/expression sufficient to warrant the term "social criticism."

  2. Thanks for your comment Eric. Much appreciated.

    About social criticism. She says "There is absolutely no social criticism, of even the most implicit kind, in science fiction films." which would suggests that she speaks of all science fiction films ever made in any country, but could it not be said that for example Metropolis (Fritz Lang 1927) and Things to Come (William Cameron Menzies 1936) have aspects of social criticism?

    If we instead interpret her comment to refer only the American science fiction films from the 1950s and 1960s, we have to consider, say, Them! (Gordon Douglas 1954) or The Day the Earth Stood Still (Robert Wise 1951). In the first film radioactive waste create giant ants that threatens mankind. Could not that be seen as at least implicit social criticism? In The Day the Earth Stood Still a space man comes to earth and tells us that if we don't stop war and such stupidity we are doomed. Why is that not social criticism?

    She also says "Science fiction films are not about science. They are about disaster". But there are no disasters in for example Destination Moon (Irving Pichel 1950) or Conquest of Space (Byron Haskin 1955), both produced by George Pal. They are about the exploration of space, and the science needed to do such explorations.

  3. Heh, I have to admit I felt a little poke in the side there :) While I completely agree with you that one big thing might not necessarily be the answer to everything, I have to say that in the case of supposed-fear-of-communism-movies there has to be elements beyond a mere invasion.

    The difference between War of the Worlds and The Puppet Masters for example is that Well's aliens simply want to erase mankind while Heinlein's want to enslave and make mindless robots of them. However, I naturally have to plead guilty to the perhaps rash assumption that mindless robots were a stab at communism and not suburban conformity.

    1. Yes, that was a weird coincident! But I had written my post before I read yours. It's something I've had reason to think about many times.

      At a distance things might look very similar but when you look at things more closely the differences become more apparent. And perhaps the differences are more important than the similarities.