Nihilism, Film and Culture
I have been watching a lot of old films from the 1980’s and 90’s and remembering how much I enjoyed them. From Raiders of the Lost Ark to quirky comedy’s like Jumpin Jack Flash and dramas like Witness it seemed to me there was something really joyful being created. This was the art of film making at the highest level. The audience attaches themselves to the characters, and feel as though they are part of the action on the screen. Old school Hollywood magic. I have been asking myself what went wrong since then. Why have films become cesspools of hollowness?
When Star Wars: The Force Awakens was released in December the giddiness a lot of us fans of the original trilogy and its amazing cast felt was palpable. Our gang was back. I sat in the theater remembering how many times I saw each of the first three movies as a kid. Let me just say hot summer days were spent at the Hollywood Theater with my friends repeating every line and cheering every victorious moment. I could not wait to see Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher together again. This was a reunion of two filmdom’s most iconic characters played by two truly great stars. It was a movie we waited decades to see. I had chills just thinking about how great it was going to be. Great it was not. I am going to admit that by the time the movie was over I was disappointed and heartbroken. It is not that I didn’t like the movie. I loved it but to me it wasn’t Star Wars. The fans are supposed to walk out of these movies feeling uplifted. Instead what we saw is what could possibly be described as pain and suffering which does not add up to who these characters were when we left them. They were triumphant at the end of Return of the Jedi so nothing of what happened to Han Solo, Princess Leia and Luke Skywalker made sense. These three would never run away from a fight especially if that fight was to save someone they loved. We spent more time with a droid than we did with the old cast, whom we wanted to see. There were very few tender moments between Ford and Fisher and those that did occur went by in a flash. Mark Hamill had a three minute staredown with Daisy Ridley at the end. OK. So what we got was a hollow, spirit shattering horror story. Thanks.
I found myself watching the making of films on the special edition set of Raiders of the Lost Ark and what I discovered is this: Spielberg and Lucas were winging it and they loved it. They were like the film nerds in high school grabbing dad’s video camera and getting their buddies together to make a movie. They were ecstatic. It was a beautiful thing. Now days these young directors seem like technocrats or they are just soulless. There seems to be zero joy in their work. Or they bring something really dark to the playing field. I’m sorry but Sam Mendes and Quentin Tarantino for example with their odes to nihilism, American Beauty and the Kill Bill Series have done a lot of harm to the industry with the disturbing messages they put out there. Violence has to have a point. That’s why Raiders worked, and Saving Private Ryan work. That’s why anything Tarantino has done, including Inglorious Bastards as violent garbage. Its all just violence for violence sake. Because they can. Then we have American Beauty with its bizarre mix of amorality and immorality. Immorality has to have a comeuppance and there was none in American Beauty. This is a film that goes from one empty scene to another. In fact the amorality of that movie is so vile that it is literally unwatchable.
Even Titanic had a heavy dose of nihilism in it. The whole relationship between Jack and Rose was silly, excruciating and full of the empty lies of second wave feminism. Sure Rose’s fiancé, Cal Hockley was a bastard. He was so thoroughly a villain right out of central casting all he had to have was a mustache to twist and he’d be a cartoon. He was a cartoon. But the problem is that the whole love triangle was absolute bunk. An adult could not watch that movie and believe in that subplot. In fact that sub plot was nothing more than a just a shout out to second wave feminists and a twisted message to girls. Now we have Trigly Puff. Not blaming Titanic for the Swamp Donkey but that hate filled misandrist attitude she carries like a giant 7 scoop cone of cookie dough is a byproduct of the empty messages from films like Titanic.
This nihilism began in the 1990’s. In 1991, Silence of the Lambs was released. It is truly a masterpiece. The acting was brilliant, the story a stunning tale of horror that was really genius and the direction was impressive. Jonathan Demme deserved his Oscar as did Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster. But this is the first instance that one can conceivably see nihilism coming through. There is no foundation of morality. Clarice isn’t chasing Bill and peeling back Lecter’s layers of evil because she believes in good versus evil. She’s running from herself. That’s fine but without the black versus white good versus evil it is empty. The only time you see certainty of right is when Clarice is faced with the funeral home director and his assistant Lamar, the deputies and the sheriff who discovered Bill’s latest victim. It is the only time when the idea of the good appears. Then it delves back into Clarice’s torment and Lecter’s abomination.
There are other films of the 90’s such as The English Patient that turned the heroism and struggle of WWII into a meaningless set of amoral and immoral acts. Sure there are consequences but the foundation of this film is do whatever you want and if innocent people die or are emotionally destroyed so be it. The exchange between Ralph Fiennes character and Willem Dafoe’s character about Fiennes characters treachery is where the nihilism drips out in copious amounts. Dafoe’s character says and I will paraphrase, ‘People could have died.’ Fiennes retorts ‘People did die. Just other people.’ In that exchange, they reduced the sacrifice of every man and woman who fought the Nazis to an empty worthless cause. I am sure the film maker and the novelist who wrote the book, Michael Ondaatje thought that they were making an antiwar statement but it had less to do with the antiwar message and more to do with absolute nothingness.
Nihilism hasn’t just invaded our prized form of art, which film is it has pervaded every bit of our culture. To the almost nonexistent music industry to the vacuous and nauseating phenomenon of Reality TV. It is also the number one cancer on our political discourse. What is Donald Trump but the ultimate expression of nihilism? His rants are essentially hate filled diatribes against everybody with no significant foundation. He is a hollow man barking like a dog with turrets. As Andrew Breitbart said, “Politics is downstream of culture.” and Trump is essentially the full expression of that quote. He believes in nothing and has no clear message. This is in essence a way that the nihilists can get what they want and that is to watch the world burn. How far we have fallen there is no way to tell but the question I end this with is this simple honest query: How far must we fall before we realize how bad the rot of nihilism has become. Maybe most of us will see we don't want to watch the world burn.