The year 1986-1987 was a pivotal one in Hollywood film and in American culture. The tide of political and social change began to turn leftward, and the hegemony of conservatism as a political force effectively came to an end. The Iran hostage/Contra aid scandals displayed a dangerously antidemocratic corruption behind the veneer of high-sounding patriotic platitudes that had been one crucial key to the Republican successes of the eighties. As conservatives once again found themselves at odds with a recalcitrantly liberal Constitution, the Reagan administration produced a per capita rate of criminal investigation and indictment higher than that of any previous presidency. The very clear plight of the homeless poor, whose numbers swelled during this period of public meanness, displayed the cruel agenda behind the revolt against the state, and the obvious injustice of the administration’s illegal wars in Central America ignited strong public opposition to further militarization.
By 1987, the era of the hero was over, both cinematically and politically. The patriarch had proven to be a duplicitous coward, the entrepreneur a conniving con artist, and the warrior a pusillanimous bully and a bumbling incompetent. The liberal state, that foil which had defined the hero’s virtue as a rebel, could no longer be held accountable for taxes and deficits when it was the conservative heroes themselves, the supposed bearers of deliverance from big government, who were draining the country through borrowing for a by now unpopular defense build-up and who were skewing the wealth of the nation in their own direction, doubling the number of billionaires while trebling the poor and underemployed. In 1987, more people desired help from the federal government than ever before, and liberalism, the belief that the state should provide such help, seemed once again on the rise. The Republicans had clearly lost the moral confidence of the nation, and as the Soviet Union entered a period of democratic reform that included calls for peace and disarmament, the conservatives were deprived of the mobilizing force that had helped them to victory around the issue of “standing tall against communism” in the post-1978 era.
Moreover, as hemlines rose in a reminder of the sixties, so also, it seemed, did expectations that the nineties would belong to the postwar baby-boom generation that was about to come of political age, bringing with it a more open, generous, and fair-minded set of values than had been in evidence during the mean-spirited eighties. With a black serving as its moral conscience and more women assuming leadership roles, the Democratic party seemed to gain in progressive stature. The new spirit of the times was as much advertised in the films of that year as anywhere else.
In the summer of 1986, the two top-grossing films (and the first and the fifth for the year as a whole) were Top Gun, a rightist celebration of penisbrained militarism in which a narcissistic macho air force pilot triumphs over communist fighters in a pyrotechnic air battle, and Aliens, a quasi-feminist horror film in which a powerful woman does battle with monsters and corrupt corporate executives alike and wins. The juxtaposition was striking and probably important, for it would seem to suggest that as the rightist, militarist patriarchal strain in U.S. culture came to full realization—and toppled into a mannerist period of almost ridiculous excess—another period began that momentarily overlapped with the first; Aliens, while it contains negative attitudes toward cynical corporate yuppies, also retains some of the militarist trappings of the preceding era. The possibility (and probability) of a more liberal post-Reagan era made itself felt in a number of other films of that year. The immensely popular Platoon, by Oliver Stone, while still mired in very questionable Americanist values and perceptual patterns (the “gooks” are a threatening, faceless other; a “good” frontiersman killer is valorized over a bad, redneck one; and male bonding seems the only solution to the world’s ills), nonetheless offered a picture of the war as a messy, dirty, dubious undertaking, a portrayal strikingly at odds with the mythologizing films of the conservative era. Blue Velvet, by David Lynch, one of the more significant cinematic events of 1986, brought an ironic post-modernist perspective to bear on the Reagan ideal of the good, virtuous, small-town, mid-American life and showed that Andy Hardy world of vapor-headed platitude to be not all that distinct from the underworld of violence and perversion that it kept at bay. That same year, the popular Crocodile Dundee (number three in gross), an Australian import, portrayed a genial semi-hero who articulated a good-humored debunking of the standard inflated male ideal of the tough, self-reliant frontier phallocrat. The fourth Star Trek film (number four in gross) argued for an ecological perspective distinctly antagonistic to the reigning conservative agenda for the environment. The Color Purple (number six in revenues), despite its evident limitations (made by a white male, it looks like it was made by a white male), sympathetically portrayed the lives of the group least favored by Reagan’s economic and social agenda—black women. Mazursky’s Down and Out in Beverly Hills (twelfth in the standings for 1986) lampooned the myth of self-made wealth that sustained the Reagan Revolution. In the same period, Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdrome satirized the business-consumer mentality. And Brooks’s Spaceballs, a satire of Star Wars, made evident that the mood of the country had shifted sufficiently to allow the savior-hero ideal to be treated comically.
In 1987 as well, Cannon Films, the major producer of right-wing fare in the early eighties, began to lose money and retrench, while Stallone, on the brink of making a rightist Rambo III, decided to postpone the project. Things seemed to be changing, and if Sly wanted to keep up with what the times seemed to be portending he might have thought instead of making an anthem to empathetic liberalism (Stand By Me), or of going in drag for a sympathetic portrayal of lesbian love (Desert Hearts), or of doing a critical examination of male sexual identity (Angel Heart), or of debunking conformist white professionalism in favor of a female flim-flam artist reminiscent of the sixties (Something Wild), or of portraying yuppie parochialism (After Hours), or of satirizing sci-fi hero worship from a hip, post-mod, antiracist perspective (Buckaroo Banzai), or of promoting empathy against the aggressivity of small business life (Tin Men), or of diagnosing the sleaze behind the gleam of wealth) Wall Street), or of arguing that sports heroes and children should lead a revolt for disarmament (Amazing Grace and Chuck), or of leveling a cinematic acetylene torch at America’s national myths regarding Vietnam (Full Metal Jacket), or of taking down the hero myth and arguing for leftist revolutionaries (Ishtar), or of using a power hero figure to criticize nuclear policy and argue for peace (Superman IV), or of exploring the difficulties of handicapped life from a liberal perspective (Children of a Lesser God), or of comically exploring the complexities of southern sisterhood (Crimes of the Heart), or of siding with a popular struggle against economic power (The Milagro Beanfield War), or of sympathetically portraying union struggle (Matewan).
Sociologists spoke of a coming of age of the generation of the sixties, now old enough to assume power in American public life in the nineties. The baby-boom generation was more educated on the whole and more liberal than its parents, and with its maturation came as well a changeover from the muzak world of seventies melodramas to the more literary world of “serious” films like Out of Africa and A Room With A View in 1986-87. The popularity of these films suggested that an audience existed for more sophisticated films, and indeed, major actors, once the trend became evident, began searching for more serious roles to play (Stallone notwithstanding). After years of pandering to youth audiences, Hollywood seemed to begin to realize that young people grow up and still go to movies. But more important, perhaps, a more educated and literate audience was also one less likely to embrace the kind of imbecility on stilts that Ronald Reagan represented. The shift in Hollywood therefore also had this other meaning, that of signaling the emergence of a generational group whose core values were likely to be antagonistic to the values and ideals that dominated Hollywood from 1978 to 1986. With them had grown the public belief that government is run by a few big interests for their own gain, from 20% in 1960 to nearly 80% in the early eighties—a significant, indeed telling statistic.
It was most saliently the sixties generation in independent filmmaking that led the way as Hollywood cinematic culture switched directions and headed left, becoming in the process more filmicly sophisticated and more thematically complex. At the cutting edge were films like River’s Edge and Blue Velvet, but included also should be films like Down by Law, Working Girls, Raising Arizona, Swimming to Cambodia, She’s Gotta Have It, Hollywood Shuffle, Sherman’s March, True Stories, and Sid and Nancy. In River’s Edge, the “burnout” generation of young people without future prospects, whose suicide rate accelerated under Reagan’s system of economic apartheid, is looked at sympathetically. The style of the film is markedly non-Hollywood; the drab locations and unedifying dialog stake out a psychological terrain of limited possibilities that is in no way elevated to cinematic metaphoricity. The film’s point of view is unremittingly materialist, and the camera refuses to swerve away from the banality of life at the bottom of the great American ladder of success. The style of Blue Velvet is more cinematically reflexive, drawing on noir motifs (nearly black compositions), exorbitant camera work (close-ups of ants), grotesque images (a severed ear), symbolic intercutting (a harsh candle flame blowing in the wind between scenes of violence), rambunctious color coding (strikingly red, white, and blue makeup), and a deadpan irony that situates the audience either as on the naive side of the narrative or as on the cynical, debunking, worldly-wise other side that lies in wait for those innocent or benighted enough to take the images of picket-fenced mid-American bliss seriously. The film, a dissection of the power system of male sexual violence, is most unremitting in its critique of the all-American middle-class value system with its Hallmark card romances, its ideal of small-town provinciality, and its blindness to its own violence. Yet the film can arguably also be read as an extreme example of traditional misogyny, as well as being extremely derogatory toward the working class.
If Blue Velvet suggests the beginnings of a new strain of critical, postmodernist cinema, one that destroys the mid-America illusions which allowed the white middle class to save itself at the expense of workers, blacks, women, and poor people during this era, River’s Edge points forward toward the coming-of-age of a generation of people who were the victims of that class warfare. And if Reagan’s success at serving the needs of the rich at the expense of the poor through deficit spending for defense without raising taxes created an enormous debt whose terrible burden will be felt in the limited lives the future generation of young, especially lower-class people will be obliged to lead, his success also created a bill-collector in the form of those young people, one who would probably not be disposed to be forgiving or accepting of a charming wink and a nod as an excuse for villainy and greed. Just as in the cinema of the early and mid-seventies evidence of future probabilities were detectable, so also in the cinema of the late eighties it is possible that portents were to be divined, signs deciphered of future potentials that await realization.
Yet in this same nihilism can also reside rightist possibilities. Enforced undereducation and low-wage job tracking can also engender resentments and desires that can easily be oriented toward redemption through strong leadership. It would therefore be a mistake to ignore the obvious rightist undercurrents in American culture. They too tend to be augmented during periods of economic stress, as we have seen. Often, the easiest solutions to right-wing economic policies are right-wing political practices. Even though the conservative hegemony of the era seemed by 1987 to have run its course, the desires, needs, and fears that made it possible had not. Hero-worship was still a potent factor in the American psyche, and the sense of ego righteousness that accompanies it still had the potential of attaching to nationalist and militarist endeavors, regardless of questions of justice. Though by 1987 the economy was temporarily stable, the structural imbalances that unhinged it in the seventies and early eighties had if anything become more grave. The possibility of a complete economic collapse became more imaginable, the kind of collapse that in history had been the precursor to right-wing putschism or seizure of power. And such putschism seemed all the more possible in a climate of cultural triage that left many by the wayside, underemployed and undereducated, awaiting a salvation that certainly was not about to be delivered by an economic system that depended on their exclusion from the sharing of economic rewards, diminished since the seventies and increasingly divided up amongst a smaller and smaller group of white professionals.
Thus, any assessment of the potentials inherent in American society as seen through Hollywood film must take the dual strands of populism into account—the radical, which contests the power of the wealthy, and the fascist, which imagines salvation through strong individual leaders. Both exist in American culture, and although Hollywood seemed, with the political tides of the times, to turn leftward around 1987, producing more films with radical and critical dimensions, Hollywood had also proven by the late eighties that strong rightist currents existed that could be drawn upon at time of crisis. For the moment, the leftward tendency seemed the stronger; the Right was without a leader and thus without a movement. And conservatism had so exhausted its rhetorical reserves on the public stage that it had become an easy target of critical farce. Films of the late eighties indicated a shift in sensibility, one that, if it did not constitute a return of the sixties, at least suggested that the critical spirit of the sixties had not entirely departed. If to a certain degree the direction signs pointed both ways at once, one thing at least seemed clear as American culture negotiated its way into the nineties: the failure of liberalism and the triumph of conservatism, the two narratives we have traced in this book, had come to an end, and another narrative was about to begin.