Yeah, I bet the title caught your attention. But this isn’t a sophisticated analysis of the decline of US manufacturing viz China, or of its sclerotic, corporate dominated political system. It’s about Death Race, the remake of the 1973 Roger Gorman film, Death Race 2000.
It’s a shit film to be honest, which is too bad because it got off to a good start. It opens in a near-future America in which the economy is in collapse; where workers have to fight riot cops to get their fair severance pay when they’re laid off; and where the prison system is run by private corporations for profit. (Hey wait, isn’t that, like, right now?)
But after that promising beginning it’s all down hill and becomes about shots of Jason Statham’s seriously hot, cut body and his hot female side-kick, what’s-her-face – it doesn’t matter because she serves no dramatic function other than to be hot.
There are next to no dramatic obstacles of interest for Jason to overcome. We already know he’s going to win the race and escape from jail and we never doubt it for a moment. So, why are we watching it? Well, because of the shots of Statham’s hot body and what’s-her-face’s mathematically perfect ass.
The only good thing about this movie intellectually is that it got me thinking about dystopias in American film, ie. imaginary, corrupted and decaying societies that demand resistance in some fashion. It occurred to me that no culture more than that of the US of A has generated so many stories about their own, ultimate demise. And the pace of their creation seems to be speeding up.
PACE OF DOOM
Think about the last few years in film. We’ve had: Children of Men, Wanted, the Batman movies, The Matrix, V for Vendetta, Wall-E, Aeon Flux, The Island, Equilibrium, A Scanner Darkly, 28 Days Later, 28 Weeks Later, Land of the Dead, Diary of the Dead, I Am Legend. I’m sure I could go on.
Each of them has a specific take on the causes or solutions of the decay, which reflect the political stance of the filmmakers (and studios and marketing directors, etc). But they all start from the premise that society will turn inward or collapse in the not too distant future.
Incidentally, remember when dystopias used to be in the 24th century, like Brave New World (1931) or at least a generation off, like 1984 (1948). Now they’re set in 2012 (Death Race), Today + 1 day (28 Days Later), 2027 (Children of Men – though the collapse is to have started in 2007), and again in 2012 (I Am Legend).
It seems Doomsday has gotten closer.
It’s possible that the proliferation of dystopic films is simply a fashion cycle, like bell-bottom jeans. Certainly the early 1970s saw its share of dystopic, doomsday type films – some of them now being remade today, like Rollerball, Omega Man (I Am Legend) with Chuck Heston, and Death Race 2000. There was the deeply trippy Maoist parable, Zardoz, that featured Sean Connery as a red guard in, uh, red diapers. And who can forget Soylent Green, also with Heston. (I tell you, is it any wonder that Heston was such a gun nut? Poor guy lived through more biblical disasters and collapsing civilizations than any actor in history.)
But I think there’s a deeper pattern here than simply the whims of decadent fashionistas – and that is that both now and the early to mid-1970s were periods of social crisis. However, while the early 70s marked the beginning of the end of the cycle of radicalization that started with the Civil Rights Movement, we are in a period of unresolved stasis.
Certainly there is no generalized political upheaval, such as the movements of the 60s. But nor is there the conservative hegemony of the Reagan years or, God forbid, the 1950s. Instead what we have is a primarily directionless but growing alienation experienced by the population – that sense of disconnect that most of us feel from any and all social institutions and their values – combined with fractures in the hegemonic ideas and dominance of the American state. The former is the product of deteriorating conditions in a context of barely existent alternatives, like socialist or mass movement organizations or vibrant trade unions. The latter is as a result of the fact that America is an empire in decline and the ruling class doesn’t know how to escape that decline.
We have experienced this most dramatically in the last year with the nuclear detonation of the neo-liberal consensus about the efficiency of the market. The return of Keynes in a big way, including the effective nationalization of a significant chunk of the US financial system, put the nails in that coffin.
But it was also felt with 9/11, the sense that the United States was vulnerable. That feeling of weakness has grown with the never-ending war in Iraq and the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan. And it was supplemented by the disaster of New Orleans after Katrina. The nation that had once, almost single-handedly, rebuilt Europe after World War Two, couldn’t even run a decent rescue and repair operation on one of its smaller cities.
On top of these “macro-events” there is just the day to day sense amongst Americans of going backwards – in a nation where more and more lose access to health insurance each year, where indebtedness grows and real wages fall year after year. And where everybody knows that politicians are corrupt and corporations rip off workers. Is it any wonder that there is a cultural openness to dystopic stories? They are cultural documents that historians will look back on one day as signposts on the highway to the coming doom of America.