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Posted on Nov 25, 2013
By Tom Engelhardt, TomDispatch
This piece first appeared at TomDispatch.
From the time I was little, I went to the movies. They were my escape, with one exception from which I invariably had to escape. I couldn’t sit through any movie where something or someone threatened to jump out at me with the intent to harm. In such situations, I was incapable of enjoying being scared and there seemed to be no remedy for it. When Jaws came out in 1975, I decided that, at age 31, having avoided such movies for years, I was old enough to take it. One tag line in ads for that film was: “Don’t go in the water.” Of the millions who watched Jaws and outlasted the voracious great white shark until the lights came back on, I was that rarity: I didn’t. I really couldn’t go back in the ocean—not for several years.
I don’t want you to think for a second that this represents some kind of elevated moral position on violence or horror; it’s a visceral reaction. I actually wanted to see the baby monster in Alien burst out of that human stomach. I just knew I couldn’t take it. In all my years of viewing (and avoidance), only once did I find a solution to the problem. In the early 1990s, a period when I wrote on children’s culture, Michael Crichton’s novel Jurassic Park sparked a dinosaur fad. I had been a dino-nerd of the 1950s and so promised Harper’s Magazine a piece on the craze and the then-being-remodeled dino-wing of New York’s American Museum of Natural History. (Don’t ask me why that essay never appeared. I took scads of notes, interviewed copious scientists at the museum, spent time alone with an Allosaurus skull, did just about everything a writer should do to produce such a piece—except write it. Call it my one memorable case of writer’s block.)
My problem was never scaring myself to death on the page. I read Crichton’s novel without a blink. The question was how to see it when, in 1993, it arrived onscreen. My solution was to let my kids go first, then take them back with me. That way, my son could lean over and whisper, “Dad, in maybe 30 seconds the Velociraptor is going to leap out of the grass.” My heart would already be pounding, my eyes half shut, but somehow, cued that way, I became a Crichton vet.
Of course, gazillions of movie viewers have seen similar films with the usual array of sharks, dinosaurs, anacondas, axe murderers, mutants, zombies, vampires, aliens, or serial killers, and done so with remarkable pleasure. They didn’t bolt. They didn’t imagine having heart attacks on the spot. They didn’t find it unbearable. In some way, they liked it, ensuring that such films remain pots of gold for Hollywood to this day. Which means that they—you—are an alien race to me.
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This came to mind recently because I started wondering why, when we step out of those movie theaters, our American world doesn’t scare us more. Why doesn’t it make more of us want to jump out of our skins? These days, our screen lives seem an apocalyptic tinge to them, with all those zombie war movies and the like. I’m curious, though: Does what should be deeply disturbing, even apocalyptically terrifying, in the present moment strike many of us as the equivalent of so many movie-made terrors— shivers and fears produced in a world so far beyond us that we can do nothing about them?
I’m not talking, of course, about the things that reach directly for your throat and, in their immediacy, scare the hell out of you—not the sharks who took millions of homes in the foreclosure crisis or the aliens who ate so many jobs in recent years or even the snakes who snatched food stamps from needy Americans. It’s the overarching dystopian picture I’m wondering about. The question is: Are most Americans still in that movie house just waiting for the lights to come back on?
I mean, we’re living in a country that my parents would barely recognize. It has a frozen, riven, shutdown-driven Congress, professionally gerrymandered into incumbency, endlessly lobbied, and seemingly incapable of actually governing. It has a leader whose presidency appears to be imploding before our eyes and whose single accomplishment (according to most pundits), like the website that goes with it, has been unraveling as we watch. Its 1% elections, with their multi-billion dollar campaign seasons and staggering infusions of money from the upper reaches of wealth and corporate life, are less and less anybody’s definition of “democratic.”
And while Washington fiddles, inequality is on the rise, with so much money floating around in the 1% world that millions of dollars are left over to drive the prices of pieces of art into the stratosphere, even as poverty grows and the army of the poor multiplies. And don’t forget that the national infrastructure—all those highways, bridges, sewer systems, and tunnels that were once the unspoken pride of the country—is visibly fraying.
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