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Pass The Lithium: What Do Our Entertainment Trends Tell Us About Our Culture?
By: Mickael
The U.S.A. sees itself as the epitome of the entrepreneurial spirit, the undefeatable giant, and the unbreakable backbone of Western civilization. We're cowboys, mom’s apple pie, and baseball “the way it was meant to be played”. We’re a country dedicated to fair play, with more moral compasses than an army of Boy Scouts. We are, to put it simply, the good guys.
For a few minutes, let’s remove all of those rose-tinted memories of Americana and try a little exercise. Let’s take a look at our history of entertainment, particularly films, decade by decade and utilize the trends we find as a barometer for America’s cultural identity. The goal is not to look at the highest rated films, partially because I hate movie reviews, nor is it to look at highest grossing films, but rather to jump to wildly reckless conclusions based upon the most common film trends from each decade.
The reason I don’t want to simply look at a film’s gross is because the results are skewed by some simple math. In the 1950s, 4 out of the top 10 films of the decade are Disney cartoons. But, those aren’t indicative of American culture during that time, they’re merely a byproduct of the baby boom. Following the war, returning American servicemen came home and… came, hard… creating your parents or grandparents, depending on your age. By 1964, 40% of our country’s population were children of the Baby Boom. Apparently, violence made your forefathers horny and next time you see your papa, you should ask him whether he classifies himself as a hoplophiliac or an erotophonophiliac.
Starting with Cinderella in 1950, all the way to Sleeping Beauty in 1959, this baby boomer generation was that ideal age from 5 to 15 years old, dragging their parents and cousins and brothers and sisters to the theater over and over again to view the still very new concept of animated feature films. Also remember, every kid’s movie is worth (on average) 3 ticket sales to every 2 for adult/teen films. Why? Because when a couple goes on a date, they buy 2 tickets to see that film which they then ignore to fool around in the back of an empty theatre. 9 months later, they become parents, which mean every film they see from then on requires a 3rd ticket purchase. Disney figured out the economics of this long ago. (Another factor to consider is that many parents will placate their children by seeing the same movie multiple times in the theater more frequently than adults will.) Speaking of the 50’s…
1950’s: Who Are You And What Do You Want?
So, animated features weren’t truly the most popular types of films at that time despite their profitability. There were only 9 American animated features created the whole decade! Even combining those with all of the foreign language films that weren’t really available in our theaters leaves us with 43 total animated features. The most popular films, the films that really drove volume sales for Hollywood and kept everyone busy were Sci Fi movies. There were 187 of these created throughout the decade, meaning that 2 Sci Fi films were showing simultaneously at every theatre in America every day for the entire decade, while less than 1 animated feature was available each year.
There are several factors at play relating to Sci Fi’s popularity through that time. Chief among them are those created by the fallout from World War 2. The numerous inventions of the war, particularly the atomic bomb, made us wonder what strange advances lay around the corner. The horrors brought on by foreign dictators showed us the danger of a power-mad invader who is unafraid of war. The start of the Cold War enabled our paranoia to run rampant. Science fiction was a perfect vessel for telling a wide range of stories involving foreign invaders, murderous despots, and fascinating technology.

Instead of telling you all that, though, I could have just listed titles of the films from that era and you could draw your own conclusions: Invisible Invaders, The Atomic Man, Killers From Space, Electronic Monster…it’s not like any of them were called “Foreigners And Technology: Two Reasons To Buy A Bigger Shotgun”, but it’s the proliferation and ultimate saturation of such elements in our entertainment that make our fears painfully apparent. In all, I have at least 43 Sci Fi films from the 50’s with obvious exploitation of xenophobia, technophobia, or a general Doomsday phobia right in their title.
1960’s: The Myth Of Enlightenment
By now our mistrust had shifted from foreign invaders and onto our own domestic threats-- the institutions that helped us win wars now looked to us like they were generating the wars themselves. The military-industrial complex was the monster that threatened us most, so we lashed out at “the man” any way we could because without him, we’d be free to live in harmony with the universe, man.
American film fans departed from the old-school monster movies and became more intrigued by psychological horror, like Psycho (1960) and Rosemary’s Baby (1968). The Counterculture gave us films that challenged the establishment, like Easy Rider (1969), Cool Hand Luke (1967), The Trip (1967), Wild In The Streets (1968), and Dr. Strangelove (1964). Americans were split between discovering themselves and discovering the world around them.
With the New Hollywood movement; where young auteur directors were creating jarring works like Bonnie And Clyde, Midnight Cowboy, and The Graduate, we had an outlet for frustration with the system. Even movies that lacked the subtext of an anti-establishment message were still part of the overall movement away from the studio system and cookie cutter formulas. They encouraged individuality. Perhaps the most analogous film for what took place in the 60’s, however, was 2001: A Space Odyssey. Its story of an artificial intelligence created to support astronauts attempting to murder them to save itself from deactivation is a brilliant metaphor for the military-industrial complex seizing control of the government and preventing its own demise at the hands of the citizens it was meant to protect. Which brings us to…
1970’s: Just Fucking Kill Everything
America’s constant state of fear coupled with its intellectual curiosity and growth led us down a path all-too-familiar to those with bipolar disorder: depression. We couldn’t beat “The Man”, because he was never really there to begin with. He was a disguise for The Machine that was actually grinding us down. Our films became bleak, depressing, and violent, often with twist endings to illuminate the audience to their own blindness of the truth.
Hollywood’s financial depression at the start of the decade reflected the feelings most Americans had at the time. There was still war. We still had Vietnam and Nixon. The hippies had failed us. Our response was Straw Dogs, A Clockwork Orange, The Godfather, Enter The Dragon, Dog Day Afternoon, Dirty Harry, Death Wish… and don’t even get started on the Grindhouse films of the day. From The Wizard Of Gore (1970) to Zombie (1979) it was apparent that we wanted blood. We wanted to bear witness to destruction as a catharsis for our own powerlessness.
Sci Fi didn’t slouch in the 70’s, either: Soylent Green, Logan’s Run, numerous Planet Of The Apes sequels, and Star Wars all encouraged us to rebel against the status quo. They taught us that the operation of the machine was all around us, and that if we wanted to strike back we had better be prepared to sacrifice. So, what did we do?
1980’s: Take A Chill Pill, Betty, Your Buggin’ Is Mad Lame
We went MANIC, BABY! Suddenly, the darkness evaporated and everything was Day-Glo. We were youthful, exuberant, and ready to take on everything the past and the future had to offer! Back To The Future was probably the best allegory for what we were doing in our own minds: we were going back in time to the 1950’s, and revising it so that everything was “soda jerks” and rock ‘n’ roll, when in reality we know that at the time we were really dominated by much more substantial fears and suffering.
Indiana Jones did this for us too, by taking us back to the 40’s and re-imagining it as a time of swashbuckling adventure, where the strong-jawed American hero, literally named after a state in the Midwest, could whip and punch his way through bumbling Nazi schemes single-handedly. We know the plight of the war-torn world in the 1940s was not that. But, we loved the way Indiana Jones made us feel: that we can go back and remember our worst public moment, our most devastating memory of loss and struggle, but tell the story in a way that made us... somehow less impacted by the experience. We were able to swing in on a whip, take back our lost innocence, and strut away unharmed, unchanged, unhinged.
This is, again, a byproduct of your parents’ horniness. You see, all those Baby Boomers from the 50’s had now grown up and had… us. Suddenly, the largest single population segment in American history was having kids and this time they had the storytelling tools to lie to us instead of inform us. The 80’s were dominated with feel-good teen comedies, blockbuster franchises, and even the typically sedate horror genre suddenly erupted with silliness. From Friday The 13th in 1980 to The Toxic Avenger Part III in 1989, the entire decade was fun, goofy, and maybe a little weird. We rode a high for ten years, spurred on by mutants and gremlins, lethal weapons and robocops, karate kids and good guy dolls.
1990’s: Damn The Man (Remix)
In the 90’s, we returned to our anti-establishment ways but with one notable difference. In the 70’s we became dissatisfied with the status quo from a place of informed discontent. In the 90’s we were just as dissatisfied, but with the added layer of not knowing why. We were mad and dumb, and our own ignorance amplified our anger leading us to the ridiculous films of the decade. Cyber-punk Sci Fi extravaganzas, brutal kung fu beat downs, and over-the-top explosive blockbusters were the norm for the decade of unfocused rage.
In music, we rejected the silliness of hair metal and hip hop by running to grunge rock and gangster rap. In films, we rejected the relative tameness of Indiana Jones and Back To The Future to embrace edgier content like Reservoir Dogs and New Jack City. Our action heroes more closely resembled mass murderers as we asked Stallone, Schwarzenegger, Willis, Snipes, Seagal, Lundgren, Van Damme, and Chow-Yun Fat to rack up ever larger body counts in their quests for vengeance. Generation X was anti-social and they wanted anti-heroes to reflect their hatred of society.
Kung Fu films came back in a big way, because anything with brutal violence was embraced by audiences. Jackie Chan, Jet Li, Donnie Yen, Mark Dacascos, Brandon Lee, and Chuck Norris led the way at the box office, while an army of direct-to-video fight fests flooded rental stores. By the end of the decade, films like The Matrix and Fight Club had effectively redefined violence in modern entertainment. They had finally found a way to focus the rage of Americans at the time and placed perspective on violence in our culture, and then…
2000’s: Who Knew What Evil Lurked In The Heart Of That Man?
The events of 9/11 had a drastic effect on our country, our culture, and each of our hearts. Suddenly, there could be such a thing as too much violence. Many young Americans processed death for the first time in their lives. In reaction, our entertainment shifted to more thoughtful fare. Just as we had previously moved from silly in the 80’s to hardcore in the 90’s, the 00’s brought about something unexpected: emotion.
As a society, we became more generous and gentle. Let us show you how empathetic we can be with our donations to your tsunami recovery effort, and let’s send humanitarian aid to Africa, and let’s invest more in medical research instead of military funding, and let’s... let’s... let’s... fix all the hurt that happens everywhere. This was reflected in our entertainment, with dramatic films like Hotel Rwanda, Million Dollar Baby, Brokeback Mountain, Passion Of The Christ, Lost In Translation, Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, and so many more.
Obviously, another big trend came up at this time that is undeniably powerful: the comic book movie. Starting with X-Men in 2000, right through the Spider-Man trilogy, and into the Dark Knight trilogy, we found something that we sorely needed in big screen adaptations of our childhood heroes: a comfort blanket. Hundreds of reboots later and we all feel a little fatigued by this nostalgia trafficking. At the time, though, there was something pleasant about sitting in the theater and seeing that Hollywood was bringing us movies based on everything from our childhoods. From G.I. Joe and Transformers to Tomb Raider and Indiana Jones, everything that reminded you of your innocence was brought back from extinction. Even The Pink Panther came back.
Conclusion: Pass The Lithium, Please
After analyzing the entertainment trends in America over the last 60 years, something became painfully apparent to me about our culture: we’re a little nuts. As a nation, we run hot and cold on the rest of the world. Have you ever met somebody like that, someone who’s a bit of a firecracker? I’ve met many and I’ve dated way too many. When all of my friends were meeting normal guys and gals, settling down to get married and have kids, I was chasing those “crazy in the head, crazy in the bed” girls. It’s not like I was doing it on purpose; really, I was just a lightning rod for crazy. Because of this lifetime of experience befriending people with bipolar disorder, I was uniquely qualified to recognize a similar pattern in the country at large. As a culture, we have less in common with Ozzy & Harriet, Leave It To Beaver, and I Love Lucy than we do with those women I used to date.
America’s cultural identity, then, can best be summed up as severity. We’re entirely one thing, and then entirely another, swinging wildly from side to side like an unmanned fire hose on full blast. At times we’re entirely sedate, but a few years later we’re highly energized and just want to party, and then a few years later we’ve shifted our opinions and now we’re all about ostracizing the foreigners, tightening our borders, and balancing our budget while letting the poor starve.
We like to think of ourselves as a nation of cowboys and gunslingers but we’re much more like a country of hermits and spree killers. We don’t like to peacefully traverse the open range, occasionally coming to town to stand up for what’s right and take down a cattle rustler or two along the way... no, we like to close our borders with xenophobic fears, muttering to ourselves about “homeland security” while we spy on our neighbors and hear paranoid voices in our heads telling us about all the threats that lie outside our door. Meanwhile we stockpile weapons and horde food until one day we can’t stand the cabin fever anymore, so we strap on an AR-15, kick down the neighbor’s door, and shoot his kids and his dog for no reason that’s obvious to anyone but ourselves.
We want to be the nation of entrepreneurial spirit, the undefeatable giant, and the unbreakable backbone of Western civilization… but in reality we’re just uncontrollable, untenable, and unpredictable.
Which movie serial killer best represents the USA?
Norman Bates
Hannibal Lector
Patrick Bateman
John Doe (Seven)
free poll maker
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