May 09 2009

Do Long-Term Trends in Cinema Point to the New Space Age?

The Wall Street Journal (3/26/09; Allen Barra) is enticed by the fact that the classic 1960s John Wayne western movie “Rio Bravo” is “still popular and hip at 50,” but the Journal is puzzled about why.

In addition to Wayne it had a special cast — Dean Martin, Ricky Nelson, Angie Dickinson, and is admired by the “in” people; e.g., British critic Robin Wood would choose Rio Bravo as the one film that would “justify the existence of Hollywood,” and Quentin Tarantino (“Pulp Fiction”) admitted in 2007 he used Rio Bravo to screen new girlfriends — “she’d better like it.”

What do movie icons John Wayne and Russell Crowe have in common? Click wayne.jpg and crowe.jpg. Are they focal points in the pop culture long wave?

The Journal asks why such a “simple western with an unremarkable plot,” has become the “rarest of films — both popular and hip?” And even more to the point, “Why two generations of fans have loved Rio Bravo without caring at all about its political implications?”

Although less celebrated than Rio Bravo, we could also add the 2007 remake of “3:10 to Yuma” starring Russell Crowe, that is also separated by 50 years from the original movie with Glenn Ford (1916-2006), also a legendary star. And in a recent post (“Klaatu Barada Nikto“), we were struck by the fact that one of the most memorable science fiction movies of the 1950s was also recently remade about one long wave after the original.

We would not be surprised at pop culture elements resonating with the 56 year cycle because of the “omnipresent financial, technological, and cultural influences that long-term fluctuations in the economy have on society during similar portions of the wave; e.g., both the original and sequel of “The Day the Earth Stood Still” appeared 7 – 8 years before their Maslow Window opened.”

Plus, the fact that Strauss & Howe generational cycles are correlated with long waves and that popular culture elements have been in synch with long waves in the past, suggest to us that our working hypothesis deserves more attention.

In 2003, R. Philip Loy commented that the American Western frontier has “enthralled the American imagination” and that movies “quickly became the primary genre through western myths and legends were communicated.” Loy is concerned that Western films through the 1960s reflected “more wishful thinking than history,” but to us this is less important because we’re interested in films as indicators of the mindset and interests of the American public. Our goal is to extract long-term cultural trends from the films rather than to evaluate their historical accuracy.

Some long-term trends in cinema are apparent. For example…

1. “Hollywood westerns of the 1930s and 1940s were positive expressions of … the frontier experience, and they were useful as the nation came to grips with the national challenges of the two decades,” (Loy,2003). This included western outlaws being portrayed as victims of Depression-style oppressive characters. But in response to WW II, “westerns reminded Americans that they were heirs to hardy pioneers and resolute frontier sheriffs.” This is consistent with counter-ebullient, “Aspirin Age” times when the long wave was heading from the 1930s Great Depression to its trough in 1941.

2. “Reflecting the renaissance of national pride during the Kennedy era, early-1960s westerns returned to the images, myths, and legends that had shaped the genre of an earlier era,” (Loy, 2003). Examples include John Wayne’s heroic depiction of “The Alamo” (1960), and perhaps the most “epic expression” of the western frontier, “How the West Was Won” (1962). Frontier themes in westerns were responses to the opening of the 1960s Apollo Maslow Window with its unparalleled affluence and ebullience, iconic figures (e.g., President Kennedy), and its new Space Age.

3. While Western films had been omnipresent during the 1950s (e.g., see Grossman, 1981), between the late 1960s and 1985 “western films nearly disappeared.” Loy (2003) attributes this to reinterpretations of American western history by “New West” writers, although after 1985 westerns “saw a mild resurgence.” Currently, this up trend continues and includes even traditional westerns on the cable TV Western Channel. During the 1950s post-WW II boom many people experienced elevated states in Maslow’s heirarchy and resonated strongly with frontier themes in western films. As the long wave peaked and began to decline in the late 1960s — rapidly bringing the Apollo Maslow Window to a close — Americans and others returned to lower Maslow states and interest in westerns disappeared.

4. In addition to frontier themes in westerns, movie portrayals of the military and the police appear to have fluctuated along with long waves. According to Powers et al. (1996), “since the mid-1960s, the U.S. military is more likely to be portrayed negatively than positively…In Hollywood movies since the mid-1960s, the police have become increasingly like the criminals they face.” For example, their quantitative thematic analysis of movies shows that from 1946 to 1965, the military was portrayed as follows: Positively-40%, Mixed-40%, Negatively-20%; while from 1966 to 1975 the military was portrayed: Positively-12%, Mixed-62%, Negatively-25%. But from 1976 to 1990, Powers et al. find “the most critical depictions of the military,” Positively-27%, Mixed-40%, and Negatively-33%. It appears that military and police-oriented movies are responding to the post-Maslow Window collapse of societal ebullience much like movies (see Point 1 above) did previously during the analogous, counter-ebullient “Aspirin Age.”

Because frontier themes in westerns and science fiction movies of the 1950s were harbingers of the 1960s Apollo Maslow Window, it’s reasonable to expect that similar trends in cinema will repeat as we approach the 2015 Maslow Window. The recent resurgence of “Rio Bravo” and remake of “3:10 to Yuma”, and the emergence of mostly-realistic movies like “Red Planet” (2000) and “Mission to Mars” (2000) suggest this trend may already exist.

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