Apocalypse now: Hollywood and the search for the sacred in American politics

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Attend a screening of any Hollywood blockbuster these days and you’re liable to witness no trivial amount of apocalyptic carnage and epic destruction before the film even begins. Favorite movie trailer motifs of late include the toppling of skyscrapers in downtown Manhattan, the frozen terror of love-struck young couples caught under the shadow of a hovering alien spacecraft and the swift capitulation of organized military resistance that leaves humanity’s survival in the hands of a select few heroes and heroines — super, or otherwise.

The new apocalyptic vogue was particularly striking for viewers of this winter’s “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” which was preceded in theaters by an unusually heavy dosage of pyromaniacal previews. The trailers for “Captain America: Civil War” and “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice” both featured America’s favorite superheroes dueling to the death in family feuds that wreaked super-havoc, at least until the heroes — realizing a third party was exploiting their moment of weakness — predictably made amends. The trailers for “Warcraft” (based on the popular online video game) and “Independence Day: Resurgence” also promised ethical complexity, couched in the familiar terms of prejudice against outsiders: desperate migratory orcs in the former, and vengeful aliens in the latter. “X-Men: Apocalypse” and “The 5th Wave” even stretched for tenuous Biblical allusions — the new nemesis of the X-Men, as it turns out, likes to be accompanied by four horsemen, and the “waves” that gave Richard Yancey’s novel and its upcoming film adaptation their name bear a curious resemblance to the 10 plagues of Exodus.

Why all the gloom and doom? Hollywood, for all its rhetorical prowess, has never had the moral compass to be anything more than a barometer for the public mood of the moment — so the answer should lie in plain sight. All anyone needs to notice is that without the apocalyptic threat, these films fall flat: There’s no real plot, no character development and no reason to care about either unless mortal danger intervenes. The viewers’ anticipation of an impending doomsday gives the bland characters’ otherwise trivial storylines — depression and anxiety, familial bickering, romance lost and found, etc. — immediate, epic significance.

Without looming catastrophe, the selfless heroism of these films’ protagonists would be simply unbelievable to a modern audience that lacks, like its on-screen idols, any sense of common identity and purpose beyond what’s necessary for defense against imminent disaster. We need this gloom and doom because the American mind requires it. Like Caesar needed Brutus, Montagues needed Capulets or the Road Runner needed Wile E. Coyote, these films need existential stakes to give their drama allure, credibility and moral clout.

Without looming catastrophe, the selfless heroism of these films’ protagonists would be simply unbelievable to a modern audience that lacks, like its on-screen idols, any sense of common identity and purpose beyond what’s necessary for defense against imminent disaster.

In an apocalypse, heroes are willing to sacrifice everything for the sake of their community; they possess an understanding of their society’s core values — what they’re fighting for — that is clarified and strengthened by an encounter with the incompatible views of antagonistic outsiders. This sense of collective moral purpose is precisely what Americans today — in their relative security — conspicuously lack. Contrary to Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders and their ilk, the United States is not on the verge of a military or economic apocalypse. What Americans are on the verge of is a collapse of their national consensus so severe that apocalypse — in fantasy or reality — may be the only means left to revive it.

 

An alternative diagnosis, favored by many commentators on the left, is that Americans today are captivated by an irrational dread of the foreign or unknown, which they then project onto politics and entertainment. By now, it’s a journalistic commonplace to say that the American public acts irrationally and heartlessly (i.e. not progressively) out of an underlying fear of some “other” — Mexican immigrants, gays, Syrian refugees, black presidents, non-Christians, you name it. But this “fear of the other” simply will not explain the latest wave of popular apocalyptica: Its antagonists aren’t remotely plausible as objects of real-life fear, like, say, mass immigration from the Middle East, which (debatably) may or may not cause a few national security headaches. On the contrary, these mutants, aliens, orcs and superheroes-cum-supervillains fit less into the category of overtly political Cold War propaganda than run-of-the-mill fantasy and science fiction. They’re phantasmagorias, not partisan hack-jobs or veiled political allegories.

What’s more, the trailers for these films are often blatantly self-aware, pointing out moments of moral ambiguity and unmasking the prejudices of heroes and anti-heroes alike. In “Warcraft,” the marauding orcs (read: refugees) are pushed to invasion by want of new land rather than their ordinary orcish bloodlust (“If our people are to survive, we must make a home here.”). Resolution of the conflict is only possible when humans abandon their barbaric speciesism (“They’re beasts. They should all be destroyed.”) for an open-door policy (“Are you sure about that?”). As with the twin super-feud flicks, the most dangerous enemy is the protagonists’ own prejudices — their sentient foes are merely foils for revealing a damning inner flaw. Even the merciless extraterrestrials of “Independence Day: Resurgence” are battling some form of historical persecution, as the title suggests (“Today we will once again be fighting for our freedom … from annihilation”). Can irrational fear of the “other” really be to blame for cinema’s apocalyptic turn when even Hollywood is uneasy with moral clarity that is uninclusive or intolerant, and filmmakers wield deconstructionism like the French masters themselves?

 

Another more broadly appealing political cliche offers insight where “fear of the other” falls short. For years, statesmen, activists and pundits on both the left and right have sung the praises of national service and public volunteerism. Legislation implementing a universal service requirement for citizens aged 18 to 25 has stalled in Congress several times since 9/11, but the dispute is in the details. No other issue seems to reinvigorate the political enthusiasm of both Democrats and Republicans quite so effectively. The United States’ recurrent problems, advocates of the movement claim, are attributable to a factionalism that springs chiefly from complacency: People are so deeply and unnecessarily divided along partisan lines that they simply don’t know or sympathize with each other anymore. The stated desire is for a return to the public spiritedness of 1945 and 1989  — when years of protracted conflict against a common enemy strengthened communal identity and fostered feelings of national togetherness — but without the war. Think hard hats, not Kevlar.

The problem is real enough, but the solution is little more than a gimmick that Hollywood sees through with ease. What the entertainment industry intuitively grasps — but Washington lawmakers and pundits seem to ignore — is that the citizens of a nation need something to unite around. The basis for national cohesion in the 1940s wasn’t simply the happenstance that Americans of all races and religions rubbed shoulders in uniform — it was the fact that all of them, color and creed aside, hated Hitler, and what’s more, hated Hitler as Americans. As recently as the 1980s, opposing Soviet communism was a privilege open to all, but it remained a special vocation for Americans. Today, the haunting possibility – should universal national service ever be implemented – is that Americans will indeed come to know and care for each other better but find nothing of mutually agreed-upon value to know or care about.

The problem is real enough, but the solution is little more than a gimmick that Hollywood sees through with ease. What the entertainment industry intuitively grasps — but Washington lawmakers and pundits seem to ignore — is that the citizens of a nation need something to unite around.

What is it, really, that proponents of national service think a Venice Beach drug dealer, an Iowa corn farmer and a New York socialite will discover about one another by sweating under the same sun for a day? Their shared humanity? Shining a light on what is shared by human beings as human beings is a noble end indeed, but hardly a solution to what has already been termed an American problem. Put another way: If national service can uncover no common ground shared among American citizens specifically by virtue of their being Americans, then the project is doomed to failure.

Hollywood knows that there is no such common ground — at least not anymore. As a consequence, there remains only one dramatic element, one variable with the power to enliven American cinema: imminent disaster. Without that existential threat, without the apocalypse, Hollywood is incapable of animating audiences so they cheer on its heroes and boo its villains. It isn’t “fear” of real-life crises or of some mysterious “other” that demands mass destruction on film, but rather a growing sense that without such destruction — or at least the threat of it — we lack meaningful values, identity and direction.

After all, is there any such thing as a community that lacks even the will to survive?

 

The troubling answer might be yes, a very great many indeed — but few which manage to endure for long. The later Roman Empire in the West is one example, where despite a widespread loss of faith, sophisticated public institutions persisted into the sixth, seventh and eighth centuries A.D. For all its dissimilarity to the United States today, that society displayed a familiar sense of uncertainty and discomfort with its own values and traditions, making continued assent to its moral consensus and participation in its declining institutions doubly difficult. Like American history under the lens of postmodernism, antiquity was in a sense unmasked by Christianity. Just as at that time it became harder and harder to justify defending the empire and its ancient traditions after Christianity revealed their underlying flaws, so today the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution seem woefully inadequate to resolve historical injustices (according to most liberals) or reverse the decline of traditional values (according to most conservatives). Yet despite this suspicion and unease, few are willing to step away from existing institutions, so superior are they relative to the nearest alternatives.

This tension is particularly clear in the paradoxical case of “The Revenant,” another Christmas blockbuster, starring Leonardo DiCaprio as the renowned 19th-century frontiersman Hugh Glass. In the film, Glass’ half-Indian son is killed and Glass himself is left for dead by fellow fur trappers who doubt his ability to survive a devastating Grizzly attack. But (spoiler alert) Glass somehow pulls through, and then he drags himself hundreds of miles to safety before taking deadly revenge against the man who killed his son. Along the way, he befriends a wandering Pawnee refugee and saves an Arikara girl from being raped by French ruffians. The problem? The real Hugh Glass never had an Indian son, never got his revenge and died fighting Arikaras 10 years after the harrowing journey that made him famous.

Of course, Hollywood will take its liberties with history. But to re-author it entirely, by introducing pious liberal heroes to an era when there were none, is to take a step beyond theatrical license: It is the most reckless Whig history, the shabbiest triumphalism. Perhaps it is true that DiCaprio’s comfortably tolerant Hugh Glass was the only one a modern audience could handle — nonetheless, such revisionism does more injury to the present than the past. Rather than recognize that everyone across the ages has some sort of blood on their hands, American audiences are led to believe that a select few supermen somehow perceived and stood above the unnoticed vices of their times.

The reason a substantive national consensus on anything but the most universal human values remains so elusive is simply that historical unmasking — the means by which values are now discovered and assessed — is solely critical, never constructive. All cultural values are expressed in the context of history: Like grown children making sense of their family and their upbringing, each generation frames its beliefs with reference — whether dissenting or affirming — to the beliefs of the previous generation. But when history is broadly condemned for moral deficiency, that context disappears, and all grounds for establishing widely acceptable moral truth claims disappear along with it. The only viable alternative is a shoddy revisionism, in which the arbitrary preferences of the present are propagandistically foisted upon the past. History becomes, in Voltaire’s phrase, a trick we play on the dead.

Like grown children making sense of their family and their upbringing, each generation frames its beliefs with reference — whether dissenting or affirming — to the beliefs of the previous generation. But when history is broadly condemned for moral deficiency, that context disappears, and all grounds for establishing widely acceptable moral truth claims disappear along with it.

By clinging to the idea of a historically transcendent piety that conveniently mirrors contemporary sensibilities, “The Revenant” in one sense assures moviegoers of their virtue and exonerates them of their sins. But in another sense, it condemns Americans today to the same fate as Hugh Glass’ unlucky peers: One day, should the unmasking continue, so too will our most sacred values be exposed as little more than prejudice, fear and material self-interest. Future generations will read their own (doubtlessly very different) values into history, choose new heroes and dismiss the rest. No one is safe, no one can have the last word, and there can be no rational end to the debate.

 

But the debate must end, if American public affairs are to be grounded in anything more lasting and assured than mere avoidance of national calamity. Without some conclusion to the ceaseless cycles of historical unmasking — without a disavowal of flattering historical revisionism — no value system, no set of public principles, no political ethos can ever supplant apocalypse as the motivating principle and wellspring of our common endeavors.

What’s needed is a firmer foundation in the substantive principles and values that once defined American culture, or else in new principles and new values that will give it rebirth. In either case, it is certain that the current bare-bones consensus — on such values as tolerance, diversity and inclusion — is insufficient for the task. The longer the search for a new consensus remains incomplete, the more Hollywood will define its characters and their communities not by what they choose to believe, but by what they must believe — and the more American society will continue to fragment.

Every political community is founded (consciously or not) on an act of worship, or praise, of what is sacred and deemed worthy of common pursuit.  Without the sacred, all claims to political authority are baseless and incredible. Certainly, the character of political authority in a community changes as the object of its worship changes, but so long as it remains a shared object of worship, the community will remain a single community.

Claims that this is the case in Western democracies, however, have become increasingly tenuous in recent years. Liberalism — both classical and progressive, American and European — discards the idea of the sacred in favor of free reign in private affairs and a crude compromise on the bare necessities of public life. For almost two centuries, Americans have enjoyed the freedom of a republic because they managed to preserve an underlying public harmony — a consensus on the first principles of political discourse and on the vital goods to be sought by their community — precisely in spite of liberalism’s tendency to dismantle and absorb the sacred into the secular.

The choice confronting Western societies is between two competing historiographies: Will it be Christendom or a Dark Age? The way of Hollywood apocalyptica is the way of the Dark Age and the way of Donald Trump — it lulls us into a false sense of assurance that our community possesses strength and clarity of purpose by imagining fantastical apocalyptic scenarios in which any group of human beings would instinctively unite. The way of Christendom, by contrast, is the harder path: It is a call away from crumbling institutions and tired cliches, toward creativity and experiment and charitable boldness. It means treating values as values and evaluating them civilly but rigorously in the public square.

Which, if Hollywood actually paid attention to these things, might make for an even better Christmas blockbuster.

But don’t count on it.

Connor Grubaugh is a writer for The Daily Californian and a special contributor to the Weekender. Contact him at [email protected]