A synagogue massacre. Mail bombs that don’t quite blow. Massed migrants closing on the border. The Senate convulsed by high school sex claims against a Supreme Court nominee.
As we spiral toward the midterm election from hell, a week from Tuesday, this begins to feel less like partisan politics than a descent into chaos, orchestrated by The Joker.
But maybe that’s exactly what it is.
Saturday’s hate killings at a Pittsburgh synagogue for some reason sent me scurrying for a copy of Peter Biskind’s latest book, The Sky Is Falling: How Vampires, Zombies, Androids And Superheroes Made America Great For Extremism. Published in September by the nonprofit New Press, the book is a kind of sequel to Biskind’s earlier look at post-World War II film culture, Seeing Is Believing: How Hollywood Taught Us To Stop Worrying And Love The Fifties.
Finding it wasn’t quite as easy as it should have been. At The Grove shopping center, in the heart of movieland, the big Barnes & Noble bookstore didn’t have a copy. But a smaller Barnes & Noble in Marina del Rey had some in stock. They were shelved in back on the second floor, in a barely visible Cultural Studies subdivision of the Social Sciences section.
Apparently, deep thoughts about pop culture are not top-shelf stuff. But Biskind’s examination of blockbuster movies and television shows — and how they may relate to the churn around us — opens a conversation that belongs much closer to the front and center just now.
In short form, Biskind contends that mass entertainment has an enormous role in making us what we are. “As an agent of change,” he writes, “culture has often been treated shabbily, as no more than a secondary or even tertiary factor, well in the shadow of the featured players: economics, politics, demographics, whatever. But it’s a mistake to underestimate the power of culture to inflame our emotions.”
Movie and television shows reflect our frame of mind. But they also drive us. And in the present era, figures Biskind, movies like The Dark Knight or The X-Men series and TV programming like Game Of Thrones and The Walking Dead have been pushing us toward the edges. “These shows have normalized the extremes so that they have become the new mainstream.”
More, according to the Biskind thesis, the same films and shows have instilled a fascination — and perhaps a weird comfort? — with end-of-the-world scenarios. “Extreme culture is apocalypse culture, for the simple reason that the apocalypse provides a laboratory in which we can experiment with extreme attitudes, behaviors, and measures,” he writes. (Hence that title, The Sky Is Falling.)
Enter The Joker, with his mind-bending torment of Gotham City. Pitting convicts against citizens, he proves that one side is as bad as the other. Each group will murder its counterpart if they can save themselves. “When the chips are down…these civilized people, they’ll eat each other,” he says.
So chaos rules — as in the current, vicious, even deadly mid-term cycle.
How Biskind sorts through the blockbusters — which push to the left, which to the right, which simply moves toward the abyss — is a matter for close readers of his cultural study. Some will argue with his judgments. Is Dunkirk really “on the far right,” almost “a pro-Brexit morality play”? Is Avatar truly a leftist manifesto, with aliens as the good guys and American ex-Marines as the villains?
But the real questions, the ones that deserve a spot in the front of the bookstore, are more chilling. Are we suddenly living in a kind of Helter Skelter? Did Hollywood help to put us there?