Still from Alien3 (1992) © Brandywine Productions / 20th Century Fox. Image Source: Alien Explorations.
In 1991, David Fincher directed the Alien sequel, Alien3, which was a decade and a half ahead of its time. The film was nearly ruined by studio interference and production problems. It had previously gone through versions to which science fiction author William Gibson, Eric Red (writer of the cult horror films The Hitcher and Near Dark), future Riddick director David Twohy, and New Zealand director Vincent Ward all separately contributed.
What audiences and critics found more difficult was the gloomy, apocalyptic plot. Alien3 marked the new era of the compromised protagonist. It was a fraught with despair, a difficult narrative for audiences accustomed to triumphant cinematic conclusions. The heroine, Ellen Ripley, is even more heroic because she is not going to win.
Audio from the funeral scene in Aliens3. Video Source: Youtube.
In the Greek and Roman epics, a flawed - and hence, doomed - hero was tragic. That was certainly the despairing tone taken in Alien3. Its message was harsh, grim, relentless and death really meant something. Unusually for a big American film, the protagonist dies. Off the top of my head, I can only think of one other example of this in pre-2000 recent American cinema: To Live and Die in L.A. (1985; see it while the link works, here).
But in the new Millennium, we have learned, possibly from using computers, possibly from 20th century precedents, to use the reset button in story-telling (see my post on the revolving door of death, here). We can have all-doomed, all-the-time, because none of it means anything. If a hero dies, we press a button and the hero returns. Where pain, failure and death once granted life meaning, now they are simply levels in a desensitized gnostic video game. The tools for fulfilling that gnostic message in story-telling now (and possibly soon in real life) are cloning or bioengineering.
Clip from Alien Resurrection (1997) © Brandywine Productions / 20th Century Fox. Video Source: Youtube.
And this is exactly what happened to Ellen Ripley in Alien Resurrection (1997). We were not done with Ripley, so her clone had to be brought back for a slightly tongue-in-cheek monster romp from Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Joss Whedon. Despite the gore, the gravitas of the character was gone. Ripley's clone, two hundred years after Ripley's death, tells her creators over and over: "You're all going to die." But coming from the clone, death means little; she is intimately connected to the aliens, and she can barely remember why Ripley fought so hard against them to survive and protect humanity in the first place (see her reflect on this in the chapel scene from Alien Resurrection here).
What do heroes represent when their meaning is stripped from them? Like the reworked Roman gods of the French Revolution and the British empire, our cinematic and pulp heroes are just symbolic representations for contemporary values. Therefore, this is a question that can be posed in many corners of post-Postmodern culture. What do our values represent, when their meaning is stripped from them?
This problem with unbelief, cynicism and irony began with a concentration on the Self; loosely, it began with Freud's focus on the egotism. The Austrian writer, Ferdinand Kürnberger (1821-1879) said, "Unseres Oesterreich ist eine kleine Welt / Woran die Grosse ihre Probe haelt." ("Our Austria is a little world in which the big one holds its rehearsals.") In this case, Vienna set the stage for a 20th century devoted to the Self, best described in the 2002 BBC documentary The Century of the Self (see my post on that here). This was the source of many of today's intellectual, political, marketing and generational concepts (see my related posts here and here).
By the turn of the 19th-to-20th centuries, one of the popular fads in Vienna was something called therapeutic nihilism; this was the idea that "curing people, or societies, of their ills by treatment [wa]s impossible" and any 'cures' from doctors, scientific experts, politicians and the like were simply ritualistic procedures, which usually did more harm than good. In Vienna, this idea produced a fascination with form over function, manner over reason. An individual went through the motions to pretend to make things better, and one took whatever meaning one could personally draw from that. Carl Dolmetsch describes therapeutic nihilism in fin de siècle Vienna:
And this was how Europeans came upon the increasingly surreal world of the existential absurd in the 1920s, where there was no meaning in anything, other than what the individual chose to find in it.Th[e] Viennese variety of hedonism went hand in hand with therapeutic nihilism, a term drawn from mid-nineteenth-century Viennese medical practice and education wherein successful diagnostic procedures were more highly valued than successful treatments. Reduced to its elementals, this meant that an autopsy was preferable to a cure. Therapeutic nihilism was not, however, limited to medicine. It soon permeated the whole intellectual atmosphere of Vienna where, applied to nonmedical concerns, it became a quasi-philosophical form of skepticism about (if not outright rejection of) all customary efforts to find solutions to human dilemmas through religious practice, philosophical inquiry, or scientific investigation. Ergo: since life's great questions were unanswerable and society's problems insoluble, existence had only whatever meaning one wished to give it. This is solipsism in its purest form.
Then, with the advent of antibiotics during World War II, we became believers in outside forces again. Problems could be demonstrably solved! Perhaps this was not so much the case in Europe, where two world wars had devastated the continent and left the Europeans' empires broken.
But in late 1940s' North America, people could genuinely believe in heroes, in the military, in progress, in victory, in prosperity. Out of the dark night of the Great Depression and the Second World War, American society especially had emerged seemingly stronger, more vital, always able to add 2 and 2 together and make 4. Film noir showed that there was a dark underside to all of this, but for the moment, ideals were not imaginary and unattainable. With the right application of forethought, planning, skill and execution, ideals were real. This is why we see the development of idealized pulp heroes in America over the fifty years following 1938. This was the origin of the invincible nuclear superhero.
This weirdly faith-infused, but otherwise Nietzschean, attitude was attacked and revised in the 1960s. But even Boomer Flower Children retained this point of view when it came to the Silicon Valley. The mindset remains in the optimistic, can-do engineering mentality which dominates the tech and computer industries to this day; this is the Millennial mentality that expects the Singularity and bioengineered near-immortality. For all the trenchant criticism of 1940s' and 50s' patriarchal power structures in the 1960s and 1970s, we can never underestimate the surviving strain of the very same, once-criticized, mentality in the tech industry, especially at Apple. Critics of the Technological Revolution are few and far between, and in one famous example, an 80s' and 90s' tech critic already felt so marginalized as to become murderously violent. He was deemed insane, incarcerated, and he was removed from the main arena of society. His methods cannot be condoned. But what he feared is coming to pass - and some of its potential is terrifying.
As far as heroic stories went, it took a bunch of depressed Brits to bring the bad news to the New World. In the 1980s and 1990s, the so-called 'British Invasion' in pulp fiction, led by Boomer writers like Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman and Grant Morrison introduced flawed and broken anti-heroes (see my related post here). These Brits rewrote the American heroic story. They encouraged a fatal seed of inter-subjective doubt in the American narrative. But one could also argue that they were helping America to develop a more mature consciousness, to learn what heroism means in the face of flaws, trial and defeat.
That would have been fine. But it did not stop there. In the anti-heroic trend of the 2000s, subjectivity has increasingly dominated any discussion or depiction of values. The fact remains that infinite subjectivity cannot be (ironically) used as the source of universal social value. If you cannot believe in values beyond yourself, ultimately society becomes meaningless.
As a result, in an infinitely subjective society, violence, gore and death have no meaning, and will not make anyone appreciate the common concerns of society more - unless several individuals decide (in their own ways) that such events are significant. But individuals are unlikely to do that. One person can easily be convinced online that fearful experiences are remote. And anyway, he or she will not necessarily believe that frightening, dire events have occurred at all.
It is bizarre that in the Information Age, many people have come to believe the most fanciful conspiracy theories which 'explain everything'; but they cannot be bothered to check the facts. You end up with a thousand different flavours of apocalypse. But that's OK, because we can play again and again: society will still be there tomorrow. Won't it? None of it means anything, except what we chose to make of it ...
The old heroism, emerging from the Great Depression.
For an illustration of how the idea of heroism died and became a plastic, marketed nihilistic automation, see Image Comics' Jupiter's Legacy, by Scottish Gen Xers Mark Millar and Frank Quitely. The first issue came out in April 2013. It concerns the bright, shiny American super heroes of the past, who acquired their mystically-derived powers during the Great Depression. Now, in a new Great Recession (which lingers on, despite claims to the contrary), their super-powered children have much media presence, but little moral direction, no belief in common values, and lack all conviction. This series might end up exploring how they learn to be heroes - and find external values - from inside the trap of therapeutic nihilism.
The new heroism, coming out of the Great Recession.
All that said, there is a difference between what big media and entertainment companies present today as heroic stories, and what audiences, readers and fans consider to be heroic. You can see a comment from comics writer Paul Jenkins on this distinction (here and here). Also, there is a big difference between a fan-produced Wonder Woman film (here) and DC's recent grimdark treatment (here).
- The Dolmetsch reference comes from his book, Our Famous Guest (p. 16-17, 80). For the full reference to Dolmetsch, see the post from 8 June 2013.
- All scans from Jupiter's Legacy #1 (April 2013) are © Image Comics.
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