Having managed to catch up with my reading of whatever passes for the printed news media over the past few days, thanks to a hectic travel schedule and the attendant time wasted in airport lounges, there is something of cognitive dissonance with respect to various popular culture aspects of the West if a random sample of visits to the US and Europe are any indication.

Earlier this year, I mused about Anglo-Saxon countries (the US, the United Kingdom and Australia) discarding many long-held principles with a view to recovering from their current state of economic malaise (see Principal over principle, Asia Times Online, June 6, 2009). At a very basic level, I suspect but cannot conclude that these countries have started on the slippery slopes of racism, corruption and axiomatic socialism as responses to economic decline.

Following the questions raised in that article and therefore suggesting a certain degree of predetermined conceptions on my part, I read the reviews of various Hollywood films that have reportedly taken the global box office by storm over the past two weeks.

Newspapers and television, no strangers to either mass hysteria or hyperbole, especially when they happen to belong to the stables of Rupert Murdoch, have latched on gleefully to these films as an extension of a cultural phenomena; citing a communal bridging that apparently accompanies the screening of these films. I shudder to consider what kind of communal gathering would go on across the aisles of apocalyptic films or those suggesting a different kind of immortality to what religion suggests; but perhaps that’s just me.

These films, 2012 and The Twilight Saga: New Moon, may well represent the utterly vacuous end of the mass market for culture in the US and across Europe; but commercial lightweights they have not been. Access the website for the Internet Movie Database (www.imdb.com) and one can see the box office collections of these films: while 2012 managed to collect US$108 million in the US in the first two weeks since its release, The Twilight Saga reportedly collected $141 million in its opening weekend alone (ranking it as the third-biggest opening of any film in recent history).

So there is at least $250 million in reasons for me to wonder aloud about the cultural aspects of these films. Let me clarify though – this article isn’t a movie review.

Essentially, the job of reviewing films on the basis of production and acting should be handled by those who have viewed them (which I have not, nor do I intend to), leaving others who have read about them to ponder about the motivations of those who enjoy these types of films and are willing to fork out good money in the middle of a recession to do so.

Consider the notion behind 2012. While there has been no shortage of Armageddon movies from Hollywood, they have inevitably focused on the arrival of an external agent: whether it is a deadly meteor (in films like Armageddon and Deep Impact) that some courageous humans attempt to thwart by firing missiles or some such into them; or alien visitors (in films like Independence Day and War of the Worlds) who inevitably come up against resourceful humans intent on fighting them off.

In effect (or special effects, which are heavily used throughout the film to the complaints of critics – exactly what did they expect instead?), these films were about either heroism in the face of adversity or redemption through actions above and beyond the call of mundane duty. All that though appears to have changed with the notions behind 2012, for this is an end-of-the-world scenario where humans are completely helpless against a ground that shifts quite literally from under their feet.

Then there is The Twilight Saga: New Moon, which is based on the Twilight series of books by American author Stephanie Meyers. Apparently a phenomenon among teenage girls, although honestly I had no idea that this demographic actually read books, the Twilight series (“saga” to use the Hollywood term) deals with a human’s fascination for undead of all kinds, with vampires and werewolves competing for a girl’s heart. No not that way; they apparently actually want eventually to be more than friends with the lady.

Reading through the entertainment pages of the printed media, I did come across some articles that pointed out the similarities between the Twilight franchise and a host of vampire-related television series in the US and Europe. While barely 10 years ago the television phenomenon was that of a cheerleader-turned-vampire killer (“Buffy”), more recently the vampires have themselves assumed the central roles in series such as True Blood. I am disadvantaged by not watching any of these, but then knowing what the storylines entail would involve watching these bits of television – akin to willingly jumping into a swamp.

I find the notion of the undead being an aspirational choice to teenagers rather distasteful. Barely a few generations ago, when Bram Stoker’s Dracula was first written, the idea of the nosferatu was enough to send shivers down the spines of viewers. When made into a film it became a classic horror movie, not a teenage romance flick for one thing.

The inherent evil associated with remaining immortal was essentially enough to set aside the ideas of romance or some such. Vampires and other undead creatures such as werewolves achieved their transformations by the simple act of doing the unspeakable. Murder of innocents and drinking their blood was not considered a “cool” feature of one’s existence.

Then again, perhaps I am missing a sociological point about these films, namely what makes the central characters aspirational in the first place. In both 2012 and Twilight, the type of elite carry the day due to the natural advantages of being rich or undead; for it is they who get to avoid the normal emergencies of human existence, such as a flood or death.

Better authors than Stephanie Meyers have handled the subject of immortality of course. JRR Tolkien, in the Lord of the Rings, reveals the elves as the immortal side of humans with goblins as their natural antithesis; much as Orcs are to humans. The culmination of the book though is to throw the elves into a tragic exile when the power of the one ring is lost in the fires of Mordor. In essence, the human circle of life and death becomes the normal, with the immortals being banished to other places.

Therein figures the key part of disconnect with the modern versions of vampire tales and Armageddon. There is no apparent moral dilemma involved in the act of aspiring to be a part of the undead or to belong to a rich group of people who get to house themselves away from the Armageddon. It is as if the notion of a role model has been reversed from the ones persevering for the human existence to the ones who are somehow above the fray.

I have to admit though that it is possible Hollywood hinted on a sublime track in all these films: namely their collective expectation of the end of human civilization on this planet. Doomsday films are filed away under “entertainment” but a constant repeat of scenes featuring heavenly deluges that wash away the New York skyline must be getting old hat unless some part of the narrative rings true with the American or Western psyche by now.

Away from the messages, hidden or otherwise, there could be a facile explanation for these films from Group of Seven – if not strictly American – economic trends. A famous article in a recent issue of Rolling Stone magazine termed the investment bank Goldman Sachs the “giant vampire squid” choking off the greater economy. With bankers and financiers now in the position of enemy number one in the zeitgeist, perhaps Hollywood has jumped into the act.

It is entirely possible that the undead in Twilight may be working for investment banks by day: after all, with all the dark liquidity pools, tunnels of funding from central banks and secret arrangements galore, it is not as if banking practices ever truly come to light. Thus, our teenage American heroine could simply be aspiring to become a banker in essence; and thus achieve a semblance of immortality (in terms of bad behavior at least) that goes with the territory.

As for 2012, forget the narrative about Armageddon; for it is more likely to be relevant if one considers that the Federal Reserve as well as other central banks may hold interest rates at near-zero levels until that year. Fed chairman Ben Bernanke hinted in as many words that the first rate hikes could only be due in that year; a sentiment that has been echoed by multiple other central bankers. The film then could simply be hinting that the current global financial crisis will recur with pent-up wrath in that year.

Or am I giving Hollywood way too much credit for intelligence?


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